Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction by Anthony Elliot is a challenging read for me. I have not studied sociology in any formal way beyond taking basic undergrad courses. However, I am thankful for the assignment as it has provided me with an opportunity to read about some of the social theories and how they might be used to explain the contemporary political scene in the US and also to challenge my thinking about new ways individuals and society may frame faith community structures.
I am most often an “individuals first” thinker; almost always taking the postion described by Elliot, “that it is the agency of individuals that creates patterned social life, the systematic study of the reasons, motives, beliefs, emotions and desires of people is regarded as the most appropriate way in which to develop critical social analysis” (pg. 11). I was challenged, therefore, to think how present day institutions and organizations in the political and economic fabric of the US, wield influence and sometimes even dictate the actions, thoughts, and emotions of the individual. Can the manipulative power of an organization overtake the best efforts of an individual? Is the only way to moderate that influence the formation by individuals of alternative organizational structures? How does this apply to the congregational form of government in a church where individuals form community and rule collectively?
I was challenged by the question raised by Elliot, “What do you think your own life reflects about our fast-changing world?” (pg. 15). I tend to immediately reference my anchor in terms of my faith, God, Bible, etc. This book has pressed me to take note of the sociological fabric in which those anchors have found expression. I know what they mean to me, but I need to better understand the language needed to express meaning in this fast-changing world. The words are changing, some signs are being forgotten, some signs are being re-signified. My own life reflects ambiguity about my financial future, diversity in regards to my faith community make up, and the development of my technological communication to interact for work and family purposes. This frustrates me! But change is happening so I must deal with it!
Concerning the political/economic arena, I found the statement troubling about the Frankfurt School’s analysis that individuals, almost without resistance, submit to the dominant ideologies of late capitalism (pg 24). I found myself cheering this sentiment as I thought about the benefits for those who excel in such a system and the desirable rewards that most covet. Then I began looking for how capitalism makes room for those who do not aspire, who do not excel, who find personal responsibiity difficult. I find it troubling that there are few good answers for such people. It is interesting that most of the social theorists flowing out of the Marxist/Fruedian tradition found it necessary to study pathologies in culture rather than to study xxxxxxx! What is the opposite of pathology? What word or words signify the opposite of pathological? I found no antonyms of “pathology” that were as broad in scope. Perhaps this is where social theory can be assisted, to encourage the study of “healthy” individual and/or organizational activities and relationships to provide another way to view society.
I was challenged, given my bent towards an “individual first” attitude, to consider structuralism and the idea that the various social, political, cultural structures in society not only influence but determine the various individual decisions, values, choices, and beliefs (pg. 55). I reviewed my own faith journey and how the local church (structure) influenced my theology and how the reforming of my theology has been accomplished at great cost.
One of the more thought provoking studies was the Habermas’ study of the public sphere. He theorized that, whereas reason and rationality are fundamental to personal/social interaction in market capitalism. In advanced capitalism, however, bureaucracy, technology and the culture industries erode the quality of public political debate. Politics and social life, says Habermas, become administered (pg. 183). I began to wonder how the individual believer might prepare himself to engage the body politic and be heard and if the individual is thwarted would that lead to revolution?
Habermas’ study prompted me to think about how a community of believers might interact socially in an oppressive political setting. Where public debate is rendered impossible, does the church go underground? Is this a possible explanation of the house church movement in China? Does this explain the persecuted church in many countries?
I am now more encouraged to read on and learn about postmodernism.
Elliott, Anthony (2009-03-21). Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction. Taylor & Francis. Kindle Edition.