The Cambridge Handbook of the Social Sciences in Australia

By Ian McAllister; Steve Dowrick et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 36
Sociological Theory
Peter Beilharz

In 1970, Perry Anderson signalled the future project of New Left Review. The essay became famous: it was entitled 'Components of the national culture'. British radical intellectual culture was deficient, compared to that of the Continent, according to this argument because there was no English Weber or Durkheim, let alone Marx (Anderson, P. 1970). The imperative was clear: to import high-powered Continental theory, and, in consequence, to deny the existence of local alternatives, from Cobbett through to Carlyle, Ruskin, Morris, Tawney, the Webbs, Woolves and Coles (Beilharz and Nyland 1998).

Twenty years earlier, an Australian named Bernard Smith voyaged from Sydney to London to work on Australian art at the Courtauld Institute. His encounter with Anthony Blunt, the director there, was decisive. Blunt asked what Smith meant to work on. Smith indicated that his project was to establish the nature of Australian art in the context of imperial expedition. Blunt responded that there was no such thing as Australian art, and sent Smith on to the Warburg Institute, where he generated the basis of the very finest work in Australian scholarly writing:European Vision and the South Pacific (Smith 1960; Beilharz 1997a).

Is there, could there then, be such a thing as sociological theory in Australia? There is, of course, this leaving aside for the moment the question of its peculiarly antipodean character: Australian sociology or sociology in Australia? Sociology in Australia has been theorised for as long as it has been conducted, formally or informally; and of course its character has been connected to and influenced by the European origins and US institutionalisation of the classics, not least Marx, Weber and Durkheim. In this, the practice of sociology in Australia is no different to anywhere else, given that the canon is French and German, and that the US example always remains central, as the only place where sociology dug in a century ago as an academic discipline, in Chicago.

But even the Americans have their momentary encounters with uncertainty, if not crisis, when there is cause to ponder the idea that most US sociological theory is conspicuously European rather than North American in style and content. These days you can add in Charlotte Perkins Gilman, W.E.B. Du Bois, Dorothy Smith and Richard Sennett, but the closest the Americans have to a local tradition is pragmatism (Seidman 1996). So that the entire project of sociology can be properly viewed again as European, US and global, imperial and colonial, but with the twist that the empires (or colonies) speak back, and if you look now at publishers' catalogues, say, in Britain,

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