Rethinking the Social: The Value of Classical Perspectives

Attempting to contribute to just such a more fulsome account, this chapter proceeds by offering a more robust conception of the social vis-a-vis Mouffe’s purely political account of agonal democracy in order to render more visible its hitherto under-theorized social foundations. To do this, I turn to classical sociology, specifically the insights of Ferdinand Tonnies and George Simmel. However, before proceeding along this path, I briefly consider why and how classical sociology offers some of the strongest tools for such an endeavour.

In a report commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Journal of Classical Sociology, Simon Susen and Bryan Turner offer three primary reasons according to which the study of classical sociological theory should remain a priority for contemporary sociologists (Susen and Turner 2011: 6). According to them, classical sociology offers: (1) much of the original conceptual vocabulary upon which contemporary sociological scholarship depends, (2) systematic analyses of many of the same social issues

and processes which we confront today, and (3) methodological models and normative commitments to hybrid sociological inquiry combining empirical research and theoretical analysis from which current sociologists can still benefit (Susen and Turner 2011: 7). This list is particularly useful for those interested in pursuing a contemporary critical sociology. The conceptual, methodological, and normative insights of the ‘classical’ sociological tradition offer contemporary sociologists unique and important tools through which to question, critically engage with, and challenge the oft taken-for-granted foundations underlying seemingly ‘contemporary’ social and political thought.

The insights of classical sociological thinkers, through the creative adaptation of their various methodological and theoretical contributions, are invaluable resources for a robust and intellectually pluralistic contemporary critical sociology. This is particularly the case with regard to the conception of the social, which informs and underpins our understandings of actual societies and the empirical social phenomena we explore within them. Interrogating the constitution of the social both within and outside of the disciplinary bounds of sociology is, as Kurasawa notes in the introduction to this collection, one of the central elements of critical sociology’s current research agenda. As I have argued with regard to agonal democratic theory, the under-theorization of the social and society is a pervasive problem across the human sciences, such as in much contemporary political theory, where the social is more often than not left as a taken-for-granted backdrop for theorization rather than a potential object of analysis in itself. In seeking to rethink the social, we are interested in exploring the constitution(s) of the social as one of sociology’s primary objects of inquiry, as well as its various constitutions, or absences thereof, across the social sciences, humanities, and beyond.

Returning to the underlying conditions of possibility for an agonal democratic order, the next section engages with the work of Tonnies and Simmel, respectively, exploring how these very different classical sociological perspectives offer contemporary theorists a range of conceptual tools with which to articulate both a more robust account of the social and, subsequently, the implicit social foundations underlying a political ethos of agon.

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