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.
Problematics of Sociology The Georg Simmel Lectures, 1995
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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.