The most recommended social theory books

Who picked these books? Meet our 11 experts.

11 authors created a book list connected to social theory, and here are their favorite social theory books.
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Book cover of Political Scandal: Power and Visability in the Media Age

Igor Prusa Author Of Scandal in Japan: Transgression, Performance and Ritual

From my list on scandal and why it matters.

Why am I passionate about this?

I'm a Czech scholar in Japanese studies and media studies who became spontaneously interested in the way media scandals unfold in Japan. For ten years, I was studying Japanese scandals at The University of Tokyo (Ph.D. 2017), and I developed a new approach to Japanese scandal as a highly mediatized social ritual that tends to preserve the status quo while generating commercial profit. After my return from Japan, I continued my scandal research at the Czech Academy of Sciences, and I'm currently teaching media & communication theory at Ambis University Prague. In 2023, Routledge finally published the results of my decade-long research in my new book titled Scandal in Japan: Transgression, Performance and Ritual.

Igor's book list on scandal and why it matters

Igor Prusa Why did Igor love this book?

The author of this book, John B. Thompson, is one of my favorites.

I love his 1995 masterpiece Media and Modernity which offers a general social theory of the media. In 1997, Thompson published a chapter on the social theory of scandal, and finally in 2000, he published the book I am now recommending here.

What I love about Political Scandal is that the book is both incisive and disturbing, and that the author succeeds in showing us how scandal unlocks essential secrets about power and politics today. This book is a very useful source for the students in media, political, and critical discourse analysis.    

By John B. Thompson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Political Scandal as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Political scandals have become a pervasive feature of many societies today. From Profumo to the cash-for-questions scandal, from Watergate to the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, scandals have come to play a central role in politics and in the shaping of public debate. What are the characteristics of political scandals and why have they come to assume such prominence today? What are the social and political consequences of the preoccupation with political scandal in the public domain?

In this major new book Thompson develops a systematic and wide-ranging analysis of the phenomenon of political scandal. He shows that the rise of political scandal…


Book cover of The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness

Larry Cahoone Author Of The Emergence of Value: Human Norms in a Natural World

From my list on history and science books that tell us who we are now.

Why am I passionate about this?

A philosophy professor, my central interest has always been something historical: what is going on in this strange modern world we live in? Addressing this required forty years of background work in the natural sciences, history, social sciences, and the variety of contemporary philosophical theories that try to put them all together. In the process, I taught philosophy courses on philosophical topics, social theory, and the sciences, wrote books, and produced video courses, mostly focused on that central interest. The books listed are some of my favorites to read and to teach. They are crucial steps on the journey to understand who we are in this unprecedented modern world.

Larry's book list on history and science books that tell us who we are now

Larry Cahoone Why did Larry love this book?

I have taught many books on “modernity” or the modern world. This is the one single volume I would pick for students on a deserted island. I love reading it and love teaching it.

Berger applies the most important parts of social theory in a readable way to analyze what it’s like to work, love, and live in a modern versus traditional society. He shows how modernization permanently generates “discontents.” We love it, and we hate it, and most of the critics of modernity can’t help being modern themselves.

There is a chapter on dueling, which students never forget! 

By Peter L. Berger, Brigitte Berger, Hansfried Kellner

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Homeless Mind as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The authors seek to explain the social nature of the processes of modernization and the hegemony of ideas and ways of thinking that constitute the modern outlook.


Book cover of How Modernity Forgets

Guy Beiner Author Of Forgetful Remembrance: Social Forgetting and Vernacular Historiography of a Rebellion in Ulster

From my list on forgetting.

Why am I passionate about this?

Guy Beiner specializes in the history of social remembering in the late modern era. An interest in Irish folklore and oral traditions as historical sources led him to explore folk memory, which in turn aroused an interest in forgetting. He examines the many ways in which communities recall their past, as well as how they struggle with the urge to supress troublesome memories of discomfiting episodes.

Guy's book list on forgetting

Guy Beiner Why did Guy love this book?

