orgtheory.net

a general theory of chest-bursting sociology

To me, learning about a scholar’s intellectual trajectory and philosophy is helpful for understanding the impetus for particular schools of thought.  One of the pivotal moments for me during my grad school days was hearing Neil Fligstein‘s candid perspective about having to advocate for one’s research question, methods, and claims.  In fact, he compared being an academic with being the creature from Alien(s).  That’s right, we’re not the flame-toting Lt. Ripley and the heroic but ill-fated Nostromo crew; we’re more like the chest-bursters who have to keep coming back, no matter how many times we get (spoilers ahead! cover your eyes, young’uns) burnt, ejected from the airlock into outer space, frozen, etc.

Not you.

Not you.

With that imagery in mind, have a look at Fligstein’s discussion of his most recent works. Fligstein talks in an interview with McGill student Nicole Denier about how he decided upon a PhD in sociology (hint: a foray with social movements), where he sees the field headed, and his agenda for grand general theory.

ND: …what do you think are the challenges for sociology to overcome in the next few years?

NF: What I have found most frustrating about sociology is that it is so Balkanized. One of the most depressing things about sociology is when I look at the American Sociological Association and see that there are forty-four sections, which could be reduced to about six. It tends to create these Balkanized theory groups (for lack of a better term) that are engaged in a discourse with ten other people. From a graduate student’s point of view, that’s the hardest thing to face in the field—how fragmented it is. The problem is that there just aren’t that many people. There are only about 15,000 sociologists in North America, I think. It was bad when I was a graduate student twenty-five years ago, it’s much worse now. It’s very frustrating for people and it’s hard to overcome. One of the things I like about the construction of something called economic sociology is that for the first time in 30 years there is a synthetic field – not a field which wants to break the field into smaller and smaller parts—but a field that wants to say that politics and law and economic processes and organizations and social movements are all part of the same thing. So to me, this is what this economic sociology thing is all about. It is more synthetic than breaking it into a smaller piece.

ND: Similarly, your field theory has the possibility to span a number of areas. You’re not so optimistic about it overcoming the differences between the institutionalisms in economics, political science, and sociology. But do you think it can bridge the gaps within sociology?

NF: I’m an optimistic person. I hope that it becomes more synthetic. People have moved so far from (I’ll use a dirty word) a general theory of society or a theory of society that it’s not in their vocabulary any more. It was so discredited so long ago that you’re a bad person if you even have that thought. It’s a big taboo in sociology to say that, you know, there really is a general theory of society. Again, you get off stage with people and you talk to them and a lot of people think there is a general theory of society….[snip!!!]…. Sociologists tend toward understanding action in groups, yet we don’t even think about it most of the time. Field theory is about that: how groups of people and groups of groups do these kinds of interactions and watch other people and reference other people and take positions, a very generic level of social process. I figure a lot of people are ready to hear that message in sociology. Hopefully, it will go a little further beyond where it is right now.

(See Fligstein’s past orgtheory posts here and here on his work with Doug McAdam on strategic action fields, as well as other colleagues’ reactions here, here, and here.)

You when you finally get a love note.

When you find a like-minded colleague.

Written by katherinechen

December 11, 2013 at 12:08 am

12 Responses

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  1. Ahem, the proper term is xenomorph.

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    fabiorojas

    December 11, 2013 at 2:28 am

  2. “…politics and law and economic processes and organizations and social movements are all part of the same thing…”, namely, “society”, about which we should have a “general theory”. I agree.

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    Thomas

    December 11, 2013 at 8:58 am

  3. Let me qualify that a bit: I agree that if sociology is to provide us with anything it should be such a theory. It should not just serve as a way of legitimizing each separate, balkanized aspect. In that role, it does more harm than good. But I’m not actually sure that a general theory of society is possible or desirable. In one sense, the assumption that society can (and must) be understood through its separate “parts”–political, legal, economic, organizational, activists–is already a “general theory”, viz., of a balkanized society. Another possibility is simply to abandon the project of understanding society “scientifically”, and engage with it only in practice. I think that might be what anarchism implies, actually.

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    Thomas

    December 11, 2013 at 9:06 am

  4. fabio, so it seems the terms should be: Xenomorph <- Facehugger <- Chestburster <- Embryo. These could correspond to our life cycles as well-established titan in the field (provided no harsh encounters with Ripley) <- mid-level academic <- assistant professors and grad students <- undergrads.

    Hope you all aren't eating lunch as you read this.

    Thomas, you might like Fligstein and McAdam's discussion of these issues under positivist vs. realist approaches in their Theory of Fields book.

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    katherinechen

    December 11, 2013 at 4:02 pm

  5. Is this gonna be a straight up quant hypothesis test or just another grounded theory bug hunt?

    Like

    gabrielrossman

    December 11, 2013 at 4:28 pm

  6. Gabriel, SAF is amenable to both quant and qual approaches. Since you have expressed interest in this retrieval mission, a Weyland-Yutani representative will appear shortly at your office door with a contract for you to sign and – erm – a specimen jar. Don’t panic when she leaves the jar behind and locks the door behind her. This is standard procedure.

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    katherinechen

    December 11, 2013 at 7:23 pm

  7. Katherine, If I went and made a major robustness situation out of it, everybody steps in. Reviewers start demanding all sorts of specifications, and there are no citations for anybody; nobody wins. So I made a decision, and it was wrong. It was a bad call, Katherine. It was a bad call.

    Like

    gabrielrossman

    December 11, 2013 at 8:03 pm

  8. And where did you find that drawing? It’s so cute/revolting!!!

    Like

    fabiorojas

    December 11, 2013 at 9:56 pm

  9. the idea of gabe rossman as a sociologist at the intersection of bill paxton and paul reiser makes me smile.

    Like

    dr

    December 12, 2013 at 4:44 pm

  10. Did I just get pwned on alien trivia?

    Like

    fabiorojas

    December 12, 2013 at 7:25 pm

  11. Game over, man! We’re all gonna die in obscurity man!

    Like

    bob

    December 13, 2013 at 5:02 pm


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