As I suspect is the case for many members of the Section, my identity as a social theorist is inseparably tied to my identity as a teacher of undergraduate and especially graduate courses on sociological theory. Certainly, my engagement with and commitment to especially classical sociological theory has been deepened by my experience teaching the first-semester theory course to incoming graduate students at the University of Michigan almost continuously now for well over a decade. The task of brushing the dust off of canonical texts and making them sparkle anew for fresh recruits to Sociology – whether or not they see themselves as inclined toward theory – is an exhilarating challenge that defines the fall for me as much as shortened days and turning leaves.
Lately, this challenge has become a more daunting one. The canon is now under assault in a way that requires those of us who have oriented our teaching careers to transmitting these works to new generations of students to pause and take a step back. Graduate students have become increasingly skeptical – and in some cases, totally dismissive – that works written by “dead white men” (namely, Marx, Weber, and Durkheim) could have produced insights that are in any way relevant to the contemporary practice of sociology. My own syllabus is particularly vulnerable to these critiques since it begins not with classical sociological theory per se, but with the utilitarian/liberal tradition in political thought against which Marx and Durkheim in particular reacted in constituting a nascent sociological approach. (If you think that it is difficult to convince skeptical graduate students that there is any utility in reading Marx, try convincing them to read Locke!)
In their article “Meaning and Modularity: The Multivalence of ‘Mechanism’ in Sociological Explanation” (2019, Sociological Theory), Knight and Reed disentangle and explore contradictions between “modular” and “meaningful” mechanistic models. The disjuncture, they argue, is grounded in “incompatible causal foundations and entails mechanistic models with distinct and conflicting evidentiary standards.” Below is a conversation with the authors on their provocative article.
We asked members to share their favorite works of fiction that illustrate sociological theory in particularly evocative ways. Below are the submissions of Soc-Fi we received.
A group of scholars gathered at the Social Science History Association meetings in Chicago to discuss Professor Gil Eyal’s most recent book. That discussion and Prof. Eyal’s response are published below.
For the past two years, I have been having an on and off conversation with my colleague Christopher Muller on the topic of solidarity, a concept made salient by recent political shifts in the US and throughout the world . Metaphors of societies infected by pathological organisms, fraying at the seams, imploding from the center, or on the verge of erupting into open conflict easily fill our disciplinary imagination as we try to make sense of the contemporary social and political environment. Our times feel unusually precarious and unpredictable, roiled by economic and technological disruption, widespread defiance and divisiveness, and shifting power plays across the globe. What is it that will hold individuals and groups together in the future?
Sociology has, until now, managed to skirt many of the messy academic realities that Anthropology was forced to face, given its position as the academic discipline devoted to studying ‘the Other’. Sociology, which defined itself as the discipline that studied ‘modern societies’, escaped scrutiny precisely because of how colonial structures of knowledge positioned it vis-a-vis Anthropology. And yet, this day of reckoning is finally here. Sociology must also face whether, how, and to what extent its interpretive frameworks, core analytical categories, methods of analysis, and data have been impacted by the colonial encounter.
Larissa Buchholz reviews Andy Clarno's Neoliberal Apartheid: Palestine/Israel and South Africa after 1994 (University of Chicago Press - 2017).
Andy Clarno’s book Neoliberal Apartheid is not an obvious choice for me to write about . I am a sociologist of culture and my work engages with the dynamics of cultural production and art markets in a global context. I am not a specialist of the political economy of the Global South, let alone, of South Africa and Palestine. Nonetheless, through my substantive global research, I have developed a strong interest in what I call transnational/global theorizing. After years in which global and transnational sociology has primarily focused on the critique of methodological nationalism, we need more work that interrogates the distinctive challenges and strategies of constructing concepts and theories across borders per se in-depth. It is from this angle, that is, the angle of transnational/global theorizing, that I want to discuss Andy Clarno’s book.
To foreshadow my argument, I would like to suggest that Clarno’s book offers us an exemplary study of how comparative and global analysis can be articulated to pursue a unique path to concept formation—which George Steinmetz and Phil Gorski have discussed under the heading of a “real type,” which they contrast with Max Weber’s well-known “ideal type” .
In Neoliberal Apartheid, I analyze political-economic restructuring in South Africa and Palestine/Israel since the early 1990s . When I present my research, someone in the audience usually comments that the analysis could apply to the place where they live or work. More often than not, the person is an activist or politically-engaged scholar. They express a sense of familiarity, a recognition that the dynamics reshaping social relations in Johannesburg and Jerusalem are not entirely different than the dynamics in Chicago, Los Angeles, the US-Mexico border, or southern Europe. When the book was released, a scholar/activist in the Bay Area read the title and exclaimed: “Finally someone wrote a proper book about San Francisco” .
Fall/ Winter 2019