Towards an Agenda for Social Theory in the Last Quarter of the Twentieth Century

Alvin W. Gouldner (1978) Towards an Agenda for Social Theory in the Last Quarter of the Twentieth Century: An EditorialTheory and Society, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Jan.), pp. vii-xii

As Theory and Society now enters its fifth year, it is appropriate that we attempt to clarify our present situation and future course in the light of where we began. Emerging from the critique of the “normal” academic social sciences, and emerging also from the political ferment and enduring hopes of the 1960’s, Theory and Society was first fashioned as a “safe house” – a liberated zone, if you please – in which the newer currents of social theory would be allowed a protected haven. We saw that the morale of the academic social science was then sagging, that its theoretical nerve was exhausted, its institutional place threatened, and we feared for the future of the fledgling paradigms. Theory and Society thus began by extending a special welcome to the less established theoretical paradigms, to ethnomethodology, phenomenological sociology, socio-linguistics, critical theory, and the neo-Marxisms, as well as to the new critique of the classical philosophy of science growing around the work of Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend.

It was never our intention, however, to treat these new intellectual resources as ends in themselves. Rather, and from the first, we sought to develop them as means for understanding our social world in its convulsive historical parturition. Hence our title, “Theory and Society.” Nor were we blissful amnesiacs deluded into thinking that social theory began with us, or with the new paradigms we befriended. Moreover, we also recognized that a decade of criticism of “normal” social theory had largely accomplished its task, making conventional theory problematic, and disestablishing it as the taken-for-granted wisdom of the intellectual community. We had largely done what we had set out to do, namely, encourage and make a place for new theory. By the time we founded Theory and Society, we saw that a decade of criticism would, therefore, soon have to give way to a period in which the new theories would, by their hard work rather than their promises, show what they were worth.

Which is in part why our sub-title speaks of “Renewal and Critique in Social Theory.” The dominant tone of our first several volumes, however, was exploratory, tentative, inward-dwelling, and it centered on development of the intellectual resources rather than on their topical application. It was, in short, very programmatic. The new theories were evaluated, too exclusively, by sheer debate rather than by using them and then debating their findings. If classical Positivism’s error was that it was always in too much of a hurry, plunging breathlessly into the “work”, the corresponding pathology of the enemies of Positivism was that they had sometimes lost the work ethic altogether and had become imprisoned in an endless coffee klatch. We aim to walk the difficult path between these two pathologies.

Yet despite our focus on theoretical resources, even our early issues contained valuable articles on substantive topics, including Michael Miller’s “Notes on Neo-Capitalism,” Light, Bensman and Vidich’s work on “Recent Developments in American Society,” Andre Gunder Frank’s “Development and Underdevelopment in the New World,” Randy Collins’ neat Weberian essay on Cruelty; and Immanuel Wallerstein on “Semi-Peripheral Countries.” Any idea, then, that substantive, historically-sensitive scholarship is a newcomer to our pages is mythical. Nonetheless, a good half of what we at first published was the programmatic airing of theoretical ambitions;-it was the play of new theory, we might say, rather than its work.

As these new theories developed, their differential promise became evident. It soon became apparent that some would probably never yield much of interest for understanding society. Some were doomed to be eternal youths, aging Peter Pans with only one table to tell. For certain new paradigms, it sometimes appeared as if the “topic” was just a come-on, announced only to win attention, but was never intended to be explored seriously; it served only as one more occasion to re-iterate and “recover the grounds of speech,” to exhibit the rationality being employed. But this was always essentially the same rationality, and therefore little new was found, however much the seeming topic varied. Readings of Sherlock Holmes, Marx, Freud, Habermas, or Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, all clocked in at the same pre-arranged conclusion.

Recognizing that it has been one of the standard apologies of normal sociology to plead that it was still a young thing, from whom not much should be expected, we were not inclined to give the new theories an indefinite bill of credit. Increasingly, therefore, we have taken the hard-hearted view that we shall best know them by their fruits, not their self-advertising; we have stopped publishing merely programmatic utterances.

The time has come to move on. We propose to dissociate ourselves from those whose self-indulgence leads them perpetually to stroke their theoretical resources but are loathe to use their theory to understand the social world.

Theory and Society now turns itself increasingly toward theoretical work willing to assume responsibilities for understanding the “real” world of society and history. (At this juncture, a modest dose of naive realism strategically applied seems in order.) Be it noted, this is a far cry from saying that Theory and Society now proposes to turn away from substantive theory or methodological reflection. It is not theorizing that is in question here, but only specific styles of theorizing that wish to proceed without immersal in history and data, and which mistakenly assume that the rejection of empiricism allows one to ignore the empirical.

If our early emphasis on the nature of the new theoretical resources inevitably ran the risk of slighting the topics to which they were applied, the remedy cannot lay simply in announcing a new topic-centeredness, without listing some of the concrete topics to which Theory and Society will in future be receptive. Recognizing that, even in our new bi-monthly format, we are far from able to cover all social theory, our topics must have some limit. What follows then is a set of topics, indicative of some of our concerns, suggestive of the kinds of papers to which we are likely to be receptive, offered with the guilty awareness that they are only vaguely hinted at rather than trenchantly analyzed, and with the warning that we, ourselves, will not always be confined by them, for sociological brilliance is always welcome here whatever its topic.

1. Revolutions, in 19th and 20th centuries; theories about them; social histories of specific revolutions having theoretical resonance; analyses of the social classes critically implicated in revolution-making; the collateral topics of sieges and regimes of terror; critiques, ethnographies, and reflections on political violence, done by or against the state. Bandits, mafiosi and other intermediate types of rebels.

