Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction, by Anthony Elliott
“… our capacity to imagine social things competently is an essential part of our practical sociologies. To see the world sociologically is to see it in the light of its organizing structures and orderings of power. This means seeing it also in the shadow of its own potential transformation – the possibility of society lived otherwise.” (Elliott, p. 10)
I did study a little bit of philosophy in seminary. When I picked up this book and saw that the first chapter was on the Frankfurt School, I thought, “Uh-oh. What in the world is Jason getting us into now?” I hadn’t read very far though when I realized that this book is extremely informational, balanced, and engaging. Dr. Elliott continues from the Frankfurt School through other major shifts in the movement of social theories to Globalization.
He follows a pattern of presenting a description of each view (I believe objectively). I enjoyed his personal examples of people living in each context at the beginning of many chapters. The stories explain the problem well for us laity. He gives an overview of the proponents of each theory. He looks to see if each sociologist has addressed five key areas: the relationship between individual and society; the degree of consensus or conflict in modern societies; change (or social transformation); gender issues; and the relation between the social and the emotional, between our public and private worlds.
Then Elliott offers the critiques of these schools of thought from other scholars. Often the new school of thought is an outgrowth or a reaction to the previous school. It reminds me of the back and forth shifts in the schools of philosophy. Each one tries to answer the unsolved questions that they believe their predecessor left on the table. One thing is certain, sociologists are sincere people who are looking at a hurting, messy, conflicting world and trying to find a way to make life happier for all. Changes keep presenting challenges to their thinking.
As a Christian, reflecting and using critical thinking skills, I paused at each school of thought and asked, “How would I address at least one issue posed in this section?” Here are a few thoughts:
Frankfurt School –
Like many other sociologists mentioned in the book, Marxist Herbert Marcuse looked to Freudian psychoanalysis. We don’t see considered anywhere in the book the fact of sin and a fallen world. If we don’t start with the source of the problem, how do we expect to find the answers?
Contemporary Critical Theory –
- Some argue that capitalism is “a cover for the profits reaped from the industrialization of war.” (p.156) To the profits reaped by the military/industrial complex I would add other social costs of war: loss of individual liberties (see also Elliott’s remarks on 9/11, p. 322-324), millions of dead and wounded, veterans with a lifetime of nightmares and injuries, economic costs including taxation, damage to civilization.
- Axel Honneth tries to “unmask pathologies of society as rooted in the fragility and fragmentation of reason.” (p. 177) Well, our thinking is fragile and fragmented all right. But there is an answer – our minds need to be renewed (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:23; Col. 3:10). I did appreciate however Honneth’s observation that “Love is thus, one might claim, at the very root of both moral identity and political society.” (p. 178) It fits in really nicely with the characteristics of leadership that we discussed from Lowney’s book.
- I really sympathized with Jean Baudrillard. I think he nailed it on the selling of commodities to individuals who make their identities with the symbols or signs that they display to others. It put me in mind of Edward Bernays who writing over 40 years earlier convinced companies that advertised using “symbols” would capture people.
- I think one of my favorite guys in the whole book was Zygmunt Bauman. How can you not like a guy named Zygmunt? Many things to say about him, but he hopes to close the moral gap between individuals and government. He sees only a slim hope for the future. (p. 259). I say, thankfully, “God reigns over the nations, God sits on His holy throne…. The Lord will reign forever, Your God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the Lord!” (Psa. 47:8; 146:10).
Social Networks –
Zygmunt Bauman also pointed out the ever-weakening social bonds in our fast-paced world. (p.300) I have been concerned as I watch attention spans decrease from hours (two generations ago) to minutes (a generation ago) and now to seconds thanks to Twitter and Instagram. What are the lasting consequences to society? How can we hope to educate people who have only a ten second attention span?
I appreciated the way he tried to move from “solid” to “liquid”. As a Christian, used to living with paradoxes (the “one and the many”) why can’t it be “both/and” and not either/or”? Consider “Ooblek” for example.
Waaaay too many additional things to ponder. Overall, the book explained how our society go to where it is well, but if I didn’t have Christ I would be depressed.
I don’t pretend that I understood all of the concepts represented by the various sociologists. Elliott’s anecdotes, explanations, critiques, and summary points made it possible for me as a layperson to get something out of the book. I appreciate it enough as an objective, fact-filled, explanation of contemporary social theory that it will go on my reference shelf.
I was sorry not to see any Christian message in the book. It’s not like Christians haven’t built hospitals, schools, and homes for the poor, the neglected, orphans, widows, the abused, the insane, and more humane prisons. I guess there just hasn’t been enough to decrease the ever-widening gap between the “have’s” and the “have-nots”.
How do we respond as Christians? I can start with me; I can’t change the whole world but I can be sure to incorporate the characteristics from Lowney’s book – humbleness (from self-examination), ingenuity (creativity – a la Castoriadis, (Elliott, p. 349,350)), courage, and love. I can be sure to share Christ’s Gospel of Love and Peace in whatever place God has called me to serve.