Contemporary Social Theory


Introduction and Description of Contemporary Social Theory

According to mainstream literature, sociology can be divided into two steps -the classical and the contemporary. However, throughout its development, eurocentrism, whiteness, and masculine domination have always been characteristic traits of that academic discipline institutionalized since the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1967, Raymond Aron, a French-white-male scholar published a 670+ pages book titled, Les étapes de la pensée sociologique1 that praises white-male-European intellectuals like Charles Montesquieu, Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, Alexis de Tocqueville, Émile Durkheim, Vilfredo Pareto, and Max Weber as main founders of the field. There was no mention of the contributions of nonwhite and women scholars. Then, more than forty years after Aron’s book, in 2008, Peter Kivisto, a white American sociologist, expert in social theory, and sociology of religion, published a textbook Social Theory. Roots and Branches that portrays Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Georg Simmel as the mastermind of the discipline, and argued that contemporary sociology is just an extension of the classical era:

Early in the twenty-first century, there is fairly widespread consensus that four scholars have especially significant roles in shaping what has come to be contemporary sociology: (1) Karl Marx (1818-1883), who never claimed to be a sociologist or suggested he wanted to advance sociology’s cause (he did, however, criticize the earliest proponent of sociology, Auguste Comte; (2) Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) who was single-minded in his determination to promote sociology as a science clearly distinct from competing social sciences; (3) Max Weber (1864-1920), who became a sociologist later in life but never gave up also considering himself to be a historian and economist; and (4) Georg Simmel (1858-1918), who until fairly recently was not considered in the league of the preceding trio but whose reputation in recent years has finally landed him in the pantheon of founding figures2.

But, approaching contemporary sociology as a prolongation of the work of those European founding fathers is quite problematic. Firstly, that perspective attempts to undermine the voices of many theorists who, tirelessly, have contributed to the establishment of the discipline without not necessarily and slavishly imitating and reproducing the works of those European scholars. Secondly, it has prepared the intellectual field to perpetrate white superiority and European cultural hegemony, while silencing the voices of nonwhite scholars considered as unqualified to produce innovative sociological accounts on the fragmented social world.

In opposition to Kivisto, I contend that, in the third decade of the twenty-first century, contemporary sociology is an intellectual field shaped by ideological controversies & pluralistic epistemological and theoretical postures among theorists. Therefore, contemporary sociology is still & will remain an open laboratory of observation between what Alvin Gouldner labeled as ‘permitted social worlds’ versus ‘unpermitted social worlds.3’ Understood in this way; today, more than yesterday, there is a progressive and accumulative sociological scholarship endeavor to liberate the field from its European cultural hegemonic roots.

Contemporary sociological theory is, for many reasons, a very interesting field of teaching and research. It has been progressively developed during a long historical sequence made up of different historical moments, crafted themselves by different schools of thoughts, paradigms, and perspectives: Marxism, the Atlanta School, the School of Chicago, Critical Theory (the Frankfurt School), the Dependence School, Pragmatism, Functionalism, Structural-Functionalism, Conflict Theory, Ethnomethodology, Sociological Phenomenology, Symbolic Interactionism, Rational Choice, Exchange Theory, Feminist Theory, and Postmodern Theory, just to name some.

Throughout its historical development, contemporary sociological theory, on one side, has been animated by pro-systemic perspectives centered on a voluntarist approach with strong emphasis on social systems and structures; while, on other side, sociological workers have yoked to produce theories to better interpret the subjectivities and intersubjectivities of reflexive actors who have managed the challenge the system.

SOCY.2102 is designed to help class participants think on many important questions such as:

  1. What is contemporary social theory about?
  2. What is its socio-genesis?
  3. What are the main approaches?
  4. As we have asked in Classical Social Theory, have European cultural hegemony, whiteness, racism, and masculine domination played and continued to influence the intellectual orientation of sociology at large, and particularly contemporary sociological theory?

[1] As soon as published the book was translated into English in two volumes titled – Main Currents in Sociological Thought. Baltimore, MD. : Penguin Books, 1967. Translated by Richard Howard and Helen Weaver.
[2] Peter Kivisto. Social Theory. Roots and Branches. New York-Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 3.
[3] Alvin W. Gouldner. The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1970. Pp. 484-485.