dude, where’s my social theory?

It’s safe to say that “social theory” is in retreat in sociology as an occupational category. The number of people who identify themselves as primarily “social theory” is shrinking. Let me quote Kieran, who shared with us his graduate level theory syllabus:

Social theory within sociology is in a strange position. The nickel version is: there are no longer any theorists in sociology. There are theories (or things people call theories); there are theory courses and there are people who teach theory; there are theory articles and theory journals; inside papers there are mandatory theory sections; inside the American Sociological Association there is a Theory Section, too; there are career returns to being thought of as a clever sort of person who can do good theory; you cannot get published in a top-flight journal without convincing the reviewers that you have made a theoretical contribution; and there are people who were once hired as theorists and still think of themselves as such. In some related fields on the humanities side there is also capital-`t’ Theory, with its own practitioners. But since the late 1980s or early 1990s there has essentially been no occupational position of “theorist” within American sociology. No-one gets a job as a theorist. (For more on this, see Lamont 2004, and also Healy 2007.) Crudely, the sort of people who once would have thought of themselves—and hoped to be hired—primarily as theorists now think of themselves as sociologists of culture instead, or (less often) as disciplinary historians of ideas.

Well said, Mr. K. Now, a few comments:

  • A humanities style moral/social philosophy/history of thought sub-field is in retreat in every discipline. Political science is the exception.
  • You can still do theory, as in writing fat books that are praised but rarely read. They get published. There are theory journals, and you can still get career points for them.
  • Hypothesis Uno: Old style theory was only advantageous in a data poor environment.
  • Hypothesis Dos: Old style theory was only  advantageous in a low tech environment.
  • Hypothesis Tres: Science is now bigger, which gives an advantage to empirical specialists.
  • Conclusion: In a fast paced world where people have real data, high tech tools, and can consume a lot quickly, writing Parsons style magnus opuses is something that few people can pull off.

Final comment: I’ve now spent 9 years between IU and Michigan as faculty and post-doc. Very different departments, but that allows you to see the wide range of sociology. I’ve looked over (and tried to read) *hundreds* of job applications. Very, very few “pure theory” applications. What does that tell me? From time to time, you’ll the fat theory book come out, but the profession collectively says “meh.”

Go Ahead, Click on These Links: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

September 19, 2012 at 12:03 am

19 Responses

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  1. A Distinguished Professor in my department (with a truly impressive Vita) likes to ask incoming Sociology grad students what they want to study at the 1st semester Proseminar. Many, many people who come to KU for Sociology want to study theory. So they say, “Social Theory”. The Prof. unfailingly responds, “What does that mean?”

    The statement rarely gets a repeat performance in subsequent introductions.

    Funny thing: we end up with a truly vibrant Culture section. The classes are always overflowing!

    Also, a fellow grad student in one of my classes this semester wrote this to me in an email exchange after a class discussion about Judith Butler:

    “I view the postmodern/poststructuralist turn that we dealt with in those readings the other day as a sort of first step in a larger process. Even though those theorists may not have had direct empirical support (or even just said some really wild things), they obviously made a mark in the history of ideas. From my view, their role was to blow up traditional ways of thinking about the world and to make us push ourselves further.”

    If theory is disappearing because we have more data or better tech, I think we Sociologists are doing something wrong. Big Ideas should happen regardless of these interventions, because they should occur when people look at the same old variables or problems in new ways.



    September 19, 2012 at 1:02 am

  2. yes, you live the day, hold on your precious well-paid occupations and positions; but you will not be remembered afterwards; even a decade after you cease to exist. those you/we despise, those on theories will be remembered. that is a probability I’m nearly sure about. your figures and numbers will perish with you.



    September 19, 2012 at 1:55 am

  3. Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of sociology never before achieved.


    Steve Vaisey

    September 19, 2012 at 2:24 pm

  4. The philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point estimator is consistent, asymptotically normal, and functionally invariant.



    September 19, 2012 at 2:46 pm

  5. There is one common sources of confusion in the field which must be cleared up at once. It derives from the fact that a particularstic-role-obligation may be formulated in terms of a general rule in the sense that it states _in general terms_ the particularistic obligations of all those in the relevant class of roles.



    September 19, 2012 at 4:21 pm

  6. “A student is well advised to stay clear of writing pure theory. It’s an open invitation to vacuity.”


    Jenn Lena

    September 19, 2012 at 7:15 pm

  7. I think the work of Jeffrey Alexander is a good model of what is possible. He combines “pure theory” with real empirical work (though the empirics wouldn’t fit Rojas’s definition of being empirical). Bourdieu is another example. From these two, the underlying question has been answered: Data and theory go hand in hand. All the data in the world, which I agree is what we have, mean nothing without an analysis placed upon them. Being empirically valid requires good theory, and good theory requires good data. If the best theorists today are cultural sociologists, cultural sociology’s probably where the best sociology is being done.



    September 19, 2012 at 9:14 pm

  8. It depends on what is meant by “theory” and upon how theory is practiced by the sociologist. As we known from Thomas Kuhn, paradigms are special events, measured in and measures of generations, as one model leads to the next by processes of experiment and challenge. From the “social physics” of Spencer and Comte, through Marx, and Weber, and so on and so on, the “generations” in sociology seemed to presage Moore’s Law of Computing.

