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Table of Contents


Preface/2016 Edition

Social Theory: Its Uses and Pleasures

Charles Lemert

Modernity’s Classical Age: 1848–1919

Charles Lemert

The Two Sides of Society

Karl Marx

Estranged Labour
Camera Obscura
The Manifesto of Class Struggle, with Friedrich Engels
The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
Capital and the Values of Commodities
Capital and the Fetishism of Commodities
Labour-Power and Capital

Friedrich Engels

The Patriarchal Family

John Stuart Mill

Of Society and the Individual

Jane Addams

The Settlement as a Factor in the Labor Movement

Harriet Martineau


Emile Durkheim

Mechanical and Organic Solidarity
Anomie and the Modern Division of Labor
Sociology and Social Facts
Suicide and Modernity
Primitive Classifications and Social Knowledge, with Marcel Mauss
The Cultural Logic of Collective Representations

Friedrich Nietzsche

Peoples and Countries

Max Weber

The Spirit of Capitalism and the Iron Cage
The Bureaucratic Machine
What Is Politics?
The Types of Legitimate Domination
Class, Status, Party

Sigmund Freud

The Psychical Apparatus and the Theory of Instincts
Dream-Work and Interpretation
Oedipus, the Child
Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through
The Return of the Repressed in Social Life
Civilization and the Individual

Ferdinand de Saussure

Arbitrary Social Values and the Linguistic Sign

John Dewey

Democracy and Education

Split Lives in the Modern World

William James

The Self and Its Selves

William Edward Burghardt (W. E. B.) Du Bois

Double-Consciousness and the Veil

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Yellow Wallpaper
Women and Economics

Anna Julia Cooper

The Colored Woman’s Office

Georg Simmel

The Stranger

Charles Horton Cooley

The Looking-Glass Self

Social Theories and World Conflict: 1919–1945

Charles Lemert

Action and Knowledge in a Troubled World

John Maynard Keynes

The Psychology of Modern Society

Talcott Parsons

The Unit Act of Action Systems

Erich Fromm

Psychoanalysis and Sociology

Georg Lukács

The Irrational Chasm Between Subject and Object

George Herbert Mead

The Self, the I, and the Me

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (V. I.) Lenin

What Is To Be Done?

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno

The Culture Industry as Deception

Martin Heidegger

The Question Concerning Technology: The Age of the World Picture

Karl Mannheim

The Sociology of Knowledge and Ideology

Robert K. Merton

Social Structure and Anomie

W. E. B. Du Bois

Black Reconstruction and the Racial Wage

Unavoidable Dilemmas

Reinhold Niebuhr

Moral Man and Immoral Society

Gunnar Myrdal

The Negro Problem as a Moral Issue

William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki

Disorganization of the Polish Immigrant

Louis Wirth

The Significance of the Jewish Ghetto

Walter Benjamin

Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction: War and Fascism

Virginia Woolf

A Room of One’s Own

Antonio Gramsci

Intellectuals and Hegemony

Mao Tse-tung

Identity, Struggle, Contradiction

The Golden Moment: 1945–1963

Charles Lemert

The Golden Age

Winston Churchill

The Cold War

Daniel Bell

The End of Ideology in the West

W. W. Rostow

Modernization: Stages of Growth

Talcott Parsons

Action Systems and Social Systems
Sex Roles in the American Kinship System

Robert K. Merton

Manifest and Latent Functions

Claude Lévi-Strauss

The Structural Study of Myth

Roland Barthes

Semiological Prospects

Louis Althusser

Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses

Doubts and Reservations

David Riesman

Character and Society: The Other-Directed Personality

Erik H. Erikson

Youth and American Identity

Edwin M. Lemert

Social Pathology / Societal Reaction Theory

Erving Goffman

Presentation of Self

Jacques Lacan

The Mirror Stage

Others Object

Simone de Beauvoir

Woman as Other

Aimé Césaire

Between Colonizer and Colonized

Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Power of Nonviolent Action

C. Wright Mills

The Sociological Imagination

Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale

Black Panther Party: What We Want

Betty Friedan

The Problem That Has No Name

Frantz Fanon

Decolonizing, National Culture, and the Negro Intellectual

Will the Center Hold? 1963–1979

Charles Lemert

Experiments at Renewal and Reconstruction

Clifford J. Geertz

Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture

Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann

Society as a Human Product

Dorothy Smith

Knowing a Society from Within: A Woman’s Standpoint

Immanuel Wallerstein

The Modern World-System

Theda Skocpol

The State as a Janus-Faced Structure

Nancy Chodorow

Gender Personality and the Reproduction of Mothering

Breaking with Modernity

Jacques Derrida

The Decentering Event in Social Thought

Michel Foucault

Biopolitics and the Carceral Society

C. L. R. James

World Revolution: 1968

Herbert Marcuse

Repressive Desublimation of One-Dimensional Man

Harold Garfinkel

Reflexive Properties of Practical Sociology

Alvin W. Gouldner

The New Class as a Cultural Bourgeoisie

Pierre Bourdieu

Structures, Habitus, Practices

Audre Lorde

The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House

After Modernity: 1979–2001

Charles Lemert

The Idea of the Postmodern and Its Critics

Jean-François Lyotard

The Postmodern Condition

Richard Rorty

Private Irony and Liberal Hope

Michel Foucault

Power as Knowledge

Jean Baudrillard

Simulacra and Simulations: Disneyland

Arlene Stein and Ken Plummer

I Can’t Even Think Straight

Reactions and Alternatives

Jürgen Habermas

Critical Theory, the Colonized Lifeworld, and Communicative Competence

Anthony Giddens

Post-Modernity or Radicalized Modernity?

Nancy Hartsock

A Theory of Power for Women?

Randall Collins

Interaction Ritual Chains

Mustafa Emirbayer and Ann Mische

What Is Agency?

