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Utopia as Method: The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society by Ruth Levitas (review)
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In 1990, Ruth Levitas published her pathbreaking book The Concept of Utopia, a work that helped to shape the emerging field of utopian studies and inspired a generation of utopian studies scholars. Twenty-three years later, she has published a major new contribution to the field, Utopia as Method: The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society. Like its predecessor, Utopia as Method is exceptionally well informed, clearly and accessibly written, and deeply politically engaged. The product of years of scholarly study and professional activity in the fields of utopian studies and critical social thought, it is also methodologically sophisticated and a reliable guide to some of the most advanced current research on utopian social thought.

The central argument of Utopia as Method is that utopia should be understood as a method and that as such it should be recognized as intimately related to the discipline of sociology. In the course of elaborating this thesis the analysis of the book ranges quite widely, from its opening chapters—which reprise the argument of The Concept of Utopia that utopia is the expression of the desire for a better way of being or living and as such is diffused throughout human culture—to part 2 of the book, which traces the history of the relationship between utopia and sociology from the institutionalization of the discipline to the recent revival of interest in utopia in contemporary sociology. Finally, in part 3 of the book, Levitas develops a line of analysis that will be very familiar to those who have followed her work over the years—namely, mapping the imaginary reconstitution of society as a method that has three aspects: archaeological, ontological, and architectural.

Original and engaging throughout, Utopia as Method is particularly innovative and thought-provoking in its sustained analysis of the evolving relationship between sociology and utopia. Very unusually for a work written by a utopian scholar with an abiding interest in William Morris, Marxism, and ecologism, this aspect of the book originates in and is inspired throughout by the ideas of one H. G. Wells. More specifically, Levitas develops Wells’s argument that (and this is the opening quotation of the book) “the creation of Utopias—and their exhaustive criticism—is the proper and distinctive method of sociology” (xi).

In one sense, Wells’s 1906 lecture “The So-Called Science of Sociology,” with its critical discussion of the emergent academic discipline of sociology, seems an apt choice of starting point for the argument developed in Utopia as Method. Like a number of other emergent academic disciplines in the social sciences in the nineteenth century, sociology sought to gain a place in the European academies and universities by demonstrating its respectability and disciplinary self-sufficiency. Importantly, and the point is frequently forgotten today, it did so by simultaneously distancing itself from the early literary forms of the discipline and adopting a scientific orientation that led it to imitate the methods of the natural sciences. As might be expected, this process of transformation was fraught with intellectual conflict, between, on the one hand, a literary intelligentsia composed of authors and, on the other hand, a social-scientific intelligentsia composed of self-professed “scientific” sociologists.

In England, Wells’s 1906 lecture at the recently established London School of Economics may be understood as a partisan contribution to this ongoing conflict intended primarily to debunk the scientific pretensions of the then fledgling science of sociology. Typical of Wells, the lecture is from start to finish an intellectual provocation, perhaps nowhere more so than in its deliberately controversial claim that sociology must be neither art simply nor science in the narrow meaning of the word but, rather, “knowledge rendered imaginatively, and with an element of personality; that is to say, in the highest sense of the term, literature.”

Utopia as Method draws a great deal of intellectual inspiration from Wells’s distinctive understanding of sociological method and develops it in fascinating and unexpected directions. In chapters 5 through 7, for example, Levitas traces the historical development of sociology and the disavowal of its utopian dimension that corresponded with its institutionalization as an academic discipline. As she correctly points out, again following the example of Wells, such a disavowal could...

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