orgtheory.net

top five overrated social theory books

Fabio

You asked for it…

1. The Rules of Sociological Method by Emile Durkheim. I’ve reserved a special spot in the fireplace for this book. It takes some basic insights about research design and spreads them out over dozens of confusing pages. It is also the book that advocates a methodological collectivism that I find troubling.

2. Foundations of Social Theory by James Coleman. I’m actually a big fan of game theory, but aside from chapter 1, I think the the cost-benefit ratio is out of whack. You shouldn’t have to spend hundreds of frankly boring pages to understand that sometimes people act together because they sometime identify with each other. Also, the book commits the cardinal sin of theory books: trying to pass off massive literature reviews as theory building.

3. Those big books by Niklaus Luhmann. Yes, I know I’ll get hate mail from his rabid followers, but I really don’t see what is to be gained by translating Parsonsian systems talk into “communication systems” and “autopoeiesis.” Seems like rehashed 60’s cybernetics to me. Maybe one of the orgheads can convince me otherwise.

4. Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonion Negri. A few years ago, the hype would have you believe that critical social theory has taken a radical new turn, but if you actually read it, Empire seems more like a Marxist rehash of world polity theory. Score: New Institutionalists 1, Hardt and Negri 0.

5. The Postmodern Condition by Jean-Francois Lyotard. What if there was a book that boldly proclaimed a new age but in fact that age never happened? That’s my view of the Postmodern Condition in a nutshell. He claimed that we live in a world where people don’t believe in grand narratives. It’s tough for me to buy that in a world of radical Islam and American led globalization. Maybe it’s the French that don’t believe in much anymore…

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Written by fabiorojas

June 4, 2007 at 2:27 am

Posted in academia, books, fabio

28 Responses

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  1. Since you guys brought up best/worst books, I’m interested in your thoughts on best/worst (or at least best) journals relevant to organizational theory and behavior, e.g.: Academy of Management Journal, Administrative Science Quarterly, etc. lets say, hypothetically, you only had time to check a handful of journals a month. Where do you get the biggest “bang for the buck.” :-)

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    Gary Furash

    June 4, 2007 at 2:18 pm

  2. Hi, Gary. I think that most of us would agree on your list. The most high profile journals tend to be, for management, AMJ, SM, AMR, etc. The core soc journals (ASR, AJS, SF, SF) also publish much on org studies. And ASQ is often considered the “mediator” between management and soc approaches to orgs. We also have our favorite “small” journals like Strategic Organization and Social Networks.

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    Fabio Rojas

    June 4, 2007 at 4:00 pm

  3. Isn’t it time to ask if academic journals have outlived their meaningfulness? Why not just have a digg or delicious-like system that adds comments from the cognoscenti onto working papers? Who needs editors?

    If I start a journal, is the work in it now “in the literature?” When and when not? Isn’t editing just about what is excluded…not what is included? And what does that mean?

    It’s fine that journals exist mostly for job evaluation. There was once a time when people researched to improve their teaching, but now is research a way to show peers you’re “in the club?” Isn’t that what journals are all about for the most part?

    Is the issue permanence? Who will be the libraries for blogs? Ephemera is all the rage in history…isn’t the real writing now going on in informal venues?

    Ryan

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    Ryan Lanham

    June 4, 2007 at 8:07 pm

  4. Thanks.

    BTW – I agree about the postmodern stuff. What bothers me is that a lot of the postmodern ideas are perfectly servicable (narritives, power, discourse) but their embedded for many people in the weird postmodern infrastructure inaccessable to outsiders.

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    Gary Furash

    June 4, 2007 at 8:08 pm

  5. Hmm…, Ryan …

    I’m not sure that Journals are dead. Just like the blogosphere produces mostly interesting commentary on news, rather than news itself, blogs mostly comment on orginal research documented in journals. I’m not 100% convinced about the value of peer reviews…

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    Gary Furash

    June 4, 2007 at 8:24 pm

  6. This category is more difficult because none of us want to offend our senior and still-working colleagues, some of whom have written great books that have received a lot of attention in this era but that probably won’t stand the test of time. Besides, Fabio nailed all of the obvious ones. ;)

    If Teppo weren’t meandering around Europe without a net connection he’d vehemently contest your Coleman pick. I believe that he has FST enshrined somewhere in his office.

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    brayden

    June 4, 2007 at 10:20 pm

  7. Okay, let me add Weber’s Protestant Ethic to the list. It’s overrated because it represents so incompletely Weber’s ideas about the economy and yet still remains the staple reading of any sociological theory course. The only thing worse than having our students swallow so thoughtlessly the protestant ethic thesis is to preach, as many of us do in intro courses, that all theories can be encapsulated within the crude functionalist/conflict theory dichotomy.

