The Diversity of Social Theories: Volume 29

Cover of The Diversity of Social Theories

Table of contents

(18 chapters)

The contributions included in this volume provide critical assessments of both a range of traditions in social theory, and of their current relevance. In addition, they represent endeavors to apply, refine, integrate, or advance particular traditions in order to enhance our ability to analyze conditions of social life in the twenty-first century and to confront a variety of related challenges. Several of the contributions present efforts to combine the application, refinement, integration, and advancement of particular theoretical traditions. Thematically, they cover several areas in social theory and a spectrum of perspectives, including poststructuralism, feminist theory, and especially critical theory. Chapters address such issues as the authoritarian personality; charisma; the relationship between power, agency, and subjectivity; self-estrangement; pragmatism; and globalization.

Following Lakatos' strategy of a rational reconstruction of science, I present a concrete example of the rise and decline of a research program from the history of the social sciences: the authoritarian character studies of the Frankfurt School. The first version of the authoritarian character studies of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research was based on a Marxist social and psychoanalytic theory, and included an initial empirical survey. The preliminary results of this survey motivated the Institute's just-in-time emigration from Germany in 1932, and at the same time do not fit into the later theory of the authoritarian character (1936). The second version of the authoritarian character studies (1950) gained the status of a social psychological paradigm, but soon turned into a declining research program, which came to a complete stop around 1968 as far as the Institute of Social Research was concerned. Internal and external factors combined to bring about the sudden end of the authoritarian character studies.

For the Frankfurt School, what most decisively distinguished critical from traditional theory was that critical theorists refused to celebrate the working class uncritically. The early critical theorists accepted the premise that the working class is the most likely agent of social transformation, but unlike orthodox Marxists (and even such mavericks as their forerunner Georg Lukács) they did not assume that workers are progressive by nature. In other words, they disputed the metaphysic of the charismatic proletariat, a class “destined” for transcendence and glory. This essay sketches the emergence of this perspective in the early writings of Herbert Marcuse. Initially a partisan of the Lukáscian view, which he spiced with Heideggerian accents, Marcuse broke with transcendentalism when he repudiated existentialism and political theology. He concluded that relying on any kind of charismatic savior, whether a class or a leader, is an abdication of sociological realism and political responsibility. Reaching this conclusion placed Marcuse in agreement with Max Horkheimer, and enabled him to assist Horkheimer in the elaboration of the founding principles of critical theory. The ultimate results of this collaboration included the formulation of a new critical research agenda, which placed inquiry into the roots of authority on a new foundation. By means of critical inquiry into personal “authoritarianism,” the Frankfurt theorists were able to shed new light on political authority. This remains a seminal contribution and continues to animate a major contemporary research tradition.

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 shook the Soviet Union to the core and provided the West with the iconic image of the freedom fighter willing to risk all for the cause of freedom. The pathos of the lost cause provided Hungarians with a new set of heroes akin to those of the failed 1848 Revolution, the best known being Prime Minister Imre Nagy who was executed for siding with the revolutionaries in their bid to establish a sovereign republic. His belated funeral on June 16, 1989 undermined the moral and political authority of the communist regime that had attempted to consign Nagy and his confederates to oblivion and seemed to mimic Emile Durkheim's analysis of piaculum and the conscience collective. But the spectacle of Nagy's funeral only temporarily shrouded significant differences between and within those factions demanding pluralist society, most recently revealed in the acrimonious celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution. These debates are rooted in Hungary's deeply troubled past that strongly questioned republican values in contrast to the authoritarian values of the Hapsburg monarchy, alliance with the Axis, genocide, and its relationship to communism in the wake of the disaster of World War II. Jacques Derrida tells us that it is not easy to exorcise our ghosts; instead, we are prompted to reconstruction. Memory studies, stimulated by studies of the Holocaust, transformed the sociological imagination (especially Friedlander, 1993; LaCapra, 1998a, 1998b, 1998c, 1998d). There has been what Michael Roth referred to as “a turning of oneself so as to be in relation to the past” as an act of witness. The traumatic memory of the 1956 Revolution provides yet another case in which a traumatic past is still salient to the political actors in the contemporary arena. This chapter immerses itself in the emergence of historical sociology and with it “memory studies,” that is: (1) the relationship between identity, memory, and embodiment; and (2) the relationship between historical circumstance and collective memory formation (described in diverse approaches such as Adorno, 1959; 1997; Nora, 1989; Postone, Martha, & Kobyashi 2009). In particular, there is in historical sociology an emergent interest in (1) commemorative practices, memorializing addresses, memento; and (2) the struggles over memory, remembering, and forgetting.

This review essay of Amy Allen's The Politics of Our Selves focuses on the book's excellent work in addressing some of the centermost philosophical and metaphilosophical problems in contemporary critical theory. I first consider the book's intricate discussions of the work of Habermas and Foucault. I then leverage these discussions to pose a question that is crucial for contemporary critical theory. The crucial question concerns the metaphilosophical status of critical theory with respect to what we ought to expect contemporary critical theory to do. What is the best way of interpreting critical theory as a philosophical project?

