glaeser book forum 1: understanding east german communism
This Fall’s book forum will address Political Epistemics, a new book by Chicago sociologist Andreas Glaeser. The book investigates life in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s an ambitious book that has three main aims. First, it’s a political sociology argument. Glaeser argues that social change occurs when there is a break, or shift, in how people develop their identities and have them affirmed by various people and institutions. He calls this the “sociology of understandings.” Second, Glaeser offers a historical account of two groups of people with very different understandings of East German socialism – Stasi officers and Berlin peace activists. Third, Glaeser claims that his sociology of understandings provides a better explanation of the dissolution of East German communism than other theories.
As you might guess from this thumbnail sketch, the book is epic. It synthesizes a deep knowledge of Western cultural sociology with Glaeser’s own reading of East European history and Communist ideology. There is also a lot of thick description, where Glaeser tracks down former Stasi officers, dissident intellectuals, and works through East German archives. Yet, the book hangs together remarkably well. Though Glaeser is erudite, the text is easy to follow and rich with interesting insights. It’s a wonderful example of how a book can be very sophisticated, yet accessible to most readers.
This book succeeds on a number of levels, though I do have some reservations, especially when Glaeser goes beyond his interview evidence and extrapolates to the broader issue of why Communism ended. We’ll discuss these strong and weak points in the coming weeks, but for now, I’ll end this introductory post with a discussion of why I chose this specific book.
First, Political Epistemics has many sociological virtues. The topic – the fall of European Communism – is important and deserves serious attention. The transition away from Communism is a topic I wish that more graduate students would address. As late as the 1980s, much of the world’s population lived under state socialism. Even today, we have a number of nations that have traditional Leninist/Maoist states (e.g., Cuba, North Korea), have leaders who are trying to push in that direction (e.g., Venezuela), hybrid state forms, such as modern China, or nationalist-socialist systems such as the Baath regimes of Hussein era Iraq, Kaddafi’s Libya, and contemporary Syria. Another virtue is that the book is grounded in daily experience. Rather than rely on “grand history,” Glaeser takes the time to uncover the meaning of these political systems by interviewing the people who made these systems a reality.
Second, I chose this book for personal reasons – Glaeser was an instructor of mine in graduate school. The first time I met Glaeser was when he gave a job talk at the University of Chicago, where I was a young and very annoying graduate student. I was struck by his talk (a precis for Divided in Unity) because it combined fancy schmancy hermeneutics and ethnography. Later, I took a course in cultural sociology with him. It didn’t resemble any of the “American sociology” courses. He yelled at us once – “What? You don’t know who de Certeau is? What do they teach you around here?”* He also admitted that he doesn’t watch cable TV. But still, he was always very generous when helping students get through the rather imposing corpus of European social theory. He even indulged me in a weird argument about whether the label “critical theory” could be applied to rational choice theories.** So I was quite happy to see that his second book was out. When I read Political Epistemics, I recognize our culture theory syllabus embedded in it. It’s always a pleasure to see how the ideas of the past form the books of the present.
Next week: How to Understand the Sociology of Understanding
* Answer: Circa 1999, a lot of Park and Burgess, with a healthy dose of Simmel. And a lot of event history models.
** My view was that critical theory was not really an important theoretical distinction. Rather it’s a normative term in disguise, or simply a term for second generation Marxist theory. I asked, “For example, couldn’t, say, bounded rationality be critical theory in some sense if it lead to some level of reflexivity (as implied by Calhoun’s definition of critical theory)?” Hilarity ensued.