Matt Dawson: Social Theory for Alternative Societies

by Bernd R. Hornung (Book Review)

Palgrave Macmillan, London, New York 2016, 1st edition
English, 232 pages, 43,81 Euro, ISBN-13: 978-1-137-33732-0

Highly recommended

To cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdowns and other severe counter-measures have been taken that brought social life and economies to a near-standstill in many societies. As the situation has been improving somewhat and social and economic life is gradually returning, discussions have come up how to restart the economy, and, much more importantly, whether to continue and boost business as usual or take the pandemic and the crisis it caused as a warning and a chance to change the course of the restart towards an alternative society and economy. Therefore, it appears worthwhile to look at what Matt Dawson found in social theory as proposals towards alternative societies.

The book is relevant for anybody looking for solutions or alternatives to the problems of contemporary society and who is interested in what sociological theory has to offer. It deals exclusively with the “socio-” part of sociocybernetics. It does not require previous knowledge about the subject matter and is thus readable also for the general public, not only for specialists.

Matt Dawson provides an overview of a substantial part of sociological theory, from Durkheim to Burawoy, with regard to what it contributes to the analysis of society and proposals for alternatives. The scope of the alternatives outlined, which are more or less detailed by the authors discussed, ranges from communism to the feminist request for a society free of pornography and the unconditional basic income, at present a timely topic.

The authors presented provide starting points and inspirations for alternative societies, not ready-made blueprints. The book is neither systemic nor cybernetic and consequently not sociocybernetic, but it provides a lot of reference points on which a sociocybernetic approach could build to develop sociocybernetic alternatives.

The book also contains a rather large bibliography which might be useful to social scientists and to sociocyberneticians as well as to the novice in this field.

Dawson starts with a discussion of Max Weber´s quest for a value-free science in Chapter 1. The idea of a value-free science apparently contradicts the concept of a sociology – or also sociocybernetics – which works towards alternatives to the present society and hence in a way tries to propose new utopias. The latter is definitely a normative and value-laden endeavor. As Dawson describes, there are, however, different possible readings of Max Weber. One of them is limiting the request for freeness of values to the research process in a narrow sense.

This implies, e.g., using accepted methods, not ignoring contradicting and adverse data, an unbiased interpretation of data, etc.(*) Also important for Max Weber is to distinguish clearly between the role of scientist and the role of responsible citizen, which may involve political activism.

It seems to me that this kind of understanding Max Weber, which in my view does not contradict the design of an alternative society, is reflected in the general method for developing sociological (and also sociocybernetic) alternatives proposed by Dawson. His method consists of three steps, which are used in the remainder of his book: (1) A critique of a given society, which is based on explicit values and criteria, e.g. inequality. This provides a basis for (2) developing an alternative, which then (3) has to be evaluated without bias whether it can solve the problems identified in the critique.

In the following chapters relevant sociological authors or goups of authors are presented and discussed, including important aspects of their biographies: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Émile Durkheim, W.E.B. Du Bois (proposing a black radicalist alternative), George Herbert Mead and Karl Mannheim, Henri Levebvre and Herbert Marcuse, Selma James with Andrea Dworkin and other feminists, Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck, Ruth Levitas and Erik Olin Wright (on sociology andutopias), and Michael Burawoy´s public sociology.

The book concludes with a discussion of what sociology is for and which alternative it should be for. This question can easily be expanded to the other social sciences, sociocybernetics, and science at large.

The final conclusion, which in my eyes makes much sense, is, that sociology is for the good life. This means at the individual level for knowledge permitting to live the good life and at the collective level for the good society. On this, supposedly, everyone can agree (although for some people sociology (or science) may just be a way of making money).

But what is the good life and the good society?

Any answer to this question, according to Dawson, cannot count with unanimous or only widespread agreement within the discipline (furthermore such agreement might stifle the scientific discourse). “Sociology”, Dawson argues, – or “sociocybernetics”- can only produce and hold open different alternatives without aspiring agreement of all (or a majority of) scientists on which one is the best. In other words, the choice for the implementation of one or another alternative (or for remaining with the existing solution) is a political decision involving – in a democratic society – the citizens.

So there is a lot to do for sociocybernetics, and Matt Dawson in his book provides quite a number of inspirations and starting points for drafting a sociocybernetic “good society” or a way to get there.


*) A detailed discussion of what is good scientific methodology (not only) from the point of view of sociocybernetics can be found in John Raven Also available on Systems Community of Enquiry and Research Gate.

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