Archive for the ‘just theory’ Category

levy book forum 3: is civil society that bad?

with one comment

In the last two installments of the Levy book forum, I reviewed the basic ideas of the book and some of his discussion of states. In this last installment, I will discuss Part III of the book, which goes into how associations can be pretty nasty.

Part III starts with a parade of the horrible things groups can do to members and their types of dysfunctions. Factionalism, interest groups who hijack the state, angry majorities who hunt minorities. The discussion makes me afraid to walk home at night!

I think most sociologists would be comfortable with this overall view. There are many groups that are illiberal in nature and we should be concerned. And this is a permanent feature of the human condition. We ally with others of similar mind to oppose those we find distasteful or dangerous.

A few questions came to mind as I read that section. First, empirically, have civil associations been fairly depicted? I think my answer is no. I think that non-states can be repressive and violent, but since they like access to state violence, the magnitude of the problem is much less. Levy is not an empirical social scientists, so it may be a smidgen unfair to raise this issue. But we can ask – what are the worst atrocities committed by non-states vs. those committed by states? In some order: the European genocide of non-European peoples; the mass murder of people by socialist states like China in the Cultural Revolution or in the Leninist-Stalinist phases of the USSR; genocide and war making by imperialist and fascist states in the mid 20th century.

In contrast, it is hard to find atrocities of this level committed by private groups without the assistance of states. When we look at private atrocities, like Belgian companies killing millions in the Congo in the early 20th century, they are supported and endorsed by the Belgian state. People often look at example like United Fruit massacre, where a private company killed many, many people. The casualty there is much lower (about 2,000 in the worst estimate) and even then, many historians think it had the blessing of the US state.

A second issue is how we can think to limit or mitigate the illiberal tendencies of civic associations. One answer I wish Levy had delved into is to have states strictly enforce the right of exit from any contract or agreement. A hardcore libertarian might say that we have the right to waive that right. But pragmatic concerns point in a different direction. If courts consistently make it possible to exit communities with low or reasonable penalties, then associations would have an incentive to act in ways that treat members well. It doesn’t address all the pathologies that Levy talks about, but an Al Hirshman perspective might help a lot here.

To summarize: Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom is a good long read in political theory. I think it raises great questions for sociologists and political scientists alike. Recommended!!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!


Written by fabiorojas

November 14, 2017 at 5:06 am

levy book forum part 1: what is rationalism, pluralism and freedom about?

Levy book cover

This month, I will discuss Rationalism, Pluralism and Freedom by my good friend Jacob Levy. I usually don’t write much on “political theory,” as it is a genre of scholarship that I am not fluent in, but I thought orgtheory readers might enjoy this book.

Levy’s goal is to review the tradition of political thought in the West and argue that there is a fundamental tension. First, one might think that, from a liberal perspective, that people have the right to association. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of Western liberalism is the view that people have the right to live in neighborhoods they choose, join churches they like and otherwise hang out with who they want. Yet, at the same time, these non-state groups impose all kinds of restrictions. And this is the tension: liberals tend to put tight reins on states – they are supposed to have limited powers over people – but people can still join groups that are highly illiberal in character.

Summarizing this book is tough, but it has a few major sections, each with a distinct message. The first clearly articulates the problem and offers the argument that states and private groups can over-reach and move in illiberal directions. The second major section ranges through political and social thought and is an exploration of thinking about the boundaries between states, civil society and individuals through modern (e.g., 1500+) history. The third section is an argument against synthesis – you can’t believe at the same time that groups are totally awesome because they shield you from the state but at the same time totally be against their constraining character.

The book is really two short books – one on history of thought and another on ethics (how two normative positions are mutually exclusive) – so my discussion will not go into every detail. What I will do is pick out some parts that sociologists might enjoy and put them under scrutiny.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome 

Written by fabiorojas

October 17, 2017 at 12:02 pm

commentary on dylan riley’s essay on bourdieu

Dylan Riley has an essay in a Catalyst Journal about the popularity of Bourdieu in American academia. Riley makes two claims. First, Bourdieu can’t be popular because he is accurate because Bourdieu is completely wrong. Second, Bourdieu is popular because his theory allows academics to feel good in a world where they have little connection to real world struggle. This blog post is a criticism and discussion of Riley’s second claim, as I think it is an incomplete and misleading account of Bourdieu’s popularity.

