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.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

August 18, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in books, fabio, just theory

6 Responses

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  1. I second Fabio’s “thumbs up” on this book. In addition to his insights on which audiences will find this book useful and interesting, I would posit that anyone will find something surprising and illuminating in these chapters. (I was surprised at chapter 5 on the sociology of animals and I found chapter 3 – on how critical realism fails sociology – to be especially insightful.) Levi-Martin makes a quasi-apology for his writing style in the preface, but I think many readers can learn a great deal from his combination of classic style (as in Thomas and Turner’s Clear and Simple as the Truth), humor, and erudition. His approach to the philosophy of social science is oblique to my own, but I found that I comprehended his arguments if I kept in my head the basic premise of John Searle: the social world we study is ontologically subjective, but epistemologically objective.



    August 18, 2015 at 2:35 am

  2. too advanced for a rigorous undergrad theory course? I’m up for the theory course in our department in a year and I’m hoping to do a half-semester intro to some classic work and was looking for a relatively accessible new book to compliment that for the second half of the semester. This work for that, you think? Alternative titles?



    August 18, 2015 at 2:23 pm

  3. Is it just me, or does the cover look like the man is being poked in the eye?



    August 18, 2015 at 4:28 pm

  4. Rory: I would assign this text for undergrads with a strong back ground in theory and/or philosophy. It is definitely not a “starter” book. Email me personally, and I can show you my theory for beginners text.



    August 18, 2015 at 6:11 pm

  5. @mike3550 At first, I thought it was Galileo — certainly looks like him — but from the way his mouth is hanging open, in shock, I’d said he’s been struck by a critical realist (is that a walking stick or does it just feel like a walking stick…).


    Howard Aldrich

    August 18, 2015 at 9:16 pm

  6. Perhaps, Howard, the solar system emerged and he missed the process.



    August 19, 2015 at 1:25 am

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