Amy Allen's book, The Politics of Our Selves, advances feminists beyond current stalemates that insist that to acknowledge the importance of Habermas's normative insights, is to deny the significance of Foucault's description of the impact that power has on subject formation. In this article I describe Allen's position and suggest its strengths and importance, criticize some of Allen's arguments and offer suggestions for advancing the direction of Allen's argument.

This chapter is a critical review of Amy Allen's book The Politics of Our Selves. It briefly reconstructs some of the book's impressive achievements: articulating a synthetic account of gendered subjectivity that accounts for both subjection and autonomy; imaginatively integrating poststructuralist and communicative theories; and, furthering important new interpretations of Butler, Foucault, and Habermas. It also raises critical concerns about Allen's project: her specific conception of autonomy and its justification; her suspicions of the notion of historical progress; her psychological explanation of the continuing power of pernicious norms of gendered subjectivity; the usefulness of psychoanalysis for critical social theory; and, the role of cultural, structural, and materialist explanations and political strategies.

In this chapter, I respond to the thoughtful and insightful critical discussions of my book, The Politics of Our Selves, offered by Colin Koopman, Johanna Meehan, and Christopher Zurn. After distinguishing between the interpretive, conceptual, and practical–political aims of the book, I defend my interpretive claims vis-a-vis Foucault and Habermas against criticisms raised by Koopman and Zurn, clarify my understanding of the conceptual aim of the book in response to Koopman's critique, and indicate how my approach to the practical–political questions about overturning gender subordination raised by Zurn and Meehan can be developed further.

As a major concept in sociological theory, estrangement can be understood through a diversity of theoretical lenses. However, there is a tendency among sociologists to identify the idea of estrangement with a version of alienation. In this chapter, I counter this tendency to reduce estrangement to one of its conceptual possibilities. To provide a theoretical analysis of estrangement, I first examine the classical views of the issue. I argue that classical theories – both critical and interpretive – fail to theorize sufficiently self-estrangement, a dimension of the concept that remains underexplored. Thus, I move beyond classical sociology to reconstruct the idea of self-estrangement, drawing on more recent interpretive and critical theories, especially theories of social interaction and the self. Specifically, I discuss several interactional forms of self-estrangement, and the connection between self-estrangement, institutional contexts, emotions and the body. Finally, I consider this concept in the context of civil society. This discussion demonstrates the merits of a focus on self-estrangement applied to the study of political exclusion.

A reinvigorated social theory based on the social philosophy of John Dewey, George Herbert Mead, William James, and others has begun to make significant contributions to the study of human societies. The so-called “Pragmatic Turn” in philosophy and social theory, associated especially with Richard Rorty and Hans Joas, has drawn our attention to the role of habit and creativity in social action. This chapter reviews some of these trends, but argues that the modern revival of neopragmatism sidesteps many of the core insights of the classical pragmatists. Relating the issue to Michael Burawoy's call for “public sociology,” and drawing on the pragmatism of C. Wright Mills, a critical public pragmatism would seek to provide the preconditions for democracy via the cultivation of a public that valued what Dewey called “creative intelligence,” and what Mills called “the sociological imagination.”

It has been over a decade since the publication of Michael Hardt and Antoni Negri's widely read Empire, a book that claimed humanity had entered a qualitatively new era in the organization of power. How do critical sociological studies that also theorize global capitalism depart from or share affinities with Hardt and Negri's Foucauldian-inspired notion of empire? The two most important shared insights is the notion of a new epoch in the history of world capitalism and the conceptualization of a global system that moves beyond the idea of U.S. imperialism solely as behind its fundamental structure. However, overpowering Hardt and Negri's framework are some fundamental problems: the vague and nondialectical idea of multitude, the lack of the role of the state, their confusing and contradictory idea of constitutionalism, and a misapprehension of immaterial labor.

Žižek has become both one of the dominant voices in current leftist cultural, social, and political critique and one of the most maligned. His work can be obscure, difficult to understand, and at times hyperbolic. Of particular difficulty is the attempt to discern a “positive” project in his work, as it seems that he is very good at offering us a sustained discussion of the difficulties of finding an oppositional stance to what he describes as our “current situation.” In fact, he is so good at this, that if we take him seriously it becomes hard to see a way out. Despite such appearances, Žižek's work offers us a radical insight into the twin processes of the creation of the social and the creation of the subject (and their mutual interdependence) as well as a novel conception of the possibility of resistance and social change based on this process. Furthermore, we can best make sense of this theory of resistance as founded in what Žižek identifies as the “negative” moment. This moment brings with it the possibility of something which is not determined by the existing power structure, thus it brings with it the possibility of a universalist stance that is unconditioned by our “current situation.” It is not then, as some have argued, that Žižek's privileging of the negative moment leads to a theory of social change that cannot sustain a positive project, nor is it the case that Žižek's theory of the negative serves as the first move upon which a positive project can be built. Žižek's radical insight is that the negative moment can itself be a positive phenomenon. The proper negative act then is one which lays the foundation for social change by creating a radical form of subjectivity that serves as the basis for such change. In trying to explicate Žižek's claims, what he is suggesting can be best understood by reference to Žižek's Lacanian reading of Hegel's theory of subjective freedom: freedom arising in the necessity that first defines (and confines) the subject.

Cover of The Diversity of Social Theories
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Current Perspectives in Social Theory
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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