ABOUT THIS BOOK
There are several concepts within the social sciences that refer to the fundamental realities on which the various disciplines focus their attention. The concept of the "center," as defined by Edward Shils, has such a status in sociology, for it deals with and attempts to provide an answer to the central question of the discipline—the question of the constitution of society.
"Center" is a commonly used term with a variety of meanings. According to editors Liah Greenfeld and Michel Martin, "center" carries a twofold meaning when used as a concept. In its first sense, it is a synonym for "central value system," referring to irreducible values and beliefs that establish the identity of individuals and bind them into a common universe. In its second sense, "center" refers to "central institutional system," the authoritative institutions and persons who often express or embody the central value system. Both meanings imply a corresponding idea of "periphery," referring both to the elements of society that need to be integrated and to institutions and persons who lack authority.
The original essays compiled in this volume examine and apply the concept of the center in different contexts. The contributors come from a broad range of disciplines—classics, religion, philosophy, history, literary criticism, anthropology, political science, and sociology—which serves to underscore the far-reaching significance of the Shilsean theory of society. The interrelated subsets of the "center-periphery" theme addressed here include: symbolic systems, intellectuals, the expansion of the center into the periphery, parallel concepts in the work of other scholars besides Shils, and the paths of research inspired by these concepts. The volume features an introspective essay by Shils himself, in which he reexamines his central ideas in the light of new experiences and the ideas of others, some of them contained in this volume.
By drawing together such diverse scholars around a unified idea, this collection achieves a cohesion that makes it an exciting contribution to the comparative analysis of social and cultural systems. A collective effort in social theory, Center: Ideas and Institutions is a testimony to the breadth and complexity of one of man's ideas.