social theory without super heroes

A while back, I did a podcast with Kyle Green about Theory for the Working Sociologist. He’ll release it later this semester but I wanted to report on an exchange we had. He asked me about the movement among scholars to revive earlier figures like DuBois. Cooper and others. I said a few things. First, many of these figures have been overlooked because of the history of racial discrimination in our country and in our discipline. Second, I am actually a fan of going back into sociology’s history and reviving lost thought. There might be something valuable.

But I did warn Kyle about something. I don’t want the old canon of sociology “superheroes” to be replaced with a new canon of “superheroes.” Why? Two major reasons. First, social theory should be about understanding the social world, not valorizing particular people. When you read X’s writing because X is popular, you’re doing intellectual history not science. I honestly don’t care about Marx the person. But I do care whether the theory of class conflict is actually an accurate theory of the world. When we do “superhero” social theory (e.g., Marx, Weber, Durkheim), we really miss the point. Having a new team of superheroes just reproduces the problem.

Second, when you set up a team of sociology superheroes, you create a mythology and encourage ad hominem reasoning. For example, a lot of people want DuBois to be a new sociology super hero. I think he’s a great sociologist, but DuBois had a lot of problematic positions. For example, he was an unapologetic Stalinist. Seriously – click on the link. By treating DuBois as a new superhero, you will not see the complete person.

Also, by treating social theory as a superhero issue, you might be tempted to make ad hominem attacks. For example, a lot of people are gunning for Weber because, frankly, he had some really racist views of non-white people. Seriously – click on the link. I think the critics are correct, but that doesn’t imply that his other ideas are wrong. That’s a logical fallacy.

Will I still read and teach DuBois and Weber? Sure! The logical validity of an argument does not depend on who speaks the argument. Some readers would say that there’s a sort of contamination – people with racist ideas produce incredibly racist theory. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. You simply need to assert independent judgment. Is Weber’s theory of Calvinism a secret imperialist plot? Nope. Is Souls of Black Folk a secret defense of Stalinist gulags? Give me a break!

Here’s the bottom line. I really get nervous when people start arguing about the lives of dead sociologists and which ones we should worship instead. Really, they are all false gods. The only thing you should do when you read any sociologists is just take the theory and look for supporting and contradicting evidence. That’s it.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 16, 2020 at 12:54 pm

Posted in uncategorized

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  1. I very much agree. I actually also apply this to writing in my teaching, telling students to write about questions, concept, theories, findings, etc, rather than about authors, papers and books (which is typically their first inclination). I tend to think this leads to clearer thinking and better text, but had not thought too much yet about the broader implications of focusing too much on authors.



    October 16, 2020 at 1:07 pm

  2. My cavil to this is that, when I was in grad school (Stanford, fwiw), we learned a lot about theoretical research programmes (TRPs), and (implicitly) their core participants and their history of diffusion. I’m not sure theory makes the sense it should if we snip TRP trajectories from it, especially since TRPs become memes and broadcast sites (for example, how Herbert Simon-style rational org theory captured business schools across the USA). Sociological theory (and economics theory) has an intersubjective diffusional aspect that physics has far less of.



    October 16, 2020 at 4:40 pm

  3. Very true! But I think understanding the personal history or social diffusion of theory is more of a topic for graduate students who have already mastered the ideas.



    October 16, 2020 at 8:20 pm

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