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all of sociology in four e-z steps

The rap against sociology is that it’s an incoherent discipline. There’s definitely an element of truth in that view, but the case is overstated. I think the right way to say it is that sociology has a handful of major traditions and none of them has stamped out the others. What are they? I count four major traditions in soc world:

  1. Hard core interactionism/social constructionism: Social reality is defined mainly by how it’s enacted in specific situations and these vary quite a bit.  Moreover, interactions aren’t necessarily reducible to the broader social order. The more radical elements of this tradition run into post-modernism – there is no coherent social reality because it’s created differently in different contexts (i.e., no coherent self). You see it also pop up in the strong sociology of knowledge (construction of ideas may have little to do with “reality”).
  2. Critical social theory: The basis of social reality is power. This can be defined in economic terms (Marx), race (DuBois), or gender (feminists). Or it can be generically defined (Bourdieu). Most of social life boils down to struggle over the stuff that gives your power, or resisting the power.
  3. Values, institutions, and relations: This is the broad trend stemming from Weber and Durkheim. The basic elements of VI&R are that human communities have values, which are translated into order via rules, organizations, and institutions. This basic set up motivates everyone from Parsons, to Selznick, to Sumner, to Luhmann, to the world polity crowd. The flavors may be different, but they’re all about the push and pull between values and structure.
  4. Resources and Action: This strand represents what might be called the “economic view” on things. Psychology and values are strongly de-emphasized and you just work on strategic action. The old version was called “social exchange.” Now we call it rational choice. But the R&A tent is big enough to catch some other types of sociology. Organizational ecology – psychology thin and focusing on competition – fits here as well. So might lightly theoretical stratification research.

This scheme won’t catch everything. For example, demography rarely focuses on institutions and interactions, so it doesn’t fit here. A-theoretical areas of sociology, like network analysis, or applied statistics, don’t fit either. But when you think about it, each box in the typology offers an object of study, a vocabulary for studying society, and a set of preferred explanations.

Written by fabiorojas

March 2, 2009 at 2:44 am

Posted in fabio, sociology

33 Responses

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  1. I think it very kind of you to attempt to answer this uninteresting criticism of sociology, so I’ll only lodge a quick correction: I think it a mistake to confuse “anti-categorical” with “a-theoretical.” Network sociology (oops–you even called it ‘theory’!) is the former, and not the latter, IMHO.

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    Jenn Lena

    March 2, 2009 at 3:06 am

  2. I think versions three and four have significant overlap and may not necessarily deserve to be distinct. Many of the so-called new institutionalist sociologists who are sympathetic to rational choice frameworks spend a lot of time talking about how preferences, beliefs, and values affect and are affected by institutions. I’m thinking here of the argument that preferences can be endogenous to an institutional framework without violating rational actor assumptions.

    n.b., you called “network theory” an “a-theoretical area.”

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    Trey

    March 2, 2009 at 3:09 am

  3. This maps directly on Randall Collins’ four sociological traditions: Micro-Interactionist, Conflict, Durkheimian, and Rational Choice/Utilitarian, though in it’s initial formulation Collins only identified three (rational choice was added later, even though its a much older tradition). I’m sure I have a copy of this book somewhere…

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    dr

    March 2, 2009 at 3:49 am

  4. its* (a pet peeve)

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    dr

    March 2, 2009 at 3:49 am

  5. JL: I think there is value in countering the idea that sociology is incoherent/unscientific/etc. The more we allow it to go on, the more we encourage people to not support soc.

    Trey: I am not sure about the compatibility between #3 and #4. For example, a lot of rat choice/economists would really dispute the importance of culture, which the neo-I crowd takes as given.

    dr: Thanks, and also – I think I do things a little different than Collins. The focus is on where the theoretical action is rather than whether there is conflict or not. For example, much neo-i incorporates social movement theory, but I still wouldn’t bundle it with Marxism because neo-i/s.m. theory puts much emphasis on social construction of problems, while the marx/critical folks would see that as epiphenomenal.

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    fabiorojas

    March 2, 2009 at 4:14 am

  6. i love this post – informative stuff like this on orgtheory is great. I’m a little confused where “agency” fits in, though? possibly #1??

    also can someone define for me what sociology is? :)

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    keith

    March 2, 2009 at 7:24 am

  7. Fabio: I guess I’m thinking more along the lines of neo-institutionalist economics a la North than neo-institutionalist sociologists a la Meyer and Roawn, but the point still stands. North explicitly argues for the importance of culture in creating cognitive models which shape institutions in his history of economic change.

