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Social theory was to liberate the thoughts and thus aid social groups in deposing domination and repression. This formation of critical social science and social theory stands stridently at odds with the moderate positivist professionalism of mainstream sociology in the sense that it envisions human liberation as the highest rationale of intellectual commotion.

Habermas has taken pains to argue that this decisive outset of social science and social theory is not opposed to what he calls the project of modernity, which commenced with the Enlightenment. Certainly, he contends that critical social theory, conceived as communication theory and ethics, accomplishes the project of modernity by further rationalizing social life in ways estimated but not completed by Weber. Though Habermas needlessly divides instrumental and communicative rationalities, much as Kant did, thus limiting the field of human liberation to communicative projects but leaving technology and its dominion of nature untouched, he masterfully reconceptualizes Marxism in ways that provide it empirical and political purchase in the present. Far from deserting modernism and modernity, Habermas argues that Marx was a modernist and that the project of modernity can simply be fulfilled in a Marxist way, although in terms that deviate drastically from the Marxist and Marxist-Leninist frameworks of the early twentieth century. Habermas supports the Enlightenment’s program of common liberation and rationality through (a reconceptualized) Marx.

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This assurance to the Enlightenment and modernity must absolve critical social theorists such as Habermas of the inductions that they are Luddites, antimodernists, anarchists. Far from inadequate academic life, including social science and social theory, to be abridged to didactic political education, Habermas wants to open academic life to genuine debate and diversity, which he theorizes in terms of his communicative ethics. though the characterization of left academics as bigoted supporters of “political correctness” is largely hype promulgated by eighties neoconservatives, many critical social theorists are especially hard on purveyors of multicultural identity politics, particularly those who derive from postmodernism (Denzin Norman. 1986).

Professionalized liberal positivists, including numerous U.S. sociologists, conflate all theoretical heterodoxies, particularly where they argue that one should defend the disciplinary project of sociology against the wild men and women who would “politicize” sociology and social science at a time when reputable sociologists are fighting a rearguard action against budget slashing university administrators. These professional positivists marginalize all thought and research that do not kowtow to the strictures of supposedly value-free quantitative empiricism.

This obliterates nuances: Habermas (1987a) takes postmodernism to task; Fraser (1989) urges Habermas and Foucault to be more overtly feminist. It also fails to distinguish that critical social theories hold rigorous analysis, objectivity, professionalism, even disciplinarily. Critical social theorists vary from professionalized positivist sociologists most sharply in arguing that the aim of knowledge is illumination and hence liberation, not the development of personal professional credentials or the progression of one’s discipline. Critical social theorists snub Comte’s model of the hard sciences as a symbol for their own work as they believe that positivism eradicated historicity and hence the possibility of large-scale structural change. Critical social theorists are unashamed to be seen as political, particularly when they agree with Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment that the charade of freedom from values is the most invincible value position of all, taking up the present as a plenitude of social being and contradicting utopia.

It is sarcastic that positivist sociologists in the United States who attempt to establish their discipline in the university by stressing its resemblance to the hard sciences, including both positivist quantitative process and grant-worthiness, also argue that sociology should eloquent what are called policy implications, particularly now that a Democrat is president. Applied sociology proposes state policies in realms such as health care, aging, social welfare, work and family, and crime. Positivist sociologists assert that sociology pays its own way by underlining its real-world applications suggested in the narrow technical analyses propagating in the journals. numerous positivist journal articles formulaically conclude with short excursuses on “policy” in this sense. This segue into policy investigation both legitimizes sociology in the state apparatus (e.g., public research universities) and helps sociology evade a more fundamental politics the notion of policy implying moderate amelioration of social problems and not methodical change. As well, the discussion of policy enhances the grant-worthiness of sociological research, which has turn into a trademark of academic professional legitimacy.

Thus, the shift from the sociological to the social on the part of significant social theorists who support interdisciplinary is intimidating to disciplinary positivists because it augurs the politicization of social theory and social science at a time while some believe sociology should put definitive distance between itself and its sixties engagements. The tired stand-up line of sociology’s critics that sociology alliterates with socialism, social work, and the sixties symbolizes this preoccupation with the legitimating of sociological disciplinarity and explains why interdisciplinary approaches to the social are so threatening.

The interpretive disciplines and sociology are moving in contradictory directions: Interpretive scholars and cultural critics acclaim the politicization of the canon, whereas positivist sociologists want to subjugate politics. Leading U.S. literary programs such as Duke’s are awash in these new theoretical movements that hassle the obsolescence of canonical approaches to the study of literature and culture. In these venues, politics is not a afflict to be eliminated but an opening to new ways of seeing, writing, and teaching. Suddenly, with the invasion of these new European and feminist influences, traditional approaches to “representation” (depicting the world) in both art and criticism could no longer be trusted. Postmodern fictional and cultural theory blossomed in a post representational era, specifically the opposite of what was happening in positivist sociology, which clings more obstinately than ever to representation -achieved through quantitative method as the supposed deliverance of an embattled discipline (Ann L. Ardis 2002).