2. Peasants, their political economy, their variable modes of production, the social history and anthropology of different types of peasantry, and of folk cultures; analyses of the forces inducing peasants to participate in or reject revolutionary and other types of social change; studies of peasant ideologies and of what peasants want.

3. Working Classes in industrial societies and their susceptibility to political authoritarianism or Fascism, or to political apathy, and analyses of the conditions eliciting these different patterns; an urban ethnography of different kinds of working classes and of everyday life in workers’ communities; the capacity of different kinds of workers for self-management and self-emancipation; the social history and prospects of workers’ councils; consumerism and workers; changing ideologies of workers.

4. The Arrangement Between the Sexes, historical and contemporary studies of femininity and masculinity, sexual sub-cultures, in their relation to different socio-economic systems; the conditions, meaning, and prospects of female emancipation.

5. The New Mass Media, television and newspapers especially; studies of their role in imposing ideologies and political consciousness; of their effects on public rationality and styles of discourse, under neo-capitalist and state socialist conditions; critique of established theoretical models of mass media and analyses relating media to communications theory; role of media in sustaining or subverting public life; the effect of the media upon personality development and on the functioning of various institutions such as education, family, political life.

6. The New Class Thesis evaluated; analysis of the new historical position of intellectuals and technical intelligentsia, i.e., the “new middle classes;” studied comparatively by contrast with the old moneyed bourgeoisie and with the bureaucratic officialdom; their sociological terrain within the modern bureaucratic organization and the resultant tensions within these; critique (lucid and Anglo-Saxon) of Habermas’ theses about technology as ideology; the evaluation of the New Class in decisive historical episodes, for example, its relation to the rise of Naziism, Fascism, and Stalinism (cf., Althusser). The New Class as a linguistic community and as a possessor of new forms of capital. Professionalism as one ideology of the New Class. Marxism as an ideology of the New Class.

7. Human Capital, theories and data; the political economy of education, of culture, of knowledge industries; the new sociology of education; contributions to a general theory of capital that encompasses both moneyed and human capital. Socialism as the dominance of human capital.

8. International Structures, today and in historical emergence, e.g., detente – its evolution, contradictions, political economy; American decline and Soviet expansion; the Third World between the super powers; theories of development and unequal development; the continuing and changing role of nationalism; the changing role of the military; Euro-Communism, future prospects and present grounding; World Systems Theory, Wallerstein and the critique of Wallerstein. Studies of modern war, of guerilla warfare, of revolutionary warfare, and their changing doctrines.

9. Capitalisms and Socialisms, structural and cultural continuities between them; classes under socialism; new theories of the nature of socialism and of capitalism; on the internal contradictions of both socialism and capitalism; historical studies of Soviet society and its prospective development; working class and peasantry in Soviet society; ongoing changes in American society. Comparisons between Soviet and Chinese development models.

10. States and State Formation, historical processes of development; the state and contemporary class systems; fragmenting and centralizing forces in the modern state. Socialism as an episode in the extension of the modern state? Imperialism and neo-imperialism. The secret police- KGB and CIA – as centers of social control and social integration in the modern state; the secret police as political “vanguards” of the new state; implications for social theory.

11. Marxist Residues: What can still be learned from Marxism today as a social theory? From Lukacs, Gramsci, from Habermas and Critical Theory. The social and class origins of Marxism. The present impasse and possible reconstitution of Critical Theory. The crises and reconstruction of historical materialism. Marxism, today, as rationality and false consciousness.

12. Dialectic and Discourse, new theories of discourse; political discourse and emancipation; developments in modern socio-linguistics in their bearing on discourse and modes of rationality; a philosophy of the empirical without positivism; comparative and critical analysis of the basic sociological analytics available today: Functionalism, General Conflict Theory, Marxism, Critical Theory, General Systems Theory – and beyond.

Doubtless we will hear from aggrieved scholars whose favorite topic, not to say life’s work, has been omitted from the above list. We can only hope that the omissions they notice will not have been oversights. The above, then, is Theory and Society ‘s strategic recommendations for doctoral dissertations for the next 20-25 years. It is also, of course, a shopping list specifying our editorial priorities. We will be especially receptive both to original papers and to updating papers reviewing and critically appropriating recent writing published elsewhere, in all of these areas.

It should be at once apparent that we have by no means surrendered our commitment to theory. Rather, by articulating a concrete set of topics we have tried to gear theory more productively with “society,” with empirically grounded and historically sensitive social analysis. For we believe this indispensable to the development of theory itself and, still more, we hold that theory must, in the end if not in every short-run, always justify itself by demonstrating its capacity to illuminate social worlds, their historical quandaries, the deeper rhythms of the everyday life.

Our shopping list of topics, then, expresses our intention of producing a diversified journal in which theory is not severed from but fused with historical diagnosis, and probes those contradictions of societies that empower their development. In one part, we propose to nudge open the interface between theory and politics, not to plead some special politics but to enable theory to assume a broader human relevance and to enrich the everyday life no less than technical interests. For much the same reason, we also propose to pry open the interface between theory and cultural criticism – including criticism of philosophy, art, science, and the media. We do not conceive of theory-making or of politics as enclaved forms of heroism but, along with cultural criticism, they are taken to be a part of the everyday life, helping to make it meaningful, manageable, and bearable. Our object is to produce a Theory and Society serving those new types of social scientists whom we now see emerging – men and women whose work is moving beyond enclaved specializations toward broader intellectual syntheses, and whose lives are dominated no longer by a closed-in “professionalism” segregated from their own larger existence and from that of their society.

Alvin W. Gouldner


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