A Wannabe Renaissance Woman
Urban Dictionary Definition of Renaissance Woman:
She can mix the knowledge of what is considered disparate spheres into a new whole,
by using her most unique method of analysis based on
her very vast, deep, curiosity and experiences…
which led to a very vast & deep knowledge,
that she is so anxious to apply to everyday life, &
to inquire, and share with everyone she meets.
Within my ongoing journey from psychology to theology to philosophy to ethnography and now sociology, I long to bring together the understandings of humans with “vast, deep, curiosity and experiences” that help others live life true in the image of God. That’s how I approached Anthony Elliott’s book Contemporary Social Theory. My hope was to understand the concept of social theory as one more tool for generative thought. How could I make it relevant and integral to all the other ways of thinking?
Truth be known, I wasn’t very “renaissance” as I read it. I slogged through it. Perhaps because of its striking similarity to McGrath’s survey approach in Christian Theology, I felt bogged down by name upon name, theory upon theory. In fact, after the first three attempts at trying to understand a definition of social theory in the beginning of the book, I gave up. I went to the back of the book instead. It is here that I discovered something that grabbed my attention. Anthony Giddens, a highly sought-after social theorist by political leaders in the UK and US, writes articles for the pedestrian as well as academic where he “addressed the massive disconnect between the high-consequence risks of globalization on the one hand, and the lifestyle risks on the other. He has argued, in a provocative and polemical fashion, that the major issues of our time do not reduce to traditional divisions in politics between Left and right.” He goes on to say that it’s time “to find new ways of working together, cooperating through transnational forums and processes and intergovern-mentalism to develop novel models of ‘global governance.’” Now that’s relevant, especially in light of the elections that are occurring this week in the US. As my son-in-law posted on his Facebook page today: – “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.” (John F. Kennedy.) Here is social theory working itself out in the common sense of what it means to live within a society that builds on “promot[ing] the general good of society.”
Upon further reading, my interest now piqued, Elliot explained Giddens’ theory of structuration and reflexivity that elevates the mundane as the place to explore the “third way,” an idea prevalent in the world of church planting. How can we hold the tensions of life in duality, not dualism? Asserting, Giddens offers that the structures that are internal to us, not external, provide a way to understand social theory as one that includes human interaction within the systems, and how systems change as a result of human interactions. Rather than operating on one simple theory, Giddens opens up the concept that we need to hold both as articulated: “In all instances, therefore, dualism goes beyond duality by separating; while duality avoids dualism by distinguishing only to unite.” So while my response to Elliot’s book was probably made as a result of eating bad pizza, I did glean some gems. (Sidebar: it was the first DMinLGP book I read on Kindle which also might have had an influence).
Interestingly, the book did accomplish my initial goal of providing generative thought. Because of my fuzzy understanding of social theory, I proceeded to explore other resources that defined social theory. One text, Modern Social Theory: An Introduction was helpful in understanding that social theory is the conjecture about how to define and observe systems about the function of humans in society by means of analysis and research. On the layman’s level it’s simply reflection on what is seen, similar to the Ethnography approach we explored in Pink’s books. Harrington offers that while the goal of social theory is to understand the systems, it also requires the meta-cognition of how the researcher gets to that understanding. Specifically, social theorists need to recognize the values that laden facts since facts cannot be separated out. “All schools of social theory in fact advocate combinations of involvement and detachment, of both practical moral-political dedication, and scientific distance.”
In another text, Wikipedia, the author’s explanation between a worldview and theory differentiated that a “theoretical orientation” cannot be proven while the goal of a “theory” is to explain and predict, ultimately being able to prove it. Ultimately then, a social theory requires some accountability. Integrating what I know by using some Greek understanding of praxis, the “vita contemplative” requires a “vita activa” in the hope of a social theory that can be tested, or at the very least, used as Best Practices. Reflection and action create the foundation for a social theory. To tie Elliott’s book back in, while his explanation for the genesis of social theory is a result of trying to understand the suffering of those in the Holocaust, he does create for contemporary use a compendium that allows the reader to address what best helps explain, discern, address, and perhaps change the current society that is in constant turmoil.
 Urban Dictionary, s.v. “Real Renaissance Woman,” accessed November 5, 2014, http://www.urbandictionary.com/author.php?author=Real+Renaissance+Woman. (August 18, 2013)
 Anthony Elliott, Contemporary Social Theory: an Introduction (Milton Park, Abingdon: Routledge, 2009), 343-344.
 Ibid, 345.
 Ibid, 122.
 Ibid, 129.
 Walter Niebrzydowski Msgr., “Dualism Vs. Duality,” www.fatherwaltersparish.org (blog), n.d., accessed November 5, 2014, .
 Austin Harrington, ed., Modern Social Theory: an Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 7-8.
 Wikipedia s.v. “Social Theory,” accessed November 5, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_theory.
6 responses to “A Wannabe Renaissance Woman”
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Mary, Great depth of thought in this post. When reading Elliott I had not considered the connections to ethnography and the need to simply reflect what is seen. It’s hard to observe my own system without taking a step back and just observing. Thanks for the good thoughts.
Mary, Your post has done wonders in improving my vocabulary. Thanks
Mary, I liked the Giddens structuralism and reflexivity stuff as well. I think it was in chapter six and then reiterated in the afterword. I was drawn in by Gidden’s addressing of the greatest social woes going into the future. It is funny I think who all of our “ologies” are blending together. I love your generative though approach.
Good reminder that disciplines like sociology or ethnography are not isolated, disconnected disciplines. While they are sometimes approached this way, their true usefulness is when we recognize their contributions to the larger picture and see how they interact and weave together to better inform us of reality and provide a basis for addressing that reality with the question of “so what?”
By the end of this program, we will have many tools and resources to help us to be better leaders and to engage effectively within a global world. You said that “social theory is the conjecture about how to define and observe systems about the function of humans in society by means of analysis and research.” I believe that all leaders should understand how to observe and analyze the functions and behaviors of people within the scope of their work. For church leaders, that scope is quickly becoming ‘the world’.
I know how you felt about this book it got a little sci-fi reading the many different systems of social theory. I am of the belief that a lot of the systems have other significant underlying issues that are not easliy defined. In the ghetto, poverty can be seen as many things to different people. Some people will say that the people in the ghetto’s are just lazy, uneducated and have disfunctional families. But being in architecture taught me that cities are planned and if they are planned then some of the autrocities that exist in the ghetto can have alot to do with how that part of the city was planned. Social theory is just that a theory how its tested and how its evaluted is too me always a much bigger project!