Dude, here’s my social theory

Hi, Tom Medvetz here with my third guest installment for OrgTheory.* In this little excursion, I’ll extend the “Dude, where’s my social theory?” discussion that’s been percolating on the site over the last couple of months. The main points of that conversation, which 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 position in American sociology, and that (2) fewer sociologists identify themselves as theorists.

There’s no denying the basic fact underpinning the first point: namely, that the number of jobs with the label “theorist” attached to them has gone down in American sociology over the last few decades. Kieran posits that one result of this trend is growing semantic confusion over the meaning of the term theory:

As a consequence, many people are not sure what, from a disciplinary point of view, theory in sociology is supposed to be any more, or how it should be done, or what if anything distinguishes it from intellectual history, or philosophy, or normative political theory, or humanities-style ‘Theory,’ or mathematical modeling.

I agree—this is probably true. However, it’s worth pointing out that semantic confusion is neither a necessary nor a ubiquitous feature of the shift being discussed. Furthermore, when we start to think about what it means to “do theory,” the discussion takes on a different cast and the issue of “theory’s” status as an occupational position becomes secondary.

I’d begin by noting a seeming exception to proposition #2 above: namely, the recent growth of a vibrant network of young sociologists who identify themselves explicitly as “theorists”—best signaled by the popularity of the ASA Theory section’s Junior Theorist Symposium. Started in 2005 by Neil Gross and Michèle Lamont and resumed in 2008 after a two-year hiatus, the event has grown steadily over the past few years. The list of past “senior theorist” discussants includes Andrew Abbott, Jeffrey Alexander, Craig Calhoun, Randall Collins, Phil Gorski, Richard Swedberg, Ann Swidler, Loïc Wacquant, Andreas Wimmer, and Viviana Zelizer.†

Of course, the popularity of the JTS doesn’t contradict the fact that there are fewer jobs for “theory” specialists. But it does raise another question already anticipated in Kieran’s post: Who are these people, and what do they mean by “theory”? On this general topic, Kieran writes that, “Crudely, the sort of people who once would have thought of themselves. . . primarily as theorists now think of themselves as sociologists of culture instead, or (less often) as disciplinary historians of ideas.” Is this true? Certainly there’s a lot of overlap among these areas—theory, culture, and the history of ideas—in terms of ideas and personnel. Nevertheless, I think there remains, both in the JTS events and in other work done under the banner of “theory” today, a coherent mission that’s not reducible to the sociology of culture per se, or to the history of ideas. It’s also something that can’t be expressed in terms of an opposition between “theoretical” and “empirical” work. I’m referring to the specific focus on the task of analytic construction, including the work of formulating rigorous concepts, historicizing the categories of one’s research (not for its own sake, but as an ongoing feature of their implementation), and taking into account their social effects. And I’d submit that the level of appreciation for these things in American sociology is more important than the specific fate of “theory” as a subdiscipline.

I can clarify this point by returning to the topic I’ve been discussing on this blog: think tanks. Doubtless the two most common questions I get about my research in this area are: (1) “Which think tanks did you study?” and (2) “Would you consider [organization X] a think tank?” These are both perfectly good questions, and they have something important in common: they’re both fundamentally about category boundaries. The first question is essentially, “What is the boundary of your study?”, and the second is, “What is the boundary of the think tank category?” The only thing I don’t like about these questions is that there’s no easy 30-second “elevator version” answer to either of them. That’s because one of the contributions of my study, as I see it, is precisely to build a rigorous analytic concept of a think tank that lays bare some of the hidden features of the reigning political folk concept.

I say ‘build a rigorous concept,’ but I don’t mean build from scratch. In my case, this has meant applying and extending existing sociological concepts like network and field. And while space limitations prevent me from going into detail here, the conception of a think tank that I develop in the book is decidedly “practice-oriented” (to use a fashionable phrase): To be a think tank, I say, is to become ensnared in a never-ending game of separation and attachment vis-à-vis the more established institutions of academia, politics, business, and the media. Think tanks must constantly signal their “independence” from these institutions, on which they depend for resources, personnel, and legitimacy, even as they use their associations with each one to mark their putative separation from the other institutions. It’s from this idea that I develop a description of “policy research” as a hybrid practice of generating policy prescriptions while competing with other think tanks for donations, press coverage, and political attention.

