top five under rated social theory books


Kieran asked for it…

1. Philosophy of Money by George Simmel. Gosh – it’s hard for me to even begin, it’s got so much interesting stuff, but so few people have read it. I like it for it’s nuanced understanding of how capitalist institutions can both support and undermine individual autonomy. Sadly, only “theory” people read this book.

2. Evolution of Educational Thought by Emile Durkheim. Technically, not a broad tome on social theory, but it hits on almost every major topic in contemporary orgs theory through its account of the rise of European universities. It seems to be read only Durkheim specialists and super hard core sociology of education folks. Sadly, the book is usually out of print and it is only available as a $160 special reprint.

3. On Social Evolution by Herbert Spencer. People sit around and slam utilitarianism, especially Spencer, but he hit on a lot ideas that we would find interesting today. For example, he was a big proponent of differentiation theory, which dovetails nicely with modern notions of social complexity.

4. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax by Noam Chomsky. I know a few folks like Fararo and Skvoretz have offered us their own generative social theory, but most sociologists have completely by passed the insights of the early Chomsky program.

5.  The Ritual Process: Structure and anti-Structure by Victor Turner. You really can’t go wrong with my man Victor, but if you really need an alternative to Bourdieu-ian thinking, go straight to the discussion of liminality. Soc of culture folks recognize its importance, but few people have extended the work.

BONUS ROUND: Gayle Rubin – her essay on gender and power in early socities is a home run. Brilliant combination of feminist power-relation sensibilities and Straussian structural analysis. A book called Deviations: Essays in Sex, Gender, and Politics is “forthcoming,” but it’s hard to find.

Written by fabiorojas

May 31, 2007 at 2:16 pm

Posted in books, fabio, sociology

12 Responses

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  1. I would add Strauss’ Continual Permutations of Action (“Actions are embedded in interactions…Thus, actions also carry meanings and are locatable within systems of meaning.”) and then, “the rare theorists who write about action per se tend to begin with the act, with a separate island of action; not with the assumption that interaction is the prior, central concept, nor with the assumption that to separate action from interaction is an analytical artifact. Of course, a persona or an organization does act, and may expect or at least receive counteracts towards this act, but these respective actions are embedded in a network of interactions, including in those that have temporally preceded their acts” (25). Interesting thoughts, no? Rational actor, indeed…

    And Linda Nicholson’s edited Feminism/Postmodernism. The combination of skepticism towards epistemology and commitment to feminist liberation is wonderful. It threatens to float without foundation, but is anchored by a commitment to real justice – and ends up hovering in the sweet spot of small-t truth. Oh, and Donna Haraway’s “Manifesto for Cyborgs,” included in this volume, made me a sociologist.



    May 31, 2007 at 3:07 pm

  2. Let me add Barbara Czarniawska’s Narrating the Organization. It’s underrated because very few people in sociology cite it, yet it’s one of the most sociological takes on organizations (as actors) that I’ve read.

    I also like Simmel’s Philosophy of Money. Simmel, despite the fact that he’s cited quite a lot now, is a goldmine of untested ideas.

    Dennett’s The Intentional Stance – theory in its purest form – philosophy of the mind!

    This is going to seem like a strange pick (given how commonly cited it is), but I think March’s and Simon’s Organizations is underrated. There’s more to this book than “bounded rationality” and “learning theory.” Read it again if you don’t believe me.

    Stinchcombe’s Constructing Social Theories – You either love this one or hate it. I love it.



    May 31, 2007 at 7:51 pm

  3. I guess there a couple of senses to the term underrated. When I think of underrated I usually think not of:
    (a) a book that is a “hidden gem,” a text few people have read but that contains unexploited insights that we can use now. A book that could have been influential, but that due to some unfairness of history (Simmel’s entire career of course fits) wasn’t.

    Instead I think of:

    (b) a book that has actually been hugely influential but that people don’t cite or think of because of some soc of knowledge quirk whereby the credit has gone to other, lesser disciples or popularizers.

