With this book on sociology, Vern Poythress has presented a God-centered approach on three subjects now. Having discussed science, and then language, Poythress turns his expertise to a closer look at sociology. He tells John Starke here more about the impulses behind the book.
Poythress had the advantage of already having a doctorate from Harvard before starting seminary at Westminster, and after that he moved on to get another masters from Cambridge, before adding another doctorate to his degree collection. Simply put, Poythress is incredibly smart, and this book is his re-thinking of sociology from a Reformed Christian perspective.
Despite the impression you may get from the background Poythress brings to the table, this book is highly accessible to a general audience. Much like the other two related books on science and language, this one is very readable and most of the technical discussion is bumped to the appendices (of which there are 8). The book is split into 5 sections of relatively short chapters, making it further accessible. Poythress could have made each section a chapter and then made the chapters as they stand his headings, but most readers probably would have gotten bogged down in 50-70pg chapters. As it is, this book is great for reading a chapter here and there and chipping away at it piece by piece.
In Redeeming Sociology, Poythress is basically offering a general philosophy of relationships. Whatever “sociology” conjures up in your mind, it is human action and relationships in general of which Poythress writes: “my primary concern is to help people increase their appreciation for relationships, using the Bible for guidance” (p. 16). As he notes, this book is a kind of sister book to the one on language and niece to the one on science since it is exploring a particular social science (p. 13).
His thinking in this book is heavily influenced both by theologian John Frame and linguist Kenneth Pike. This book can stand on its own without reference to either of those authors’ works, but a familiarity with Frame’s triperspectivalism helps speed up your understanding of the discussion. (I have a brief overview of Frame’s thought here). Likewise, reading Poythress’ book on language helps out here as well, as much of his analysis of human action follows similar lines of thinking as his thoughts on language do. He also refers you back to that book several times in the footnotes. In any case, Poythress presents his ideas clearly enough that most everyone should be able to follow him.
Because of the brevity of the chapters, and the fact that there are 36 of them in a 278pg span, a brief discussion of each section is all that space permits. The first section is primarily concerned with a Trinitarian foundation for considering human relationships (chapters 1, 5, 9). The central chapter may be chapter 4 where Poythress discusses God’s covenants with man and introduces the lordship attributes of control, authority, and presence. These come from John Frame’s work, specifically his Doctrine of God. Poythress comes back to this triad throughout the book, using it to illumine his analyses. Also pervasive is the triad Poythress uses from Kenneth Pike, which he introduces in chapter 7. This interlocking triad of field, wave, and particle perspectives on language can also be applied to human action in general.
Having established a foundation for relationships and introduced his two main epistemological tools in the first section, Poythress moves on to looking at the ultimate context for relationships. As I mentioned in an earlier post, his analysis is fairly Inceptionesque. The first section was mainly focused on God and the inter-Trinitarian relationship that provides the blueprint for all human relationships. In this section, Poythress moves down the rabbit-hole showing that within the context of God himself, world history takes place chapter 12). Within that particular context a single episode took place that changed the course of history (the fall of man, chapter 13). To remedy that, the progressively unfolding episode of redemption was provided in Christ (chapter 14), and now that redemption is itself being progressively applied to various peoples who make up various human cultures (chapter 15).
So, to examine any aspect of human relationships in general, it has to kept in mind that those relationships (person to person) take place within relationships (persons to cultures) which take place within relationships (cultures to cultures) which take place within relationships (all cultures to world history), which take place in a relationship (world history to God), which takes place in the ultimate relationship (the Father to the Son to the Spirit).
In the next section, Poyhtress begins actually analyzing human relationships in general. He discusses meaning in actions (chapter 18), cultural and social interpretation (chapter 19), interpreting God’s actions (chapter 20), and how cultural knowledge is acquired and accumulates (chapters 22-23). Most of the discussion avoids being too philosophical, and Poythress does a good job of presenting a very general hermeneutics of culture.
The final major section covers analysis in a bit more detail. It is here that Poythress looks at some typical sociological issues such as variation in society (chapter 24), the issue of cultural authority (chapter 25), how people are classified (chapter 26), and social equality and inequality, (chapter 27). He then explores human action in more minute detail (chapters 28-30) before closing on a discussion of semiotics and how cultural actions are signs conveying meaning (chapters 32-34). Section 5 is a kind of postscript that closes with just a few thoughts on applying what he has discussed so far.
All in all, I thought this was a great contribution by Poythress. For me personally, some of his analysis is immediately useful for finishing my masters thesis. The book is well thought out and structured and the ideas and analysis that Poythress presents are original and worthy of further engagement. As a help to the general audience this book seems aimed for, technical discussions of mainstream sociology, including some well thought out critiques, can be found in the appendices. For me, this was both a strength and weakness. It was strength because of the depth of thought presented, but a weakness because for me, the main text of the book seemed repetitive and at times simplistic. This may just be a personal preference, but at times I did have a hard time focusing while I was reading because what seemed to me to be over-explaining. What is a downside to me though may be a huge benefit to you.
Beyond that though, I found little to criticize in this book and parts of it to me where pure gold. The parts that I found most useful you can probably expect to show up in a post of their own a little while down the road (like this one for instance). Poythress hopes that his books “contribute directly to transforming the fields of study that they address.” In this one, I think he hits the mark in regards to a re-thinking of the discipline of sociology. For anyone interested in the social sciences in general, or sociology in particular, this book is a must read. And since ministry relies on relationships, a book providing a sound Trinitarian basis and analysis of human relationships should probably find its way on to the pastor’s shelf as well.
Thanks to Crossway for providing this review copy!