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theory for the working sociologist: publication history

This month, I will delve into Theory for the Working Sociologist. This week, I’ll get into the publication history and review process. Later this month, I will get into how the text plays out in undergraduate and graduate classes.

This first post is about the publication history of the book. I think this is important to talk about because the book publication process is often opaque. Also, as you will see, it was a bit frustrating, so this is part of the “talking cure.”

How did it start? About ten years ago, I wrote a very short blog post called “All of Sociology in Four E-Z Steps.” The idea was simple. If I wanted to explain in very simple terms what sociology was all about, I would write a short blog post. Result? Over 8,000 clicks in one day. I was flabbergasted.

The next day an editor from Respected Press contacted me and wanted to know if I’d be interested in turning E-Z Steps into a short book. Respected Press had done very, very well with clever short books. The editor was a fan of the blog and it writing style and hoped to publish a broadly targeted book on the basic ideas of sociological theory.

I put together a short book proposal and had some colleagues read it. Respected Press’ reviewers approved it and I had an advance contract. Then, over about a year, I wrote a very short book with the following chapters

  1. Intro/Framing: The purpose of the book is to explain in very simple language the main ideas of sociology (i.e., the “E-Z” steps). To orient the reader, I talked about how Parsons tried to unify sociology but failed, and now the discipline had these majors camps.
  2. The middle: one chapter for each of the following – critical theory/inequality; rational choice; values/culture/institutions; and social construction. Each chapter’s theories would be illustrated with modern examples. E.g., when racial inequality is discussed, I used people Bonilla-Silva.
  3. Conclusion: I note that there is no unified framework for sociology these days, but some people have suggested bio-sociology/evolution or complexity/emergent systems theory.

The result? Reviewers completely, completely hated it. Yet, at the same time, they even admitted it was well written, they noted that it achieved its main goal of explaining social theory with helpful empirical examples, and one even wrote that it contained the best discussion of Bourdieu that they had ever read.

So what gives? It turns out I had walked into a minefield of disciplinary stubbornness. For example, even though I rejected Parsons and agreed with his critics, just the mention of Parsons, or even noting that, yes, Parsons was a dominant figure, was enough to trigger the Parsons taboo. The same with mentioning bio-sociology and rational choice. In most cases, I was not endorsing (except rational choice, see below). Yet it was enough to get reviewers into a tizzy.

The second disciplinary stubbornness I ran into was that I completely and seriously violated the unspoken norm of sociological theory – it has to be densely written and very long. One reviewer suggested that I mimic Jeffrey Alexander’s monumental Twenty Lectures book. That is ironic because that book… starts with a discussion of Parsons! Also, it is quite long and would be a challenge for many students to read because of its sophistication. In other words, that book simply has different goals and strategies than my book.

I was bummed. I had invested a bit of time into the book and I believed that it was actually achieving its goals. But with such negative reviews, it simply wouldn’t get published.

The editor was extremely cool about it. I offered to re-write it and they would treat it as a completely new book. Then I got stuck. The two reviewers didn’t offer a lot of constructive advice. They just expressed what they disliked. If I couldn’t mention Parsons, who could I mention? If the conclusion wasn’t working – which I agreed with – then what would a good conclusion look like? Just nothing.

So I sat on it for about two years. I just had an emotional block every time I read the draft and the reviews. Then, I developed four key insights. The first I got from my colleague Scott Long. When he heard me gripe, he made a simple comment – I need to explain why this book needs to be written. It wouldn’t help the average student understand sociology any better, but it would help in the review process. Rather than assume the book would be judged on its own terms, I needed an explanation aimed at the state of social theory books. Thus, I added a preface about all the other theory books.

Second, I needed to compromise a little with the “thick book” theory crowd. Even though I was actually quite happy with the main body of the 1st draft, I made one big cosmetic change. I intentionally lengthened the book just to make it seem more scholarly. So I abandoned the original super-short book model, but not much. I just added in a bunch more examples. That was a way of superficially adding length, without sacrificing legibility.

Third, I added meta-theory to make it appear more respectable. Following writers like Neil Gross and Richard Swedberg, I framed the book as “mechanism based social theory.” That approach – where theory is an insight or framework for generating well grounded and testable cause-effect chains – makes sense in contemporary sociology. Most people actually do that in their research. Also, it was very easy to plug in to the existing architecture of the book, which had a sequence of “here is theory X and here is sociologist Y who applies it.”

