Theory about social structure in the context of environmental studies

Traditional, big “S” Social theory seeks to account for the structure and dynamics of Society as a whole (Münch 1987; see also edited collections Bottomore and Nisbet 1978; Giddens and Turner 1987).  Although such theory is a possible source of propositions to inform researchers’ accounts of their situatedness in society, modern Social theory itself provides grounds for critique of its own project.

Illuminating this point Goldblatt (1996) examines the contributions that Social theorists Giddens, Gorz, Habermas, and Beck make to shaping plausible, politically appealing and practical institutional alternatives and innovations in the context of environmental degradation and the rise of environmental concerns in Western politics.  Among many respectful criticisms Goldblatt makes of the theorists’ work, he observes that the globalization of capitalism and (following Giddens and Beck) reflexive modernization mean that: “[t]oo many decisions about economic rationality have to be made by reflexive agents on the ground, on the basis of tacit practical knowledge, to make the transfer of decision making powers to the centre effective.  No state, however flexible, can gather enough information, process it quickly enough or embody the essentially local knowledge and skills required in a rapidly changing economy” (Goldblatt 1996, 193).

It follows, I believe, that no theory about the dynamics of Society as a whole could provide sufficient resources for reflexive researchers.  Researchers may find it helpful to consider multiple, partial social theories, but the challenge remains of weaving those theories together so that researchers do not allow simple propositions about overarching or underlying processes to govern their accounts of social situatedness (Taylor 1997, 211ff).

(For other accounts of social theorizing in the context of environmental change see Harvey 1993; Peet and Watts 1996; and Redclift and Benton 1994.)

Extracted from Taylor, P.J. (2005) Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press).


Bottomore, T. and R. Nisbet (Eds.) (1978). A History of Sociological Analysis. New York: Basic Books.

Giddens, A. and J. Turner (Eds.) (1987). Social Theory Today. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Goldblatt, D. (1996). Social Theory and the Environment. Oxford: Polity Press

Harvey, D. (1993). “The nature of the environment: The dialectics of social and environmental change.” The Socialist Register (1993): 1-51.

Münch, R. (1987). “Parsonian theory today: In search of a new synthesis,” in A. Giddens and J. Turner (Eds.), Social Theory Today.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 116-155.

Peet, R. and M. Watts (1996). “Liberation Ecology: Development, sustainability, and environment in an age of market triumphalism,” in R. Peet and M. Watts (Eds.), Liberation Ecologies: Environment, Development, Social Movements.  London: Routledge, 1-45.

Redclift, M. and T. Benton (Eds.) (1994). Social Theory and the Global Environment. London: Routledge.

Taylor (1997). “Afterword: shifting positions for knowing and intervening in the cultural politics of the life sciences,” in P. J. Taylor, S. E. Halfon and P. N. Edwards (Eds.), Changing Life: Genomes, Ecologies, Bodies, Commodities.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 202-224.

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