Why Don’t Big Theory Books Work in the US? A Reply to Simon Susen, Part II, Michael Strand

Après Moi, Le Déluge

All of this plays a role, I am arguing, in my wielding the dismissive category of “big theory” toward Reckwitz and Rosa, and the silence that mostly greets them on the part of those like me in the American field. But there are also material conditions and a history involved that unfolds on their native grounds. Both Reckwitz and Rosa hold chairs in “general and theoretical sociology” at German universities, specifically Humboldt University of Berlin (Reckwitz) and the University of Jena (Rosa), both of which are state institutions. They are therefore civil servants of high rank. For the American field, the closest equivalent to them would be a chaired professor at a public (state) university, and it borders on the unthinkable to imagine a similar chair given to a professor of that named speciality in the American field—perhaps for the simple fact that it presently has no objective possibility.[1] … [please read below Part II of the article].

Image credit: Michael Matti via Flickr / Creative Commons

Article Citation:

Strand, Michael. 2023. “Why Don’t Big Theory Books Work in the US? A Reply to Simon Susen.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (10): 1–18. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-87J.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

Editor’s Note: Michael Strand’s article “Why Don’t Big Theory Books Work in the US? A Reply to Simon Susen” will be presented in two parts. Please find below Part II. Please refer to Part I.

This Article Replies to:

❧ Susen, Simon. 2023. “Lessons from Reckwitz and Rosa: Towards a Constructive Dialogue between Critical Analytics and Critical Theory.” Social Epistemology 37 (5): 545–591.

As suburb a category like “theoretische soziologie” is it is non-sequitur in the American field (outside of a brilliant but forgotten green-covered textbook with that exact title written by Randall Collins [1988]), though you might be surprised at the frequency and ease with which “theoretical sociology” rolls off the tongue of an undergraduate, a university administrator, or family relative without the confusion those two words combined seem to spawn among American sociologists. As Susen shows us, to be general and theoretical in the German field is to do both Sozialtheorie, presumably with the main audience being other sociologists, and Geselleschafttheorie, presumably with a broad audience in mind. A strict materialist might say, as some have said about American sociology in public universities, that Rosa and Reckwitz are oriented to the public because of the threat of a taxpayer revolt; they are paid by the public after all. But this would only strike the American sociologist as that much more remarkable; in Germany, public sociology means Geselleschafttheorie not the Michael Burawoy (2021) version of it.

From the perspective of the American field, with its discrepant political and scientific logics, what distinguishes Reckwitz and Rosa most of all in their material circumstances are probably those traits that would make their existence impossible in the American field. This might lead us to pose elementary questions to them, as if Rosa and Reckwitz had an entirely different occupation: “Do you teach?” “Do you teach large undergraduate classes?” “Do you advise theses and dissertations?” “Do you hold office hours?” “Sit on university committees?” All of these questions pertain to venues and situations that can, for an American sociologist, lead to a kind of crisis of confidence, as it brings them into contact with different audiences with different demands. The sociologist is tested differently in these venues by a whole range of factors: the esoteric properties of their knowledge and whether they can be received as exoteric (but also defeat exoteric knowledge), their potential for getting a dedicated graduate student a scarce academic job, their capacity to explain to far more powerful STEM colleagues in the American university setting that sociologists, too, use data—“they just don’t do it the way you do.”

For what they write, Reckwitz and Rosa (2023) appear to see themselves in a disciplinary knowledge field in a university setting, and thus bear the burden of being relevant to it. Yet, their critical theory (or “critical analytics” in Reckwitz’s words), as Susen shows, appears to be the least mindful of their craft or their own position as sociologists, and thus it appears the most transcendent and the least historic or local. Reckwitz and Rosa both find “modernity” only when they orient themselves that way, toward an extra-sociological space that accumulates a different history, and one that is nationally unspecific. This makes their work seem “cleft” to my eyes; a similar dual orientation is uncommon in my field. Susen focuses our attention both on the sociology (Sozialtheorie) available in Rosa and Reckwitz’s writing and to what they inherit as extra-sociological discourse (Geselleschafttheorie). The latter appears to be the more autonomous aspect of their thought, their own appropriation of the extra-disciplinary history of modernity discourse allows them (rather than disciplinary relevance) to be the test of their own thinking (what Weber in “Science as a Vocation” called an inward orientation to concepts).