New Cultural Theories after Modernity

Cornel West

The New Cultural Politics of Difference

Jeffrey C. Alexander

Cultural Codes and Democratic Communication

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

“Race” as the Trope of the World

Donna Haraway

The Cyborg Manifesto and Fractured Identities

Trinh T. Minh-ha

Infinite Layers/Third World?

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Can the Subaltern Speak?

Patricia Hill Collins

Black Feminist Thought in the Matrix of Domination

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw

Dimensions of Intersectional Oppression

Gloria Anzaldúa

The New Mestiza

Judith Butler

Imitation and Gender Insubordination

Paula Gunn Allen

Who Is Your Mother? Red Roots of White Feminism

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

Epistemology of the Closet

Global Realities in an Uncertain Future

Charles Lemert

Global Uncertainties

Immanuel Wallerstein

The Modern World-System in Crisis

Stanley Hoffman

The Clash of Globalizations

Zygmunt Bauman

Liquid Modernity

David Harvey

Neoliberalism on Trial

Manuel Castells

Informationalism and Networks

Saskia Sassen

Toward a Feminist Analytics of the Global Economy

Amartya Sen

Asian Values and the West’s Claims to Uniqueness

Ulrich Beck

World Risk Society

Achille Mbembe

Necropower and the Late Modern Colonial Occupation

Rethinking the Past that Haunts the Future

Avery Gordon

Ghostly Matters

Edward Said

Intellectual Exile: Expatriates and Marginals

William Julius Wilson

Global Economic Changes and the Limits of the Race Relations Vision

Elijah Anderson

The “Nigger Moment” in the Cosmopolitan Canopy

Waverly Duck

Benita’s Story: Coping with Poverty

Charles Tilly

Future Social Science and the Invisible Elbow

Julia Kristeva

Women’s Time

Raewyn Connell

Southern Theory: Gender and Violence

Slavoj Žižek

Cynicism as a Form of Ideology

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari

The Rhizome/A Thousand Plateaus

Giorgio Agamben

Sovereign Power and Bare Life

Social Theory at the Limits of the Social

Bruno Latour

Spheres and Networks: The Spaces of Material Life

Thomas Piketty

The Central Contradictions of Capitalism: r > g

Owen Fiss

The Perils of Constitutional Minimalism

Oliver Sacks


Ta-Nehisi Coates

Prison and Gray Wastes

Eula Biss

White Debt

Marilynne Robinson


Robert Pogue Harrison

The Dominion of the Dead

Name Index


Preface/2016 Edition

When a book enjoys nearly a quarter-century of life, as this one has, it becomes a kind of monument to the time covered. The problem with historical time is that it has its own mysterious manners, too often changing its direction in ways few saw coming. When this book first appeared in 1994 no one had the kind of lightweight personal computers that today seem to be everywhere. No one, except science fiction readers, could have then imagined the global smart phone that today links anyone anywhere to others elsewhere. More importantly, who then could have imagined the attacks on the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001. Nor, even after 9/11, was it thinkable that the world would become involved in wars in the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa that would tear apart the then seeming stable global order. A good quarter-century ago the then long-enduring modern world order started to come undone in the wake of the collapse of the Cold War. Ever after, the spiral spins faster and faster.

In the past few years, the vicious atrocities of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria make Osama bin Laden’s Taliban seem tame by the contrast. Even in the allegedly civil sphere, political leaders use violent gestures and language to intimidate their opponents. A president of Russia invades neighbors in an effort to turn back the clock to the worst days of the Cold War. American police officers shoot and kill with impunity, actions vaguely warranted by the fact the United States is unable or unwilling to limit the sale of the weapons of war used to kill the innocent. As I write, one grand old American political party is campaigning for the nation’s highest office as though the civil sphere were a playground if not a gangland.

If this, and more, take place in the wider global sphere, then it should be expected that the vibrations will resonate in the quieter realm of social thought. Social Theory, now in its 6th edition, has not only lived during these events, it has also come into its own in a time when the very meaning of “social theory” has taken on a broader meaning. It wasn’t all that long ago in the second half of the twentieth century that social thinkers were more likely to identify what they did as, say, sociological or literary theory, feminist or critical race theories. Though this narrower disciplinary names still have a currency, more and more their proponents are likely to view what they do in the broader sense of social theory. For one instance, critical race theory began and was once mostly confined to legal studies. Now, through the work of writers like Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, whose essay on intersectionality is included in this edition, is a thoroughly social theorist of the kind that enjoys a close kinship to Patricia Hill Collins’s matrix of domination. Collins herself would once have been judged to be a black feminist theorist. Today she is well known as a major social theorist and past-president of the American Sociological Association.

One of the seldom recognized consequences of this new recognition of social theory’s pervasive value is the realization that social theory has long been, and still is, a normal practical work of writers and thinkers who are not necessarily academics. One of the sad attitudes of many in sociology, my field, is the claim that sociology must never be mere journalism as if to say that those who dig deeper into the facts in order to report important public stories are somehow less serious than academics. The truth is that a great deal of journalism, but also literary non-fiction, even fiction on occasion, is very often both more true and more readable than academic social science. Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist, is an excellent reporter on the global economic situation not because he is a Princeton professor and Nobel Prize winner but because over time he has learned to write out of his academic knowledge in a way that makes sense to a general public.

In this edition of Social Theory, I defend the claim that good social theory works at the limits of traditional common sense and academic formalism. This is not an insistence that academics know nothing. I am an academic and some people, it seems, think I know at least something—otherwise they wouldn’t read this book. But in this day, more than any before it, social theorists can relax into the realization what we do, whatever our calling in life, is the practical work of trying to understand, even to explain, the world as it is. One consequence of my claim is that the sixth edition of the book includes a new concluding section, Social Theory at the Limit of the Social. Here readers will find selections from, among others, writers like Oliver Sacks, Eula Biss, and Ta-Nehisi Coates who have written seriously for the general reader. Then too there are academics who have written at the limits of their disciplinary fields—Robert Pogue Harrison on the dead and Owen Fiss on the limits of the normal understanding of constitutional law; and, too, Marilynne Robinson who, though known for her brilliant fiction is able to write convincingly about the fears that shake ordinary lives in our day.