Let’s start with where I agree with Riley. Like Riley, I do not believe that Bourdieu provides a terribly accurate account of social class. I won’t delve into this point, except to note that even some hard core Bourdieusians have had tough times when they work with the data. For example, the second edition of Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods has a new appendix noting that variation in school attitudes – the paragon habitus variable – does not explain long term school attainment. Even in DiMaggio’s 1992 article on the association between cultural capital and high school grades, the results were mixed. Cultural capital measures had an impact mainly on humanities subjects but not math (see Tables 3 and 4), which reeks of endogeneity to me. I.e., if cultural capital is possession of knowledge and exposure to cultural norms, then that would mean that knowledge of culture is correlated with… knowledge of culture.

Now, where do I disagree with Riley? I think Riley has an odd, skewed  and, ironically, Bourdieusian theory of how science achieves prominence. In other words, when we ask why a scientific or scholarly theory is accepted, Riley only focuses on two answers: it is true or it is politically valuable within the field of science. A focus on truth and self-interest leads Riley to overlook other factors that bolster a theory. They include the aesthetics of the theory (“this is elegant”), the theory’s association with high status individuals or institutions, or the theory’s conceptual suppleness, which I think is really at work with Bourdieu’ popularity.

By conceptual suppleness, I mean that the theory is useful for describing things, providing a language for some range of phenomena, and it is very easy for a lot of scholars to generate hypotheses about the world (including wrong hypotheses). When you read a lot of “applied Bourdieu,” which is a requirement when you work in the fields of education and organizational analysis, you quickly realize that Bourdieu’s basic terms have an incredible, but non-trivial, flexibility. I make this argument in chapter 2 of my new social theory book, where I claim that what is attractive about field and habitus theory is that it is a way to seamlessly integrate the idea that there are distinct areas of social life (“fields”), these fields has specific hierarchies and resources (“forms of capital”) and that stratification is not only about violence, but inequality in terms of how people instinctual knowledge of the field (“habitus”) is deployed.

At various points, Riley downplays the importance of field theory as a way of thinking  about or describing social life, but I think that is misguided. Basically, anything that occurs in an institutional context can be usefully thought of as a field. Let’s take one of Riley’s examples – labor. He write the following:

“One general problem with the ludic or field view of the social is that there are many zones of social life that are not configured like games. One of these is the world of labor, in the sense of material transformation and creation. Even in the most exploitative and alienated conditions, labor involves a collective effort at transformation and is therefore oriented toward a project, not toward “stance taking” or “distinction” in a field.”


Riley assumes, in this passage, that collective action and “stance taking” are incompatible processes. If I understand this argument, Riley is trying to argue that cooperation and the seeking of position can’t happen at the same time. There are a few reasons to think that this not quite right. For example, in actual workplaces, there is almost always a division of labor, which some tasks or jobs getting more recognition than others. Perhaps Riley was thinking about the political aspects of labor. Once again, people participate in labor politics, which has its own internal organization – some people become leaders, acquire status or honor within the domain of labor politics. This can all be done while people break out of the ideological “misrecognition” of capitalist society that Riley alludes to.

In fact, one of the most fecund lines of thought to emerge from Bourdieu’s work is that written by Doug McAdam, Neil Fligstein, Sidney Tarrow and others in the “Dynamics of Contention” tradition. In that line of thought, you don’t see collective action as incompatible with older field theories. Rather, you see contention as a normal aspect of fields. Collective action is inherent in fields; they are challenged and disrupted over time.

You might not agree with the dynamics of contention school in social movements research. Certainly, many of my co-bloggers don’t. But it is easy to see that the Bourdieusian framework gives you a lot to work with, even if some of its hypotheses don’t work out.

Riley is certainly onto something when he claims that Bourdieusian sociology allows people to have a certain cache, a political hipness. Riley explains:

“Bourdieu’s sociology, however, offers something more than a generalization of the “professorial” experience. It also offers an identity, one with certain parallels to what Lenin called the “professional revolutionary.” Bourdieusian sociologists are a vanguard. They possess insights into the workings of the social world that derive from their social theory but are denied to the laity mired in the swamp of common sense and everyday understandings.”

However, take a step back and ask if Bourdieusianism is really the Leninism of modern academia. For some in the post-Cold War world, it might be. For some folks, Bourdieu provides the academic with a sense that they have figured it all out, that they have the secret code. If it’s a revolutionary impulse, it’s an incredibly muted one that lacks anything but a vague left politics.

