Fun With Social Theory


My daughter is in the first year of a degree in mass media and communications. Several of the subjects she’s studying draw heavily upon various social theorists such as Ferdinand de Saussure, Roland Bathes, Marx, Stuart Hall etc.  I am kind of reliving my undergrad days, recalling names I studied in social theory in third year sociology and my honours year.

Unfortunately, she’s doing subjects which are largely ‘cultural studies’ by another name; the same discipline responsible (in Australia) for having Year 12 student study posters as ‘texts’.  I say unfortunately, because … well … how do I say this politely? I’m not convinced cultural studies should be a discipline in itself – but I should save that for another post. Which brings me to the reason for this post.

Social theorists seem to come in two camps: the exceedingly dull (in writing style or personality) or the flamboyant. For example, his prose might not rock your world -and he is no longer THE theorist whom all aspiring social scientists MUST quote in their essays, but you could hardly call Michel Foucault dull. Thus, in writing this post, I am picking up on the humourous, the bizarre, the odd little snippets to make you smile about the social theorists whose names drove you spare in Sociology 101.

Roland Bathes. Since this is the guy responsible for having my 18 year old daughter study advertisements and posters in her final year of high school, and subsequently forcing teachers NOT to teach critical thinking or essay writing, I’m going to pick on him first.

Roland Bathes, the father of something called ‘cultural studies’, died in 1980. A laundry van ran him over.

Claude Levi Strauss. The famous structural anthropologist (were you mystified by Structural Anthropology? ) gets a mention here because he is 100 years old and still ticking.

Pierre Bourdieu. If you were at university in the 1990s and wanted good grades, there was an unwritten rule that you HAD to quote Bourdieu (along with Foucault) at least somewhere in your essay (right now, Heidegger appears to be flavour of the month). In Pierre Bourdieu, we have an example of a person with constant verbal diarrhoea of such magnitude and solidity, I’m sure that, although he passed away in 2002, he’s still pumping out turgid, tautological prose so dense you could use it :

A) To induce a migraine

B) In place of valium.

Anthony Giddens. I will admit that, although I quite agree with Bourdieu’s theory of habitus, on principle, I defer to Gidden’s theory of structuration. My rationale? You can bloodywell understand Giddens!

But back to Anthony G:  He’s probably the only sociologist who’s been made a Peer in the House of Lords. And someone created this really cool action figure of him and Michel Foucault.

Michel Foucault was not someone I would ask to babysit my kids. In fact, I suspect he was moonlighting in horror movies (think of a bald Severus Snape).  However, his omnidirectional theories about power have left me firmly – and irrevocably- with the mental image of a very large antenna in my head (!) sending little power waves out into the cosmos … ever out and out and …

Max Weber. I admire and pay homage to Max Weber as the Sat-guru of symbolic interactionism. He got it right about the relationship between Western culture, the work ethic, Protestantism and capitalism. But poor Max, in his personal life, could not get it right. His wife revealed that, posthumously, Max was such an honourable man, he could never bring himself to consummate his marriage. He died aged only 56. There is a message here, somewhere…

Edmund Husserl. I don’t really have anything against Husserl … but if that guy whose PhD thesis is all about Husserl’s theory of intersubjectivity is reading this- yes, you know who you are- I have this to say to you: MY PhD THESIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH HUSSERL’S THEORY OF INTERSUBJECTIVITY . OK?  NOTHING. FINISH. ZIP.

I feel better after that…

Homi Bhabha. Oh where, oh where do I start? How about I present you with some of Homi’s prose:

If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.

This piece of utter nonsense won an annual bad writing award. And, as one of my supervisors said of Bhabha’s writing: it could be about anything.

Theodor Adorno. Of all social theorists, Adorno has to have the most remarkable memorial/monument to his life and work that I’ve ever seen. I’m not going to spoil the surprise. Check it out here.

Karl Marx. Perhaps he’s laughing at us now… Think about it.


3 thoughts on “Fun With Social Theory

  1. You took me right back to my lit grad school days where we referred to Roland Barthes as “Rolling Barf.” Well, we thought it was funny…

  2. I think Rolling Barf is funny, too. I know this is really, really bad… but the poor guy ended up as Rolling Barf when the laundry hit him …

    I think I’ve had one too many Drambuies tonight…

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