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    brayden

    June 4, 2007 at 10:24 pm

  8. Thankfully, neither Durkheim nor Jim Coleman will ever have to write me a letter for promotion.

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    Fabio Rojas

    June 5, 2007 at 12:15 am

  9. Must suck to work in a field where you can’t say what you think in genuine and heart-felt terms. Seems to me that obviates the whole idea of an academy.

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    Ryan Lanham

    June 5, 2007 at 1:52 am

  10. There are more reasons for a book to become a classic and must-read in classrooms. The main one is usually the importance of ideas that have endured the test of time. But often, although they have not endured the test of time, they still have a relevance as they are a sign of the times, of sociological reasoning that has introduced some kind of “revolution” both in terms of theoretical explanation of social phenomena and in terms of an original approach to sociology. And I think most of these books have been ahead of their times, which is something that in itself gives them the “right” to be overrated.

    As for peer review, it really is a big issue. I recently read an essay on how it would be much more convenient and efficient if journals had one or more professional editors who would work on papers, rather than sending the paper to reviewer which results in editorial work often coming down to trying to squeeze that review on time from the reviewer. I think that is an interesting idea, but I’m not sure whether it could work out.

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    Valerio

    June 5, 2007 at 9:50 am

  11. hmm…overrated is certainly not the the opposite of underrated. It seems to me that Fabio’s list is more of a “these are some books that some other people for some sort of obscure set of reasons think are good but are not actually that good. However, it would be hard to make a case (with the possible exceptions of Rules) that the books on that list are objectively overrated. Lyotard is considered a joke by most serious sociologists, Coleman is admired, but certainly not for Foundations which has been received primarily as an intellectually imposing tome that has been a failure both in terms of generating a research program or affecting (see the infamous review symposium in Theory and Society) the core of our disciplinary commitments (an all too gullible acceptance of the Bourbakist GEC program might account for this). Outside of Stephan Fuchs, Luhmann has no serious disciples in the American Academy and his work is perceived as being as arid as that of Parsons. Finally, Negri (that other Italian guy who wrote a famous book in prison) and Hardt might have generated some buzz in that ill-defined world of “theory” outside of sociology and located in Comp Lit departments (where Hardt teaches in Durham) but have had zero impact in sociology.

    “Objectively overrated? What the heck is that?” You may ask. By objectively overrated, I mean a book that is considered to be great by the core of the discipline (the people who’s empirical and theoretical work we admire and cite) but which are actually not that good. In fact, I propose that such a list does not exist, and none of us can possibly come up with it. The reason for this is simple: we share with those people the same set of categories of perception and appreciation, so the only way to come up with a list of overrated books is to create a list of books that are admired by people that we would not even bump into at an ASA meeting, let alone “respect intellectually.”

    Now, given what I said it is pretty easy to actually come up with a list of overrated books that would be closer to what some sociologists might consider influential work; this would entail drawing cognitive boundaries across subdisciplines and styles of analysis and standing on one side while looking to the “overrated” quality of the other side. Alternatively, you may have a theory (hopefully based on some version of the sociology of knowledge) as to why a set of works has garnered attention that goes beyond their cognitive contribution (this is what Wacquant 2002 does for instance, and he comes up with an interesting list).

    All in all, I am fairly skeptical that “overratedness” (in the sense of being objectively “overvalued”) exists among intellectual contributions, simply because of the fact that judgments of value in scientific communities are tautological: they are made by members of a given thought collective; saying that some intellectual product is overvalued is tantamount to saying that your are not a member of that community. However, since legitimate judgments of value will only be taken seriously by people who are recognized as members (I predict no dip in Luhmann’s popularity–or Baudrillard–based on what is written on this blog) then something cannot really be overvalued, since that implies some sort of objective point from which we can make a judgment of value without at the same time giving away our location in some scientific tribe.

    Notice that there is no symmetry with the notion of “underratedness.” A given work can be underrated (according to the definition that I like) becasue there is an objective and verifiable chain of casuation that has made it so that the worthwhile set of ideas contained therein have been underused or attached to somebody else’s work. Notice that the ideas contained in the work are not underrated (they could not be, otherwise we would not be able to speak of the work itself as “underrated”), only the work is.

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    Omar

    June 5, 2007 at 8:01 pm

  12. I think one of Omar’s under-rated contributions to the sociology of knowledge is the hypothesis that over-rated is a self negating concept.

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    fabiorojas

    June 5, 2007 at 8:04 pm

  13. By putting it in such Hegelian terms, you certainly make it sound more like BS :) I’d like to think of judgments of overrated (and underrated when used in the more subjectivist sense) as knowledge-political strategies which all of us use with care (as well we should). This is what I think Brayden is trying to get at and what Ryan completely misses: science is not some neo-romantic “concourse of ideas among equals” (ugh!) but a field of striving and contestation where change only occurs by fluctuations in the value of intellectual works that judgments of overratedness and underratedness attempt to get at. You don’t use those judgments unthinkingly (or at least skilled actors in the field don’t) or you won’t last long.

