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.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 26, 2012 at 12:01 am

4 Responses

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  1. Doesn’t theory “win out” simply because it is the purpose of theory to absorb and summarize empirical work, and the purpose of empirical work to move theory towards ever greater accuracy in our understanding of the world?

    Think of social movements. “In the end, the establishment always wins out,” we might argue. But this doesn’t mean that it “beats” or “trumps” the activists. Only that its effect is never to do away with the establishment, only to transform it. Activism results in policy, and this becomes part of the new establishment. The Civil Rights Act absorbed and summarized a great mess of coordinated and uncoordinated actions. There was the activism and there was the policy work and, in the end, we feel the consequences of the activism through the generalized effect of the policies that were enacted.

    Of course, the social movement organizations don’t necessarily disband once the new policy is established. But the meaning of their efforts changes. New battles, new policies. Likewise, empirical work continues in the social sciences even after our theories have absorbed the lessons of the most recent study.

    (PS. This analogy may also work in other ways. What we want is a “grassroots” empiricism to condition our theories. In the political domain, we don’t want policy to be constructed for purely “political” reasons. We want policies to emerge from needs “on the ground”. And we certainly don’t want empirical studies that merely constitute astro-turfing by already established theories.)



    September 26, 2012 at 6:36 am

  2. “It is indeed often the case that the classic sociologists, long after they died, re-emerged as social theorists,” writes Gerard Delanty in this recent review of a book on French social thought.



    September 26, 2012 at 4:36 pm

  3. Nice one thank you for posting…………

    Construction News


    Henry Gomez

    October 2, 2012 at 10:33 am

  4. […] 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 position in […]


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