Monday, November 13, 2006

Back with a difference!!

Yet again I have taken a long break and I don’t want to bore anyone by going into reasons for that (assuming I have some). Over the course of these months there have been quite a few posts which I wanted to write, but didn’t. Hence, it’s highly unlikely that I should come out of the break by writing a post not quite characteristic of my blog. It is no less unlikely that this is about a non-fiction book which was first book I completed in several months (after leaving 4 fiction books incomplete!). But unlikely things do happen and hence I am here with this post (or the above things are not so unlikely and I am writing this to only give a snazzy feel to my comeback post!).

Of late I have been fascinated by history and politics – both at national and international level. My interest in politics in not in everyday politics but rather in the conflicting ideologies and their approval or rejection by the society as such. All this lead me to wonder about human society as such and also about philosophy – since philosophy is basically about trying explain human life. I felt I needed a basic primer on this loosely bound array of subjects and luckily I came across this book a couple of months back. I wouldn’t really try to review this book as I don’t think I am competent enough (even by my standards). Instead I would try to summarize the content and what I had learned from that.

The book starts off by presenting the opposing theories of socialism (Marxism) and capitalism (functionalism). As the author observes both the theories start as grand theories which can explain everything in society – Marxism by focusing on class inequality and extraction of surplus value from labor and functionalism by theorizing a functional (utilitarian) value for any social trend, even devious ones. This same grandiosity becomes their flaw as instead of observing society and explaining it, they tend to fit the society to their explanations. Then the book moves into more pure sociological theories like action theory which try to observe specific scenarios and then propose theories suited for them. This wasn’t of much interest to me as except for some interesting scenarios this was like sociology for its own sake. The book later takes up a revised Marxism where the theory is extended to the current class struggle scenario – where a class is not related only by profession, but also by various other indicators like social status, religion, race and so on. This seemed to be an interesting one but there seemed to no strong conclusions like in original Marxism (which was probably why it was revised!)

Towards the end the author surveys mostly disparate elements in social theory like Critical theory, feminism, linguistic connections etc. I skipped most of the chapters in this except for critical theory which I found to be the most interesting. Unlike other theories ‘critical theory’ is not strictly a theory since it doesn’t try to explain any thing in society – the only thing it does is to criticize other known social theories. This seems to be crazy at first, but it does make some sense. When people support some specific theory they usually tend to become biased towards that and not be able to criticize it too much. Hence it is important for something like critical theory to exist, since they are the people who can give the most brutal criticism. This when addressed properly would only lead to a better theory. Apparently for this reason most of the critical theorists are not even attached to any universities. Of course the pitfall here is that they may begin to criticize just for the sake of it. More interestingly the critic of critical theory against capitalism was quite similar to what I have (based on, of course, Brave new world).

Apart from these specific learning it was interesting to get a feel of sociology as such. I knew it was not a science, but I didn’t expect it to be as far away from science as I found it to be. The author’s presentation itself leads to this as he presented the pros and cons of each theory before moving to the next. Therefore, at least by citing other people the author seemed to repeatedly contradicting himself. Of course I did like this format as I like to see opposing views. But what was more surprising was the skepticism expressed by several sociologists as to whether even core theoretical sociology can be treated like science.

The other interesting aspect was that to see the amount of contribution done by Marxism to social theory. Of course, it may not have contributed more than functionalism, but it is definitely a surprise to see the impact it has on other theories especially after reading some of our Libertarian bloggers who seem to bash Marxism as if it was the most evil thing on earth. Of course to counter them I also need to know a fair bit of economics, so at least until I find a good primer on economics I would restrict my blog to movies and book reviews!

One disappointing (or rather expected) thing about the book was that it was entirely about western sociology (and philosophy). In the later parts, some theories like postmodernism seem to be like Hindu philosophies, but there was no elaboration on this. Probably I need to read something on Hindu philosophy to get a completely different perspective! Anyway this was one of the most informative books I had read, though it left me with as many questions as answers (and probably this was why it was informative!).


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