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response to lizardo on the death of theory in sociology

A little while back, Omar released a pamphlet called The End of Theorists. It’s an essay on the state of theory in sociology and some possibilities for the future. Originally given as address to the junior theorist’s symposium, he expanded it into an essay. Omar’s bad news is that the official role of “theorist” has been eroded in sociology. The good news is that one can come up with a new role for theorists that creates a new position for them in the profession. My summary is pithy and leaves out a lot, so I strongly recommend that you read the original.

My comments: First, there’s a conceit in the profession that Omar takes at face value. That we need a separate group of people called “theorists” who do things that other sociologists don’t do. Classically, this wasn’t the case. Max Weber (usually) didn’t do “theory.” He did political economy, though he had some writings that were purely theoretical in character. Durkheim had some purely theoretical texts, like Rules of Sociological Method, but his greatest works were focused on issues like political economy, religion, or social psychology.

So why are these people lumped into “theory?” Very good, or very interesting, answers to important questions have a prolonged impact because future readers try to draw more general lessons.* That fits one common definition of theory – general principles that guide a wide range of cases (e.g., gravity applies to all physical objects, supply and demand curves apply to markets in general). For this reason, I’ve always thought that we shouldn’t have separate theory developers. Instead, we should make our most wide ranging answers into our theory. That’s typically (but not always) how people enter into the “theory canon.”

Second, theory in modern times seems to correlate with some other attributes in sociology – qualitative, history of thought, verbal expression. This can be seen in many ways. For example, people who are heavy in theory tend to do things like historical work, ethnography and culture, which is often but not always qualitative in approach. Just check out the list of speakers for the junior theorist symposiums, or the empirical foci of now classic “theorists” like Bourdieu. Thus, what happens in heavily quantitative areas like criminology, public opinion, or demography has little influence on what the canon of sociological theory should be.

More might be said, but here is what I thought after reading Omar’s essay – The theorist is dead? Good riddance. I’m tired of old books, a balkanized sociology, and posturing. Instead, let’s create theory that distills what is learned from across the profession. That’s a theory that we all can use.

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* There is also a political story as well, in that some scholars have big cheering sections while others do not. See Mannheim steamrolled.

Written by fabiorojas

March 4, 2015 at 12:16 am

Posted in fabio, sociology

3 Responses

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  1. Paraphrasing Art Stinchcombe, who in one of his essays said “I don’t want to be a participant in a profession that allows some of its members to call themselves ‘theorists’!”

    Liked by 1 person

    Howard Aldrich

    March 4, 2015 at 1:26 am

  2. From a quant, theory is dead. Read Nasim Talab. He is my hero. There is no line between objectivity and subjectivity. Because there are no absolutes, there is no definitive lines. There will always be exceptions. There will always be variables, quantifiable and unquantifiable. Rather than theory, roll the dice.

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    brentblonigan

    March 4, 2015 at 3:27 am

  3. Quick things: Address was for the Lewis Coser Award (although it did incorporate some things previously presented at JTS), and I did not release the pamphlet myself, but it was made possible by the wonderful Alison Gerber (http://sociology.yale.edu/people/alison-gerber). And, yes the Stinchcombian line that the classics didn’t do “theory” is correct but also quite beside the point, for the person who generated the role of theorist in the U.S. (just like Sartre generated the role of the “intellectual” in the Parisian field) was Parsons. His role imprint is still felt there and the reality is that for better or worse we have a theory section, people whose identity is committed to theory, and a major ASA journal dedicated to theory. So theory is partially institutionalized and it’s not going to disappear into a Mertonian mist or magically translate into “analytical sociology” (all of this is wishful thinking as I point out). So unfortunately the problem is more complex and the solutions are harder. This does not affect some people, but it affects those of us who are somewhat integrated into the theory community, and would like to shepherd some of the young scholars who are actually interested in (whatever can be called) theory.

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    Omar

    March 4, 2015 at 12:30 pm


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