But if you span the wide range of academia that uses Bourdieu, the education schools, the business schools, the sociologists, the ethnic studies scholars, and even the music scholars, you simply get the view that Bourdieu has tapped into something simple. We actually do live in circumscribed worlds that have rules and resources, and we need a language to describe it. Bourdieu doesn’t have the last word, but he’s part of the conversation.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome 

Written by fabiorojas

October 3, 2017 at 4:01 am

friends don’t let friends do critical realism

Over at the American Journal of Sociology, Neil Gross, frankly, rips critical realism a new one in a review of two books (Douglas Porpora’s Reconstructing Sociology: The Critical Realist Approach and Margaret Archer’s book, The Relational Subject). First, Gross notes that critical realists don’t seem to have a grasp on what sociology is actually about:

Porpora’s argument for critical realism is that it can counter “seven myths of American sociology” (p. 11) that he sees as pernicious. The first is that “ethnography and historical narrative are only exploratory or descriptive. They are not explanatory” (p. 11). This is a weird claim. Most American sociologists see ethnographic and historical work as crucial for the elucidation of causal mechanisms, which is central to explanation.

How wrong is this claim? The AJS actually ran an entire issue devoted to inference in ethnography. Bro, do you even J-stor?

After showing that the warrant for critical realism  is lacking, Gross then gets to what critical realism is actually about:

Since most of these myths don’t amount to anything, I wasn’t sure why I should keep reading. In the end, though, I was glad I did, because Porpora offers a concise and engaging introduction to critical realism. As he describes it, critical realism is a “metatheory” intended to provide a critique of, and alternative to, covering law approaches to explanation, that is, those that understand explanation to mean accounting for facts by subsuming them under general causal laws of either a deterministic or probabilistic nature.

Ok, we have this meta-theory… how does it work out?

But what does this mean for explaining stuff in society—you know, the thing sociologists are supposed to do? Beats me. The book goes on and on with endless tables and charts and typologies, covering everything from “relational phases of the self” to connections between the “cultural system” and the “sociocultural system,” with about as much discussion of “morphogenesis” and “morphostasis” as you’d expect from Archer. The occasional attempts at empirical application fall flat. When I got to Donati’s chapter on the 2008 financial crisis—a chapter where he refuses to engage the impressive scholarship produced by economic sociologists, economists, anthropologists of finance, and others, preferring to give a theoretical account that loosely weaves together ideas of relational subjectivity with the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann—I gave up.


The world is in flames. We need good, clear, accurate, and powerful explanations for what’s happening so that we can figure out how to smartly move forward. Maybe a sociologist will read some critical realism and get inspired to produce a brilliant explanation she or he wouldn’t have otherwise. I hope so. But neither of these two books makes a convincing case that critical realism is the royal road to sociological truth.

If you want to burn up your precious productive years writing this sort of stuff, go for it. But if you feel grumpy at the end, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

Written by fabiorojas

July 3, 2017 at 4:01 am

conflict vs. consensus theory: another bogus teaching distinction

In a lot of old textbooks, and a few newer ones as well, you get this argument that social theories can be divided up into theories of conflict vs. theories of consensus. Marx is a conflict guy because his theory revolves around class divisions. Durkheim is consensus guy because he talks about social solidarity.

Sad! Social theory is not built in this way. Usually, consensus and conflict are dependent variables that are explained by other independent variables. Let’s take Marx. Did he *always* claim that there would be class conflict? Nope! Example: the theory of false consciousness describes the conditions under which people do not resist capitalist institutions. So, for Marx, the degree of conflict is a variable that is driven by other things. Same for Durkheim. The degree of social solidarity varies in Durkheim’s theory and is affected by things like urbanization and the division of labor.

The conflict/consensus distinction is not a horrible idea, but it is not one that supported by further examination of sociology’s major theories. It conflates dependent and independent variables.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

June 8, 2017 at 12:02 am

contemporary vs. classic social theory: another bogus teaching distinction

A while back, I was telling a friend on the phone about my book, Theory for the Working Sociologist. He asked me about it and I said, “it’s social theory but illustrated with modern research.” He then said, “oh, that could be a book for a contemporary theory theory course.” I mumbled, “sure,” but soon as we were done, I was like, “no, that’s not right.”

