Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Readers, Responders and Interpreters

Written by: on November 1, 2013

In Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction Anthony Elliott takes the reader for an expansive overview.  Someone may liken it to a plane ride from the vantage point of an open-air cockpit.  Another may feel as if they have been on a thrill ride where you only have a limited view of what is ahead. In this book just about the time you feel like you understand it, the direction changes and you have to re-orient.  It is both fascinating and frustrating.  Exactly the kind of ride you want to go on again because of the you realize this matters.

Social theorists are not only readers of society; they are responders and interpreters.  In some ways the theories are a product of their time.   For instance Fromm, Adorno and Marcuse were all associated with the Frankfurt School around the time of World War II. Their observations of society focused on understanding the effects of domination.  They sought to understand and critically respond to the means of political power to assert itself upon society.[1]  We are invited to consider the implications of domination not only from a political realm, but also from the standpoint of consumerism.

“Social systems are regularize patterns of interaction, such systems are in turn structured by rules and resources.  Institutions are understood by Giddens as involving different modalities in and through which structuration occurs.”[2]  Chapter Five takes us into “Theories of Structuration.”  While focusing on routines and what they tell us about how we operate in our lives, where we have choice.  Our choices may appear to be independent, but the flipside is also inherent, our routines affect the organization of whole societies.   One may say it is our routines that connect us in society.  Routines shape us.  Just think about how hard it is to change morning habits, even when we do not want to or pausing to consider how personal habits are shaped by our technologies.

The social theory of Structuration presented by Anthony Giddens and Pierre Bourdieu hit home for me in the reminder of Ruby Payne’s work on generational poverty.[3] From the perspective of classroom education Payne undertakes the task of unmasking the effects of generational poverty upon children.  She presents a framework for understanding poverty and equips educators and social service providers to understand, work with, and develop educational and communication strategies.  While her work recognizes specific patterns existing in generational poverty (which is different from situational poverty) she also highlights that patterns have exceptions.[4]  This is also true for contemporary social theory.  At times it seems the different theorists want their specific theories to be all encompassing.  When they are not, the exceptions themselves seem to present a challenge.  What has been fascinating to me related to Payne’s work is her recognition and identification that there are hidden rules among the poor, the middle class and the upper class. Within the realm of class, society has and does operate with hidden rules that inform your ability to access resources, connect with others, or even keep others away.  In a sense these hidden rules are social practices that shape social activities (what we do), yet because of this do individuals contain the possibility of acting otherwise?[5]  Here we begin to recognize the power to regulate and shape individual actions.[6]

Language and culture are two focus areas for social theory.  This engages theorists are with the bare life, those without a place (home), the oppressed, repressed, including those without any seeming power capital.  Social theory is intent on looking at the structural forces and the destructive and painful global realities.[7]  Reflexivity is crucial because, as Anthony Giddens asserts, “How people think about, monitor and reflect on what they do is crucial to how society constitutes itself.”[8]  Yet there is a certain wariness that developed as I continued dutifully through this very fine book.  Networks for all their promise of shared communication still possess the capacity for those with the technological knowledge to make the decisions and in essence reproduce those with knowledge and those without.[9]  Examining culture and language, the influence of politics and changing economies is not easy.  Both possibilities for good and the reality of misuse are ever present.  Risk seemingly confronts trust.

Perhaps it is through reflexivity that the Church can find a bridge to engage with social theory, instead of ignoring or dismissing it.  Could social theory provide the means for the Church to engage its prophetic voice?  Or is it left to the theorists to be the discerners of our time and age?  If reflexivity provides an opportunity to think about and consider our lives, how we monitor self in what we do, our social connections and happenings, will the opportunity for personal reflection draw us toward community? Anthony Elliott writes near the end of the book that fresh challenges for social theory are on the horizon concerning “human creation, imagination, and ‘being-with’ others.”[10]  Perhaps this is the continuing frontier for the Church and for theology.

[1] Anthony Elliott, Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction. (Abington, Oxon, U.K.: Routledge, 2009), p. 19.

[2] Ibid., p.128. Anthony Giddens, his social theory of structuration.

[3] Ruby Payne, aha!Process, http://www.ahaprocess.com/.  Accessed 10/31/13.

[4] Ruby Payne, Philip DeVol & Terie Dreussl Smith, Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities. (Highlands, TX: aha!Process, Inc., 2001),  p.13.

[5]  Elliott, p. 125.

[6] Ibid., p. 145.

[7] Ibid., p. 342.  “Bare Life” refer to p. 3, p. 347.

[8] Ibid., 132

[9] Elliott, p. 279.  “To speak, therefore, of a network society is to speak of high-speed infrastructures of communications and mobilities, of nodes clustered in specific cities or regions for the advanced processing of information and production and of professional elites that make decisions and reproduce the culture of advanced network societies.”

[10]  Ibid., p. 350.

About the Author

Carol McLaughlin

Carol walks this DMin journey from her locale in Gig Harbor, WA (USA). She is preparing for pastoral ministry in the Presbyterian Church (PC-USA), as well as teaches in the Online Learning Community programs at GFES. Part of the DMin Leadership & Global Perspectives 4 cohort (dminlgp4) her research and dissertation focus is exploring why baby boomers leave the church and what it means for their faith development. The views expressed here are her own.

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