when is european social theory garbage?

I confuse people. Sometimes, I come off as the humorless American social science empiricist. “Show me a z-score or get out of my office!” Other times, it sounds like I drank the cool aid at the latest MLA meetings. What’s the deal? How can a “just the facts, ma’am” guy be the same person who says that we’ve missed the point of late Foucault?

It’s simple. I treat the jargon and wordiness of Eurotrash European theory as a distracting mist. To be a charitable reader, I ask myself what lies beneath the mist. Therefore, I judge European social theory not by its rhetoric but what remains when I translate all the fluffery into plain English. In my experience, it’s worth the exercise. Sometimes you find nothing, something you find gold.

So here is how I judge “fancy pants theory.” First, I take what a text says and make it as boring as possible in simple words and ask, “Is there actually a point to all of this?” Second, I ask if it is actually true, or at least interesting to think about. Thus, you can create a handy 2×2 chart that helps you sort out the good from bad in the next Duke University Press catalog:

Is it true?
Does it Have a Point? Yes No
Yes Bourdieu Derrida
No ?? Zizek


What I’ve discovered is that some “theory” doesn’t really have a point that would satisfy most of us. For example, Zizek *may* have a point, but maybe he doesn’t. It’s honestly hard to tell when you read him, except for his newspaper columns, which are a more straight forward structure. When I have read Zizek, it often seems to be a string of words or statements meant to shock, rather than press us to understand some important feature of social theory. At times, I even wonder if individual sentences are really meant to communicate an idea or just bludgeon the reader. When an author urges you go beyond the real and into the Really, Really, Really Ridiculously Real, you have to wonder. So, about Zizek: Has a point? No. True? Probably not.

Then we get to writings that have a point, but the point is probably wrong. Derrida is my favorite example. The whole premise of classic deconstruction is that one can read (handle?) a text by looking for semantic dichotomies and showing contradictions, gaps, and omissions that stem from the reliance on the dichotomy. I think it’s a really stunning statement and a cool way to read texts, but I don’t believe that his theory of meaning in texts is true.

What I enjoy most are texts that reward you quite a bit when you clear away the smoke. Bourdieu is the great case. Classic Euro-wordiness, but when you take the time to get through it, there are a lot of ideas that are worth digging into: symbolic capital, habitus, doxa. He’s probably the social theorist who best melded a theory of social psychology with theories of inequalities and you can actually have a serious discussion about the truth or interestingness of the work. That is worth seeking out and tolerating the puffery.

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

PS. What about texts that have no point but contain truth?

Written by fabiorojas

August 2, 2016 at 12:02 am

6 Responses

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  1. Hey, although I am German I agree with your assesment of most european social theory. And I really like your “Method” to make those texts somehow understandable e.g. make it as boring as possible. But how do you judge truth?
    Best regards,



    August 2, 2016 at 6:31 am

  2. For me it was really interesting to encounter Bourdieu in English after reading him in Norwegian first. I don’t know French, so it’s hard to judge the qualities of the translations, but he came across as much more Euro-fluffy in English than Norwegian.



    August 2, 2016 at 7:31 am

  3. ^I think that’s in part because I don’t think Richard Nice is actually that great a translator. I think he focuses too much on reproducing the exact wording (something deceptively easy to do between English and French), and not as much on rendering the ideas clearly. It’s a basic tension in all translation: do you aim for “dynamic equivalence” or “formal equivalence”? I get the feeling that Nice tends towards formal equivalence, that is word-for-word translations, over dynamic, or “sense-for-sense”, translations.

    It’s interesting, I don’t know if anyone has looked at this in detail, but I get the impression that in sociology we’ve often started with dynamic translations and moved more towards formal translations, calling the earlier translations often “mistranslations”. Weber’s “Iron Cage” is an example of this. It’s a dynamic translation in both senses of the term, but people argue that it’s a “mistranslation” and Weber was really talking about a “shell as hard as steel”.

    But which better captures the *sense* what Weber wrote? Stahlhartes Gehäuse is catchy in a way that “a shell as hard as steel” isn’t. Stahlhartes is a strong single word, whereas the translation “as hard as steel” is more accurate, but distracting and it weakens the prose, renders it technical sounding when it’s not meant to be a technically accurate description (the Gehäuse isn’t really as hard as steal), it’s meant to hit you in the gut. Rendering Stahlhartes as steel, or iron, works better in this sense. And Gehäuse does mean “shell”, but it also means an encasing more generally. Shell makes the idea sound foreign or alien, but etymologically it’s clear that Gehäuse’s root is Haus, house, and that it’s not something quite so foreign to man as “a shell”. Box, enclosure, packaging, housing are all also possible translations for Gehäuse, though generally most of those imply something boxy in English which is clear not what Weber meant (it’s a mantel/cape which had turned into this rigid Gehäuse after all). While it’s not literally a “iron cage”, I do think that Talcott Parson’s evocative turn of phrases captures the *sense* of what Weber is saying much better than a “shell as hard as steel” does.

    I think Bourdieu in general thinks he’s a much better writer than he is (French colleagues and a student of his have said as much to me) so he piles on his attempts at eloquence, and when Nice renders these attempts at eloquence into English, they come out as dryly technical and, well, Yuro. You never once forget you’re reading a translation, very much unlike a well translated Weber.

    Liked by 2 people

    SJMR reader

    August 2, 2016 at 9:33 am

  4. Thanks for the comments. I hadn’t thought about translation when writing this post. That’s a good point. A translator can magnify or moderate the bluster of a text, so it is important to take the rhetoric with a grain of salt.

    WRT to Katharina’s comment, we judge the truth of a text simply by applying the same standards we use for any text. Ask if the text makes internal sense, ask if external data supports it, ask how it jives with what we already know, ask how its descriptions of the world can be verified.

    Liked by 1 person


    August 2, 2016 at 4:38 pm

  5. “it often seems to be a string of words or statements meant to shock”

    This sentence applies equally well to contemporary art, much of which — as far as I can tell — falls into the same quadrant of having no point and not being true.



    August 4, 2016 at 12:38 pm

  6. For texts having truth, but no point, let me carefully suggest Luhmann. His theory of society is very interesting, certainly not false, a Hegalian enterprise of concepts, but if you look closely it contains hardly any surprising or helpful insights that were not already in Simmel or Weber.



    August 6, 2016 at 8:27 am

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