    Theories cleave and calve: conflict becomes feminist conflict and then gender conflict. (A prominent women’s festival only admits “women naturally born of women.”) Differential learning, differential association, differential reinforcement, differential identification…. Ultimately, the study of macro, middle, and micro theories becomes meta-theory, a study in its own right. Anyone who claims that theory is not important to sociology is unaware or disingenuous. But, clearly, the facts are as they are, and if people hired to teach sociology do not to submit such work as samples of their achievements, then that must be accepted as empirical evidence for the remission of theory.

    While we can (and do) teach theories, one way to practice theory that seems not well attended is to read articles, identify the theories and test them with new data, or to explain the data with a different theory. That is hard, slogging work and it seems less sexy. In my criminology classes, I was fortunately to have Liqun Cao who studied under Francis T. Cullen. While unhappy with the final product of his publisher, Dr. Cao’s book, Major Criminological Theories: Concepts and Measurements did, indeed, offer this kind of testing.

    But, the sexy guy at Eastern Michigan is Gregg Barak whose many books while on a nominally Marxist conflict trajectory nonetheless cut through social facts with theory after theory after theory, most recently attempting a (second) reconciliation of modernism with post-modernism. Whether he could be hired anew today is an interesting question.



    September 20, 2012 at 4:53 pm

  9. Alternative hypotheses:

    1. The relevant comparison isn’t between rare events like Parsons or Weber or Mann and the average empirical sociologist but, rather, between the average empirical sociologist and the average theoretical sociologist. I’m inclined to believe that there are no substantial differences in quality or significance of this work–largely because it is empirically and theoretically insignificant.

    2. Rather than a victory of the empirical over the theoretical, the ostensible decline of theory (which was never in a dominant position anyway, but it makes a nice story) is the story of the decline of the average intellectual breadth of knowledge possessed by the average sociologist. In other words, contemporary sociologists know more about their fields now than in the past, but they know far less about the discipline as a whole and, worse, about work outside their discipline beyond cognate work in other departments: e.g., social psychologists who work in psychology departments economic sociologists who work in economic departments.

    3. Despite the requirement of “making a theoretical contribution” in all published empirical work, in reality the “theoretical contribution” is laughably banal and little more than a shibboleth. As a result, the discipline of sociology lacks any basic consensus on what we’re studying, why we’re studying it, and what we hope to achieve by studying it. Let’s forget the completely ignored problem of the relation between methodology and social ontology! (For instance, in most cases our dataset is determined by convenience: our undergrads, our fellow citizens, and so on which reifies “the student body” as a representation of “the nation” which only makes if “the nation” can be divorced from any and all influence from other “nations.”)

    4. A great theorist is a rare event–just as a great empiricalist–but, all other things being equal, the contribution of the great theorist will always outweigh and outlast the contribution of the great empicalist.

    5. Great theorists–and theorists in general–incorporate the empirical in their work; great empiricalists might; but the average sociologist does not, at least not beyond the banal.


    Craig McFarlane

    September 20, 2012 at 5:57 pm

  10. May I ‘like’ craig’s comment?



    September 20, 2012 at 9:41 pm

  11. Je suis d’accord, Henri.



    September 21, 2012 at 1:24 am

  12. Henri, you could, but for two reasons: (1) the obvious technological problem and (2) Fabio tends to prefer that my comments remain ignored.

    Oh, and Emily Kennedy: someone needs to call bullshit on the “Distinguished Professor” you speak of. The only mark of distinction your anecdote relates is narrow-minded dogmatism.


    Craig McFarlane

    September 21, 2012 at 8:06 pm

  13. “Orgtheory neither publishes nor accepts letters from its readers. It is this blog’s editorial policy that the readers should have no voice whatsoever and that Orgtheory shall be solely a one-way conduit of information. The editorial page is reserved for the exclusive use of the Orgtheory Crew to advance whatever opinion or agenda it sees fit, or, in certain cases, for paid advertorials by the business community.” —Passed by a majority of the editorial board, March 17, 1873.



    September 21, 2012 at 8:12 pm

  14. Wow, something must have happened in Durham on the afternoon of Sept. 19, as our Duke contingent waxed poetic. Or something. I was in France so couldn’t tell you what it was.



    September 24, 2012 at 11:46 pm

  15. I think what you’re noticing is actually a really good thing for sociology. Everybody has to do at least a little theory – some people do more than others, but the tails of the distribution are small. That’s much better intellectually than, say, poli sci, where some people do theory and nothing else, and other people (think they) do empirics and nothing else. I don’t mean to say we always get it right, but the fact that empirical work usually requires theoretical motivation, and theoretical claims usually require empirical exploration are IMNSHO positive traits of our discipline.



    September 24, 2012 at 11:48 pm

  16. […] week, I wondered why there was a decline of “social theorist” as a self-identified niche in so…. It’s not that people don’t write social theory. On this blog, we spend a lot time […]


  17. […] dude, where's my social theory? « […]


  18. […] originated with Kieran Healy’s August 22 post and continued more recently in Fabio’s posts (here and here) were that: (1) the category “theorist” seems to be disappearing as an occupational […]


  19. […] I was in a twitter conversation with Phil Arena and Kindred Winecoff about Fabio Rojas’ recent post at concerning the incredible shrinking vocation of social […]


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