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Introduction

It is not surprising, therefore, that post-structuralists completely ignore the boundaries between social science disciplines and subdisciplines.

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It merely exchanges one undesirable situation—where the micro-macro and agency-institutional-structure distinctions lead to antagonistic theoretical traditions e. The same shift from one unacceptable extreme to another occurs in the case of boundaries between disciplines and subdisciplines. Post-structuralism exchanges the undesirable situation of lack of communication between the social sciences for the equally undesirable one where the internal logicof each subdiscipline is completely ignored. To be specific, there is little satisfaction with the present status quo where the boundaries between economics, political science, sociology and anthropology have become solid blinkers preventing interdisciplinary studies of social phenomena.

But such compartmentalization will not be transcended by the facile and mindless abolition of the existing division of labour between disciplines. It can be overcome only by a painstaking process of theoretical labour that aims at building bridges between the various specializations. Such a strategy does not abolish social science boundaries: it simply aims at transforming them from impregnable bulwarks to transmission belts facilitating interdisciplinary research.

In other words, the real issue at present is not differentiation versus dedifferentiation. From this perspective what is badly needed today are more systematic efforts towards the creation of a theoretical discourse that would be able to translate the language of one discipline into that of another. Such an interdisciplinary language would not only facilitate communication among the social science disciplines, it would also make it possible to incorporate effectively into the social sciences insights achieved in philosophy, psychoanalysis or semiotics.

Post-structuralism, by completely side-stepping this difficult but necessary theoretical task, simply proposes the free and indiscriminate mixture of concepts and ideas derived from philosophy, literature, sociology, psychoanalysis, semiotics and elsewhere. This rejection of boundaries, in combination with the neglect of micro, meso and macro levels of analysis, of social hierarchies, and of the agency-structure distinction, quite predictably leads to a hotch-potch that is neither good philosophy nor good literature, nor yet good sociology, psychoanalysis or semiotics.

As far as I am concerned, such crude exercises constitute a relapse to pre-Durkh eimian attempts at explaining social phenomena in terms of instincts, race, climate or geography. In these circumstances it is not surprising that postmodern theorizing is marked by a relativism that tries to persuade us that any theoreticalconstruction, however bizarre or crude, is just as true or false as any other.

It is also not surprising that postmodernist theory tends to adopt a style where the lack of depth and of substantive analysis is concealed by a quasipoetical language glorying in the obscure, the ambivalent, in plays on words and similar gimmicks. But if it is absurd to accept as rational i. These relate to three aspects of monarchical sovereignty: justice, reason and will.

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The second discourse was less about the distribution of power between the king and the judicial nobility, and more about the rationalization of the highly venal and inefficient state apparatus. Those like Turgot who used this administrative discourse were confident about the unlimited possibilities of science and technology to solve not only technical but alsopoliticoadministrative problems. They were advocating a close collaboration between scientists, technocrats, politicians and administrators in an effort to redress the corrupt features of public administration.

Now Baker is anxious to stress that, although his analysis of the three discourses is primarily based on texts of social thinkers and influential public figures, his intention is not to go back to the type of idealist history that explains socio-political developments in terms of famous persons and their ideas. We need, in short, to reconstitute the political culture within which the creation of the revolutionary language of became possible.

What, for example, are the connections between the discourses of national, regional, local elites and those of peasants? In other words, how are discourses hierarchically organized in social space? It will be necessary to take into account much more seriously than Baker does collective actors political, economic, religious, etc. Baker does none of these things and his approach, notwithstanding his pronouncements, tends to be very much an ideal-typical account of the political ideas of important people.

Avoiding economism is one thing, but not taking economic phenomena into consideration at all is quite another. An anti-economistic, antiessentialist orientation does not necessarily preclude a more comprehensive, holistic approach—an approach that i tries to see how first-and second-order discourses in the polity are linked with first-and second-order discourses in other institutional spheres; ii tries to explain the manner in which economic, political, religious, educational discourses articulate on a multiplicity of hierarchical levels local, regional, national by linking them to the intricate games that relatively autonomous actors play with each other.


