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fabio v. g abend (2008): another round in the theory teaching wars

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In 2008, Gabriel Abend wrote a really insightful article on “The Meaning of Theory.” His point was powerful and simple: people use the word theory in a whole bunch of different ways. For some people, “theory” might mean “an idea that lets you generate hypotheses.” For others, “theory” might mean the close reading and interpretation of classic texts.

A really nice aspect of Abend’s article is that he doesn’t dump on the different meanings of theory. Rather, he goes the opposite route. At the end of the article, he recommends that sociologists pull back and appreciate that the term is highly polysemic in our discipline and we should engage in “therapuetics,” which means that we should really step back and be chill. Abend (2008: 192):

All sociologists should be fully aware that their disagreements about theory have a semantic dimension, which has important effects on the appropriateness and forcefulness of different kinds of arguments. If this point became common sociological wisdom, that would surely amount to a step forward. For instance, no theory discussion would forget that there are many senses of the word ‘theory’ and no real referent or true meaning; that the many things that the word ‘theory’ is used to express are quite different indeed; or that the ontological, evaluative, and teleological questions in their customary form are problematic. Full consciousness of these facts would just dissolve numerous problems and disputes— namely, those that are ultimately caused by semantic vagueness. Further, it would clarify those (also numerous) problems and disputes that would still persist, pinpoint with more precision what the dispute is about, make discussion easier, and ultimately make substantive progress possible.

Great point. In peer review, or at an academic conference, this makes total and complete sense. For example, when a survey researcher says an article is “theoretical,” they mean tests some hypothesis drawn from an account of social action. This is classic Mertonian “middle range” theory. But that’s a different than “theory” written by the person tracing out the historical roots of DuBois’ sociology. Both are valuable. The exegetical scholar should not trash the middle range theory person.

But here is a problem – theoretical detente breaks down in the classroom. Most students will take maybe 1 or 2 courses called “theory.” You can’t possibly cover all meanings of theory in any deep way. So here is what happens: people default to a particular version of theory. And this has consequences. Why? Some versions of “theory” are more relevant to sociological education than others. All versions of “theory” are valuable in the scholarly sense but they are not equally valuable to the majority of students. The different “theories” do not have equal pedagogical value.

If you buy this argument, then what should you teach? My solution: Ditch the word “theory” and replace a vague word with a much better concrete descriptive. Then, ask yourself what students should learn in your class that will help internalize the key lessons of sociology. Here are my candidate words:

  1. Axioms and deductions (Abend: “you mean by it is a general proposition, or logically-connected system of general propositions, which establishes a relationship between two or more variables”)
  2. Middle range explanation (Abend: “an explanation of a particular social phenomenon”)
  3. Interpretive work (Abend: “the main questions that theory3 sets out to answer are not of the type ‘what x causes y?’ Rather, given a certain phenomenon P (or a certain fact, relation, process, trend), it asks: ‘what does it mean that P?,’ ‘is it significant that P?,’ ‘is it really the case that P?,’ ‘what is P all about?,’ or ‘how can we make sense of or shed light on P?”)
  4. Exegesis (Abend: “The word ‘theory’ and some of its derivatives are sometimes used to refer to the study of and the students of the writings of authors such as Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, Parsons, Habermas, or Bourdieu.”)
  5. Conceptualism (Abend: “A theory5 is a Weltanschauung, that is, an overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world. Unlike theories1, theories2, and theories3, theories5 are not about the social world itself, but about how to look at, grasp, and represent it.”)
  6. Ethics/Theories of justice (Abend: “some people use the word ‘theory’ to refer to accounts that have a fundamental normative component.”)
  7. Special problems of social explanation (Abend: “it refers to the study of certain special problems [FGR- such as the macro/micro transition] that sociology has encountered.”

Once you drop the loaded word “theory,” then you realize that some things are just honestly low priority. For example, most people, honest to God, don’t care about history of social thought and it honestly won’t help the typical sociologist do better work. So you can safely drop theory 4 (exegesis) from your course. Another easy one is theory 6 – ethics. Important? Sure, but that’s either an elective or a course in the philosophy department.

Then you can easily establish priority in teaching for the rest. Since most sociology majors and graduate students are empirically driven (e.g., demography, health, social movements), then you should heavily emphasize theory 2 and 3 (middle range and understanding) with a health dose of theory 5 (conceptualism) so you have a lot of structure and the material is not ad hoc. That is what I do in Theory for the Working Sociologist.  Theory 7 (“special problems”) can be safely used as an occasional topic to flesh out a course or motivate stronger students.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 5, 2019 at 4:57 pm

Posted in uncategorized

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