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Social Theory

Cambridge has a long tradition of distinguished research in the field of social theory. Anthony Giddens was based in Cambridge for 30 years and did his most important work in social theory here, and Bryan Turner and Goran Therborn were both professors of sociology in Cambridge in the 1990s and 2000s. Jurgen Habermas and Richard Sennett hold Honorary Doctorates from Cambridge, and Pierre Bourdieu was a regular visitor to the Department. Among the current research in social theory being carried out in Cambridge is the following:

  • Michael Mann, an Honorary Professor and Director of Research in the Department, continues to develop his path-breaking work on the theory of power and in historical and comparative sociology. The final two volumes of his magnum opus The Sources of Social Power focus on the periods from 1890 to 1945 (vol. 3) and on 1945 to the present (vol. 4), exploring the interconnections between capitalism, nation-states and empires, including the sole remaining empire in the world today - the United States. He teaches a graduate class on war and militarism and works with graduate students and final-year undergraduates.
  • Goran Therborn is developing a highly original theoretical account of the social structures of 'planetary society', its major civilizations, its historical waves of globalization, its family-sex-gender systems, and its pathways to modernity. He is currently working on two new projects: first, a reassessment of inequality as a socio-cultural order that stunts human lives, reducing our capabilities to function as human beings, our dignity and our sense of self, as well as causing millions of people to die prematurely; and second, an analysis of the rise of capital cities as embodiments of cultural history, concentrations of human sociability and built manifestations of power.
  • Manuel Castells, a Director of Research in the Department, is currently working on three major research projects: first, in collaboration with John Thompson, he is developing a major new research project on the crisis of Europe which is based in Cambridge and Paris and involves 15 leading academics and researchers from across Europe; second, he is continuing his work on the internet, networked media and the information society, exploring their implications for new social movements and new forms of political action among other things; and third, he is developing his research on alternative economic practices, building on research carried out with colleagues in Catalonia and elsewhere.
  • John Thompson continues his research on social theory and the media, focusing on the impact of new technologies on the nature of public and private life and the shifting relations between them. Among other things this involves the study of political scandal in relation to the politics of trust and distrust and the exploration of the changing nature of privacy in the internet age. He is also collaborating with Manuel Castells on their new research project on the crisis of Europe; Thompson is particularly interested in how financial crisis metamorphoses into political crisis and social crisis and how individuals and groups experience crisis and respond to it, whether in the form of anger, outrage, resignation or despair.
  • Jeffrey Alexander is Pitt Professor in Cambridge and is one of the world's leading social theorists and cultural sociologists. Building on his highly innovative theory of the civil sphere, he is developing a concept of 'societalization' to explore financial crisis, church pedophilia, and media phone hacking. Continuing the cultural sociology of democratic politics, he is writing a book on why Obama won re-election in 2012, arguing that Obama's ability to use symbols effectively and tell good stories was crucial in securing his victory. He is also preparing a book-length treatment of 'iconic consciousness', continuing his explorations in the materiality of meaning.
  • Patrick Baert works on contemporary social theory and the philosophy of social science, among other things. Together with Filipe Carreira da Silva, he recently published Social Theory in the Twentieth Century and Beyond (2010). He is currently involved in two theoretical projects. First, he is continuing his research into a pragmatist-inspired philosophy of social science. Second, he is developing a social theory of intellectual life, centred round positioning theory. It focuses on how intellectual interventions enable intellectuals to position themselves and to obtain strategic advantages within the specific areas in which they operate.
  • Sarah Franklin is a leading contributor to the feminist cultural analysis of science and a founder of the 'new kinship studies'. Her work involves a major new effort to theorize reproduction and new reproductive technologies. She is collaborating with colleagues in Cambridge and elsewhere to develop new approaches to the sociology of reproduction, the visual analysis of biomedical imagery, and the changing structures of identity, kinship and gender in 'the age of biological control'. Her most recent work is focused on the emergence of new biological tools, such as cultured in vitro cells, and their implications both for 'the question concerning technology' and the future of biological translation.

Full details of the current research interests of individual members of staff can be found by following the links in the Members of the Department pages.

For information on other research groups in the Department, visit the Research page.