Contemporary social theory is conventionally addressed from within the dominant tradition of inquiry. Rarely is it subject to a critical reflection from beyond its own ken. This is a pity, for the subject matter and scope of social theory go beyond the confines of any exclusive tradition, while its reach and influence in the global context of our times merely reinforce its extended compass. Given the fact that the ambitious claims made by social theorists about the universality of their project are hardly borne out by the reality, any pretensions at exclusivism or hegemony would be as anachronistic as they are morally reprehensible. The gap between the legitimate ambitions for a universally relevant social theory and the reality of a field grounded in its historical constraints and cultural prejudices can be filled only by a critical and constructive initiative taken from within the profession to constitute a candid, open, and reflexive self-encounter. The opportuneness for such an initiative is enhanced by its urgency: the discrepancies that follow on the ineptitude of our social knowledge can only raise doubts about the relevance of our science to our social condition.
In deploring the resulting ineptitude and irrelevance, it is possible to do so in the voice of a generalized subject, the universal "I," for surely this is one of the areas of convergence where scholars from different traditions could agree. The measure of this agreement can only be gauged by remembering that "a science for the study of society" originally went beyond its grounding in scientific reason to its justification in a moral reasoning. And here, regardless of the grounding of that morality, we find another significant area of convergence for scholars working in different traditions: whether we come to the field from an Islamic perspective that we strive to recover and reconstruct, or from a diffuse western perspective with its overlapping currents, the need is admittedly for a framework of inquiry and for new directions, and above all for a more salubrious ethos to inform our social knowledge.
The test of the new science of society would lie in its ability to accommodate the universality of a realm of human experience, demonstrated in the range and versatility of social phenomena and social activity, and the specificity that accrues to such experience, as indeed it must in consonance with the principle of temporality and inherent diversity. It would also be found in the possibility of the new science recovering, or, more aptly, renewing its mod mandate to be exercised as a profession with a conscience and experienced as knowledge with a vocation. For various reasons, some of which are addressed in this essay, the recovery of social theory cannot come from within the prevailing traditions of inquiry, which, at the very least, call for a radical restructuring. The elements for this recovery will have to be sought from "without," although clearly one of the structuring premises in the reorientation of social theory will have to call into question the autonomy and boundaries of "traditions" in question.
The present essay constitutes a step in this general direction of rethinking some of the characteristic strains of contemporary social theory and it is taken as a prelude to the quest for a new synthesis.' For our point of departure and implicit frame of reference, we take a paradigm of contrasting epidemics in the conviction that such a paradigm offers a more promising venue both for the reconstruction of social theory proper and for the opportunity it provides for promoting an intra/intercultural discourse as a premise and a field for this reconstruction. Ultimately, it is only such an intellectually open and culturally sensitive field that can constitute a realistic plane for a genuine interaction in a global age. Given that the social aggregate, whatever its level, constitutes the primary unit of social inquiry, a better understanding of its various dimensions is essential. These dimensions include the much touted categories of subjectivity and contextuality, as well as those even more pervasive and encompassing, if more ambivalent and more complex categories of intra-subjectivity and inter-contextuality, which animate and structure the civilizational encounter among world communities through time and particularly at this elusive point in time, qualified as "modernity."
Social theory takes this complex field for its scope of inquiry, although it assumes its mandate more in terms of a juxtapository anthropology of "self" and "other" and is predicated on a semantics of causality and explanation rather than a hermeneutics of understanding. A more humane global order postulates an appropriation of discursive categories that transcend exclusionary and hegemonous practices and that lay the ground for an alternative anthropology and moral economy. At present, this order is more of a realizable postulate than an established actuality. It is against the contours of a paradigm that enhances the prospects of this realizability that our reflection on social theory is conducted, and it is towards a crystallization of such a paradigm that we hope to be contributing. Even though our preliminary summation concedes initially to a semantics of identity and dichotomy, it does so, within the framework of a contrasting epistemics, by redefining its points of reference and taking commonality for its shaping ground. "Beyond Cultural Parodies and Parodizing Cultures" suggested how this process of resituating and restructuring the sociocultural encounter affects its premises and its promise. For the benefit of the present inquiry, a brief recapitulation on this conceptual strategy may be in order.