There are other additions to the earlier sections of the book meant to account for changes of another sort. Harriet Martineau the earliest feminist theorist is here at this late date because her omission previously was a mistake more obvious now that the long history of feminist social theory is better known. Likewise John Stuart Mill is added because his classic book On Liberty represents the most coherent essay on liberal theory as it came to be in the nineteenth century. In the 1990s many social theorists assumed that liberalism was dead. A quarter-century later this is far from the case even if the bastardized liberal ideas in neoliberalism are a curse to real economic freedom. Readers will find, if they look closely, that some authors in previous editions have been dropped for the reason that their theories have not endured the test of time. These have been replaced by selections that, even if written some time ago, seem ever more current today. Then too, writers who were introduced in recent editions remain in place even though the day of their original popularity is long past. Bruno Latour, Achille Mbembe, Giorgio Agamben, Gilles Deleuze, and Slavoj Žižek remain, notwithstanding the fact that some finding their writing difficult, even obscure. They are trying to say something of special social importance, often in a manner meant to reflect their view of the times.

There is a cautionary note in all this. We who are older and believe we have figured the hard stuff out, should remember that social theory is first and foremost an attempt to explain or describe social riddles that occur in daily life before anyone bothers to make a theory of them. The young, even the young who are genuinely busy in their lives, understand a text we might find too hard because they are living the reality.

Social Theory as Practical Theories of Unsettled Worlds

When do very big things in life start to change? This is surely one of the more gripping questions anyone can ask. What were the first signs that the love of your life was about to leave? Or when do kids begin to realize that their parents are going to split up? Or, in the larger frame of human events, when exactly did Rome start to decline, or capitalism begin to change how business is done, or the British first realize they were losing their empire, or the telephone first become a cellular body part? Whether the questions are personal or global, people have good reason to wonder when changes of all kinds got under way. Perhaps we worry about this because we want to know why things must change. In the absence of good answers to the why, we settle for a when.

No question is more basic to social science than “why?”; and none is harder to answer than the why of social changes. It is likely that there would be no social science at all without ordinary people asking why things are as they are. Why do apples, ripe but unpicked, fall to the ground? Gravity is the answer everywhere except in outer space. But “gravity” is merely a name for less than self-evident laws of nature. Why, for another example, do people in large groups get along as well as they do? This, it turns out, is a question still more difficult to answer because, as anyone honest with herself knows, to live with others is to be impressed by how impossible they are and how little they respect our perfect social manners. Social scientists would be more than pleased were they able to agree on a term like “gravity” that would explain why, in spite of the countless troubles and conflicts of social life, people in groups do as well together as they do. That it happens, we know. How things happen as they did or do is hard to know because social things are tricky, even devious. If how people live together changes, then why they get along more than you would suppose also changes.

Hence, asking when important social relations and structures begin to change is a central question of any social science. We want to know the why, we are dimly aware of the how, but we will settle for the when. None of the three types of questions is easily answered but at least the when question has the merit of being as common to everyday life as it is to academic social science.

Herein is found the special role of social theory. The first duty of social theorists is to ask fresh why questions. Knowing when the love of one’s life may have decided to quit the relationship is some solace to the jilted lover. Was it at that party when she seemed so happy to see that new guy? Is she with him now? Popular music, from country to rap, would be more bereft of coherent lyrics than already they are if it were it not for the devastations love can visit upon the young at heart. At the other extreme, social studies might not have become sciences if people had not wondered, from the start, just when this modern world came into its own, thus to change how people lived together. Anyone who loses a love may doubt his or her self-worth. The people who lose their traditional ways may wonder what will become of them without the old, familiar ways.

Social theories are often able to propose a why, sometimes a how, and even a when to solve these mysteries. Still, when social theories suggest answers to any or all of these questions, they usually start arguments that can last for years to come. The lover who loses out usually gets over it. Social theorists never get over the whys and wherefores they are obliged to ask, even when they admit that answers are hard to come by.

Social theory is the art, if not always the science, of asking the right questions at the risk of irritating the hell out of those who, in their own minds, have already settled the matter. Social Theory is a collection of readings that is not meant to be an answer book so much as a compendium of the struggles of modern social theory to ask and answer the why, how, and when of the unthinkable nature of social worlds. The answers once thought convincing may still be. When it comes to social theory, few answers are completely right or wrong, which gives them a good shelf life and makes them worth reading even today. To be a social thinker, if not a professional theorist, is to live with uncertainty—in respect to which the most certain social thing in the modern world is that sooner or later everything changes. This may sound a bit daunting, but when you stop to think about it, most things in life that we consider absolutely certain are not. In life with others the important thing is to accept the changes that cannot be prevented, and to understand them. The social theories you will read here are more than that, to be sure, but they are at least that, which is what makes them interesting, even exciting.

Teaching and Reading Social Theory

If, as I think, social theory is inherently exciting because, when it is good, it tries to identify and explain the big questions that all individuals and collectivities must face, then what might be the corollary to this assumption in respect to reading it? I have already stated my first assumption, learned slowly over the years of teaching the subject while also writing it as best I can. The single most touching letter I have received from a reader of this book was written by a woman in mid-life, with kids still at home, working a full-time job, attending a community college in Florida. She claimed that what she read in the book changed her life. She didn’t say which texts had this effect, nor did she explain how she found time to read amid all else she was dealing with in life. But it was a sincere message that, over the years, has been repeated many times by others. Let all teachers remember that much of what Karl Marx wrote was written for the working class, or that Max Weber’s famous essays on science and politics as vocations were given as public lectures, or that Èmile Durkheim was the leading public intellectual of his day, or that no one was more influential in the development of American public education than John Dewey. On it goes. So rule number one is: Don’t be afraid!

