Sociology, like economics, has many theoretical strands that attempt to understand and articulate a view of the world from which social construction models can be created. Like economics, few of those strands strands see eye to eye. It is these multi-dimensional ways of seeing human society that motivated Elliot, and erudite sociologists like him, to write an introduction to the many abounding theories. Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction is well written, and I appreciated that. I didn’t spend time reading, and rereading, trying to understand what the author was attempting to say.
Most of us intuitively know that human beings have the capacity for love, care and respect. They also have the ability to destroy, hate, be self-indulgent and filled with anger. These experiences of human society tend to create two, diametrically opposed, views of the world: first, All people are innately good with the capacity for evil. Or, second, all people are innately bad but capable of good (when controlling social structures are in place). Depending which one you opt for will determine the trajectory of your social theory.
Then again, it depends on whether we believe society exists in any structured way. According to Elliot, there are the theorists, like Habermas, who believe that the public sphere is in demise because structuralism simply cannot exist. Or, Bauman’s belief that “long term” social constructs are having to be reclassified as liquefaction, because, as the ground of social perceptions shift, the undercurrent of those movements permeates the concrete vision of fixed societal belief, thus throwing everything into turmoil. Bauman also prophesies the demise of the nation-state as individual countries no longer have an effective fiscal means to control their economy – and money is both power and stability.
The point of course, is that the very idea of ‘society’ is contested and Christian’s struggle with this. For the last thousand years, the developing world has been influenced by Judaeo-Christian values and perspectives, especially in influencing political understanding – much of which flows from an Old Testament kingship models, modified by Jesus theology and the Kingdom of God. However, in pluralist and secular visions of the world, Christian visions of society are in the minority, and rarely represented in introductory sociology books.
Elliot highlights an issue I have become more aware of in recent years. As more people are educated in social perception through university education and internet media, our individual capacity to engage with the very conception of society and social interactions has increased exponentially. At the foundation of this development in congnitive social awareness, is the question I raised earlier – are we naturally good or bad? The prevailing belief is the former. Subsequently, as Elliot points out, the better educated and informed people are, the more likely good outcomes and helpful behaviour is likely to occur. It’s a very optimistic and possibly naive view of the world. To his credit however, Elliot’s own dialogue with contemporary social theory emphasises the answer laying somewhere in understanding all of the current positions taken as something of a patchwork of concepts that all contain useful observations. After all, the experts he uses are not to be queried without reasoned consideration. Elliot takes us on a journey of through the valley of sociological giants: Giddens, Derrida, Foucalt, Zizek, Lyotard, Bauman, Habermas, Adorno, Marcuse, Barthes, Bordieu, Kristeva, Irigary, Baudrillard, Butler, Levi-Strauss, and others. In as much as I don’t agree with all of their views, kicking giants in the shins for the sake of it, would be to ignore their large contribution to observation and good thinking.
Elliot has exposed me to a wide array of social thinking, the question I am left with, is how to integrate that thinking with my Christian perception of human and divine polity? How do we connect with one another – in the church, the world and in mission? Do people only possess one way of being in the world, or do we concurrently incarnate multiple ways of seeing the world? The latter seems to agree with Parker Palmer’s vision that paradox is indeed the essence of mature Christian thinking and engagement.
Elliott concludes his book wondering about the hermeneutical application of current social theory towards 2025. In the final chapters, he considers how contemporary social theory has moved well beyond theory toward actual engagement in society. There is little high minded academia at work in the final pages. Rather, it points to the fact that sociology has not just theorized about the nature of society as it has been, it reflectively understands how it has developed and continues to do so. There is much to learn from social researchers who spend years analysing both empirical and anecdotal evidence to create a theory of human disconnectedness in the midst of social chaos and cohesion. Rather than put it to one side, Christian leaders ought be engaged with how we live out our human traits – good and ill. And, in doing so, articulate the gospel of Jesus in the ever changing setting which is our humanity.
 Anthony Elliott, Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction, 2 ed. (Oxford: Routledge : Kindle edition, 2014).
 Ibid. 183-185
 Ibid. 215-325
 Ibid. 338
 Christopher J. H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004). 348f
 Elliott, Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction. 104f
 Parker J. Palmer, The Promise of Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life, 1 ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008). 116ff
 Elliott, Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction. 368
Elliott, Anthony. Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction. 2 ed. Oxford: Routledge : Kindle edition, 2014.
Palmer, Parker J. The Promise of Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life. 1 ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008.
Wright, Christopher J. H. Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004.