Not all versions of postmodernism are eligible as either social or critical theory. However, as Fredric Jameson (1991) has argued in Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, postmodern theory has the potential for new forms of neo-Marxist social and cultural investigation pertinent to late capitalism. Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, and Derrida make means for critical theories of the social, especially where they make possible the critical analysis of cultural discourses and practices that intimately resemble and deepen the Frankfurt School’s analysis of the culture industry. And postmodern theory has made it nearly unattainable for people in interpretive and cultural disciplines to approach texts as if the “meanings” of those texts could be revealed to presuppositionless, really positivist readings. Postmodernists drive home the point that reading is itself a form of writing, of argument, in the sense that it fills in gaps and contradictions in texts through strong literary practices of imagination and interrogation. Few today can approach the act of reading or writing concerning reading in the same secure way that they could read texts before postmodernism, before representation was quizzed as a severely theoretical and political project in its own right.

A momentous number of sociologists and anthropologists (Richardson 1988, Aronowitz [1990], Behar and Gordon [1995]) draw from postmodernism in reformulating both social science research and theory in light of postmodernism’s influential challenge to positivist theories of representation, writing, and reading. However, it is clear that most American sociologists and others in neighboring social science disciplines not only distrust but deplore the postmodern turn for its alleged antagonism to science and hence objectivity, rigor, disciplinary legitimacy, quantitative method, and grant-worthiness.

The new scholarship in humanities departments enlightens critical social science in that it reads cultural discourses and practices as ideological and commoditized and helps formulate more general hypothetical understandings of society. For example, the work of Jameson, the author of numerous vital books on cultural and social theory from Marxism and Form (1971) to Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), clearly puts in to the project of critical social theory. Jameson is in dialogue with critical theorists and postmodern theorists. He develops a postmodern Marxism that learns from but does not give in to the detotalizing implications of postmodern theory. Although many of Jameson’s references are from culture and literature whereas Habermas’s, for example, are from social theory and communication theory Jameson in effect “does” postmodern critical theory in his readings of works of literature, architecture, music, painting, and philosophy, presenting not simply close textual analysis but expanding his readings into oversimplifications quite similar to those of postmodern social theorists (e.g., Aronowitz, Luke) in social science disciplines.

Cultural studies is intrinsically a pandisciplinary project in the sense that culture, as the Birmingham theorists conceptualized it, is not simply found in everyday life as well as in museums and concert halls but also disquiets a wide range of disciplines in the human sciences or human studies, broadly conceived. Almost no social science or humanities discipline falls outside of the potential purview of cultural studies, which could be seen as a theoretical perspective, a discipline, a corpus of writing, and even an investigative methodology. Like the Unit for Criticism at the University of Illinois, in which Cary Nelson, Lawrence Grossberg, and Norman Denzin had part-time faculty appointments, the CCCS at the University of Birmingham has brought together scholars from a variety of disciplines. Like interdisciplinary projects such as cognitive science, cultural studies is a perceptible interdisciplinary project collecting scholars who believe they cannot practice their interests in cultural studies within their home disciplines or who want to claim an individuality somewhat diverse from their disciplinary identities. By and large, scholars in humanities departments have been better able to do and teach cultural studies within their home disciplines, particularly where their home disciplines have embraced the new postcanonical, postcolonial, feminist scholarship. Social scientists have had a greater tendency to identify their interest in cultural studies outside of their disciplines proper, many of which have been indisposed to abandon their relatively narrow concepts of culture in favor of a more inclusive one or do not acknowledge the need to practice the study of culture outside of a discipline for which the study of culture has always been central, such as sociology and anthropology (Lorraine Y. Landry 2000).

This distinction between the ways that humanists and social scientists build up their identities, affiliations, and academic practices as cultural studies scholars is also replicated in their respective attitudes toward the matter of politicization. Although most scholars around the campus who do cultural studies are leftist and feminist, social scientists lean to position cultural studies as an empirical and theoretical contribution without close ties to politics, therefore legitimizing their work within fundamentally empiricist and objectivist disciplines. Humanists lean to embrace their close ties to politics, as the Birmingham scholars did, even arguing that curricular politics, including the politics of the norm and the resist to define and implement multiculturalism, is an important place for social change today.


Post-modernism teaches the compression together of the objective and the subjective. Everything comes around full circle sooner or later. To laugh at the world is to laugh at yourself. There is no external platform upon which you can stand and view the outlandish antics of the human race. No matter where you stand you are always looking at yourself in a mirror. Like the bent blade of a crazy sword or the twisted barrel of a weird rifle, the point of every joke is always twisted around so as to come back upon the comic. The joke is always on ourselves (Paul Poplawski 2003).

