Christian Borch, Copenhagen Business School
Angèle Christin, The New School for Social Research
Christian Borch: What use can we make of the classics today? There are different ways of producing interesting sociological theory, and (re-) engaging with classical sociology is clearly not the only one. Indeed, some insist that in order to really create new sociological theory, we need to leave behind the classics. That was the view, for example, of Niklas Luhmann (1995: xlv), who dismissed recourse to classical sociology as a practice of simply “dissecting, criticizing, and recombining already-existing texts” without really rocking the boat. Omar Lizardo (2015: 8) echoed this reasoning in last year’s Lewis Coser Memorial Lecture, where he described “the derivation of creative careful exegesis of the classics” as having been useful in a certain era, but not anymore. I am sympathetic to both arguments, but nevertheless believe that if one is a bit more modest than Luhmann (who wanted to provide sociology with an entirely new theoretical edifice), a return to the classics might not be that misguided.
Of course, there are various ways of reviving the classics for present-day theoretical purposes. Some produce interesting ideas by reinterpreting canonized texts by, say, Weber or Simmel. My own approach is to draw inspiration from the “misfits,” i.e., scholars (or strands of thinking) who are, for various reasons, considered marginal to the discipline. Without pushing the distinction too far, one might say that I am interested in those theories that might well count as “classics” but which were never properly “canonized.”
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