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    Omar

    June 5, 2007 at 8:08 pm

  14. I certainly agree with Fabio regarding the 5 most overrated works in social theory. The methodological holism in Durkheim is problematic for sociology, and Coleman’s attempt to build sociology along neo-classical lines is simply another behaviorism. And as much as I love Weber, there is much credence in Brayden’s pronouncement of The Protestant Ethic not truly encapsulating Weber’s research program into the economy (The Religion in China is much better!). (By the way, I think that the methodological and legal writings of Weber are his most important contributions to sociology. His religious studies could warrant dubbing him a “structural functionalist”)

    I must say, Ryan makes a very important point about academic life… one probably does not hear what an assistant professor believes until they obtain tenure. But I am not ready to give up on journals… but since I am a student, hoping to publish in the journals that the writings of Fabio, Teppo, and Brayden have appeared, I am being trained to write for professional audiences (i.e., journals). I guess careerism does trump the all!

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    Brian Pitt

    June 5, 2007 at 8:09 pm

  15. one probably does not hear what an assistant professor believes until they obtain tenure

    … by which time they are no longer an Assisant Professor! Self-negation again.

    Omar’s point also applies to ranking and rating departments, and efforts to figure out the objective correlates of high rank: at some point high status just is that which is granted by a group of recognized peers, independent of publication rates and placement, etc.

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    Kieran

    June 5, 2007 at 9:31 pm

  16. Fabio, the review of “The post-modern condition” you read appears to have gotten it quite wrong. Try to read the book. It’s short, well-written, thoughtful, fairly persuasive, and in no way about “that we live in a world where people don’t believe in grand narratives”. Lyotard’s point, among others, is that grand narratives such as progress, the creation of wealth, the class struggle, and enlightenment have lost their taken-for-granted legitimacy. There is more, so read the book.

    Omar, I wonder if you consider Scott Lash a serious sociologist? He might quarrel with your description of Lyotard as a joke.

    Why is it that methodological holism is problematic for sociology? I agree that it seems stupid to assume that social facts always must be explained by other social facts, but the opposite, that ‘social’ facts always have to be explained by aggregate individual behavior seems equally stupid. Perhaps this is best treated as an empirical question? Some social facts can be explained by aggregated human behavior, other by other social facts. For example, decision processes and collective action may be best understood from an aggregated human behavior point of view, while language, meaning systems and untenured academic’s beliefs are for example social facts that seems to be pointless to understand as aggregate human behavior.

    My list:
    – random population ecology text.
    – random text on game theory, apart from the stuff on chess opening theory.
    – Luhmann is seriously overrated, I agree.
    – Williamson’s Markets and Hierarchies. This is profound?
    – “The Iron Cage Revisted” is a nice piece of work, but get real.

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    Dan Karreman

    June 5, 2007 at 9:44 pm

  17. Ah, I see that Woody and Paul get immediate revenge: “The Iron Cage Revisited” it is, of course. I blame postmodernism.

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    Dan Karreman

    June 5, 2007 at 10:45 pm

  18. C’mon, guys, make this interesting: give us your lists of the top 5 most overrated sociologists. Oh, and y’all are big wusses if you only choose dead and/or pomo sociologists.

    Career suicide? Maybe, but it’s for blog hits a good cause.

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    anon

    June 5, 2007 at 11:52 pm

  19. Anon: 1. Yes, I am a huge wuss. 2. If you want to see me critcize living people, you can read my review essay over the Journal of Institutional Economics. Maybe not what Loic Wacquant might write, but it wasn’t written with popularity in mind.

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    Fabio Rojas

    June 6, 2007 at 12:01 am

  20. I can’t believe that an anonymous commenter just called me a wuss.

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    brayden

    June 6, 2007 at 1:18 am

  21. Brayden: They only say that because they’re jealous of you!

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    fabiorojas

    June 6, 2007 at 2:23 am

  22. I think Omar has much more faith in discipline and institutions than I do. But I like his new swagger. En garde! I’ll pull the puss-in-boots thing from Shrek…hat in hand.

    He may be right that I do not comprehend “science.” It is a word that puzzles me every day. But I’m not sure playing semantic games with it to come to some definition proves much benefit, and that’s how I look at sociology (and for that matter, org theory) too. Trying to define a bundle of situations constantly in flux by discipline strikes me as a fool’s errand. Thus I doubt his notion of “core” outside of a (perhaps necessary) social hierarchy of scholars.

    Consequently, my interests are not predicated on a core. I’m not even sure that I can summarize or define those interests or what good I might gain if I could. To my mind, observations rarely lead to innovation when they are sense made into canned theories.

