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The pleasures of theory: A rationale for the unit design

The meaning of life

Development, as a project to improve the human condition, is usually driven by the question: “How?” How can we solve the problems of poverty, hunger, and disempowerment? How should policy be made and implemented? How can development workers help others improve their conditions of existence? In this class, however, we take a step back from particular policy debates to ask “Why?”, not why do we seek to improve, but why there is poverty, inequality, hunger and domination. To ask these questions is also to ask why there is any form or order human lives. So we also must ask: “Why do we have this society?” and “Why do we find so many societies, with both much in common and much that is different?” In asking these questions, we take part in a great conversation which began many centuries ago. This class is your invitation and your introduction to the terms of this conversation.

When we consider the question of development, we must conclude that there are four key conditions of development practice: (1) it takes place within social systems; (2) those social systems are internally contested and diverse; (3) it attempts to change social systems; (4) it is an intercultural project. Thus we must specifically debate why each of these four conditions emerges. This class is a very general introduction to social theory, but we do try to come back to these four conditions and apply our newfound theories to them specifically. Rather than readings on rituals and suicide statistics by country (or French magicians, Ghanaian musicians, US megachurch Christians and all the other people social scientists study), we have chosen several cases taken from the lives of cowherds, cashcroppers, microcredit entrepreneurs, migrants, Walmart shoppers, and many more people dealing with how to make ends meet, and how to find happiness; in other words, while our key concerns are how to conceptualize human existence, our key examples will be to address issues of development.

“I agree with you, in theory. In theory, communism works... in theory!”

As social scientists, our purpose is to explain society, and to arrive at a better theory of society and culture. We recognize, however, that these stories of society do not merely repose in Cloud-cuckoo-land. All social policies and plans are driven by one or the other theory of society and culture. Thus, learning theory is, in that sense, practical. It is also, arguably, ethical. If we do not study the theory of society, then we can never challenge the assumptions that underlie putatively practical policy programs, let alone improve them.

This class will cover the foundational concepts of Western social science theory starting with Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx. Each of these great thinkers differed, yet in their own ways, they each also forced people to confront “the reality of society” (Polanyi 1947: 115) or the fact that society is a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts. Durkheim has been the most influential theorist of the facticity of society as a moral and institutional framework that both governs and motivates the way we act. Weber recognised both the peculiarly systematising qualities of modern political, legal and economic institutions and the complexities of understanding the rationality of individual action under those conditions. Marx provided what has remained one of the most powerful critiques of the new form of value that has dominated the development of modern social systems: the commodity. Finally, drawing on the work of Michel Foucault, we consider the way in which development is itself as aspect of contemporary governance that seeks both to change society but also the motivation of individuals and of the ways in which they evaluate their lives.

As mentioned, our exploration of social theory will be linked to case studies. These each address three main themes. Firstly, they are intended as illustrations of how theory enables the analysis of empirical facts. Secondly, they indicate the diversity of the cultures that humans generate when bringing society into being, and the problems this raises for grand theories. Thirdly, the case studies illustrate the complex relationships generated by the systematising and commodifying aspects of modernity under different cultural conditions.

In the final section of the unit we address the main critique of this foundational social theory. In assuming that society is a total system, it posits a homogeneity and fixedness which does not exist. In assuming that social forms develop through patterns of meaningful human actions, it also presumes that all people, at bottom, have the same kinds of motivations. To problematize these ideas, we examine both global scale of the movement of people and goods, and feminist theorisations of the family as perspectives from which to critique such holistic assumptions.

Back to the future

In 2012, the International Monetary Fund extended loans to Spain, once one of the world’s great colonial powers. In other words, an institution which intervenes in impoverished postcolonial societies to create conditions necessary for economic takeoff was now being trained on a society that had supposedly already launched. In this post-crisis world, we have to ask whether there is such a thing as development at all.

This leads to another aspect of classical social theory which is relevant for a course on development. Durkheim, Weber and Marx were each interested in explaining why European, industrialized, capitalist societies came into being. Each of these people lived, more or less, at or near the end of the “long nineteenth century,” or from the French Revolution to the First World War (Hobsbawm 1962). During this time, many revolutionary social changes took hold and created the world we basically live in today. We have learned to call this ‘modernity’. For Durkheim, Weber and Marx, one of the main questions of the social scientist was “Why modern society?” In different ways, they come to see the modern revolution as a rupture, a break with the past and the birth of a new era. The rupture of modernity meant different things to each of them, and meant different things to each generation of social theorist who followed them. What they tended to assume was that the crisis they each witnessed was the development of something new, a new way of life and a new system. In general this has meant that social theory has tended to associate the principles of order and structure with tradition, custom and moral norms of the group and conversely connect the principles of choice and change with individuals. In this class we discuss the implications and limits of this way of thinking. Ultimately, though, we find we must ask another question, “What if there is no modernity?” By the end of the class we will be able to look back at a time when the future was new, and see it in a new light. Rather than finding change to be a development, we see flux, disorder, and uncertainty. Society increasingly appears to be different than we thought it was. Social theorists, back to the drawing board!

Neil Maclean and Ryan Schram (with Terry Woronov), January 27, 2015


Hobsbawm, E. J. 1962. The Age of Revolution, 1789–1848. New York: New American Library.

Polanyi, Karl. 1947. “Our Obsolete Market Mentality.” Commentary 3 (February): 109–117.

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