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Although he never satisfactorily explained the nature of this complementary relationship, he was quite explicit that a structuralist analysis of myths or kinship systems did not rule out a sociological, psychological or historical analysis of the same phenomena. This type of caution and respect for disciplinary boundaries has disappeared in the writings of those post-structuralists who do not even contemplate the possibility of linking texts or discourses to the institutional contexts within which they are embedded. In this way they completely fuse language and society, the linguistic and the social.

However, except if we speak in wildly metaphorical terms in which case homologies can be established between anything at all , language and society cannot be conflated. There are two reasons for this. First, the passage from langue to parole cannot be understood by exclusive reference to language. Second, the way in which discourses or discursive practices articulate in social space cannot be derived linguistically.

When, therefore, the distinction between language and society isignored, the result is either reductionism or eclecticism.

In the first case one ends up with the production of extremely crude explanations of macro phenomena in terms of simplistic notions derived from linguistics or linguistically informed psychoanalysis, these explanations doing justice neither to the enormous intricacies of institutional arrangements, nor to the complex games actors play at a variety of hierarchical levels. In the case of eclecticism, given the inadequacy of the discourse conceptual apparatus, more conventional sociological tools are introduced into the analysis in an ad hoc, a theoretical fashion. With this as their starting point, and striving to leave their Althusserian past as far behind as possible,30 Laclau and Mouffe offer us a set of concepts that stress the inherent discontinuity, openness, fragility and malleability of the social.

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Given the lack of fixity and necessity in social arrangements, Laclau and Mouffe reject any reference to durable institutional structures as smacking of essentialism. This leads them to examine discursive practices and the subjects that they constitute in an institutional vacuum.

The way in which such discursive practices are linked with more permanent institutional arrangements which latter may be seen as the conditions of existence of specific discursive practices is never theorized. The reasoning behind this unidimensional view of society is that, since the social is discursively constructed, and since discourses are evanescent and fragile constructions, any reference to durable institutional structures as enabling and constraining actors and their practices must unavoidably lead to essentialism. One might counter this assumption by pointing out that it is possible to speak of durable institutional structures without committing the sin of essentialism.

It is precisely because of their durability that their transformation can be conceived of only in the very long term. In consequence, core institutions often enter the social space of individual subjects, not as something that can be negotiated and manipulated at will, but as an incontrovertible given, as a relatively unchanging terrain that both delineates and makes possible specific practices—practices of which the intended or unintended consequences may seriously affect less durable institutional arrangements.

The degree of fixity or malleability of institutional arrangements is obviously not given once and for all, but varies widely in historical time and geographical space. But it can be properly assessed only when one retains the fundamental agency-institutional-structure distinction, when one acknowledges the irreducible tension between actors and institutions, the fact that, despite obvious interconnections, it is impossible to entirely reduce the one to the other. Lastly, there are certain institutional arrangements that are even more durable, in the sense that neither micro nor macro actors can, to all intents and purposes, reverse them.

Take for instance the requirement of a minimum level of formal qualifications as a precondition for entering the teaching profession. Although one can raise or slightly lower these requirements, one can hardly reverse the general bureaucratic principle of the need for formal qualifications. Thousands of subjects, by striving to acquire and use qualifications during their professional careers, discursively produce and reproduce on a routine basis the rule about qualifications. If this is accepted, it then becomes necessary to deal with the question of why certain discursively constructed institutions are more durable than others.

To answer such a fundamental question requires portraying subjects not simply as the unintended outcome of discursive practices, but as relatively autonomous actors, whose varying control of resources is directly relevant to the durability or fragility of certain core institutional arrangements.

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In other words, it is impossible to distinguish effectively between different types of discursive practices in terms, for instance, of their degree of durability or fragility , without using the agency-institutional-structure distinction. Let me reiterate that it is only when the balance between institutional analysis and analysis in terms of strategic conduct is maintained that one can adopt a perspectivist orientation and assess, for example, the durability of institutionalized rules from the perspective of actors portraying different types and degrees of power.

What went Wrong? Diagnoses and Remedies

This philosophico-linguistic vocabulary is quite incapable of accounting for developments in actual capitalist societies. In consequence it is not surprising that, as a rule, discourse-oriented poststructuralist theorists avoid the analysis of whole societies and their transformation, and limit their conceptual skills to the analysis of texts, ideologies and other second-order discourses.