A concise and lucid sociological treatise that relates forgetting to the transitions and rapid changes of contemporary urban life, which has eroded the ways in which societies traditionally remembered the past.

By Paul Connerton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How Modernity Forgets as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Why are we sometimes unable to remember events, places and objects? This concise overview explores the concept of 'forgetting', and how modern society affects our ability to remember things. It takes ideas from Francis Yates classic work, The Art of Memory, which viewed memory as being dependent on stability, and argues that today's world is full of change, making 'forgetting' characteristic of contemporary society. We live our lives at great speed; cities have become so enormous that they are unmemorable; consumerism has become disconnected from the labour process; urban architecture has a short life-span; and social relationships are less clearly…


Book cover of Theory and Practice

Nicos P. Mouzelis Author Of Post-Marxist Alternatives: The Construction of Social Orders

From my list on social sciences.

Why am I passionate about this?

After finishing my secondary education in Athens I got a degree in business administration at the University of Genova. The idea was to return to Greece to work in my father’s business. But I soon realized that I was neither interested in business theory nor going back to Greece to work in my father's organization. I decided to continue my studies in England focusing on the social sciences – first at Leicester University and then at the London School of Economics. After retiring I continued to write books and articles in Greek, English, and French. I have passion for reading and writing. It helps me psychologically as well to survive in a postmodern chaotic world.

Nicos' book list on social sciences

Nicos P. Mouzelis Why did Nicos love this book?

Habermas is one of the most important living philosophers. In his eighties, he still writes important texts and articles.

I have never met him but I have studied his work and written about it. He has a profound knowledge of social sciences (American, continental, and Anglo-Saxon). He is difficult to read but it is worth trying.

Book cover of Rosa Luxemburg, Women's Liberation, and Marx's Philosophy of Revolution

Peter Hudis Author Of Marx's Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism

From my list on envisioning alternatives to capitalism.

Why am I passionate about this?

Since before I was a teenager, I have been painfully aware of two things: the society I am living in is an extremely racist one, and capitalism fosters egotism, greed, selfishness, and a degradation of what is best in life. Ever since then I have been pursuing the goal of envisioning, and in some way advancing, an alternative to both (which in my view are related). I have suggested these five books because they have given me much inspiration for pursuing this goal, difficult as it surely is. I hope they will prove to be for you as well.

Peter's book list on envisioning alternatives to capitalism

Peter Hudis Why did Peter love this book?

This wide-ranging work, first published in 1981, has three outstanding features:

It consists of one of the most sensitive explorations of Rosa Luxemburg, showing that her work as a fervent advocate of socialism and democracy had a feminist dimension.

It connects Marx’s critique of alienation and dehumanized social relations to the perspectives and demands of modern feminism.

It also contained the first detailed discussion in English of Marx’s last decade (1872-83), when he turned to a study of Indigenous peoples in the Americas as well as communal formations in Russia, Asia, and Africa in searching for pathways to socialism that could by-pass the horrors of capitalist industrialization.

It argues that Marx’s critique of capital went further than economics in being part and parcel of the development of a philosophy of revolution.

By Raya Dunayevskaya,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Rosa Luxemburg, Women's Liberation, and Marx's Philosophy of Revolution as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


In this important and wide-ranging critique of Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) Raya Dunayevskaya examines the life, political thought, and action of one of the most critical revolutionary figures of our time. Dunayevskaya sheds new light on the questions of socialist democracy after the revolution, disclosing both the unprobed feminist dimension of Rosa Luxemburg and the previously unrecognized new moments in Marx's last decade concerning the role of women and the peasantry. As the founder of Marxist-Humanism in the United States, Dunayevskaya (1910-87) was an internationally respected writer, philosopher, and revolutionary. This new and expanded edition includes two previously unpublished articles by…


Book cover of The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy

James Poskett Author Of Horizons: A Global History of Science

From my list on how technology is ruining everything.

Why am I passionate about this?

