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.”
By contrast, I am very inspired by Gabriel Tarde’s sociology and believe it offers a rich reservoir of ideas that can be productively reutilized for contemporary theoretical purposes. Although there are also uncomfortable elements in Tarde’s oeuvre, he nevertheless offers a highly interesting conception of imitation as the basic social bond, related to notions of suggestibility and somnambulism. To be sure, central Tardean notions were heavily criticized throughout the twentieth century (as well as in his own lifetime), but I think they have more to offer than the critics were willing to acknowledge. So, what we have here is a classical sociologist who, in my view, might help us to rethink how the social is constituted in rather fundamental ways.
Angèle Christin: The classics can also be a useful signaling device that indicates where an argument might be heading, as well as a means of creating dialogue across specialties and even between disciplines. For example, my dissertation focuses on processes of quantification in the form of “clicks” in online journalism. Not everyone is interested in clicks, the internet, or journalism, but every sociologist and anthropologist knows about Marx, Simmel, and Weber’s respective takes on commodification, monetization, and rationalization. Drawing on these classic theorists translates the project to a broader range of scholars beyond the immediate audience of sociologists of media and culture. One might argue, however, that this is the role not only of the classics but also of theory more generally – all types of theoretical work can bridge the gap between specialized fields.
Yet I also agree with you that it is essential to examine what counts as “theory” in different contexts and at different points in time. The differential success of Geiger and Tarde’s theories of crowds (today, most sociologists know about Tarde, but many fewer know about Geiger) indicates that what sociological communities find relevant can change radically over time. Hence, it is important to conduct genealogies of theories that used to be “mainstream” but are now forgotten. To draw on Foucauldian concepts, only by excavating forms of subjugated and relegated knowledge can we understand the changing epistemological assumptions of the discipline – which is not only an interesting topic in and of itself, but also a good way to become more reflexive about one’s own theorizing practices.
A complementary research program would be to study the circulation and transformation of what counts as “theory” across national borders. For most of the twentieth century, the European social sciences – and especially continental philosophy – occupied a central place in the Anglo-American sociological tradition. Over the past thirty years, however, transnational flows of sociological ideas have become more complex: the United States exports as much theory to Europe as it imports from Europe. What happens when academic texts travel without their national context of production? There has been a significant amount of work on the circulation and redefinition of European social theory in the United States. There are fewer studies of how American theory is exported, reframed, and put to different uses in Europe.
More generally, I believe that this discussion poses the further question of the relationship between “theory” and “the classics.” Drawing on Omar Lizardo’s formulation, what is the difference between “living theoretical labor” and “dead theoretical labor”? Or, building upon Stefan Bargheer’s (2014) observation that many texts now considered to be “theory” were originally empirical studies that “stuck” after they were applied to a variety of different cases, we might ask how and under what conditions “theories” become canonized as “classics”?
CB: To take the latter question first, one immediate answer is, of course, that a theory assumes the status of a classic if it provides an original and distinct conception of the social, which might include methodological prescriptions for how to conduct sociological analysis. It should be quite obvious, however, that this is an insufficient answer, since it does not explain why certain theories that do fulfill this criterion are not regarded as classics. If I may bring in Tarde again, he offers a distinct and original notion of the social but has never really been considered a classic — at least not in the way that, for example, Durkheim has. Why? Well, much of the explanation can be found in something as banal as power and institutionalization: unlike Durkheim, Tarde did not gain strong institutional backing (Durkheim founded his own journal), just as his theory did not provide the kinds of solutions that were in political demand at the time (Durkheim’s theory did). While other factors may explain why other theorists were never elevated as classics, these factors do seem to account for much of Tarde’s destiny.
You make a very interesting point about the adoption of ideas across national contexts, and you are probably right to say that most scholarly attention to date has focused on how European ideas have been received by American scholars, rather than the other way around. I am myself guilty of mainly focusing on this “westbound” circulation of ideas — at least, that was the primary process I described in my book on the politics of crowds – but I would certainly welcome work that engages with the opposite translation. But interesting examples of context-bound theory translation take place within Europe, too. For example, some of my German colleagues tell me that Bruno Latour’s work has a hard time being acknowledged as an original, distinctive sociological program in Germany, whereas his influence in, e.g., the UK is highly significant. According to my colleagues in German sociology, this is due in part to the hierarchical organization of the German academy, where full professors play a crucial role in defining the discipline and where more junior scholars are dependent on – and often work for – their professors. Not only can the acceptance of new approaches take a long time in such a system, such new approaches are also often filtered through the contemporary dominant schools of thought (as promoted by the professors), at times in ways that render the new theories less original than they actually are. So while Latour’s ideas are certainly being discussed by some German sociologists, these discussions tend to take place from the perspective of the already dominant theories. Thus, for instance, Luhmannian sociologists sometimes translate Latourian ideas into something recognizable to systems theory.
I mention this not only because it points to problems of theory translation in an intra-European context, but also because it might take us back to the discussion of “dead” versus “living” theoretical labor. What we see in such translation processes, where new theory is reinterpreted to fit the worldviews of existing theory, would for me count more as dead than living theoretical labor.
What would be your own response to the questions you posed about dead and living theoretical labor?
AC: These are great points. Your comment on Latour’s reception in Germany brings to mind the question of the hybridization or adaptation of sociological theories to national contexts when they travel across borders. Theories and concepts are often put to different uses depending on the country of importation. This in turn frequently becomes a subject of intellectual disagreement, as the heated debates about the uses of Bourdieu in the United States (compared to its alleged “true” uses, say, in France) make clear.