Some evidence suggests that the German field may eventually come to mirror many aspects of the American field, and that the transformation may be already in motion (Moebius 2021, chapter 8). The material conditions for a Reckwitz or Rosa might not be so different from those that render someone like them objectively impossible in the American field at present. Indeed, they seem to acknowledge as much. They treat the “theory of society” with a kind of conversationist’s care as if it were an endangered species (see Reckwitz and Rosa 2023, 1-2). Perhaps they worry that they might be the “last of a generation” with no one like them coming again in the future. The late Zygmunt Bauman comes immediately to mind. The immense gravity of Bauman, who seems to stand as the exemplar (in the Kuhnian sense) of Geselleschafttheorie, pulls Reckwitz and Rosa (willingly or not) into orbit as satellites. Bauman finds no equivalent in the American field. But there is only so much we can learn from Bauman about Rosa and Reckwitz; after all, he left Sozialtheorie behind. A more accurate conjecture finds Rosa and Reckwitz receiving a Habermasian treatment should their fate have unfolded in an alternate universe.

Rosa and Reckwitz address questions and puzzles of sociological theory that are more or less recognizable in the American field, like the dualisms of structure and agency, of individuals and social relations, of culture and materiality. As Susen demonstrates, Rosa and Reckwitz also seek to balance contingency and universality. Both of these traits were part of the  appeal of Habermas’ concepts that found remarkable traction in the American field for a brief time. Utter “Habermas” to an American sociologist at random. Their response will probably be uniformly negative; still, you will get a response. Utter “Reckwitz” or “Rosa” to them; you should only expect quizzical silence. The transatlantic importation of French theory is by now a well-documented (Cusset 2008) historical event, with trans-Atlantic (even global) consequences still unfolding to this day (more on that below). Less well-documented is the importation of German social theory. By any measure, Habermas (and to a lesser extent Niklas Luhmann and Axel Honneth) is the key figure here.[2] Each of his books, at least up to the early 1990s, were reviewed by AJS, SF and CS. AJS dedicated no less than three extensive review essays to Habermas (Giddens 1977; Alexander 1985; Sica 1991). Habermas’ two-volume opus The Theory of Communicative Action was at the center of substantive articles published in AJS during roughly the same period (van den Berg 1980; Antonio 1989). This is not to mention “the public sphere” as the topic of a prodigious and meteoric publication phenomenon in America that only fizzled out in the last decade.

Not unimportant to the successful importation of Habermas to America was to promote him as an ally for Parsons amid the extensive de-Parsonizing that coincided with the sixties. Parsons would land back in Germany, seeding another deviation from the history of the American field: the very existence of Niklas Luhmann.[3] The capital of the German field, like the habitual expectations it shapes, also includes the accumulated labor of Frankfurt School critical theory, with which Rosa is directly connected but as Susen notes seeks in various ways to go beyond.[4] Judging by their reviews in American journals, Rosa and Reckwitz’s sociology draws the least attention; their extra-sociological Geselleschafttheorie draws the most attention.

Meanwhile, back in America, there is no one like Parsons today, no one of his stature who takes a similar approach as Reckwitz and Rosa and dear to their sociological theory, as lending a hand to developing a sense of the “whole” both in general and as an analysis of the present. An unintended consequence of drawing Habermas into alliance with Parsons, however, was also to open a small space of objective possibility in the American field for what probably appears most like Geselleschafttheorie to the German eye (judging by some of the books Rosa and Reckwitz mention) when they cast a gaze at American sociology, while, to the American eye, these “socially instituted forms of communication” carry their unsavory historicity all too closely with them. This is not because of the Newtonian passage of time. Rather, it indicates the passage of symbolic struggles that results in essentially nothing remaining in the American field to accumulate this history. It appears that the last article of this kind to appear in AJS is now almost a quarter century old (Antonio 2000).

And thus, I am led back to my category of “big theory” through this kind of confrontation of contending points of view, of a different field and its perspective on my own and my perspective on it. I feel less particular as a result. What becomes apparent to me now is a blank spot in my cognitive map of my field, wiped clean it seems, leaving only amnesia behind.


For those (like myself) who regularly teach a classical and contemporary course rotation for graduate students, the importation of French theory, along with some select German imports like Habermas, and an Anglo mediator like Giddens, is still the referent for “contemporary theory.” This is a “bizarre situation” (Lizardo 2014). It means that Reckwitz and Rosa resonate less than Habermas who has not been relevant for a long time. Still, knowledge of him might come through routine pedagogic practice (e.g. he is still found on a graduate syllabus, or on the reading list for a qualifying exam) rather than having to seek out and “learn” Habermas, as in the case of the two contemporary Germans. What happened in Paris, with its triangular extensions to Cambridge and Habermas’ famously modernist house outside Munich, between roughly 1968 and 1989 may assume the form of something like the Harlem Renaissance or Athenian golden age: a site of immensely charismatic cultural production. The routinization goes on but grows tired as nothing replaces it.