When it comes to teaching, I am sure that some teachers look at this book and say, “interesting stuff but the selections are way too short for what I do.” A few have said just this to me; to which I reply, “fair enough.” On the other hand, one thing I have learned both as an editor and teacher is that it is amazing how quickly it is possible to go to the core of an argument if that is what you are required to do. I do not claim to have gotten this right in every case. A few times I’ve gotten it quite wrong and have tried to correct the selections when the time came. I do not claim any special genius at this. If there is a skill here it is to take seriously the practice of Ralph Waldo Emerson who, in his day, read nearly everything (almost literally), but who claimed that he never read any book from cover to cover. He was a philosopher. Nonfiction works are easier to treat this way. I would not recommend this approach for the reading of fiction. But for social theories, like philosophies and similar writings, there is wisdom in Emerson’s method. There is always a core idea and, in my experience, only the very best have more than one of them, revised and elaborated on. Some of my friends and colleagues in the field will think ill of me for saying it, but Marx’s Capital is the only classical book of social theory that has quite a few ideas. Happily, they are all in a single section near the start of the argument. By the time he gets to the long chapters on the working day, a good reader will have already gotten his point. By contrast, there are few books, still read today, that are very long but with not much more one than one idea. Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life is an example—though quickly I add what an idea it was to conclude that Kant’s theory of knowledge was wrong because knowledge belongs to the collective life, not the categories of mental life.

It may seem either a conceit or foolishness on my part to suggest that shorter selections can often get at the heart of a social theory (the conceit being that I have been able to do this well). Teachers who do not want to teach shorter selections from a big book are not wrong to think this way. A good many of them (myself included) get around the problem by assigning whole books to provide what Social Theory does not or cannot. I have regularly assigned the whole of Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (while excusing college students from responsibility for the footnotes, which constitute more than half the book’s mass). Why this book? One reason is that I love the challenge of encouraging students to learn to follow a long and sometimes wayward argument that covers what, to them, can be weirdly obscure subjects like extra ecclesium nulla salus. But also because, Emerson notwithstanding, I do believe that reading books is important and that everyone should do it often. I happen also to think that Weber’s book is one of the few from which it is very difficult to snatch a few pages to make the main points.

This brings me to another generic point that, to me, has never been more important than now: Read! We all know that not many kids today read books. This does not mean they are stupid. But it does mean that when they become students pursuing higher degrees, they are often ill equipped to do the work. Social theory and other kinds of writing can be difficult if readers have not spent a lifetime facing the daunting task of reading long and complicated books, whether fiction or nonfiction. I am not actually a gifted reader. I grew up in a home without books. My wife, on the other hand, has been reading since she was a child when she locked herself in the only family bathroom to read War and Peace. I am seventy-five and that book is still on my list. Very long. I have tried to read Dickens’s Bleak House. It drives me crazy. Last summer I gave up. At my age, I must save time for War and Peace. On the other hand, Dickens’s Great Expectations is also long and I could hardly put it down. Tastes are always involved in what one reads. In school, teachers usually determine what is required according to their own tastes. But students and other readers just getting into the habit serve themselves very well if they take what is required then follow it by spending time in a good library wandering through undiscovered stacks. If you browse, you will find all manner of mysteries.

One Sunday, as my wife and I rode the E train uptown, I read. Having lost interest in the subway ads for hemorrhoid laser surgeries, I had brought along a collection of Raymond Carver’s short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. I finished the first story in the few stops between Canal Street and Penn Station. I paused only a moment. My wife said, “Amazing, isn’t it?” I just nodded. It was.

Later, while we were walking in the park, on the East Side just north of the zoo, a jogger lunged toward us at a good pace. His stride was strong but broken. He was crippled. Cerebral palsy, we thought, saying little else. After, we took the shortcut to the Westside. Soon, he came again, having already circled most of the six-mile circuit. Then, my wife said, “I’ve seen him running here for years. Think of what it takes.” I did. I imagined a solitary life, ordered around chaotic limbs, a life he ran with dignity among hundreds of beautiful bodies on roller blades. She had her thoughts, too. We said a little, but less than you would suppose.

Reading is like that. A relatively few abstracted marks or events evoke worlds others already know. But how does it work? When I was a little boy, I asked such a question about the radio. How was it that, each weekday evening at 6:15, I could tune in to Tom Mix on the Magnavox console in the safe, far corner of the living room? Though I have since learned many theories about reading, I still do not understand either it or the radio. Somehow, something is broadcast in the air. We get it. Others do, too, even those with whom we share no intimacies at all. In a blurb on the back of the book of stories I read on the subway, Frank Kermode says, “Carver’s fiction is so spare in manner that it takes a time before one realizes how completely a whole culture and a whole moral condition is represented by even the most seemingly slight sketch.” Though Raymond Carver was among the masters of this sort of writing, much the same can be said of all writing. It succeeds at whatever it does in spite of the sparseness of its means relative to the worlds evoked.

The difference between reading and radio listening, though, is that reading seems to have become an activity of no necessary limits. Among the people I talk to, it is common to refer to the analysis of many different sorts of situations as a “reading.” I once heard a little story in which the term was used in such a way. At a dinner party some time ago, a guest had delivered a crude ethnic insult that angered and embarrassed most of those at the table. In a response calculated to set things straight without disrupting the dinner, the hostess gave him what the teller of the story described as “a postmodern reading of the anti-Semitism in his remark.” Apparently, that reading did little of its intended good. The old insult was still raw. Just the same, in this case a “reading” is a vastly more complex communication than whatever it was that allowed my wife to understand what I was feeling about a story we had both read and a jogging man we saw. If “reading” is an activity inclusive not just of books and events in the park but even of delicate retorts to gratuitous insults, then it is possible that there is no end to what reading might be. Nor should there be.