    I would point out that physicists disagree violently in all sorts of outlets–Lee Smolin? So too biologists–one thinks of S.J. Gould versus E.O. Wilson (for instance.) Sociologists…not so much though I always hear of the departments being dysfunctional…not sure what’s up with that.

    To me sociology in the main feels more ontological than scientific, but that may splitting hairs. I think it is “clubby” which doesn’t jive with cores…but there is probably a cadre at elite institutions still setting the tone in important ways.

    People join ontologies to advance careers, feel comfort, etc. They do so in physics too, but I’d guess the social networks are slightly less important to success. I may easily be mistaken since I really don’t know.

    There’s a lot of sociology of classical economics going on right now in the blogosphere…the world might not be ready for armchair sociology of sociology. I have always thought there is room for much more anthropology of higher education in general.

    Like

    Ryan Lanham

    June 6, 2007 at 3:24 am

  23. To Dan K.,

    If holistic foundations were the essence of the intellectual retardation of classical economics, and hurt the work of scholars like Smith, Ricardo, J.S. Mill, and Marx, do you not believe that the same is true of the holistic foundations of sociology?

    I do not believe that the social order can be reduced to the incentives/actions individuals. However, I believe that the incentives/actions of individuals matters in discussions of the social order. Additionally, do not I believe that “holistic categories,” e.g., “black,” “white.” “middle class, ” assist much in theory development. But, if by “holism” you mean the social order as derived from social interaction, the rule of law, organizations, then we have no disagreement. This is what many Austrians term the “emergent order.” That is, how social structure, and individual decision making leads to the extant order.

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    Brian Pitt

    June 6, 2007 at 11:26 am

  24. Brian…interesting. Lots of interesting stuff from that debate…

    If I have a “project” it is to doubt structure. I think it is melting at best. I agree with the post that mocked the trashing of Lyotard…it was nonsense, especially in light of the vast tracks of garbage passed off as “peer-reviewed science,” but I’m not postmodernist in that I think I am trying to do things…action research.

    I do appreciate their (postmodernists’) groundbreaking at seeing the sort of malaise that is inevitable in disciplines. If you love your discipline set yourself free (to paraphrase Sting…) Veritas vos liberabit and all that.

    I think the whole social order thing (tha’ng?) of sociology is an increasingly risible effort. It mirrors what economics tried with “rational thought.” Non starter. The point is change not stasis if one wants to study nature. It isn’t the species that drive ecology but the ecology that drives species. As I like to say, knowledge is flames not pillars. Study movement not form.

    This is a good site. I commend the authors past and present on originality and filling the new necessary gap between highly stylized journal silliness and people who must think for a living. I hope that gap continues to be pressed.

    Cheers,

    Ryan

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    Ryan Lanham

    June 6, 2007 at 1:06 pm

  25. Always a privilege Ryan…

    I certainly agree with the essence of your critique of structure. In fact, I believe, it was indeed one of the cardinal sins of the origin and typical of most of sociology, that two thoughts, mainly in terms of “structure,” and “inequality,” and the social groupings (i.e., race, class, gender) researchers create, must be introduced if any “empirical” work is to be well-received by the top journal referees.

    But there is a large part of structure that receives my unflagging support: Public Opinion. The force of public opinion has the ability to shape public policy, organizations, and the rule of law. Few would argue otherwise. Hence, the ice of public opinion is certainly not melting! (Look at the presidential debates.)

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    Brian Pitt

    June 6, 2007 at 3:13 pm

  26. Hi Dan,
    Thought I was making clear that I was referring to American sociology. As you very well know, things work a little differently on the other side of the Atlantic…(Sociological Review had a recent issue on “automobility.” I’m sure you won’t be seeing a forthcoming AJS issue on the subject).

    Is it nice this time of year in far, far away Sweden? For a better take on postmodernity I’d skip Lyotard and read one of your Lund colleagues’ book.

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    Omar

    June 6, 2007 at 5:37 pm

  27. Brian,
    I don’t think the idea of foundations is particularly useful, so to that extent I agree with you.

    Omar,
    Fairly nice, I would say. As I write this, it’s sunny, 24 degrees (that’s 75 or so of your funny fahrenheits) and summer has just arrived. Jonathan is not a bad choice – he certainly isn’t overrated. I still think that Lyotard does not belong on this list but he is among the top 5 most misrepresented thinkers. Other candidates:
    – Weber, as misunderstood by Parsons
    – Foucault, as mistreated by almost every UK academic
    – Derrida, as bastardardized by US lit crit types
    – Nietzsche, as demonized by his sister

    Like

    Dan Karreman

    June 7, 2007 at 8:05 am

  28. Hey, if someone didn’t like Lyotard then he wouldn’t be overrated, right?

    Like

    brayden

    June 7, 2007 at 1:50 pm


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