A "book review"

Mon, 28 Apr 1997 22:58:59 -0700 (PDT)
David Smith (dasmith@orion.oac.uci.edu)

First, thanks to Timmons Roberts for sharing the posting on light bulbs!
(Most instructive...)

Many recent WSN debates seem to either have wander a bit far afield (i.e.
human nature) or involve very sharp exchanges/attacks between folks who
identify with our broad theoretical framework and agree on many
assumptions but who disagree on "500 vs. 5000 years" or the extent to
which "Eurocentricism" is a fatal flaw of received theory.

But I recently came across something that reminded me that there are
people "out there" who are unremittingly hostile to EVERYTHING that world
system analysts (hyphen or not!) do. It appears in the guise of a book
review in the newly arrived issue (March 1997) of SOCIAL FORCES, and is
written by Daniel Chirot. Professor Chirot is a well-known senior
sociologist at the University of Washington. Ironically, he initially
built his reputation as a world-system author, writing a book for
undergrads called SOCIAL CHANGE IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY in the 1970s.
But he went off to study Eastern Europe (Romania?), became
disillusioned with "socialism," and soon had a major "falling out" with
world-system scholars and analysis. He's gradually become a leading
academic critic of "leftists" in sociology and other disciplines.
(Nikolai Rozov referred to him very favorably in a recent posting -- but I
do NOT necessarily hold Professor Rozov responsible for the excesses I
report below.)

The review in the new SOCIAL FORCES is a particularly novel vehicle used
to attack neo-Marxists and world-systemites as an "anti-American,
anti-bourgeois movement" within contemporary social science. Supposedly,
it addresses a collection of old essays on "social revolutions" by Theda
Skocpol that were recently published in an anthology. Interestingly, this
sort of book frequently is not even reviewed by journals. Here is it not
only reviewed, but Chirot is given two or three pages of extra space (in
fact, its one of the longest reviews of a single book in SF that I can

Actually, the discussion of Skocpol's work is fairly brief, mildly
critical, and used to tout recent work Chirot likes that stress the role
of culture and ideology in revolutions. Fine.

However, the main body of the "book review" is used to launch a vicious
ideological attack on Immanuel Wallerstein, Barrington Moore and Jeffery
Paige, using Skocpol's chapters on each of these scholars as a pretext.
While Skocpol's essays on each is careful and thoughtful, critical but
appreciative: Chirot's attacks are none of these. He simply dismisses
them at "anti-American" ideologues or "romantic, revolutionary Marxists,"
without even the pretext of serious examinations of the logic and
evidence of the arguments of Wallerstein, Moore or Paige. Since the
intellectual tenor of the essay never rises above shrill denunciation and
name-calling, it does NOT seem designed to stimulate any intellectual
debate. (And, since its all in a review of a third person's book, it
strikes me as completely evasive of debate -- there no reason to expect
the targets of the attacks to even know that they've been denounced!)
Interestingly, Chirot's tone suggests that he believes that he is (as he
describes Skocpol) "sufficiently unideological and brutally objective
to expose their errors." A paradigmatic example of conservative thinking
("we're objective, you're ideological!").

Frankly, it is hard to understand what constructive purpose this essay
could possibly have been intended to serve. Maybe the author has
some psychological need to lash out and condemn these authors for
personal reasons (of which I am unaware), or is simply envious of their
status and accomplishments. But, the effect I'm afraid, could be more
sinister. Publications and funding proposals are reviewed by our
disciplinary peers. This review directs its bile at three prominent
authors, but Chirot makes it clear that he thinks that virtually ALL of
comparative historical sociology that developed after the 1970s (and,
certainly, anything that would call itself "world system analysis" or
identify with global political economy) is likely to be biased, tainted,
and literally "on its death bed." Is this part of a ideological campaign
to discredit, dismiss, reject and defund our work? What's an appropriate
reaction? Its easiest to just ignore this sort of thing -- and, indeed,
I am not at all sure how to respond (or even WHO should do so!) -- but
I'm also not sure that we should be so blase about this sort of thing.

Folks should take a look (SOCIAL FORCES 75(3)1121-1126, March 1997).
Maybe we could discuss this after we definitively settle the "human
nature" issue!

dave smith