However it works, reading does seem to be an accurate way to describe what happens when different people discover a similar sense in an event as spare as that of a handicapped man running well. In the same way that there is not an infinite number of meanings to be derived from a written text like one of Carver’s short stories, neither is it that the true nature of that man’s world is likely to be much different from what most people might imagine. Different, surely, but certainly not random. Otherwise, nothing we read would make sense. However it works, reading cannot work all too differently from the radio. Somehow, in Kermode’s words, “a whole culture” is out there. Reading is what is done with it in order to make worlds for ourselves.

Reading, in this expanded sense, is the natural corollary to social theory. If the least common denominator of social theory is telling one’s world into being, then reading must be the means by which others recognize that story as somehow familiar to them. Many will disagree with this view. One of the anonymous academic readers of this book was particularly irritated at my suggestion that scientific social theory is no different from the theories people produce in ordinary life. There is a difference, of course. But, however people may cherish and defend that difference, I do not think that professional social theories are degraded in any way by enjoying common ground with ordinary human activity. On the contrary.

I would not say that social theory is nothing but reading, of course. But, in my experience writing books and essays, I have learned a lesson that works very well in my teaching. It seems certain that one of the best ways to read difficult material is to force oneself (or be forced) to write about it. Several years ago, I picked up a tip from Audrey Sprenger, perhaps the best teacher I have ever known, who assigned to her students what she called “close readings,” by which she meant for students to write short essays that closely interpret a text. Invariably, some of my own students will call these “closed” readings, either as a joke or because, unconsciously, the stuff seems closed to them. Yet, even when they do not quite understand the material very well, the work of trying to say something about it usually pays off in the long run. I ask students to write one of these a week. They are never graded or returned. The point is to get them engaged as writers. Sometimes, what they write is awful. But, by the end of a semester, when they do these short essays, they have the makings of a substantial essay. They like it and the serious students never complain. So my second rule is: Read and write ’til you drop.

We who make a life out of writing social theory are also teachers. So far as I know it is impossible to be a social theorist without a day job, and teaching is the one most of us have. In my experience, there are few things more interesting than listening to a really first-rate scholar talk about teaching and its effect on research. It happened to me not long ago at Yale when Peter Bearman, a distinguished sociologist at Columbia, spoke to faculty and students. Bearman generally does highly mathematical sociology, but, on this occasion, he spoke of writing an ethnography. I don’t recall the last time I was so well taught by a serious scholar talking about teaching. Experiences like these remind those who read and write social theory that the point of it all in the long run is to teach it.

It is not—nor should it be—just the teachers who teach. Students, it is well known, are really good at this sort of thing. I learned this when I happened on the practice of organizing students into groups assigned to read a list of theories together and write a joint paper they present to the class as a whole. At first, they hate this assignment, if only because it takes time and trouble to meet with others outside of class. Of course, there are always free riders who try to get away with doing very little. It turns out that I seldom have to deal with this problem because their fellow group members are often more punitive than I would be. This is because, I assume, they form a social bond of a temporary kind with fellow group members. More often than not, they produce very good social theory that sparks excellent discussion. Many report that they actually have fun.

So, if my first rule of reading social theory is Don’t be afraid, and the second is Read and write until you are blue in the face; my third rule is Have fun! Truth be told, I have had quite a lot of it reading, thinking about, writing, and then teaching social theory; and I am not alone.

—Charles Lemert, New Haven

Part 1 Introduction

Part One

Modernity’s Classical Age: 1848–1919

A work of literature is considered a “classic” when, long after it was written, readers continue to read it. A famous example is Sophocles’s dramatic telling of the story of Oedipus. This is so much a classic that one does not need to have read Sophocles, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or Freud to know something of the story. Most people recognize in themselves the truth told in this ancient Greek drama: that human beings are affected deeply by extreme feelings of love and hate for their parents.

In most versions of the story, Oedipus loves his mother too much. Without knowing what he is doing or who the people involved really are, Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother. He rules his land with Jocasta, his mother-wife and queen. When a plague threatens the kingdom, Oedipus learns that his land can be saved only if his father’s murder is avenged—and that he himself is the murderer! He blinds himself and goes into exile. Oedipus’s actual blindness represents his deeper blindness to the effects of his desires on his behavior. His fate is tragically determined not because he had forbidden feelings of love and aggression for his parents but because he acted on them without knowing what he was doing. This story is a classic because people find in it some sort of standard for normal, if confusing, human experience. In literature, a writing is classic because it still serves as a useful reference or meaningful model for stories people tell of their own lives.

Hence, a period of historical time is considered classical because people still refer back to it in order to say things about what is going on today. Generally speaking, classical ages contain a greater number of classical writings for the obvious reason that literatures express their social times. Thus, at present, when people refer to the Oedipus story, they usually have in mind Freud’s version, which still conveys much of the drama of the modern world affecting people today. The Oedipus story figured prominently in one of Freud’s classic writings, The Interpretation of Dreams, which was published in 1899. In this book, Freud made one of his most fundamental claims about dreams just after retelling the Oedipus story. Dreams, he explained, are always distorted stories of what the dreamer really wishes or feels. They can thus serve “to prevent the generation of anxiety or other forms of distressing affect.”[1]

Freud’s telling of the Oedipus myth is a subject of controversy today because it is taken as a case in point for the feminist criticism that most classical writings in the social and human sciences systematically excluded and distorted women’s reality. They did. In this case, Freud distorted reality by his preposterous inference from the Oedipus he saw in his patients to the claim that the major drama of early life is the little boy’s desire to make love to his mother. Little girls were left out of this story, the crucial formative drama of early life. They were said to be driven by the trivial desire ofenvy for the visible instrument of true human development, the boys’ penis. The feminist critique is to the point, but it does not destroy the classic status of Freud’s writings. Feminists are among those who still find much else of interest in his ideas.

Freud’s version of Oedipus also tells the deeper story of human blindness, of the natural tendency of most human beings to resist the full truth of their lives—to deny many deep feelings of love and hate that govern them and the world. Freud’s Oedipus remains a classic today because, among other reasons, people still find in it two basic truths of their lives: (1) They have very mixed and strong feelings about the people around them, and (2) therefore, they tend to distort what they say and think about the world because what they feel below the surface is far too upsetting. People are blind to their own feelings because their worlds are too much to feel.

