The practice of social theory
[RS: This may need some updating. Thoughts?]
This is a difficult time to study questions of culture, development, and the politics of the global order. It seems that everything people take for granted about the nature of the contemporary world and contemporary societies is being called into question.
Generally speaking, the social sciences developed in the West in a period in which Western societies were very confident in their future. It had become common to assume that human history, and especially the West’s own history, was a story of progress toward a better, happier, and more secure existence. For many, this lay in the progressive transformation of society itself. It was the job of social scientists to understand and explain why this transformation happens. Theories of society developed, then, in the context of a faith in modernity. Indeed, the development of a theory of society was itself often taken as an expression of this modernity. Scientific social theory was a sign that society was becoming conscious of itself and thus able to transcend its own original conditions and take command of its destiny.
Lately, many have voiced their fear that the liberal international order is in retreat, and progress is being reversed. For myself, I wonder if our modernity was real in the first place. While the end of the Cold War and the rise of a global system of free trade made it seem as though a liberal international order would become permanent, hysteria over immigration—often heavily inflected with xenophobia and racism—have fueled a resurgence in far-right nationalism. Even before Brexit and Trump, finding broad political consensus in democratic societies had become elusive; now it seems impossible. The present mood is one of anxiety rather than confidence. Is it possible to theorize society anymore?
As social scientists, our purpose is to explain society, and to arrive at a better theory of society and culture. 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.
The classical social theorists 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. In different ways, each of these thinkers have also contributed to the modern Western faith in history as progress. To an extent, the legacy of these classical theories has been to create a profession of social science whose findings are embraced by elite institutions, and which thus enjoy an aura of expert authority. In this way, the social scientist has also become a bearer of modernity itself, a heroic figure who has transcended society and stands outside of it, as if a doctor diagnosing a sick patient. When a theory of society is pronounced in this voice to answer our questions about social problems, it can seem as though we are being told that this is only possible way things can work.
Yet the history of social inquiry offers us with another way to make use of theory. In the eleventh and last of his Theses on Feuerbach, Karl Marx states, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” (Marx  1972, 123) Social inquiry is also a form of social practice, and it has concrete effects on the social world. We see these effects when certain conceptions of society become dominant and foreclose the possibility of alternatives. We can also use theories of society to challenge what people take for granted by raising questions which they have learned not to ask. This potential to challenge dominant ideas exists to a degree in all of the classical sociological theories. 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.
In this regard, Marx’s social theory is the most relevant to understanding our task as theorists. In his eleventh thesis, Marx emphasizes that the scholar of society can never transcend the social context in which she works. As such, she has a duty to engage with this social reality and recognize her role in changing it. If social theories are in fact expression of a society’s coming into consciousness of itself, Marx is reminding us that we as practitioners of theory must also become conscious of the consequences of theory on society. Marx calls on his fellow social thinkers to use the reality of society as a basis for a critique of ideological representations of social relations, and I would add, including those which appear as scientific expertise.
Theories of societies are themselves products of the social conditions under which people devise them. In this sense, any one social theory occupies a particular standpoint with respect to the world which enables one to see certain kinds of patterns clearly but also hides others. Western social theories for instance often take the legacies of European history for granted. More than simply being biased and partial, though, the practice of theorizing always involves excluding other histories from considering society and social forces in the abstract. If social theory is in fact a society coming into consciousness of itself, then this also entails the production of what Du Bois calls “double-consciousness”:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. (Du Bois 1903, 3)
When dominant groups in society interpret the world, they necessarily change it to suit their interests; Double-consciousness, “two-ness” (ibid.), or alienation from oneself, is the result for everyone else. While Du Bois says that double-consciousness is “not true self-consciousness” (ibid.), I would like to argue that the experience of “two-ness” can also be the basis for another kind of social theory. This would mean, of course, that we can potentially find new insights into how societies work outside of the usual institutional locations for this activity, namely the university and academe. Instead, people’s own everyday lives and practices can be seen as the basis for theoretical conceptual tools. Rather than seeking to transcend its conditions, theories coming from below are also accountable to the ways in which a theory can change the world.—Ryan Schram, July 2018 (updated February 2020)
Du Bois, W. E. B. 1903. “Of Our Spiritual Strivings.” In The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches, 1–12. Chicago: A. C. McClurg. http://books.google.com?id=11SMCwAAQBAJ.
Hobsbawm, E. J. 1962. The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848. New York: New American Library. http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000555374.
Marx, Karl. (1845) 1972. “Theses on Feuerbach.” In The German Ideology, edited by C. J. Arthur, 121–23. New York: International Publishers Company. http://books.google.com?id=DujYWG8TPMMC.
Polanyi, Karl. 1947. “Our Obsolete Market Mentality.” Commentary, February. https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/our-obsolete-market-mentality/.