Ten Influential Books

It’s rare that a meme reaches the “respectable” part of bloglandia populated by professors at top universities and the like. Delightfully, one recently has: name ten books that had a big influence on you.* I’m going to focus on recent, academic books and ignore most of the heavy-hitters from my childhood (e.g. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Ender’s Game, etc.).

These are not in any particular order.

  • Foucault, Discipline and Punish. I learned Social Theory in large part from a fellow graduate student who was heavily influenced by Foucault. Reading this book in my first-year theory sequence, and then talking it (and other works by Foucault) through with him over the course of the next two years, is what clinched for me some of my approach to certain huge issues (like power, knowledge, and history) and my desire to be a theory-heavy (or at least theory-medium) sociologist.
  • Scott, Weapons of the Weak. Power is a really messy thing, and it brings together all sorts of notions about agency, structure, causality, change, etc. Working through this book, and then seeing how it appears in other works, helped me think through what it means to talk about power in everyday acts of resistance and the relation between that and big social changes. Mitchell’s critique in an excellent T&S article both solidified this book for me and made me more critical of it.
  • Borges, Labyrinths. No author has had more influence on my than Jorge Luis Borges. The only work of fiction to make this list, Labyrinths is a collection of Borges’ best stories that I read and re-read as a child, an undergrad, and a graduate student. When I first read postmodernist and poststructuralist social theory, it only made sense (to the extent it made sense) through Borges. Don’t miss “The Garden of the Forking Paths”. Also, Borges is fun to cite – at least two of the other authors on this list of 10 have cited Borges in a prominent work. Can you name them?
  • Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness. The most “popular” of the academic books I’ve listed. I came across this work by Harvard Psychologist Daniel Gilbert a few years ago, before I’d read much about behavioral economics or systematic errors in decision-making and all that. Gilbert’s introduction to happiness studies, which covers a lot of the same ground, was both helpful for me in thinking through what economics has to assume to tell its story, and also in thinking about decisions I make in my own life. Two other books could share this spot – Schwartz’s Paradox of Choice and Hecht’s The Happiness Myth, which cover somewhat similar ground (though Hecht’s take is historical, and Schwartz focuses on consumption).
  • Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethdology and Goffman, Frame Analysis. These two books were my first introduction to micro-sociology, a topic I love and I have no idea how to use in my own work. I found them to be a welcome breath of theoretical fresh air after a year of Tocqueville, Marx, Weber and Durkheim. I’ve re-read Garfinkel half a dozen times and I still love the examples he chooses, his quirky style, and his provocative take on the building up of society. Goffman is similar, though I have pored through that tome fewer times than I would have liked. Goffman’s analysis of how frames work to organize strips of experiences into coherent stories about the world makes tons of sense, and seems much more profound than the main place I see this book being cited (the “framing” literature in social movements).
  • Polanyi, The Great Transformation. In undergrad, I took a class on Mexican Labor in North America. This was the only “theoretical” book we read, the rest treated the history of the US and Mexico and current issues relating to globalization and immigration. When I discovered in graduate school economic sociology, I felt like I’d come home (in a sense). Polanyi’s analysis of the radical interdependence of modernity, and his provocative notions like “freedom in a complex society” (along with more popular topics like substantive vs. formal economy, embeddedness, fictitious commodity, etc.) fascinate me to this day.
  • Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict. Thomas Schelling wrote two impressively amazing books. The one most sociologists love is Micromotives and Macrobehaviors, which includes the famous checkerboard model of segregation. I love that one too, but I found Strategy to have the more fundamental insight. Life, Schelling argues, is not made up primarily of zero-sum games, nor of pure coordination games. Rather, life is made up of a “games of imperfect correlation of desires”. That is, interactions where we both want different things, but we’d much rather coordinate on something than not interact. I think about that one a lot, both in my work and my own life. Plus, Schelling helped me see what game theory, and rational choice-ish models, could do when done right.
  • Mitchell, Rule of Experts. The first chapter, “Can the Mosquito Speak?” is my favorite single example of Actor-Network Theory done well. It’s funny, informative, and makes the main point of ANT (non-humans do stuff!) cleanly. The introduction contains a provocative claim about the non-existence of this thing called the economy before the 1930s that is in the process of inspiring my dissertation (fingers-crossed).
  • Latour, Reassembling the Social. I had already read a fair amount of Latour and Callon by the time I got to this recent introduction to Actor-Network Theory, but it was still very influential. Until I’d read this, I kept thinking of ANT as a hodgepodge of arguments. Reassembling the Social put the pieces together. Plus, I’ll never think of “society” the same way again, nor leave unexamined that notion in other people’s work.
  • Ok, that was fun! You should try it! Also, it occurs to me that basically none of the works that have been influential on me have been empirical works written by sociologists. Hm. I wonder if that reflects the fact that I came to sociology from a different undergrad background (Math and Latin American Studies), and that is was social theory that sold me on the discipline and kept me inside it even as my substantive interests radically shifted.

    * See Kieran Healy’s list here. He links to several other examples.

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    6 Comments

    1. It’s embarrassing to have be reminded by others of books that I’d put on my list. But without your prompting, I’d never have remembered Schelling, but now it seems so obvious. Thanks. And while Borges is not on my list (liked very much, yes; influenced, no), when I’ve heard him speak (on radio), it made me wish I had the Spanish to read him in the original and imagine what it would sound like with him reading.

      • I only remembered Schelling because Kieran listed the other popular Schelling on his list. So, I understand. I’m sure I’ll read someone else’s list a week from now and say, “Of course, how could I forget about ____!?”

    2. Lys

       /  March 30, 2010

      Hi Dan,
      I know this is completely random, but I just wanted to say I’ve enjoyed the last 20 mins or so I spent perusing your blog. I found it when searching for the source of a quotation by Mackenzie or Callon I’d jotted down and Google turned up your post explaining and defending performativity. I am in the middle of writing my Masters dissertation and Callon, Latour, and Foucault have all had a go at bashing on my brain in the process. I, too, am just being introduced to STS, sociology and the like, so I enjoy finding well thought out but easily understandable discussions.

      I comment on this page because I would like to add that two influential pieces for me have been Andrew Barry’s “Technological Zones” (2002) and Ong and Collier’s “Global Assemblages” and particularly Dunn’s chapter “A tale of two sausages.” But I like your list, I like your fiction references, and I like your research blog! I find that research blogging provides, to be terribly nerdy, what Latour calls the “third notebook.” Lucky for us in the modern age, I don’t have to go to Michigan to read your notebook! My (failed) research blog is alywex.wordpress.com. I got too busy and pretty much stopped posting as soon as I’d done the work to get the thing set up. Ah well.

      Anyway, sorry for the novel. I needed a break from the writing of the dreaded dissertation.

      Best of luck,
      Lys Wechsler

    3. “Discipline and Punish” is probably the easiest reading by Foucault. The practical examples makes a student understand his theory on concept and construction of power. – Meri

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