Social Theory’s Classical Age: Confusion and Doubt in a Changing World

This would also be a reasonably good description of what many bourgeois Europeans at the turn of the century were feeling (but not saying) about the modern world in which they lived. They said it was a wonderful thing, filled with hope. They felt, but resisted saying, that the modern world did a lot of harm and made them feel less than hopeful about the human condition. In other words, Freud told of Oedipus to help tell the story of dreams, which in turn helped tell the larger story of the late modern culture in which many people wanted to believe anything but the complicated reality of their worlds. Carl Schorske, in Fin-de-siècle Vienna (1961), explained that in his theory of dreams, “Freud gave his fellow liberals an ahistorical theory of man and society that could make bearable a political world spun out of orbit and beyond control.”[2]

This, it turns out, is a good description of the modern world in the period from the revolutions of 1848 through at least the end of World War I. Contemporaries of those who visited Freud for psychoanalytic consultation in Vienna at the end of the nineteenth century were the children or grandchildren of people whose roots were in the traditional world. People who lived in a major city like Vienna may have enjoyed much of its cultural, political, and economic abundance. But it would be hard to believe that they did not also regret what was lost in these new cities. The political revolutions in America and France at the end of the previous century promised a new and better world, as did the dramatic economic revolution that was then spreading from England across modern Europe. Democracy in politics, capitalism in the marketplace, and science in culture offered much. On the surface, everything was expected to be better. For many it was.

For many more, and even for those whose material lives were better than anything their parents ever knew, life was filled with anxiety. For one thing, the modern world brought destruction. Throughout the century, lands were taken to build the railroads that fueled the factory system. In America, native civilizations were destroyed in the name of progress. Someone must have given this a second thought. If not, people surely saw what was happening closer to home. After 1853, Baron Georges Haussmann, often called the first city planner, ordered the destruction of much of old Paris to build the new boulevards and monuments that today’s tourists mistakenly associate with tradition. The boulevards were allegedly built to allow a straight cannon shot into the working-class quarters, where rebellions like those in 1848 were most likely to recur. In Chicago in 1871, the great fire destroyed much of the city. The fire provided occasion for the rebuilding of Chicago as a modern city. Architectural historians claim that engineering advances necessary to construct the skyscraper were developed in order to rebuild Chicago vertically. Even today, everyone who lives in a city knows that modern “progress” entails the tearing down of much that is traditional. The skyscraper became the strong symbol of modern urban power, typically built on the site of perfectly good lands and homes. What met the eye in the cities was just the surface representation of what so many people felt about the modern world. In a different political sense, many still contend that the modern world destroys the old family and small-town values, as indeed it does.

Modernity could be defined as that culture in which people are promised a better life—one day. Until then, they are expected to tolerate contradictory lives in which the benefits of modernity are not much greater than its losses, if that. In Marx’s famous line, the modern world was one in which “all that is solid melts into air”—nothing was quite what it appeared to be. No future payoff was ever quite assured for the vast majority of people. The first sign of the coming good society was always, it seemed, the destruction or loss of something familiar and dear. Many people in Europe and North America in the second half of the nineteenth century lived in an oedipal state, as Freud described it: affected by strong feelings of love and anger for their world but unable to give voice to the anger for fear of “saying the wrong thing.” They were expected to love a world that was killing what was dear to them.

These were the cultural conditions prevailing in the modern West from 1848 into the first quarter of the twentieth century. This was the classic age of modernity, and of social theory. Whether practical or professional, social theory became a more acutely necessary skill in this period. Practically, ordinary people, many of them new to the strange and alien city, needed to learn to introduce and explain themselves to strangers who knew nothing of their family names. Professionally, there arose for the first time a class of writers, lecturers, teachers, and public intellectuals who devoted themselves to telling, in scientific language, the story of the modern West. Among them were the classic writers of modernity’s classic age.

Classic Social Theories Struggle with the Contradictions of the Modern

Karl Marx, Èmile Durkheim, Max Weber, Georg Simmel, Sigmund Freud, and others are still considered classic writers because they told the story of modernity with a subtle regard for its two sides—for the official story of progress and the good society and for the repressed story of destruction, loss, and the terror of life without meaningful traditions. Their value to present-day readers is partly evident in the very fact that they are still read. This separates them from others: those great writers of the nineteenth century who are no longer read seriously lacked the subtle grasp of both sides of the modern world. Auguste Comte is often considered to be a founding father of sociology, along with his mentor Saint-Simon. But few would read his works today in order to understand the modern world. Comte was too blind to the other side of that world. He believed too much in its progress and thus could say, in 1822: “A social system is in its decline, a new system arrived at maturity and approaching its completion—such is the fundamental character that the general progress of civilization has assigned to the present epoch.”[3] Simple, all too simple. Much the same can be said of the sociologist who has become for many the perfect illustration of the fallen classical god. Herbert Spencer, a more sober and scientific man than Comte, saw the world as progressing slowly but perfectly toward good and thus could say, in 1857: “Progress is not an accident, not a thing within human control, but a beneficent necessity.”[4]

Delicate is the line separating those no longer read and those who are. The difference is not so much in the ideas themselves as in the finer sensibilities with which certain nineteenth-century social theorists let on that they knew the world was complicated, while others did not. Èmile Durkheim, heir apparent to Comte’s faith in modern science, let it be known that scientific sociology was urgently needed not just because progress was at hand but also because the lawlessness of modern society had devastating effects on the weaker, more marginal individuals. And each of the writers who are still read wrote of concepts that described the dark side of modern life—Durkheim’s anomie, Marx’s alienation (or estrangement), Weber’s overrationalization. Even Freud, who was not considered a social theorist until recently, hardly makes sense outside the social world for which he wrote. How else are we to interpret his compelling sense of psychological life as a wild disturbance in the hostile conflict between deep, natural desires to love and kill and the prudish, censorious forces of bourgeois manners? As much as Marx and Weber, Freud described the hidden irrational forces of social life. More perhaps than they, he described how the irrational is a given in the order of human things found just below the tranquil surface of reason.

