ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 2, Number 1 (January 2005)

Book Review: French Social Theory: Altruism, Anomie, and Hypertelia

Mike Gane. French Social Theory. London: Sage, 2003.

Reviewed by Dr. Barry Edginton
(Department of Sociology, University of Winnipeg, Canada)

            In French Social Theory Mike Gane has produced an absorbing look at the development of social theory in France from St. Simon to Baudrillard. Written, I assume, for an English speaking audience, this short but dense text illustrates not only the depth of Gane’s scholarship but also his ability to understand and delineate the nuances of French social theory that have intrigued sociologists in the English-speaking world since the 1960s. As a background to his discussion, Gane reminds us that social theory in France does not exist, but is a zone between literary and cultural theory and that methodology is more than a set of positivist techniques.1

            Since theory, an abstract set of ordered ideas, is essential for the construction of any science; the development of “sociology” is then dependent on its history. By linking the progress of ideas about society to political context of French history, Gane uses Comtean sociology to analyze the development of social theory. He then constructs this history by following the sociological template introduced by St. Simon and Comte, and divides the search for the “social” into three periods creating a cycle of social theory: birth/altruism (1800-1879), rebirth/anomie (1880-1939) and second rebirth/hypertelia (1940-2000).

            The first cycle (altruism) is a sweeping narrative of the “social” in the theories of St. Simon and Comte. It starts with the post-revolutionary void (1815) when France faced reconstruction “without models, without theories”.2 This first cycle centres on sociology’s relation to religion and Comte’s learning from progress in mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology. Gane emphasizes that Comte’s analysis is organized around the development of a “fundamental theory3 or positive philosophy to harmonize the sciences into a general theoretical system. In order to emphasize the birth of sociology and the “social” Comte “coined the word ‘altruism’ … to define that form of action contrasted with egoism”.4 The section ends with the work of Littré, Comte’s disciple, who attempted to revise his teacher’s utopian notions and place the “social” within the confines of the law. Littré fails to keep the discipline alive as Comte’s following dwindled, as did sociology’s “intellectual discipline”.5

            The second cycle (anomie) is focused on the rebirth of the discipline. Gane shows that it is not the birth of sociology that is secured by Durkheim, but its renaissance. Durkheim takes on the mantra of Comte in trying to show sociology’s unique place within the sciences and radicalized the discipline by breaking with ideology.6 Durkheim also follows Comte’s lead in the development of his concept of anomie in relation to unregulated development and pathology. Indeed, Gane’s excellent discussion of Rules and the concepts of social fact, normality and social pathology need to be read by all who are interested in social theory and especially those in criminology. Like Littré before him, Mauss took the reigns of French sociology after Durkheim’s death only to pull them toward anthropology, guiding the search for the “social” through the realm of culture. Of significance is Mauss’ classic The Gift, which concentrates on the obligations of exchange in society and, as Gane points out, can be seen as the beginnings of Structuralism and the analysis of power.7 The cycle ends with the embodiment of anomie in the behaviors of both Mauss and Bataille, a form of praxis that links with the next cycle.

            The third cycle, the second rebirth or hypertelia8, is different from the first two in that the connection to St. Simon and Comte is tenuous in the discussion of some of the theorists (e.g. Lyotard) and strong in the discussion of others (e.g. Canguilhem). Marx now becomes the prime directive of this cycle. Here, Gane illustrates a number of various streams, which have been forged in search of the “social” and shows their indebtedness, personified in various forms, to Marxism. Sartre, de Beauvoir, Lyotard, Canguilhem, Kristeva, Althusser, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Baudrillard, Bourdieu and Berthelot are all discussed as key figures in this search. The attachment to the development of the discipline of Sociology, however, is lost or in crisis9, while the search for the “social” is now linked to linguistics, politics, structuralism, psychoanalysis, existentialism, postmodernism and fatalism. As in the previous cycles, the second rebirth reflects the turbulence of the era in which theory is being formed. The plethora of these new schools and perspectives veer from the original work of St. Simon, Comte and Durkheim to forge an expanded discipline of sociology. They all reflect the dissolution of the confines of the discipline. The search for the “social” is no longer bound to understanding the structure, meaning, progress and boundaries of the social contract. “This [new] logic is one that attacks and breaks down the traditional polarities of ritual exchange, and produces new hypertelic forms”.10

            I am impressed by the work on the first two cycles, however, I have trouble with the third. Although the discussion in each of the six chapters in this section is excellent, in reading them together I am left with the question of why specific theorists are incorporated in the text while others are left out. Were these omissions purposeful or simply a matter of space and/or time? Ideally, I think an expansion of the last cycle to incorporate the unique dialogue, or debate over what constitutes the “social” within each of the streams would serve the English audience well: e.g., the relation between Althusser and Poulantzas, Derrida and Foucault and among Kristeva, Irigaray and Cixous. The assemblage of the sections in the last cycle is not linked together as I would have hoped but this may be that the discussion of these is more like a bricolage on which I am trying to impose a structure.11

            Overall, this is, as the advertisements say, an extraordinarily accomplished book and Gane’s work will have an impact on my teaching of social theory. Also, I recommend it to all who teach theory and are interested in the discipline of sociology.


1 Mike Gane. French Social Theory. London: Sage, 2003:73:viii, 73.

2 Ibid.:3.

3 Ibid.:16.

4 Ibid.:9.

5 Ibid.:42.

6 Ibid.:52.

7 Ibid.:85.

8 This term is taken from Baudrillard, which means “a tragic state of passing beyond our own finalities” in Ibid.:99.

9 See the work of Zygmunt Bauman on the crisis of sociology.

10 Mike Gane, French Social Theory, Sage, London, 2003:185.

11 For example, the section on Lyotard seems unconnected to the rest of the cycle.


©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2005)

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