But is this necessarily a bad thing? In the process of translating a theory into a different language and making it “fit” with local epistemologies, importers also produce theory: they draw attention to new aspects of the framework or provide original interpretations, which is, after all, an active theoretical process. So I wouldn’t say that this adaptation constitutes “dead” theoretical labor. On the contrary, it seems to me that it is one of the mechanisms through which “normal science” (to use Kuhnian terms) incorporates dissonant items, hopefully leading to a productive period of further theorizing. (What kind of theory will the Luhmann/Latour mix produce in Germany in the near future? Fascinating question!)
In my opinion, this conversation reveals several ways of thinking about theory-building in sociology. One might argue in favor of the circulation, hybridization, and amalgamation of concepts – what we might call the “syncretic” or “joyful mess” conception of theory-making – and hope that eventually something new will come out of it for the discipline. Or one might think instead that each theory should be taken on its own terms – we could call this the “exegetic” approach – with a close reading of the text and a careful use of the main concepts, which is certainly what theorists wish for their own work!
Both views of theory-making are essential, depending on the context. At times, one might feel closer to the “syncretic” approach — for example, when trying to make sense of a puzzling empirical issue. At other times, one might embrace the “exegetic” perspective — for example, when teaching a theory course. In my research, I feel closer to the syncretic side: I try to place concepts developed in France (Bourdieu on fields of cultural production, Boltanski and Thévenot on evaluation and justification) in dialogue with frameworks that flourished in the United States (neo-institutionalism, the production-of-culture perspective, STS, work on commensuration, etc.).
More generally, and to go back to your final question, I would argue that a theoretical framework needs three things to become “classical”: an original and productive generalization about the social world (a necessary but not sufficient condition); a dedicated set of entrepreneurs in charge of the institutionalization of the theory both in the country of origin and also in other countries (an increasingly important criterion in a globalized academic landscape); and the relative openness of the theory and its elective affinities (for lack of a better word) with existing sociological frameworks and changing political contexts.
For this reason, it is indeed fascinating to study cases in which theories failed to become classical (which brings us back to Geiger and Tarde); or examples where theoretical frameworks succeed differently depending on the country. Take the paradigmatic case of so-called “French theory,” or more recently that of Latour or Piketty: their theories gained traction in the U.S. before coming back to France; through this transatlantic process, they were consecrated and turned into “classics” that every student needs to read.
This might be, at the end of the day, another essential use of the classics that we haven’t yet talked about: inspiring students to adopt an analytical and critical lens on social problems through the works of classical theorists.
CB: You are right that theory translation might lead to a productive hybridization. I overstated my point or did or not sufficiently clarify my view on the specific translation of theory I referred to as dead theoretical labor. To the extent, as you suggest, that such translation would result in some form of actual hybridization or new interpretations, it could certainly be productive. What from my perspective is rather less productive is when theory translation takes place in a manner that is not really aiming at “incorporating dissonant items,” to use your Kuhn-inspired expression, but rather at keeping a particular theoretical corpus intact in light of rival positions – or, which is but a variation of this, when only those parts of a rival theory are taken into account which appear compatible with one’s preferred theory.
I subscribe to your distinction between syncretic and exegetic approaches and would generally situate my own approach alongside yours, but with some nuances. First, while you are right to note that most theorists would probably like to see their own work being received in a faithful manner (i.e., not messed up with competing positions), I can think of hardly any interesting sociological theory which is not itself inherently syncretic. (Perhaps one should remember that eclecticism and syncreticism originally, before the pejorative reinterpretation of these terms in the 17th and 18th centuries, referred to a careful and independent selection of ideas!) This eclectic gesture is very much part of the sociological imagination, as Mills pointed out – and as Swedberg has called renewed attention to in his recent work on the art of social theory. I have made a similar point in relation to Luhmann: to work in the spirit of Luhmann, one cannot treat his theory as a “mummy,” as some dead corpus of ideas that should be left undisturbed. Luhmann himself worked in the precise opposite way: he was highly eclectic, combining theoretical inspiration from Husserl, Parsons, Weber, cybernetics, biology, etc. So yes, I would certainly be in favor of a syncretic approach, and much of my own work proceeds in that spirit, drawing upon inspirations from a set of perhaps unlikely bedfellows, such as Luhmann, Foucault, Tarde, and Latour.
Second, while this suggests a preference for a syncretic over an exegetic approach – at least when the latter is primarily concerned with policing the interpretation of “what the master meant” – I also have sympathy for exegetic work, and this takes me back to the beginning of our conversation. While I agree with you that the classics are instrumental in providing students with a robust vocabulary with which to critically discuss social problems (and, one might add, in nurturing a sense of disciplinary identity), an exegesis of the classics may also contribute to new theory building. Since the canonization of some theories and the marginalization of others in part reflect the politics of theory, it makes sense to examine and challenge the dominant hierarchies. Digging out forgotten (or repressed) aspects of the classics or re-reading and reviving the misfits I talked about are ways of doing that which might lead us to new theoretical paths.
Bargheer, Stefan. 2014. “The Use(fulness) of Theory.” Perspectives 36(2): 13-15.
Lizardo, Omar. 2015. "The End of Theorists: The Relevance, Opportunities, and Pitfalls of Theorizing in Sociology Today." Pamphlet based on the Lewis Coser Memorial Lecture, delivered at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in San Francisco. Available at: http://akgerber.com/OpenBook010.pdf
Luhmann, Niklas. 1995. Social Systems, trans. John Bednarz Jr. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.