I grew up with digital technologies. It was the 1990s. Things could only get better. Or so we were told… I went to study computer science at Cambridge in the 2000s. Switched subjects a few times, and ended up with a degree in the history and philosophy of science. By the time I graduated, life had changed. The world economy was on the brink of collapse, China was on its way to becoming a superpower, and right-wing nationalism was on the rise. That experience absolutely shaped me as a historian and writer. The world of science and technology suddenly seemed a lot more politically fraught.

James' book list on how technology is ruining everything

James Poskett Why did James love this book?

Everyone hates bureaucracy. But no one hated it quite like the late David Graeber. Amongst all of Graeber’s intoxicating books, this is my favourite. Utopia of Rules finally made me understand what exactly was so pernicious about bureaucracy. (Short version: it does the opposite of what it promises.) Graeber also sets out, with typical lucid prose, how new technologies, particularly digital technologies, are making everything even worse.

By David Graeber,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Utopia of Rules as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the author of the international bestseller Debt: The First 5,000 Years comes a revelatory account of the way bureaucracy rules our lives  

Where does the desire for endless rules, regulations, and bureaucracy come from? How did we come to spend so much of our time filling out forms? And is it really a cipher for state violence?
 
To answer these questions, the anthropologist David Graeber—one of our most important and provocative thinkers—traces the peculiar and unexpected ways we relate to bureaucracy today, and reveals how it shapes our lives in ways we may not even notice…though he also suggests…


Book cover of New Rules of Sociological Method

Nicos P. Mouzelis Author Of Post-Marxist Alternatives: The Construction of Social Orders

From my list on social sciences.

Why am I passionate about this?

After finishing my secondary education in Athens I got a degree in business administration at the University of Genova. The idea was to return to Greece to work in my father’s business. But I soon realized that I was neither interested in business theory nor going back to Greece to work in my father's organization. I decided to continue my studies in England focusing on the social sciences – first at Leicester University and then at the London School of Economics. After retiring I continued to write books and articles in Greek, English, and French. I have passion for reading and writing. It helps me psychologically as well to survive in a postmodern chaotic world.

Nicos' book list on social sciences

Nicos P. Mouzelis Why did Nicos love this book?

I know Antony Giddens from the time we were young lecturers at the University of Leicester.

He is one of the well known living sociologists globally. In this text he shows the importance or interpretative sociology for understanding social reality. I personally recommend it to those who want to know how our social world is constructed.

By Anthony Giddens,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked New Rules of Sociological Method as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is a new and revised edition of a book which has established itself as a basic text in social theory. The first section of the work provides a concise critical analysis of some leading schools of thought in social philosophy, giving particular attention to phenomenology, ethnomethodology, and Wittgensteinian thought. Giddens concentrates primarily upon the implications of these various perspectives for an account of human action and its intelligibility. An 'action approach' on its own, however, will not do; in human social life, action and structure presuppose one another. The author therefore moves on to provide a series of concepts…


Book cover of Open City

Glenda R. Carpio Author Of Migrant Aesthetics: Contemporary Fiction, Global Migration, and the Limits of Empathy

From my list on migration, migrant lives, and how they shape our common world.

Why am I passionate about this?

I embody the “American Dream” mythology: I came to the United States as a child who did not speak English and had few means. And now I am the Chair of the English Department at Harvard. But I am the exception, not the rule. So many migrants die on perilous journeys or survive only to live marginal lives under surveillance. Yet we don’t always ask why people risk their lives and those of their children to migrate. And when we do, we don’t often go beyond the first layer of answers. The list of books I recommend allows us to think deeply about the roots of forced migration.

Glenda's book list on migration, migrant lives, and how they shape our common world

Glenda R. Carpio Why did Glenda love this book?

By most accounts, immigrant literature deals primarily with how immigrants struggle to adapt to their adopted countries.

Its readers have come to expect stories of identity formation, of how immigrants create ethnic communities and maintain ties to countries of origin. Yet such narratives can center exceptional stories of individual success or obscure the political forces that uproot millions of people the world over.

