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Problematics of Sociology

The Georg Simmel Lectures, 1995

Neil J. Smelser (Author), Hans-Peter Müller (Foreword)

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Hardcover, 138 pages
ISBN: 9780520206755
February 1997
$47.95, £35.95
These skillfully written essays are based on the Georg Simmel Lectures delivered by Neil J. Smelser at Humboldt University in Berlin in the spring of 1995. A distillation of Smelser's reflections after nearly four decades of research, teaching, and thought in the field of sociology, the essays identify, as he says in the first chapter, ". . . some central problematics—those generic, recurrent, never resolved and never completely resolvable issues—that shape the work of the sociologist."

Each chapter considers a different level of sociological analysis: micro (the person and personal interaction), meso (groups, organizations, movements), macro (societies), and global (multi-societal). Within this framework, Smelser covers a variety of topics, including the place of the rational and the nonrational in social action and in social science theory; the changing character of group attachments in post-industrial society; the eclipse of social class; and the decline of the nation-state as a focus of solidarity.

The clarity of Smelser's writing makes this a book that will be welcomed throughout the field of social science as well as by anyone wishing to understand sociology's essential characteristics and problems.
Neil J. Smelser is Director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Stanford, California, and University Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. His many books include Social Paralysis and Social Change: British Working-Class Education in the Nineteenth Century (California, 1991). Hans-Peter Müller is Professor of Sociology at Humboldt University, Berlin.
"Filled with original and arresting observations, this is a creative, elegant, and systematic statement of some of the most important themes faced both by contemporary society and contemporary sociology."—Jeffrey Alexander, University of California, Los Angeles
This volume is based on the author's Simmel Lectures at Humboldt University, Berlin, in the spring of 1995. Smelser, who has taught and conducted research in sociology for forty years, attempts to lay out recurrent issues, unsolved problems, and future directions of the discipline. The book also comments on major changes in social interaction, institutions, and global society at the end of the twentieth century. The book has four chapters, covering microsociology, mesosociology, macrosociology, and global sociology. Chapter 1 begins by characterizing sociology's mixed intellectual identity--partly scientific, partly humanistic, and partly artistic in orientation--and identifies several internal conflicts in the field along these dimensions. Smelser then defines the microsociological level as dealing with the individual person and personal interaction. Much of the discussion is organized under the heading "other minds." Smelser criticizes several intellectual sociological approaches to knowing other minds, including the positivist, the phenomenological, and the skeptical. He questions the "rational choice" model of the stable, adult, informed, literal actor, and argues for a systematic inclusion of error, affect, and distortion in psychological models. The chapter concludes with a discussion of trust at the subjective, intersubjective, and institutional levels. Chapter 2 defines the mesosociological level as dealing with groups, formal organizations, social movements, and some aspects of institutions. Smelser traces the decline of interest in group life in past decades, attributing it in part to the erosion of stable group life at the century's end. He notes the evolution of theory of formal organizations from an emphasis on closed systems to open, flexible systems. He traces the decline of interest in the nonrational aspects of social movement and identifies mesosociological aspects of institutional life that bear special attention--"imagined" institutions and agents that represent institutions. Chapter 3 defines macrosociology as dealing with social structure and societies overall. Smelser calls for a renewed emphasis on the differentiation--or complexity--of social structure, notes the increasing salience of cultural diversification, and points to the decline of social class and the increasing salience of more open, multidimensional stratification in contemporary societies. He analyzes the decline of the state as the focus of social integration, resulting from globalization "from above" the state and alternative forms of integration "from below." Chapter 4 outlines several current international developments--economic, political, integrative, and environmental--and notes contradictions among the four. New global patterns of differentiation, social problems, stratification, and the international community are identified. In conclusion, Smelser identifies the methodological problems for the social sciences investigating the decline of the national state, especially problems in the comparative analysis of societies. Neil J. Smelser is Director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. From 1958 to 1994 he served on the faculty of the Sociology department of the University of California, Berkeley. He is President of the American Sociological Association (1996-97), and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Chapter 1

Chapter 1 begins by characterizing sociology's mixed intellectual identity--partly scientific, partly humanistic, and partly artistic in orientation--and identifies several internal conflicts in the field along these dimensions. Smelser then defines the microsociological level as dealing with the individual person and personal interaction. Much of the discussion is organized under the heading "other minds." Smelser criticizes several intellectual sociological approaches to knowing other minds, including the positivist, the phenomenological, and the skeptical. He questions the "rational choice" model of the stable, adult, informed, literal actor, and argues for a systematic inclusion of error, affect, and distortion in psychological models. The chapter concludes with a discussion of trust at the subjective, intersubjective, and institutional levels.

Chapter 2

Chapter 2 defines the mesosociological level as dealing with groups, formal organizations, social movements, and some aspects of institutions. Smelser traces the decline of interest in group life in past decades, attributing it in part to the erosion of stable group life at the century's end. He notes the evolution of theory of formal organizations from an emphasis on closed systems to open, flexible systems. He traces the decline of interest in the nonrational aspects of social movement and identifies mesosociological aspects of institutional life that bear special attention--"imagined" institutions and agents that represent institutions.

Chapter 3

Chapter 3 defines macrosociology as dealing with social structure and societies overall. Smelser calls for a renewed emphasis on the differentiation--or complexity--of social structure, notes the increasing salience of cultural diversification, and points to the decline of social class and the increasing salience of more open, multidimensional stratification in contemporary societies. He analyzes the decline of the state as the focus of social integration, resulting from globalization "from above" the state and alternative forms of integration "from below."

Chapter 4

Chapter 4 outlines several current international developments--economic, political, integrative, and environmental--and notes contradictions among the four. New global patterns of differentiation, social problems, stratification, and the international community are identified. In conclusion, Smelser identifies the methodological problems for the social sciences investigating the decline of the national state, especially problems in the comparative analysis of societies.

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