Why the need to be so “theoretical”? At one level, it allowed me to ask certain important but neglected questions about think tanks. By separating the analytic concept from the political folk concept, I could treat the latter’s growing use in American public and political life as something that needed to be explained. And because some of the organizations now included in the folk category predate the think tank classification by more than 60 years, the process I’m referring to isn’t reducible to a simple story of organizational creation. Instead, it was a complex process of network formation. The term think tank became meaningful only when a formerly disparate array of organizations became oriented to one another in their judgments and practices, and only when the members of this network developed novel intellectual products to separate themselves from more established institutions.

So being “theoretical” allowed me to focus on the social relations underpinning the emergence of think tanks. At another level, it allowed me to avoid what I saw as the main pitfall in the study of think tanks: the danger of inadvertently becoming harnessed to the interests of think tanks and their affiliated “policy experts.” As I say in the book, “orphaning the think tank for operational purposes subtly harnesses the scholar to its mission because the think tank’s first goal, even prior to that of exercising political influence, is to differentiate itself from its nearest neighbors in social space.”


What’s the connection between all this and the “Dude, where’s my theory?” discussion? Two summary points:

(1) The status of sociological theory is different from its distinctiveness as an occupational position.

I agree with the gist of the previous discussion as it appears in the posts I linked to above—and there’s nothing in it that contradicts this point. Nor would I deny the importance of the issue raised by Kieran and Fabio. Nevertheless, it seems to me that more relevant than whether or not “theorist” is in decline as an occupational position are some other issues anticipated in Kieran’s original post: inter alia, how strongly do American sociologists appreciate the importance of constructing rigorous analytic concepts? Do we reward those who take seriously the effects of classification systems, including the ones used by social scientists? Is it mandatory or merely optional to subject the conceptual dimension of your own work to relentless self-questioning? The presence or absence of people who specialize in these things might be indicators of theory’s health or sickness. But insofar as we’re all theorists, it’s not a perfect one.

(2) I ♥ empirical data.

The notion of “theory” I’m suggesting here (which is far from original) isn’t built on an opposition between “theoretical” and “empirical” work. In fact, in my own experience, being “theoretical” has meant having to gather more data, not less. Or, to be blunt, I didn’t spend two years in the swamp of Washington, DC visiting dozens of think tanks, interviewing their staff members, rooting through their archives, building a database of the educational and career backgrounds of over 1,000 think tank-affiliated policy experts, attending their public events, and even finagling my way into some of their private ones—like some kind of low-rent Irwin M. Fletcher—to be labeled “non-empirical” (if that’s what’s implied in the term “theoretical”).


The author (left, in disguise) gathering empirical data.

Nevertheless, the theoretical component of my study, by which I mean the work of analytic construction, required its own effort. If nothing else, it should be clear by now that lurking behind questions like, “Which think tanks did you study?” is a whole series of other questions for which commonsense answers aren’t sufficient.‡ As I put it in the book, “for those involved in the world of policy research and advocacy, the practice of calling one’s organization a ‘think tank’ is rarely a neutral act of self-description. It is also a strategic move in a social game, the rules of which we should try to understand…. [T]o become a think tank is to rise above mere interest-group struggles and claim membership in the ranks of experts.”§



* My first and second posts can be found here and here, respectively.

† My own connection to the JTS is as follows: I presented at the event in 2008; I co-organized it with Michal Pagis in 2011; and I attended all but one of the others.

‡ It should also be clear why any answer I give to these questions might threaten to make my study look like some kind of exercise in “deconstruction.” On the first question, consider my two best options. Option #1:

Questioner:      Which think tanks did you study?

Me:                  The book is partly a study of the think tank category itself, by which I mean its emergence in public and political life, its changing boundary, and the historical conditions that made the classification possible.

Questioner:      Come again?

Me:                  I mean that the focus is not so much on the members of a clearly defined organizational “species” or “type,” but on the social forces and relations that made this blurry concept thinkable in the first place. Only after having examined this process historically could I identify specific org…

Questioner:      Ah… got it. Now go back to your Parisian café, Derrida.