Then too among the classical social theorists, Marx in particular set his theory of political economy against the classical political economists—Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, and David Ricardo. But Marx was not alone in seeking a more robust idea of social forces in relation to the autonomous individual. Durkheim and Weber, even Freud, along with Marx, proposed theories that served to challenge the all-but-absolutely free individual of classic economics. Modern man was to them socially determined (Durkheim and Marx), or caught in a web of social ambiguities (Weber), or irrationally driven by primordial unconscious forces (Freud). Yet, as time went by, John Stuart Mill, a theoretical heir of the classic economists, wrote in On Liberty (1859) of the individual in a way that took seriously the social fact that individual freedoms are socially embedded. Not long after Mill, a philosopher of quite a different temperament wrote devastatingly of European culture and its philosophies. Friedrich Nietzsche, whose appreciation for the negative side of modern society is said by some to have influenced Weber and Freud, was also able to write in Beyond Good and Evil (1886) with sociological sensitivity of the practical nature of social relations.

These classic writers in a classical age are considered worthwhile because people continue to struggle with the confusing effects of modern life. There are some who would say, a century after social theory’s classical age, that the modern world is coming to an end. This could be. But what remains true is that a great many people still find hard reality at moral odds with the promise of progress. Those who have no experience of this contradiction would not find these classic writers interesting, just as anyone who denies his or her experience of the deeper emotional forces would find Freud’s Oedipus opaque.

It must be said, however, that a work can be considered classical for reasons other than the continuing appeal of its wisdom. Classics serve less lofty social purposes as well. The process of canon formation is well understood today to be part of the social process whereby those in power (or some of those with some power) seek to perpetuate the authority of certain authors in order to enhance their own vested interests in a given view of social life.

The first condition of being read is to be published. Because publication involves commercial as well as literary judgments, decisions to publish are always and necessarily susceptible to the influence of editors, publishers, advisers, and critics whose interest in what is read is touched by an interest in the economics of literary and cultural life. Great works of literature can be excluded from an official canon for many reasons having nothing at all to do with their merit. Publishers think they won’t sell. Editors think they serve no good purpose. Critics cannot understand why anyone would buy and read something by one of those people. Authors don’t even try because they know what publishers will say. This is neither good nor bad. It is, however, a fact of cultural life that a literary work of great merit can be denied the status of a classic because it is excluded from the canon; conversely, a work can appear in the official canon of great writings even though it has little or no merit.

A writing that endures over time always encounters these two forces: to be classic, it must be readable to readers; to be a canonized classic, it must serve the interests of those who decide what readers will read. Great books like W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903) were virtually unknown to the dominant, mostly white, literary establishment until recently. Other books, like Èmile Durkheim’s Rules of Sociological Method (1895), have been canonized even though no one reads them. Herein lies a particularly interesting story. Durkheim’s Rules is a book that made little or no sense, not even to Durkheim. When he tried to demonstrate his rules in his study of suicide, he was unable to make them work. Yet the young Durkheim wrote the book specifically so that it might one day be a classic. Rules began with a familiar locution: “Up to now sociologists have scarcely occupied themselves with the task of characterizing and defining the method they apply to the study of social facts” (my emphasis)[5]. He then proceeded to attack the most widely known textbook on sociology, which just happened to have been Spencer’s Study of Sociology (1873). Durkheim thus used a familiar prophetic device—“Up to now . . . / but, verily, I say unto you”—to establish his little book as a classic. He was seeking a definite canonical market position. Today, as in his day, there are those who like the idea of keeping Durkheim’s book on methods in the canon, so they assign it, students buy it, publishers print it. But does anyone read it? If so, can anyone honestly make sense of it? Has anyone ever actually used those rules? Not likely.

A classic must interest readers, whether or not it is in the official canon of classic works. Conversely, canonical status does not automatically make a book a classic. This awkward relation between the classical and canonical statuses of a writing is somewhat accidental and, in retrospect, of surprising importance to social theory. Today, it is well understood that a great number of social theories written during the classic age were, directly or indirectly, excluded from the list of officially approved great works. They were, therefore, denied the public availability that would have caused them to be read as classics. Until now.

In addition to such powerful works as The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), and Anna Julia Cooper’s Voice from the South (1892), there are thousands of essays, novels, and narratives by women, freed slaves, workers, Native Americans, and others denied privilege of place in the public culture of their times. The discovery of these writings has encouraged a rethinking not only of some of the official classics of the modern era but also of the historical period itself. Once again, in a different way, the literature reveals the times. First in importance among the earliest of feminist writers was Harriet Martineau who, as early as 1837 in the short essay “Woman” wrote boldly and persuasively of the “injuries suffered by women at the hands of those who hold the power.”

If Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Freud sketched theories of the contradictory nature of the modern world in the late nineteenth century, then these theories are painted in bolder, more passionate tones in the newly discovered classic texts. Du Bois wrote of the double-consciousness of American Blacks forced to live beyond the veil of racial degradations. Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” similarly described a woman’s double-consciousness—expected (and desiring) to please the men who would heal her, knowing the irrationality of their condescending reasonableness. Cooper gave voice to the Black women in the South who knew (and know) that they must be doubly or multiply conscious of the good men of their own race and of the good whites of their own gender. These were the experiences of people cruelly oppressed by the dominant forces of modern culture. The traditionally oppressed were to serve the market and domestic purposes of the new capitalist world in field, factory, and home. Du Bois, Gilman, Cooper, and many others gave them voice.