The great classical comic writers and the great classical philosophers have at least this much in common: They always plagiarized reality. The contemporary comic, however, reflects our newly nihilized world. There is no reality. Everything is mere verbiage. What the “Theatre of the Absurd” is to the intelligentsia, current popular comedy is to the less educated people in society. Hence the predominance of the one-liner, which reflects the disintegration of everything, rather than the well-developed and drawn out satire. Moreover, special effects replace plot; short shocking scenes substitute for story line; and the public keeps buying it.

How can anyone remain sane in such a world? This is also mirrored in popular comedy. The present-day comic is always walking on the edge; always, like John Cleese’s comic characters, just on the verge of going over the edge, of going completely insane. The fact that he doesn’t actually “go off the deep end,” but instead continues to teeter on the brink, is precisely what makes his characters so believable and pertinent in post-modern times. We can empathize with such beleaguered characters, because that is the kind of world in which we ourselves live.

The influence of post-modernism also holds in financial matters. We don’t literally worship money today, but it is revered as the sign of what is of greatest importance in an anthropocentric world-view. Social consensus decides what the culture holds up to itself as its highest value. And in our contemporary world, taken as a whole, the general consensus is that the business of the world is business. We have decided that business is best for us. This is now, throughout the world, the great new religious myth of our times. Descartes wanted to make the world safe for science. Today we are much more interested in perpetuating our comfortable life-style by making the world safe for business. Because this is what we want, it must be right (Sieglinde Lemke 1998).

To summarize, post-modernism has become in effect the unofficial new state religion, the new salvation myth, with universal validity, to which every good citizen must adhere. In effect, someone who fails to follow the liberal consensus is guilty of treason. The common standard of good behavior is no longer some inspired scripture, such as the Bible, but the pragmatic rules and regulations required for carrying on profit-making businesses. The government’s business is to keep businesses going and profits flowing. To this extent, and only to this extent, it must be concerned about social welfare and stability. This takes money, the new means of salvation. Hence the central importance of the tax collector. In more ancient times heretics were burned at the stake; today the uncooperative dissident is grilled by inquisitors from the IRS, the new Holy Office.

Philosophically its roots lie in the rejection of Greek Being, that is, in the rejection of anything which is self-identical, immutable, unchanging, and absolute. The foundation for this attitude was laid down by the Epistemological Idealism of Descartes and Kant, and has reached its culmination in the twentieth-century Phenomenologists such as Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and their many followers, including many nominally traditionally religious thinkers. They see being and becoming, essence and existence, tradition and novelty, object and subject, science and history, and so on, as absolutely irreconcilable. Truth to them means mainly internal coherence. There is no Truth, only local “truths.” There can be no correspondence to reality because there is no reality. The most we can ever expect to “find” or “discover” is “reality.” Everything is human-generated, anthropomorphized, and historicized.

Moreover, there is a moral dimension to the scene. The postmodern is good; the opposition is bad. Whereas post-moderns are avant-garde, liberal, and progressive, the uninitiated are fundamentalists, reactionary, and static. While the traditionalist is a medieval witch-hunter, the trans-modern is open-minded and tolerant. Where the backward ones are institutional, hierarchical, rigid, object based, conservative, and unidirectional, the intellectually and morally superior ones are egalitarian, freedom-loving, process-based, subject-oriented, contextual, symbiotic, and self-transcending. Certainly the dogmatic ones cannot experience pathos, sympathy, and open-mindedness to the same high degree as the super-moderns.

Cultural studies increasingly splits into politicized and apolitical camps, through the former group deriving from Marxist cultural theory and joining the influences of the Birmingham School, feminism, and Baudrillard. The latter group includes scholars who do not view cultural studies as a political project but somewhat as an occasion for deepening their own disciplines or working across disciplines. Much work on popular culture, such as that of the Bowling Green group mentioned, comes from this second group. Humanists are more probable than social scientists to belong to the first group. This is satirical in that left-wing and feminist cultural studies grew out of Marxist social and cultural theory and only later were modified by humanists such as Jameson to their own projects. In this sense, critical social theorists involved in culture tend to cluster in humanities programs, or if they work in social science departments, they are typically isolated among their colleagues. It is much more common to find gathers of culturally oriented critical social theorists outside the social sciences, for instance, in English and comparative literature departments and programs.

Though these comparative literature students and faculty are more obviously and blatantly politicized than most of my erstwhile colleagues and students, they approach society through the text. This peculiarity is far from absolute. Nevertheless, much of the best critical social science and social theory is being done in humanities disciplines. Sociology, for instance, sought greater institutional authenticity by attempting to imitate and integrate the methods of the natural sciences. Disciplines such as English, comparative literature, women’s studies, and media studies were concerned with culture as well as politics and thus were usual gathering points for faculty and students interested in the politics of culture.


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