But I’m no poststructuralist—far from it—and insofar as my aim was ever to “deconstruct” anything, including the think tank concept, it was only as a prologue to reconstructing it analytically, with lots of empirical data. Which helps to explain why I’ve become partial to option #2:

Questioner:      Which think tanks did you study?

Me:                  All of them.‡*

§ I fully grasp the key methodological question raised here: viz. If the think tank category is constitutively fuzzy and always in flux, as I say, then how does one decide which organizations to leave in or out of the study? This will/would have to be a topic for another post, but (very) briefly, the working solution in my case was to sample from various locations in the organizational network, including its center and periphery, and then to consider more broadly how this network was situated within bigger social structures.

‡* Plus, as a precautionary measure, I carry around with me a copy of the Empirical Loyalty Oath, which quotes liberally from the Sedition Act of 1918 and reads, in part, “I hereby declare that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a poststructuralist.”

Written by Tom Medvetz

October 4, 2012 at 12:34 am

8 Responses

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  1. Oxford offers an M.Sc. in theoreiical chemisty (physical and theoretical chemistry). The University of Bonn has a program in theoretical biology. (In American schools, it is tied to information theory.) We know that theoretical mathematics and theoretical physics are traditional choices. Theoretical engineering is a little harder to find (anywhere), and my undergraduate Schaum’s Outline in Theoretical Mechanics is just the Engineering Mechanics book with all the numbers replaced by letters.

    So, what would applied sociology look like that would make it different from theory? You can call theory “culture studies” or whatever, but where does one go to work in the private sector with an associate’s in sociology? I can get an A Sc in mechanics, or electronics, or medical diagnostics, or radiography, sales and marketing, commercial art, web design, or a hundred other fields with corresponding advanced university graduate and post-graduate degrees in theory. But not sociology.

    No one hires sociological technicians to … do… what…. exactly?…. Apparently, it has no applications and is a useless field, worse off than drama, music, or painting. I deny that. Personally, I think that sociology is useful, only that the marxist prejudice that runs so deep makes it hard for academics to see anything usefui, i.e,, marketable, in their work.



    October 4, 2012 at 1:24 pm

  2. A theorist, imho, is someone we ought not be able to easily understand because she pushes the boundaries of thought. Implementing extant conceptual material, applying theory, is not in my opinion the special role of a theorist, but that of any sociologist. That such “normal science” work seems like theory is perhaps another symptom of the decline of the theoretical sensibility that I at least prefer.

    There is much that can be creatively done within the boundaries of our extant ontologies, but what marks applied theory is that it will make sense to us as a reader even if we couldn’t have written it (because we did not do the empirical work). Good theory doesn’t make sense in its own time because what makes a good theorists is that she learns to see what the rest of us are blind to.



    October 4, 2012 at 5:14 pm

  3. Who was the last great social theorist?

    I am not sure, but I think Giddens and the germans (Habermas, Beck) are the only ones I can think who are not also known for substantial empirical research? Maybe Jeffrey Alexander?

    I was reading Mary Douglas’s “how institutions think” this week and I find it badly outdated. Am I allowed to say that? I cannot blame her but there is plenty of cognitive science and philosophy that has been published in the 25 years since the book came out. Maybe at that time you could make social theory without reading and taking into account these other fields, which did not really exist. My feeling is that social theory has become much more difficult to make because some of the issues previous social theorists speculated on (e.g. Douglas pinning institutions on analogy) are now being studied empirically.



    October 6, 2012 at 9:41 pm

  4. […] Tom Medvetz here, checking in with my fourth OrgTheory guest post (posts 1, 2, and 3 here). Today I’ll sketch a few notes about one of the big issues my book speaks to: the complex […]


  5. […] Let’s thanks Tom Medvetz for an edifying and entertaining series of posts that include the genesis of his research question and cinema trivia. Readers can enjoy his posts here, here, here, and here. […]


  6. […] P.S. Guest blogger Tom Medvetz will add a few more posts, too. His posts are here, here, here, and here. […]


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