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On the Ambivalence of the Aphorism in Sociological Theory

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Sociologists have long been taken by certain pithy expressions from the founders of the discipline. We propose here both a new explanation for the endurance of these statements as well as an analysis of the power, limitations, and possibilities of aphorisms. By drawing from the critical scholarship concerned with aphorisms, we demonstrate that some of the allure of the classical sociological texts derives from their form, and particularly their reliance on the relative autonomy of the aphorism. Through examining Marx’s “opiate of the people,” Weber’s “iron cage,” and, briefly, two more contemporary sociological aphorisms, we suggest that aphorisms have an ambivalent role in sociological theory: they make claims memorable even as they potentially oversimplify complex arguments. Yet that very simplification can provide a point of focus for productive misreading and reinterpretation.
Original languageEnglish
JournalSociological Theory
Volume37
Issue number4
Pages (from-to)381-400
ISSN0735-2751
Publication statusPublished - 17 Dec 2019
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