    Using the second definition of “underrated” I think that there is no question that first prize goes to:

    (1) The Coming of Post-Industrial Society by Daniel Bell. One of the few “adventures in social forecasting” that actually forecast something huge and significant. The phrase is of course now sociological common sense; the most famous post other than pomo. It wasn’t in 1973.

    runner up:

    (2) History and Class Consciousness by Georg Lukács. These days Gramsci gets all of the credit in Marxist circles. Yet, it is hard to wrap your head around how influential this mixture of Marx and Weber was. Without HCC, there is no Frankfurt school, no Adorno, no Marcuse, no Habermas, no McDonaldization of Society. The granddaddy of Weberian Marxism.



    May 31, 2007 at 8:55 pm

  4. Cowardly topic…why not pick the top five OVERrated social theory books…that would be interesting.



    Ryan Lanham

    May 31, 2007 at 9:48 pm

  5. Speaking of underrated, let us not forget… Franz Oppenheimer.


    Its libertarian bent notwithstanding, the sociological contribution of Oppenheimer is unparalled.

    By the way, Ryan, enumerating the top 5 OVERrated social theory books is UNinteresting because its too easy… they are on every graduate comprehensive exam reading list!


    Brian Pitt

    May 31, 2007 at 10:38 pm

  6. Well, if I had to trash 5…it’d go something like this…

    1. Anything by Lord Anthony Giddens.

    2. Mills. Sociological Imagination.

    3. Burt. Structural Holes.

    4. Moore. Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy

    5. Anything with the words modernity or late…x, (late capitalism, late modernity, late great…etc.

    Five under-rated is so much easier…

    1. Clarke, Situational Analysis.

    2. Appadurai, Fear of Small Numbers

    3. Ong, Flexible Citizenship

    4. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure

    5. Maffesoli, The Time of the Tribes


    Ryan Lanham

    June 1, 2007 at 3:11 am

  7. (b) a book that has actually been hugely influential but that people don’t cite or think of because of some soc of knowledge quirk

    In sociology I think that a strong contender here would be Hayek, who really should be on a lot more social theory reading lists.



    June 1, 2007 at 3:47 am

  8. Hayek is almost a dirty word in many sociological circles. Nevertheless, his contributions to the rule of law are unmistakable:


    However, if we define social theory as an intellectual structure comprising the several social sciences, then these may be bordering on the OVERrated.


    Brian Pitt

    June 1, 2007 at 11:36 am

  9. There is an unaffiliated scholar in Europe named Paul Treanor who writes the most thoughtful stuff on the problems of modern libertarianism I have seen. Low budget production, but brilliant content.


    Ryan Lanham

    June 1, 2007 at 3:33 pm

  10. Well, I rather do this one as well.

    – I second Turner. He is a bit of a three-trick pony (liminality, social dramas, and communitas) but, hey, those tricks are good! And underrated.
    – Johan Asplund’s production during the 70:ies and the 80:ies. You need to learn Swedish but he is a genius, so it is worth it.
    – Dewey is still highly regarded in education but more or less forgotten in other areas, which is a pity.
    – Habermas is completely out of fashion these days which I think makes him underrated. In particular, his ideas on systematic distorted communication seems to me to be underutilized.
    – I like Brayden’s shout-out to Barbara, but think that “Exploring Complex Organizations” is the better book. It feels a bit odd to view Barbara’s work as underrated (she is everywhere in Sweden) but this is probably true in an international perspective.


    Dan Karreman

    June 5, 2007 at 10:16 pm

  11. Just found this post.

    I wonder if there are any changes or additions…

    I have been itching to read White’s Identity and Control but I am not sure if it would show up on over or under rated.



    May 5, 2009 at 12:55 am

  12. J.S. van den Berg, Divided Existence and Complex Society
    Georg Simmel, The Conflict in Modern Culture
    Ernest Schachtel, Metamorphosis
    Philip Slater, Footholds
    Carl Friedrich, Man and His Government
    Vilhelm Aubert, The Hidden Society


    charlie stephen

    June 17, 2012 at 1:34 am

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