A few years back, I was asked to name the books that had made the biggest impact on me. Three came immediately to mind: Jane Jacob’s Death and Life of Great American Cities, Tom Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis, and Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Beyond those, I struggled to think of more -– it was a short and idiosyncratic list.
One of the benefits of being a PhD student is that you get to do a lot of reading, guided in various formal and informal ways. As a result, over the last two years I’ve read a number of books that will likely go on the “life list.” Given the tradition of writing year-end lists, I thought I would post the titles here. Some of these are books I “should” have already read at some point, and others are relatively obscure. A classmate pointed out recently that the “tolerance for theory increases with time spent in academia,” and I must admit some of these are quite theoretical. However, in the words of Malcolm Gladwell we are often “experience rich and theory poor.” Despite the word’s negative associations, theories are crucial for understanding, research, and practical action.
So here they are: ten books worth reading. They are organized roughly thematically. A treatise could be written about each book, but for the sake of brevity I tried to limit myself to a few sentences.
1. Nicomachean Ethics and Politics (c. 330 BC)
I was assigned the works of Socrates and Plato many times in my education, but never Aristotle. Unlike Plato’s Republic, which sought to deduce the form of a perfect society from first principles, Aristotle’s Politics is refreshingly empirical. The book is a a thoughtful synthesis of how various constitutions worked out in practice, and Aristotle’s analysis of the relationship between democracy and inequality is relevant today. The Nicomachean Ethics is an introduction to the notion of classical virtues, but in my view the most important part is only a few pages long. Book 6 proposes a tripartite division of knowledge that has sparked debates in epistemology still underway: science (episteme), art (techne), and practical wisdom (phronesis).
2. The Public and its Problems (1927)
By John Dewey
This classic work in pragmatic political thought contains Dewey’s theory of democracy and the democratic state. Acutely aware of the radical and damaging impact of technology (for him, mass media, but could also be the Internet) and the vast scale of modern life on traditional democracy, the book ends with a call for greater attention to the creation and dissemination of knowledge and also the “method and conditions of debate, discussion and persuasion,” starting at the local level.
3. Deliberative Democracy and Beyond: Liberals, Critics, Contestations (2000)
By John Dryzek
Much more than a book merely about ‘deliberative democracy,’ this is a lucid and masterful synthesis of social theory. In it, Dryzek explains and critiques Foucault, rational choice theory, democratic theory. It closes with a thoughtful speculation for how democracy can be reconciled with environmental values.
4. Collaborative Planning: Shaping Places in Fragmented Societies (2006)
By Patsy Healey
In urban planning, “communicative rationality” has been a popular theory since the 1990s. Drawing on the work of Habermas, various writers have sought to use this theory to explain how planners actually work and how deliberative forums can be used to resolve problems. In my view, the best theoretical treatment comes not from the generally better-known US academics, but a British planner. Her book combines a “communicative” perspective with theories of institutions and social, environmental, and economic development.
5. Frame Reflection: Toward the Resolution of Intractable Policy Controversies (1994)
By Donald Schon and Martin Rein
This book is a nuanced discussion of the nature of power and knowledge, and how the way we think influences the resolution of policy controversies. The book argues public policy should adopt a design perspective, and that thoughtful professionals can and should change the “frames” they use to understand problems.
6. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity (1998)
By Etienne Wenger
Although often watered down by consultants, in this book Wenger presents a rich and wide-ranging theory of professional learning encompassing identity, communities, and the need for participation and codified systems of knowledge.
7. Sciences of the Artificial, 3rd Ed. (1996)
By Herbert Simon
A polymath and Nobel Laureate in economics, Simon’s work spanned many fields. One of his later works, this book is a classic in artificial intelligence, and also where he sets forth an argument for more rigorous methods in the design professions such as engineering and urban planning.
8. Rescuing Prometheus: Four Monumental Projects that Changed the Modern World (1998)
By Thomas Hughes
A case study of four sociotechnical systems, Hughes argues each sparked important innovations. They are, with their unintended results, The SAGE air defense system (digital computing), the Atlas missile project (systems engineering), Boston Central Artery-Tunnel (new multi-stakeholder approaches to public works), and the Internet (new management ideas). The book is a readable description of not only specific projects, but also broader social and intellectual trends in U.S. history.
9. We Have Never Been Modern (1993)
By Bruno Latour
A wonderfully heterodox critique of modernity and modern social science, in this book the always-controversial Latour argues the rise of complex science and technology requires us to re-consider how we understand society.
10. Method in Social Science, 2nd Ed. (2010)
By Andrew Sayer
A book about the nature of social research, Sayer is a a “critical realist” who exposes a more nuanced view than simple positivism.
Why I link to WorldCat: 1) It links to local library catalogs (however be sure to check all editions), 2) You can export citations for books or entire lists, 3) There are convenient links to major booksellers, 4) its database includes journal articles and other works.