shake-n-bake social theory

I think I’m broadly on Fabio’s side when it comes to the question of the vagueness of concepts in the social sciences. I think my main caveat is that, based on the evidence, successful social science requires precisely specified concepts coupled with a willingness — perhaps elevated to a principle — to strategically ignore any amount of empirical evidence accumulated against them.

But enough trolling. Beyond the problem of vague concepts lies the question of vague argument. On the plane home this Sunday I read Jon Elster’s new book on De Tocqueville. It’s typical Elster: incisive, clever, restless, and weirdly dissatisfying. At one point he remarks that too many writers are not clear enough to be wrong. And then, in passing,

Tocqueville here relies on what I called the first law of pseudo-science, “Everything is a little bit like everything else.”

He immediately follows this up with the second law of pseudo-science: “Everything is causally related to everything else”. The latter law is, I think, a besetting vice in much of sociology, where one reaction to monocausal explanation (on the one hand) or empirical murkiness (on the other) is to emphasize the irreducible complexity of the explanation, to the point where there is really no prospect of finding any disconfirming evidence. But while Elster’s second law leads directly to disaster, the first law seems more ambiguous in its effects. For one thing, any number of innovations in social theory (or I daresay the sciences more broadly) spring from applying this law as a heuristic. Drawing on a post from almost six* years ago, the strategy is as follows:

Take a few basic kinds of institutions, structures or practices that can be identified across many different social contexts. There are markets, say, and there is politics. There is ritual. There are hierarchies. There are networks. There is culture. And so on. (Not all of these are the same sort of thing; that doesn’t matter at the moment.) Identify the basic features of each. Now, pick one of these and show it underpinning a setting usually taken as governed by one the others.

For example, you can say Politics is really Markets. This is Public Choice Theory. Because the market form is such a dominant feature of contemporary societies and of talk about them, applying the “x is really a market” trick to any given x is by now ubiquitous not just in theory but also often as a matter of common interpretation and even public policy, facts on the ground notwithstanding.

Markets are really Politics. This is one wing of economic sociology — Neil Fligstein’s work for instance — but also a line of left-wing economics.

Markets are really Culture. Viviana Zelizer’s The Social Meaning of Money takes the world of apparently cold-blooded economic exchange and shows how the ritual creation of social ties between people is fundamental to the nature of money. Alternatively, for a comparative approach read Frank Dobbin’s Forging Industrial Policy to see how 19th-century economic policy about Railroads took as its model different conceptions of the polity in each of France, Britain and the United States.

Organizations are really Ritual. Meyer and Rowan’s “Institutional organizations: Formal structure as myth and ceremony” makes the case.

Markets are really Hierarchies. Sounds like a tough one, but Art Stinchcombe has a go at the theory in “Contracts as Hierarchical Documents.”, and the AEA junior job “market” instantiates the practice.

Ritual is really Markets. Rational Choice theory of Religion.

Markets are really Networks. Mark Granovetter; Harrison White. Production markets are really self-reproducing interfaces created by the mutual monitoring of firms trying to find a sustainable niche in a production system.

And so on and so forth.

*Jesus Christ.

Written by Kieran

May 18, 2009 at 8:45 pm

Posted in just theory, sociology

12 Responses

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  1. Nice post.

    I tend to come away dis-satisfied with the efforts to confound the market concept with everything else (politics, institutions, networks, culture etc). Sure, no question, its all there — but, it sort of just leads to, well, non-analytic and non-comparative arguments that are less precise and theoretically not very potent. Perhaps all these angles, “markets as x,” offer a unique window and jointly a more holistic view, but often they are just contradictory and competing, so tightly interwoven as to allow no meaningful analytical distinctions, comparison or testing.



    May 18, 2009 at 9:01 pm

  2. Wow, you can see why there has been a call for mechanisms-based research of late. On second thought though I wonder if the point of this kind of theorizing is really to make us view a phenomenon from a different perspective and become attuned to a new set of mechanisms that might be at play. So when we think about markets as culture, we are suddenly aware of a new set of dynamics that might affect pricing, risk-taking, etc. The lenses are not scientific theories by themselves but they lead us to new sets of hypotheses that we would otherwise ignore.



    May 18, 2009 at 9:07 pm

  3. Models! I want more mechanistic models. Yum! Models!



    May 18, 2009 at 9:58 pm

  4. Kieran: BTW, thanks for the link to the book! Both Elster and Tocqueville are mega-mega social theorists in my book, so I can’t wait to read it.



    May 18, 2009 at 10:13 pm

  5. When I first saw the post, I thought it was “Steak and Shake” theory… and it made me hungry…



    May 18, 2009 at 10:57 pm

  6. marvelous repost of points from six years ago. it captures issues i keep facing. and it offers perhaps an opportune moment for me to comment:

    i just posted a set of tables about one of my favorite themes — tribes, hierarchical organizations, markets, and information-age networks as cardinal forms of organization that lie behind the evolution of all societies — over at my own experiment with blogging. the tables compare the forms from different perspectives. serendipitously, i listed your blog as place to follow about organizational theory, even though i’ve not seen a lot here about my particular interest.

    i’ve run into all the patterns you note. social network analysts in particular are adept at converting all forms of organization into networks. economists don’t so much turn all forms into markets, as try to show that their conceptual toolkit can provide better analysis. decades ago, as i recall, general systems theorists looked for hierarchies as the keys. tribes — a form that hardly ever got talked about a couple decades ago — is now quite the rage for commenting on postmodern as well as premodern situations.

    i persist in thinking these are four distinct, separable forms of organization. making that clear is a challenge, as is showing their relationships. i’ll keep at it, and if you ever have interest, please stop by and take a look. i’m open for comments, though i’m not good at replying at my own blog.

    onward. (


    david ronfeldt

    May 19, 2009 at 12:35 am

  7. Great post. And great way to continue the discussion…

    I am always suspicious of attempts to defend acts of “theorizing” in contexts that are “not scientific theories by themselves”, as Brayden seems to.

    Theorizing is the activity of rendering the world in theoretical terms. Whatever “sets of hypotheses” non-scientific “theorizing” may accomplish, these hypotheses will have to be situated in ordinary scientific theories to be tested. The mere novelty of a hypothesis, i.e., the mere fact we would “otherwise ignore” it, does not warrant a particular “pseudo-scientific” law-as-heuristic. Theories are precisely legitimate grounds to focus on some things and ignore others.

    Elster’s laws are, I take it, intentionally stated as truisms. That is, everythign really IS like everything else, and everything really DOES cause everythign else. It’s just trivial. So you need a more specific set of laws to identify interesting, relevant causes or likenesses. Real theorizing (not pseudo-theorizing) is an attempt to find these “more relative” grounds, as Hamlet put it.

    I’m all for thinking outside the box. But we must (as researchers) always be looking, when we look “out there”, either for things to bring into the existing box or for materials out of which to build new boxes (or both). The mere act of leaving the box is not, in and of itself, epistemologically praiseworthy.


    Thomas Basbøll

    May 19, 2009 at 10:28 am

  8. I remember this the first time around. It was great then and it still is. Also, I am old.



    May 19, 2009 at 12:54 pm

  9. Six years in blogging time is more than old Tina; it’s ancient!



    May 19, 2009 at 3:59 pm

  10. […] Read it here. […]


  11. […] “Shake’n bake social theory” – […]


  12. […] interesting riffing on an idea in Jon Elster’s new book about Alexis de Tocqueville. He put together a list of different innovations in social theory, grouping them by how they characterize the relationships between different basic elements. His […]


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