But one might still ask: Were these degradations a cause or an effect of modern life? Was not, at least in some degree, the ugly oppression of people part and parcel of modernity’s destructive force? If possible, one also ought to see borrowings and takings, back and forth, between the literature of those excluded and of those canonized in the classical era. People on several sides of the racial, class, and gender divides experienced the split life of the modern world. On the more oppressed side, the split tore at life in cruel ways; on the other, it tugged in ways that made people crazy. But its effect was evident. As a result, it is now possible to reread certain classic texts in the process of finding new ones. Perhaps the most striking example is the unexplored relation between Du Bois and William James. Among professional social theorists, it is customary to assume a line of theoretical influence from James, through Charles Horton Cooley, to George Herbert Mead, to modern-day theories of the social self. Viewed in the cool retrospect of the history of ideas, one can read William James’s ideas as fertile, philosophical statements of the logic of social life, perhaps overlooking that his theories were themselves quite confusing and contradictory. If, as James explained, an individual develops a sense of personal identity when he recognizes that “I am the same self today that I was yesterday,” then how is this important state to be reconciled with the experience of also “having as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him”? In the cool wisdom of professional theory, there are ways to ease the contradictory demands of the personal and social selves on the individual. But the very idea of a social self takes on different, more convincing meanings when it is considered in relation to the writing of James’s student, Du Bois. Is the double-consciousness of the American Black the social psychology of a particular social group with its own history? Or is it a special, if extreme, case of the social psychology of modernity? The questions change one’s view of the theory.

Social Theory: Remembering, Repeating and Working Through

Once the lines of canonical thinking are disturbed by such questions, theory is pushed in two directions at once: down closer to ordinary life and out from the canon of officially recognized experience. Could one, then, suggest that Gilman’s mental illness was every bit as much a result of her sensitivity to modern life as of her early feminist sensibilities? Or from the other side, was she treated with well-intended condescension by her husband and her male physician because she suffered what they considered a female malady, or did they do what they did because modern culture possessed no understanding of its effects on people? Is mental exhaustion a normal response to modern life? Were those who treated women as though they had female diseases really acting through their own denial of the other side of modern society? The answers are not clear, but the questions change everything. Reading the officially excluded writers causes one to rethink not just social theories but also the idea of modern life with which people still struggle.

This is not just a matter of a canonical fair play. Nor is it something so simple as revising the list of recommended classics in an appropriate response to demands for a multicultural attitude. It is more a matter of discovering in the exclusion of certain writings a disturbing fact about the modern world: since the last century, modernity has obsessively denied its darker side. The exclusion of writings, like the oppression of people, is more than a passing aberration of an early, less-conscious time. It is a deep structural feature of the historical logic of modernity. Life in the modern world is a split life. Modern persons are torn—by their conflicting passions, by the contradictory messages of their culture, by the improbable divorce between what is promised and what is actually given. The hitherto excluded classic writers are worth reading today for a better understanding of the culture itself.

Reading authors once ignored in relation to those normally included can change one’s literary and political sensitivities. If Du Bois changes what one sees in James, or even Weber, then Gilman’s Women and Economics (1898) can alter what is found in Marx, just as Cooper’s views on the moral duplicity of the post-Reconstruction South could add dimension to Durkheim’s theory of modern morality. In one sense, this is not a strange process. Writings of all kinds, not just classics, are never read in isolation, as though the literary culture were not a complex field of influences. All that is changed now in reading the hitherto excluded is the way their works allow the reader to rethink the culture of exclusion, as well as the normally included classics. Both moves, taken together, enrich.

Social theories, like personal narratives, are ways of understanding social life by bringing its story out of memory, where it lies hidden and distorted. In “Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through,” Freud explained that the stories analytic patients tell in session allow them to work through the compulsion to repeat actions that prevent them from getting what they want. It might be that societies, too, must tell things through in order to move from their pasts to the present. For Freud, the idea was that the more we can tell a good listener of the story of our lives, the more we shall be able to remember and, thus remembering, to act less out of compulsion and more out of understanding. This, surely, is why Freud was so interested in his last years in the question of how a civilization recovers what it may have repressed, how it works through its compulsion to act out, rather than talk out, its aggression.

But Freud was far from the only classic social theorist to have such an idea. Marx began “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” (1852) with the famous lines: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He had forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” The essay following these words is, in effect, an interpretation of the revolutions of 1848 as a distorted repetition of the revolutions after 1789. It could be said that Marx’s method, here and in Capital, was to retell the story of modern political and economic life in order to work through society’s recurring tendency to act as though ownership and domination were more human than productive labor in cooperation with others.

All these classical writers told stories with such an effect. Weber’s Protestant Ethic (1905) is more than the demonstration of an artful technique; it is the story of how the West invented itself to serve universal human truth, and then found itself apprenticed to a machine it could not control. Even Durkheim returned to the most elementary traces of human society in order to tell the truth of Knowledge—in effect, to show that science was not some essence of Being but a palpable property of social life. Du Bois, like Frederick Douglass before him, told his autobiography four different times. Du Bois was not alone in using his own story to tell social theories. Cooper and Gilman did much the same. It might even be said that people in traditionally oppressed and excluded positions base the authority of their stories about the world on what they remember and can tell about their lives.

Social theory might be thought of as remembering in order to work through the distortions of the past. The classic social theorists are worth our attention because they did just this. At a time when others continued to deny the darker side of modern life, they spoke of it without lapsing into despair. In our day, near the beginning of the twenty-first century, people across the globe, particularly in the West, need to work through their disappointment that the promises of early modernity have been paid so poorly. Social theory, beginning with these classic writings, is one of the ways this is done.



[1] Freud, Interpretation of Dreams( Avon Books, 1965), 301.

[2] Schorske, Fin-de-siècle Vienna (Vintage, 1981), 203.

[3] Comte, in Gertrud Lenzer, ed., Auguste Comte: Essential Writings (Harpers, 1975), 9.

[4] Spencer, in Illustrations of Universal Progress (1857).

[5]Page 24: Durkheim, Rules of Sociological Method (Free Press, 1982), 48.

Other quotations are from material appearing in the selections that follow.

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Soical Theory

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