This novel simulates the intimacy of immigrant memoir by seemingly giving readers access to his narrator’s interiority; it seems to cater to readerly expectation. And yet this is ultimately a ruse to obtain readerly investment, which Cole then redirects to the global history of forced migration and dispossession.

I love the combination of erudition and subtlety in a novel that, while ranging across three continents, allows readers to think simultaneously about dislocation across history and in our contemporary world.

By Teju Cole,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Open City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The bestselling debut novel from a writer heralded as the twenty-first-century W. G. Sebald.

A haunting novel about national identity, race, liberty, loss and surrender, Open City follows a young Nigerian doctor as he wanders aimlessly along the streets of Manhattan. For Julius the walks are a release from the tight regulations of work, from the emotional fallout of a failed relationship, from lives past and present on either side of the Atlantic.

Isolated amid crowds of bustling strangers, Julius criss-crosses not just physical landscapes but social boundaries too, encountering people whose otherness sheds light on his own remarkable journey…


Book cover of Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being

Kevin B. Anderson Author Of Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism: A Critical Study

From my list on philosophy and social theory.

Why am I passionate about this?

All of the books I recommend offer both a very deep reading of our socio-economic situation in all its oppressiveness and alienation, and the possibility of an alternative. Only with such philosophical digging and reappropriation of dialectical thinkers of the past, beginning with Hegel and Marx, can we construct a humanist future. These books speak to my own life as a 1960s activist in the USA who has yearned ever since for a real, humanist social transformation in the face of so many setbacks for our cause, some of them self-inflicted.

Kevin's book list on philosophy and social theory

Kevin B. Anderson Why did Kevin love this book?

Paul Mason’s Clear Bright Future (the title is drawn from a declaration by Leon Trotsky), stands out as a manifesto of socialist humanism that takes on neoliberal ideology and the cyberworld of contemporary capitalism. The book also delivers a withering critique not only of their basic anti-humanism but also the anti-humanism of the academic left, still too much in the shadow of postmodernism, which Mason charges with helping to open the road toward the present state of affairs.

By Paul Mason,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Clear Bright Future as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Thrilling, brilliant, radical ... an admirable defence of humans against machines' Guardian

A passionate defence of humanity and a work of radical optimism from the international bestselling author of Postcapitalism

How do we preserve what makes us human in an age of uncertainty? Are we now just consumers shaped by market forces? A sequence of DNA? A collection of base instincts? Or will we soon be supplanted by algorithms and A.I. anyway?

In Clear Bright Future, Paul Mason calls for a radical, impassioned defence of the human being, our universal rights and freedoms and our power to change the world…


Book cover of Marx's Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism

Kevin B. Anderson Author Of Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism: A Critical Study

From my list on philosophy and social theory.

Why am I passionate about this?

All of the books I recommend offer both a very deep reading of our socio-economic situation in all its oppressiveness and alienation, and the possibility of an alternative. Only with such philosophical digging and reappropriation of dialectical thinkers of the past, beginning with Hegel and Marx, can we construct a humanist future. These books speak to my own life as a 1960s activist in the USA who has yearned ever since for a real, humanist social transformation in the face of so many setbacks for our cause, some of them self-inflicted.

Kevin's book list on philosophy and social theory

Kevin B. Anderson Why did Kevin love this book?

This is the first study ever of Marx on communism/socialism, a topic that is often considered something he refrained from writing about. Hudis ingeniously marshals a huge body of writings – on Proudhon, Lassalle, and others – where Marx elaborates his own concept of socialism/communism in the course of critiquing what he sees as vastly inadequate concepts. In so doing, Hudis connects these issues to dialectics and to economics, and above all to the critique of both capital and the state, here not even sparing Lenin’s classic work, State and Revolution.

By Peter Hudis,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Marx's Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In contrast to the traditional view that Marx's work is restricted to a critique of capitalism - and that he consciously avoided any detailed conception of its alternative - this work shows that Marx was committed to a specific concept of a post-capitalist society which informed the whole of his approach to political economy.