The 1990s have presented a particularly contradictory aspect to social theorists. On the one hand, the ideological climate was dominated by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its East European extensions. While the most widely noticed intellectual trends took different forms—for example, Fukuyama’s announcement of the End of History and the entrenchment of postmodernism as the reigning orthodoxy in wide zones of the academy, they all drew the same inference: liberal capitalism had definitively triumphed over any feasible alternative. A generation before, Sartre had called Marxism ‘the humus of all particular thought and the horizon of all culture’.footnote1 Now liberalism provided the overarching framework in which political, social, and economic debate took place. Where once such debate has had to consider the merits of rival social systems, now, at best, the choice was between different kinds of capitalism.footnote2

So far, so familiar. But, beyond the academy and the world of opinion-formers, the advanced capitalist societies continued to display the structural faults that had motivated the original quest for something better. Not only did the same old injustices and pains persist, but, if anything, they grew worse. Socio-economic inequalities widened in most Western liberal democracies, and absolute poverty increased, while neoliberal fiscal régimes engineered often drastic reductions in welfare provision. Meanwhile, for most of the decade, two out of the three major zones of advanced capitalism—Japan and continental Europe—suffered from chronic economic stagnation. The result was a process of class polarization which, in some countries, provoked large-scale social struggles. In France, where the conflicts were most intense, notably in the public-sector strikes of November–December 1995, la fracture sociale became a major theme of political and intellectual debate.footnote3 The popular reaction to social polarization swept social-democratic parties to office across the European Union in the second half of the 1990s.

A major test for any social theory that aspires to be actual, that seeks to engage with the present, lies in its capacity successfully to interpret this tension-laden state of affairs. And in framing such an interpretation, the analyst must confront the following question: which is—as the Maoists used to put it—the dominant aspect of the contradiction? Is it the ideological triumph of liberalism, or la fracture sociale and the conflicts and movements it brings in its wake? Plainly, much depends on what answer one gives to this question—and, indeed, on whether or not one recognizes the existence of this contradiction, for one of the most striking features of the present state of social theory is the refusal of many to acknowledge the existence of the processes of social polarization referred to in the preceding paragraph. The interest of the books under review, by two leading sociologists, Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens, is that they embody quite distinct responses to this situation.footnote4

Bourdieu and Giddens are, in a certain sense, comparable figures. Both began to come to prominence in the 1970s in an intellectual climate very different from the present. The renaissance of Marxism in the academy, made possible by the tumults of the previous decade, set an agenda to which critically-minded social theorists of other persuasions had to respond. At the same time, a philosophical category which had previously not come under very direct challenge from any variant of social theory—the subject, conceived as an independent centre of decisions and often also as the guarantor of knowledge-claims—was dethroned and dismantled by the different versions of structuralism and, later, post-structuralism emanating from Paris.footnote5

It was against this background that both Giddens and Bourdieu emerged. Intellectually, they sought to occupy a space somewhere between the classical sociological tradition and historical materialism. Both—Bourdieu perhaps more quickly—refused the pretensions of supposedly value-free social science. Each was a critical social theorist, concerned to expose the roots of social domination as part of what seemed—though it was somewhat vaguely specified—to be an emancipatory project, but, at the same time, sought to distance themselves from what they dismissed as left orthodoxy. Methodologically, both sought to find a via media between, on the one hand, the anti-humanist dissolution of the subject practised by structuralism and post-structuralism—and, arguably, implicit in functionalist sociology as well—and, on the other, the reduction of social structures to emanations of individual subjectivity common to both rational choice theory and the phenomenological tradition.

Of the two, Bourdieu would probably be reckoned to have made the more substantial achievement—most notably in Distinction (1979), his great study of the ways in which aesthetic judgements function as forms of class discrimination. But no one could dismiss Giddens’s work as negligible. In particular, his A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism (1981) threw down a powerful challenge to Marxism’s claim to comprehend the course of human history, and thereby served as the herald of the great Weberian historical sociologies subsequently published by Michael Mann and W.G. Runciman.footnote6 The progress of both Bourdieu and Giddens to leading positions in the academy—respectively, a chair at the Collège de France and the directorship of the London School of Economics—was thus no surprise.

Yet, despite all these parallels, Giddens’s and Bourdieu’s new books represent distinctively different trajectories in response to the situation sketched out at the beginning of this review. To take Giddens’s The Third Way first, it is not unfair to say that this definitively represents his coming to terms with liberal capitalism. This is, in a certain sense, ironic, since this is Giddens’s most directly political book, which seeks, more explicitly and systematically than earlier works, to set out a strategy for the Left. But it does so within a framework that is unabashedly New Labour, and, indeed, it has become a media cliché to describe Giddens as Tony Blair’s favourite sociologist.