Excerpt from Charles Lemert, Social Theory

Social Theory: Its Uses and Pleasures

From Charles Lemert. Social Theory : The Multicultural, Global, and Classic Readings. Vol. Sixth edition, Routledge, 2018.

The world today, early in the twenty-first century, is less dominated than it once was by a single, unified dream of how things should be. People living in areas influenced by modern European culture have always exaggerated the truth of their dream. For several centuries, they and quite a few others were persuaded that theirs was also the world’s dream. European modernity’s idea of human history moving progressively toward a better world—one in which life everywhere would be more and more like life in some European or North American metropolis—was an ideology of global proportions and quite a successful one. But today, boys like Lafeyette are not alone in refusing to be taken in by such promises. Whatever is noble in it, the dream of one world or one America getting better all the time does not speak to them.

This is the big and recent change in social theory. The new social theories are no longer beholden to the West’s ideology of human history. At the beginning, the classic social theorists accepted with modest reluctance the idea that European culture was the future for humankind. The great ones had their reservations, true. Still, Marx’s Manifesto began with a famous line about the specter haunting Europe then quickly shifted to a discussion of “the history of all hitherto existing society,” which turned out to be a history of the West. Durkheim, likewise, wrote humbly of the foundations of knowledge in the most elementary and non-European religious societies; yet his primary scientific and political preoccupations were to explain and develop a thoroughly modern society, of which Third Republic France was the ideal.

Weber, too, was restrained and judicious in his scholarly studies of non-Western religions, but his most famous book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, has contributed mightily to the myth of the superiority of Western rationality over Eastern traditionalism. Certainly, Weber’s doubts about the future of the West were severe—but not because he preferred some other civilization. He was vexed because he believed in the West. These three men, along with Sigmund Freud, are usually considered the greatest of the original social theorists, and surely their greatness is due in some part to their intuitive sense that something was wrong with the West’s dream of having discovered the final solution to humanity’s problem. Others before them (like Auguste Comte) and after them (like Talcott Parsons) dreamed the dream with much less caution.

Until the past generation, most of the recognized experts in social theory took for granted the parochial idea that the culture of a relatively small number of white people in the North explained the “is and ought” of the world. Because the modern culture that invented social theory also invented the various myths of the inherent superiority of the West, one can easily see the limitations built into the classic versions of the best-known social theories in the last century and a half. It is tempting to conclude that just as the late nineteenth century required its version of critical social theory to account for the startling emergence of the modern, so the late twentieth century required some other sort of social theory to reckon with the disturbances in the culture and political economy of the European and American spheres of influence. This is why the changes in social theory could first be detected with the rebellions and revolutions in European and American societies that began in the 1960s. If social theory, whether lay or expert, is a theory of a kind of world, then the type of theory must change as the world turns.

At the very end of the twentieth century, hardly any public issue was more controversial than this, particularly in the United States. There are those who still insist that, whatever has changed, America and the world can still be unified around the original Western ideas that Arthur Schlesinger described as “still a good answer—still the best hope” in The Disuniting of America (1991). Schlesinger—white, male, Harvard, liberal, intellectual, historian—is the most persuasive of those in this camp. Against them are others who say, “Enough. Whatever is useful in these ideas, they don’t speak to me.” Audre Lorde—Black, feminist, lesbian, poet and social theorist—put this opposing view sharply in an often-quoted line: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Between these two views, there is more than enough controversy to go around. Even now, well into the twenty-first century, the controversies over America’s place in the world continues as a prominent political sloganeering, of which the most famous is, ‘We’ll make America great again!’, against which serious public figures and academic theorists have taken very strong exception.

In large part, the controversy is between two different types of social theorists and over how social theory ought be done. It involves who has the right to say what about the social world. As the world turns more and more into an information age of uncertain globalizing effects, hardly anyone can refuse to say something about the social world. Social theory, thus, becomes ever more a virtual imperative of life in the global society.