Fourth, I need to remove any form of remotely controversial content from the book. This was because Respected Press probably doesn’t tolerate a whole lot of negative reviews. My hypothesis is that high prestige presses want well established scholars to all agree that this book is Important. Thus, I could tank my book if I had just one idea that set off a reviewer.

Parsons got dumped. As did bio-social theory, and complexity theory. The only exception was rational choice. That was retained for a few reasons. One is that rational choice theory still has a lot of sway in adjacent areas and is a central in many accounts of social theory, like Randall Collins famous theory text. Also, I’ve written rational choice scholarship and I wasn’t about to conduct an exercise in professional self-erasure. My one concession on this particular point was to shift the terminology from “rational choice” to “strategic action.”

I contacted the editor and he was happy to take a new submission from me. The reviews came back and were “good-ish.”  There were still complaints, but the massive resistance of the first round was gone. The editor thought it was reasonable to ask the press’ board for approval.

They balked. The press board didn’t reject it, but they wanted more revision and more review. I was floored. I was now in the nightmare of endless revisions and editorial indecision. But I buckled up and started working on it.

Then I was floored again. A new editor came into town. I got to know the editor well, so I was sad. But also, I have been burned by editorial turnover in the past. I was so bummed that I even wrote a short note to the press director just to make sure that they were still interested. They said they were.

The new editor seemed interested in the project and had some sensible suggestions. The title got changed and some passages of the book were improved. But overall, it was the same book, but with another pile of revisions. Then I asked who would review the book and the editorial office said it would be the more critical reviewer from the previous round. Bummed again, but I pressed forward and submitted again.

Some time passed and I got no review. The office had overlooked the reviewer’s comments but they found them. They were a bit negative, but the same old story. Yes, the book was easy to read and interesting. And yes, it accomplishes the goal of explaining theory in a simple way… but… they still had reservations.

At this point, I was livid. The book had been with the press for about eight years and had been through three substantially different versions. Nobody said the book was poorly written or filled with errors or misleading statements. Nobody said the book failed at explaining social theory in a short and accessible way. Yet, there was nit picking about specific sections or authors. It just “didn’t work” for this reviewer. It was really, really frustrating.

Time to pull the plug. The new editor was gracious and had seen this stalling in the review process before.  We agreed that the board would simply not publish this book given the reviews and that more would be counter-productive. They even predicted what would happen: it would be approved for publication in about six weeks by someone else. And that is what happened.

After obtaining a release for the book, the manuscript was resubmitted to Columbia University Press, which ironically, had published Jeffrey Alexander’s Twenty Lectures book! There was a friendly editor, who was the first editor at Respected, who started the review process over. The reviews were critical, but supportive. They both bought into the idea of the short and easy to read theory book. They weren’t completely persuaded by all my arguments about social theory, but they did believe the book deserved a place in the library and that the mechanism approach to theory was worth discussing.

Here are my take aways from the process. First, as with journal articles, the review process is fairly schizophrenic. There were five rounds of review, of essentially the same book or the proposal, and they all wildly varied from highly positive to atrocious. Second, you can still derive great benefit from not great review processes. I got to know two editors, both of whom improved the book. Respected Press spent about $700 on reviews, all of whom helped the book. Columbia also spent money hiring reviewers. Third, the experience made me more sensitive. As an editor, I try to spare my authors this experience. I try to severely limit reviews and bring the editorial process to a conclusion. Fourth, I don’t hold a grudge. It was frustrating, sure, but Respected actually gave a contract on another project which was eventually published elsewhere. They’ll probably get pitches from me in the future. Fifth, and finally, I am happy with the book. Do I wish the birth was a little less dramatic? Sure, but there are few things better in life than holding in your hands a fresh copy of well written book.

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Written by fabiorojas

December 10, 2018 at 5:58 am

Posted in uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. It’s frustrating that we don’t get the Parsons and bio-social chapters just because some reviewers aren’t into it!

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    Ella

    December 10, 2018 at 8:25 pm

  2. Indeed. I even dug up some Phil Selznick quotes where he just shreds Parsons…

    Like

    fabiorojas

    December 10, 2018 at 8:26 pm


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