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    trey1

    March 2, 2009 at 2:48 pm

  8. John Wilson asked me “What is Sociology?” in my dissertation defense. I forget what I said…..

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    sherkat

    March 2, 2009 at 3:43 pm

  9. it’s the freedom to be momentarily incoherent that really attracts me to sociology. Maybe a lot of us like the freedom of not being straitjacketed into a few paradigms that steam-roll over other ‘lesser’ paradigms – otherwise we’d all be economists :)

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    sd

    March 2, 2009 at 6:24 pm

  10. Neo-inst links 1 and 3, more than 3 and 4, I’d say.

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    Erin

    March 3, 2009 at 2:24 am

  11. […] RSS feed for updates on this topic.Powered by Greet BoxOver at Orgtheory, Fabio Rojas has a short post on the different sociological paradigms (which drew major sarcasm from Peter Levin… I’m […]

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  12. […] (e.g., Durkheim’s theory of suicide). This proposition is fundamental to sociology and (if you’re looking for coherence Fabio) it may be the most distinctive theoretical claim the discipline makes.  Arrow 2 makes a lot […]

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  13. […] a lot of familiar ground in social movement theories (file that as part of Fabio Rojas’s low consensus thesis) from relative deprivation (interaction between collective behavior or social movement and […]

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  14. Define sociology….it’s rather simple: It’s the study of how people go about making society.

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    Robert

    March 4, 2009 at 7:01 pm

  15. Robert: That’s a very ’emergentist’ definition of sociology. Might it be the other way around…”sociology is the study of how society goes about making people.”

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    tf

    March 4, 2009 at 7:06 pm

  16. My ole Blumer trained dissertation director might turn over in his grave….Robert

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    Robert

    March 4, 2009 at 7:11 pm

  17. Where’s the 2×2?

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    Paul Gowder

    March 6, 2009 at 5:52 pm

  18. So what are the parts of sociology that most focus on social status and on social presentation of the self?

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    Robin Hanson

    March 6, 2009 at 7:49 pm

  19. The four intellectual leaders who Obama imitated were W. E. B. DuBois, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela (p. 220 of his memoir) . “Most of social life boils down to struggle over the stuff that gives your power, or resisting the power.”

    That’s at the core of who Obama is, isn’t it?

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    Greg Ransom

    March 6, 2009 at 9:36 pm

  20. Robin: Goffman is the author who wrote “The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life.” Although Goffman did not associate himself with interactionists, the general area is called “interactionism.” Among social pyschologists, there is a sub-genre called “Status characteristics” theory, which is about how people impute status . But I am not knowledgable about that.

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    fabiorojas

    March 7, 2009 at 12:45 am

  21. In “Consilience,” Edward O. Wilson sketched out a quite important role for sociology:

    sociology
    sociobiology
    biology
    biochemistry
    chemistry
    physical chemistry
    physics

    How many sociologists have taken Wilson up on his offer to make sociology the study of what can’t be fully explained by sociobiology?

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    Steve Sailer

    March 7, 2009 at 3:57 am

  22. Define sociology….it’s rather simple: It’s the study of how people go about making society.

    Well, then, define society.

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    Roger Sweeny

    March 7, 2009 at 5:25 pm

  23. […] 1. All of sociology in one short blog post. […]

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  24. Hmm. The sociology dept. chair at a local state college defined sociology as the campfire stories told by people who call themselves sociologists. I have found it to be a fruitful working definition.

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    Micha Elyi

    March 7, 2009 at 11:16 pm

  25. […] 3. All of sociology in four e-z steps […]

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  26. I don’t think that “R&A” really captures the Becker/microeconomic approach which has shaken up sociology.

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    chsw

    March 8, 2009 at 2:19 am

  27. Chsw: Can you explain in more detail? R&A (as I’ve defined it) denotes a social theory which focuses on how resources are employed in response to incentives and opportunities, while de-emphasizing things like culture. If you buy this definition (and you don’t have to), then Becker’s micro-econ fits pretty well. Heck, there’s an interview a few years back where Becker is asked if women’s labor force participation had anything to do with changing attitudes and political movements (a more sociological answer of type #3 above). To paraphrase, he said no – that it was really changing technology that made it easier for women to participate in the labor market. Very R&A.

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    fabiorojas

    March 8, 2009 at 2:56 am

  28. Hey there, nice blog, nice content I really loved the way you described sociology. I am quite concerned though, can one person be in 2 or more of these groups?
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    mig29speedjet

    March 8, 2009 at 10:03 am

  29. To be a sociologist is the challenge the status-quo. Well, to me at least.

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    Claire Anne

    March 8, 2009 at 6:19 pm

  30. […] all of sociology in four e-z steps The rap against sociology is that it’s an incoherent discipline. There’s definitely an element of truth in […] […]

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