Professor William Outhwaite is the Specialty Chief Editor of Frontiers in Sociology’s Sociological Theory section. Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Newcastle University, Professor Outhwaite is a renowned theorist, whose interests span across Social Theory to include Contemporary Europe and Political Sociology. We asked Professor Outhwaite more about Sociological Theory, the state of the field and its challenges, and why it is essential in current climates.
In your Specialty Grand Challenge editorial article, you mention three key points in history where there have been turning points in research in Social Theory: the Enlightenment, the 1900s and 1970s. Is there a pattern here, and what state is Social Theory in now?
‘The idea that you can have a rational approach to social arrangements was a really important achievement of the Enlightenment and was something that has driven events since then. The key moment for sociological theory is the period at the end of the 19th – beginning of 20th century: the generation of Durkheim, Max Weber, and Simmel. The big push in the 1970s, especially in the UK and the rest of the Anglosphere, was the revival of the interest in Marxism in 1968 – the revival of interest in Marx led to interest in Weber, Simmel and Durkheim, rediscovered in the 70s and 80s.
‘Where is it going? I think it is in a steady state now, no great big theoretical waves or innovations, more a consolidation of what we have and a certain tailing off in interest in theory, but I think it is alive and well and is a recognized area – you can’t have a sociology programme without sociological theory. ‘
You explain a key challenge for Sociological Theory is to explain its relevance to historical and contemporary concerns. Your current work and book ‘Brexit; Sociological Responses’ (Anthem Press, 2017) explores sociological responses to Britain’s exit from the EU (Brexit). What has the sociological response been, and where does Sociological Theory fit into this?
‘I think what I would say is that if you take a phenomenon like the Brexit vote you can give a short term explanation about a playboy Prime Minister taking a bet and getting it wrong and losing; so a short term oriented perspective that a political scientist might give you, focused on the political crisis in the Conservative party and the challenge presented by UKIP. Or you can take a much longer historical explanation. If General De Gaulle were still with us, then he would say ‘this is what I’ve said all along, you shouldn’t let the British in, they are not properly European, they’re completely in hock to the United States; they wouldn’t fit in, keep them out!’ And there’s a number of explanations which would take that very long historical view.
I think the strength of sociology in a sense is that it is not committing you to a choice between any of those explanations but saying let’s run them and see how they work, how many can be combined with one another. A flexible approach that isn’t necessarily looking for a state-centered explanation or a society centered explanation either, but looking for useful combinations to explain a phenomenon that has a whole set of very different causes.’
What are the key aims of your section?
‘Bringing theory to bear on substantive issues, not pursuing theory for its own sake so much as addressing concerns worldwide; having a global focus is an advantage for that.’
Prof. Outhwaite and the Frontiers in Sociology team welcome submissions on any aspect of Sociological Theory – to get involved, submit your best work here.