social theory is a social construction
Last week, I wondered why there was a decline of “social theorist” as a self-identified niche in sociology. It’s not that people don’t write social theory. On this blog, we spend a lot time discussing books that might be called “theory,” like Reed’s book on interpretive social science or Levi-Martin’s on social structure. Rather, as a whole, social doesn’t produce a lot of people who say “I’m a social theorist.”
In the comments, there was a strong discussion that focused on my hypothesis that empirical work is simply more competitive. Coming up a genuine advance in social theory is much harder than doing solid empirical work. One commenter then responded, if I may paraphrase, that in the long run theory wins out over empirical work.
At first glance, this seems intuitive. We all Weber, but how many of us read, say community studies from the 1920s? I bet John Levi-Martin’s book on structure will be read more than the latest p* article in Social Networks.
Upon further reflection, it’s not clear at all. What we now call “theory” was often “empirical work” in an earlier era. My view is that “theory” is a vague term that is retroactively applied to some sociological work that is highly successful.
For example, most of Durkheim’s major books are considered “theory.” Some are purely theory (e.g., Rule of Sociological Method) while others are doggedly empirical (e.g., Suicide). Some “theorists” write abstract theory (e.g., Parsons) while others mix and match (e.g., Alexander’s book on Neofunctionalism is almost bereft of traditional empirical work, while his recent stuff is motivated by empirical example). Still in others, it’s hard to tell where abstract theory begins and empirical commentary begins (e.g., Simmel).
Maybe that’s the deeper lesson. What becomes canonical theory in the future is hard to predict. So just try to do your best. We’re in a golden age of middle range theory and data and sociology. That’s where the profession it at right now, and that’s where the theory of future is being born.