Whenever they try to stick to their framework, their analysis becomes extremely reductive—in the sense that it glosses over the enormous complexities of institutional structures and their differentiation in time and space. Whenever, on the other hand, they try to pay greater attention to the complexity of their subject matter than to the simplistic certainties of their methodology, they revert to the use of the more traditional Marxist or Marxisand concepts such as the labour process, civil society, commodification, accumulation of capital and suchlike, which their theoretical analysis has discarded as essentialist.

Let us take a closer look at his work. For Baudrillard, goods in late capitalism become completely interchangeable, impersonal and unidimensional, in the sense that they lose their embeddedness in time and space, and the symbolic meaning and ambivalence they have in traditional societies. They follow less a logic of utility or symbolic significance, than a logic of equivalence in terms of interchangeability via price mechanisms or a logic of difference commodities differentiating consumers in terms of status and prestige.

Moreover, in so far as commodities entail a logic of equivalence or exchange, they relate to traditional goods which entail a logic of utility in the same way as the signifier relates to the signified. Following a logic of equivalence and difference, commodities as signifiers are detached and disconnected in late capitalism from what they signify i. They constitute systems of signification the hidden codes of which Baudrillard tries to reveal, and it is precisely these hidden codes or grammars of consumption that determine the passivity and apathy of modern consumers.

This conceptual dualism was resolved only when Baudrillard, in his later work, rejected Marxism in toto, and attempted to make sense of late capitalism by developing further his semiological imagery through incorporating into it the notions of simulation and simulacrum. With Baudrillard the postmodernist tendency towards cultural dedifferentiation40 reaches its most extreme form, as all boundaries between disciplines, and all conventional distinctions agency-structure, representingrepresented, subject-object are rejected and replaced by a phantasmagoria of signs and simulacra.

Needless to say, this retreat from the complexities of sociological analysis to the simplicities of the code41 leads unavoidably to extreme forms of reductionism, not dissimilar to the pre-Durkheimian explanations of social phenomena in terms of notions such as climate, geography, instincts, sin, and what not. This has to do with the fact that once agents and institutional structures are banned from the analysis, sign-posting i. Once actors as relatively autonomous agents of social transformation are banned from the analysis via an exclusive emphasis on disembodied or subjectless practices, codes, signs, simulacra, desire, or what have you , one is led to contextless generalizations that are invariably trivial their triviality often obscured by structuralist jargon or wrong in the sense that they only apply in certain conditions which are not and cannot be specified.

To conclude: the postmodern critique of conventional social theory has destroyed a number of myths and has, to some extent, forced social scientists into reconsidering some of their basic presuppositions. On the other hand, the postmodernist emphasis on theoretical dedifferentiation, and on the more relativistic and negatory aspects of modern culture, unavoidably leads to a theoretical impasse that hinders rather than facilitates the advance of social knowledge.


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  • In the light of what was argued above about theoretical pragmatism, the problem cannot be solved by merely drawing up a list of rules on which sort of methodological practices to follow and which to avoid. Although this is useful, what is more important is to demonstrate in practice the utility of certain rules by creating conceptual tools Generalities II that can contribute to the promotion of sociologically relevant empirical research.

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    As repeatedly mentioned already, this can be done either by solving the puzzles that create obstacles to interparadigmatic communication or by putting forward interesting questions and indicating new ways of looking at how social wholes are constituted, reproduced and transformed. In consequence, the following chapters will focus mainly on the distinction that has played such a crucial role in the development of sociological theory— that between agency and structure.

    In the debates this fundamental dichotomy has shaped, one of the arguments has been that functionalism both in its Parsonian and Marxist versions emphasizes institutional structures at the expense of agency; whereas the various interpretative sociologies do the opposite. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to say that what most distinguishes theoretical paradigms in sociology from each other is the way in which they each deal with the notions of agency and structure and the linkages between them. At the same time there have been various attempts to dismiss the agencystructure distinction as misleading, and as creating more problemsthan it solves.

    This does not mean, of course, that all is well with the present state of affairs. So structure, for instance, can obviously mean very different things according to the theoretical context in which the term is being used.