Canonical Secondary Social Theory

Social Theory has a fairly well-established canon, at least in Sociology. You start with the big three – Marx, Weber and Durkheim – and then sprinkle in a mix of precursor political theorists and philosophers (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, perhaps Hegel) and a mix of 20th century folks (Polanyi, Foucault, Bourdieu, maybe critical theory and Habermas, maybe Goffman & Garfinkel, maybe more post-modernism a la Lyotard and Derrida). Sometimes you add a fourth to the big three – Simmel, Tocqueville and DuBois all being popular.

Along with these canonical theorists, there is something of a second canon. Specifically, for some theorists, there is a one (or perhaps a handful) of key secondary texts. The exemplar here is Stephen Lukes’ biography of Durkheim, Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work, A Historical and Critical Study. Lukes is a first-rate theorist himself (I’m a big fan of his essay on power), and this book is considered (as far as I can tell) the definitive take on Durkheim. That’s not to say that Lukes answers all the questions, but rather that his take is almost canonical itself – something to refer to when planning a lecture for a course, or writing a paper that invokes Durkheim. Dreyfus and Rabinow’s famous, semi-authorized intellectual biography of Foucault (Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics), complete with post-script by Foucault himself, would fall into this category.

Similarly, though less prominently, I think John Heritage’s book on, Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology would qualify. Finally, it’s too soon to say, but I’m guessing that Gareth Dale’s (2010) Karl Polanyi: The Limits of the Market will achieve a similar status.

That still leaves a large number of canonical theorists potentially without a canonical secondary source. For example, I don’t know of a great secondary work on Goffman, nor Bourdieu. Bendix’s biography of Weber might come close, but I don’t hear it talked about it in the same hollowed terms as Lukes’ Durkheim. Camic’s lengthy essay on Talcott Parson’s first book, Structure After 50 Years, would fit, but I don’t know if there’s a book-length treatment of Parsons (especially his later work) that has the same stature. Marx has so many secondary treatments, it’s not clear which stand out – but I’m also not much of a Marx expert. Althusser’s “For Marx” and “Reading Capital”? Harvey’s “Reading Marx’s Capital”? I absolutely loved Anderson’s Marx at the Margins, on Marx’s take on nationalism, ethnicity, and etc., but it studiously avoids tackling the center of Marx’s conceptual apparatus (leaving that task to others) and thus could never fit in this category.

So, dear readers, can you think of any other canonical secondary social theory texts? Do you disagree with any of the ones I mentioned?

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  1. Anil Muhurdaroglu

     /  May 17, 2011

    This might turn into a useful list. But we should separate monographies like Lukes’ ‘Emile Durkheim’ from the studies like Althusser’s ‘For Marx’ or ‘Reading Capital’ which offers an altogether new way of looking at the material at hand. All of them are important texts but I wouldn’t suggest Althusser to someone without prior experience with Marx’s texts.

    Apart from such secondary texts, I think some edited books made an equally valuable contribution. Bottomore’s ‘Karl Marx: Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy’, Geth & Mills’ ‘From Max Weber’ and Giddens’ ‘Durkheim on Politics and the State’ are the ones which first comes to my mind.

  2. joshmccabe

     /  May 17, 2011

    Gidden’s Capitalism and Social Theory seems like a good fit. Swedberg’s books on Weber and Tocqueville and Caldwell’s book on Hayek might reach canonical status one day.

  3. Brian A. Pitt

     /  May 17, 2011

    G.A. Cohen’s “Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense” and Lewis Coser’s “Georg Simmel” are well on their way, I think, to being considered canonical.

  4. For Bourdieu, I’ve found David Swartz’s “Culture and Power” very useful. [link]

    I also like Anthony Gidden’s book on the big three a lot: “Capitalism and Modern Social Theory.” [link]

    Heritage’s “Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology” is, of course, more than excellent. Thanks for the link to the Gareth Dale book which I hadn’t heard of.

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