Once again I am drawn toward a possible solution to my problem. “Big theory” is a category for anything that resembles what once had an objective possibility in a past iteration of the American field but has since moved nowhere, because nothing has picked it up. “Contemporary theory” is not actually social theory in every possible meaning of the word; it is not actually a temporal designation. It is an accumulation of history. If my argument convinces even me, then the limits of what I can perceive are shaped by a past of symbolic violence recapitulated in the present. The American sociological field has several species of theory, but whatever type we consult, they all appear to render some aspect (and perhaps most) of Rosa and Reckwitz outside of cognition, except insofar as they harken back to a sociology of the American field’s past.

So let’s take stock of the categories. I have “big theory.” Reckwitz and Rosa have Sozialtheorie and Geselleschafttheorie. The American Field has Abend’s 7 theory types, in addition to some acknowledgement of social theory (as a trading zone) and sociological theory (as a puzzle-solving endeavor); it also has “contemporary theory” and it did have “social theory” in Antonio’s sense. This is what appears to me, when I read the German work, confusingly as “big theory.” As I use it to be dismissive and skeptical of Rosa and Reckwitz, it turns out that what I am doing is recapitulating an actual dismissal of a past American social theory.

I have argued that this scenario is only explicable by tracing the disappearance of the kind of theory that Rosa and Reckwitz most seem to resemble. This is a valid enough point, I claim, but not because it is Geselleschafttheorie that American sociologists were doing back then. It is because there is a missing (shadow) category of “social theory” that disappeared in the American field (at least in the major journals) around about 2000 CE. I have tried to extract this category and its lurking presence in my disciplinary unconscious. But it might be worth finishing up by suggesting that this allows me to see even more clearly still other classified classifiers of “theory,” this time from outside an academic field like sociology, and the reasons why we are more likely to find the missing social theory here and not in American or German sociology at present.

The historian Francois Cusset (2008) in his book on the French importation coins the phrase bildungsromantheorie to refer to the extra-academic interest in “theory” within the American space, a truly astonishing paradox, as it persists despite all major factors working against its very existence.[5] As the phrase itself might imply, this theorie is not “theory” in any sense I’ve used so far, as it involves something more like the use of “theory” to refer to a practice: the mostly outside and independent of an academic mediation reading and discussion of theory removed from its arbitrary coincidence with research productivity and bureaucratically defined benchmarks. Theory is a practice that does something different among the people we find here. In Cusset’s words, it serves as a “form of subjectification, reenchantment, and even emancipation from inherited and environmental shackles” (2008, 224).

It should not surprise us that both Reckwitz and Rosa have more of a presence in this space than they do in the American sociological field.[6] It should also not surprise us that American sociology, with some exceptions, is mostly absent from this space—its universal currency, after all, is “big theory.”

❧ Please refer to Part I of Michael Strand’s “Why Don’t Big Theory Books Work in the US? A Reply to Simon Susen”.

Author Information:

Michael Strand, mstrand@brandeis.edu, is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Brandeis University.


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[1] One prominent exception would be Jonathan Turner, who (noteworthy) is now emeritus at a public university.

[2] Many of Luhamnn’s books were reviewed in AJS, SF and CS and a select few of Honneth’s have been.

[3] Rosa and Reckwitz (2023) quote Luhmann’s famous lines, which to my American eyes appear like a bold, audacious, and likely unsuccessful grant proposal: “Topic: the theory of society; Duration: 30 years; Costs: none.”

[4] There has never been anything like the Frankfurt School’s Institute for Social Research, though maybe the closest analogue, strictly from a knowledge formation point of view, might be the RAND Corporation (Turner 2023).

[5] The current iteration of the space features things like, Podcasts (“Plastic Pills”), YouTube channels (CCK Philosophy), books published by academic (e.g. University of Minnesota Press’s Forerunners series is an example) and non-academic presses (Verso), and politically aligned journals of newsworthy stuff (Jacobin). This gives at least some snapshot of the space at the present moment. It has internet-based contours, and its morphology and market of producers and consumers is certainly made possible by the critical contradiction, alongside debt financing, of the American university behemoth: the ceaseless production of PhDs and the ceaseless contraction in the market for tenure track positions. The sheer cheapness of the cultural production apparatus required in the era of YouTube also factors into the political economy of the space.

[6] Just one indication is publishing and interviews in the Los Angeles Review of Books on the part of both Rosa and Reckwitz. LARB surely is part of “the space.” I would not say NYRB is though.

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