Some reflections on The Future of Social Theory

The Future of Social Theory

It is just coming up to 10 years since Nick Gane‘s The Future of Social Theory was published. At the time I was in the middle of my PhD and I found this book to be a real inspiration, it really helped me to get a sense of the theoretical landscape of the time. At the time I thought that rather than write a review of the book I’d reflect Nick’s approach and interview him about it. The resulting interview ‘Back to the Future of Social Theory’ was published here – I didn’t do a very good job of asking questions, but fortunately Nick did a great job of answering them. The book is a collection of interviews that Nick conducted with a range of leading social theorists, the book also includes a detailed introductory chapter positioning the pieces. Given that the book is about the future of social theory, I thought it might be worth some reflections a decade on. We might wonder if the expected future has actually arrived, or is the various future visions have actually materialised.

Looking back at the book I can see why I found its vibrancy appealing. The use of interviews gives the book a really lively feel. The dialogue in its pages provides an alternative perspective on the issues to that found in the usual monologues of academic work. I remember finding that I gained new insights and new appreciations of the thinkers from these interviews. I had been using the work of Sassen, Bauman, Urry and Lash, and the interviews showed their work in new light. The interviews often cut through vast accumulations of writings and the authors provided overviews of their own work and their own ideas. This made the ideas accessible in new ways and also brought them to life in their responses to Nick’s questions. As Nick (2004: 15) puts it in his introduction, ‘Exciting things can happen during the course of an interview, not least because underpinning critical dialogue is a practice of challenge and counter challenge, out of which new ideas, perspectives or, at the very least, openings can emerge’.

The book itself actually presents a series of problems and questions for social theory to face over the coming years, many of which have become central to contemporary debates. Some of these are to be found in the book’s introduction, such as ‘Does the loss of a discrete and clearly definable human subject spell the end for the discipline of sociology, or alternatively mark an exciting new beginning?’. Others are to be found scattered across the interviews,  for example Ulrich Beck asks if ‘sociology is turning into a museum of antiquated ideas’ and Saskia Sassen asks how we might understand how ‘digital space is partly inscribed by the larger power dynamics and cultural forms of the institutional orders or larger societies within which it is embedded’, it is also notable that a number of the chapters directly or indirectly raise questions around cosmopolitanization . The questions the books raises are actually vast in number and scale, this book is really good at suggesting research questions and problems or for provoking the reader to think imaginatively about theoretical issues. Judith Butler, for instance, raises questions about how theory and questions should be used, in one passage she says ‘I don’t think theory should be applied. If it needs to be ‘applied’, then it is already divorced from the social, and something has gone wrong from the start…I agree that we need to act, but to act in the mode of the question, and our actions should be embodied forms of questions’.

As is probably to be expected then The Future of Social Theory doesn’t offer a set of prescriptive accounts of what social theory should be. As a result the book seems to have aged well. In fact, and this might be a bit worrying, it could have been published today and I don’t think it would have looked odd. Which is surprising given the often repeated notions of radical social change in the new millennium. Some of the discussions of technology might not have aged to well, with social media and mobile devices taking hold in the last decade, but many of the conceptual ideas still hold up very well. There are also quiet a lot of references to liquid and fluid social formations and talk of complexity, this language might be put down to the theoretical fashions of the time but it should not be dismissed on that basis. The language might have changed, but it doesn’t meant that these concepts and the questions they provoke have suddenly ceased to be relevant. The mode of questioning in the book acts to bring out questions, it is in these questions that the book is really groundbreaking as a resource. The interview format did bring something different out of these thinkers, or at least pushed them to channel their ideas into new formations and new languages.

There is still a lot of interest and concern about the future of social theory. So, although a decade has passed there is still much to be gained from this book and the questions it presents might still contribute to maintaining the liveliness of social theory and might also help to open new areas and new directions. There is still some future to be found in the book even if it is now old. I’m planning to read the book more closely as I start work on my next project, I think it might provoke some ideas and give some context to the ideas. There is something interesting about looking back to see how the future was being imagined, but in this case this book still really has something direct to say about where the future might be.

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One Response to Some reflections on The Future of Social Theory

  1. stuartelden says:

    Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
    The Future of Social Theory… ten years later.

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