book spotlight: thinking through social theory by john levi-martin
John Levi-Martin is one of sociology’s most fertile thinkers. His book, Social Structures, was discussed at length on this blog and The Explanation of Social Action was a well discussed investigation of how social scientists try to approach causality. His new book, Thinking Through Social Theory, is a tour of foundational issues in social science and should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand current debate over the status of social explanation.
Roughly speaking, there is a long standing dispute among scholars about what constitutes a proper explanation of social action. The argument has many facets. For example, there is a dispute over realism, the view that people have fairly direct access to reality which can the be leveraged into causal explanation. There is a related argument about social norms and whether it makes sense to say that a rule “caused” or “forced” someone to act. And of course, there are arguments over the sufficiency of various schools of thought like functionalism, rational choice, and evolutionary theory.
Thinking Through Social Theory is Levi-Martin’s review of these issues. It not only summarizes the landscape, but offers answers drawn from one of his most theoretically rich articles, “What is Field Theory?” It is truly difficult to summarize this tome (e.g., there is multi-page analysis of the “gentlemen open doors for ladies” custom) but I can indicate some high points. First, there is a good review of the issues surrounding realism. And no, he does NOT side with those pesky critical realists. Second, there is an examination of two theories (rational choice and evolutionary psychology) that try to offer “ultimate” accounts of human action. Third, Levi-Martin offers a field theoretic alternative to theories of action that are found in schools as diverse as functionalism, institutionalism, and Swidlerian toolkit theory. The basic intuition is that individuals aren’t carrying around norms, but they are working in fields of action that push people into situations that generate behavioral, or even cognitive, regularities. Sounds like actor-network theory to me, but more meso-level.
So who is this book for? I see a few good audiences. One are social theory grad students. After marching PhD students though the history of soc up the present, it is good to sit back and think about the (lack of?) progress that has been made in building social theory. I also think that the philosophy of social science crowd would enjoy this, as would scholars in cultural sociology who often run into the issue of motivation. Thumbs up.