In this post, I want to explain why I don’t buy into the “classic v. contemporary” distinction in theory. Let’s start with a statement of what I do and do not argue:

  •  Claim: Breaking up social theory courses into “classic” and “contemporary” is not a great way to teach. It misleads people about the basic nature of sociology and it is not an optimal way to teach *average* undergrads and grad students about how sociology works,
  • Do not claim the following: Sociology/social theory has no historical phases. A historical treatment of theory has no value. The humanities (e.g., close readings of classic texts) has no place in sociology.  Older texts have no value. I reject these claims.

Let me lay out the argument in a number of steps:

  1. The purpose of a social theory course is to teach undergraduates and beginning graduate students “theory,” by which I mean some set of broad applicable ideas that relate to the empirical investigation of society.
  2. The history of social theory and social theory are different things. History of thought is about understanding specific ideas and texts in relation to the biographies of authors and their institutional and historical context. Social theory is a body of thought that motivates thinking throughout sociology. Overlapping? Sure. But theory and history are distinct. For example, a wrong idea can be important for history of thought, but now irrelevant for theory.
  3. Advanced students can learn social theory in any format (historical, mathematical, sign language, you name it!). *Average* students, at the B.A. and Ph.D. level, are confused by historical approaches. By teaching theory in a historical format, most students take away the lesson that “theory” is synonymous with “history.” Nice to know, but not relevant to research.
  4. Historical approaches to theory are sup-optimal for learning because older texts tend to be written in a highly verbose fashion and refer to a lot of things that even modern educated people may not know about. Example: In Weber’s description of bureaucracy, he alludes to Bakunin, the Russian anarchist, as a foil. Just explaining that single reference to undergrads took me about 20 minutes. Now imagine doing that for all of Weber’s references!
  5. Finally, historical approaches make it hard for typical students to transfer what they learned in theory class to another class, and thus undermine the entire purpose of theory class!

Also, I’d add that no other discipline, except philosophy, teaches its core theory in a historical classic/contemporary format. Economists teach it in terms of scope conditions – micro an macro-economic theory. In political science, it is also broken down by topic (“American politics”) – only the political philosophers (“theory” in poli sci) do it by time period, E.g., classic political theory (Greeks) vs. modern (1500 and beyond). Literary theory (“criticism”) gets its own course while historical groupings are used for specific subjects (“early American novels”). Theories of art courses are different than art history courses. The physical sciences pretty much separate all historical scholarship into a few highly specialized courses. You learn proof writing in math either in a proof writing course or in real analysis, which is the modern theory of calculus. The history of math is its own course. The same goes for physics – you learn physical theory (stripped of history) in classical mechanics (not time period – classic means stemming from Newton’s laws; classical mechanics is still a real area of physics) and quantum mechanics. If you really want mechanics the way Newton did it, you can take a course in that. But no one pretends it is teaching you how to do physics in general. You get the modern, better presentation in your basic physics course.

I think that the classical/contemporary approach to teaching theory comes from a desire to be an old style humanist. I suppose there is nothing wrong that. But for most students, this is an incredibly inefficient and misleading way to teach theory. Even if they do learn some of it in your class, I guarantee many will forget everything you said once grades are submitted. Instead, boil down sociology’s main arguments, illustrate them with modern research and move on. If you want to assign my book, that would be great. If not, that’s ok. Just teach social theory, not history.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

Written by fabiorojas

June 7, 2017 at 12:01 am

grad students can join the asa theory section for free!!!

From the home office in Toronto, Daniel Silver sends me the following announcement:

ASA Theory Section Offering Free Student Memberships

The ASA Theory Section is looking to reach out to graduate students who may have theoretical interests but have not joined the section.  To this end, we have secured a number of graduate student memberships, which we can offer to any graduate student who is currently a member of ASA but not Theory.  The section is large, vibrant, and open to any and all forms of sociological theory.

Graduate students who are interested – or faculty who know graduate students that might be interested – can contact Dan Silver, at  Act fast while supplies last!

This is an amazing offer. Dan told me that when grad students sign up, they get a free AGIL key chain, their choice of three intersecting social identities, a framed picture of Ann Swidler and a free pass to “Ritual Chains,” the Theory Section’s secret “after hours” dance party.*

And you know what? I’m feeling generous today. I will give a free copy of Theory for the Working Sociologist to the first three grad students who email Dan and take up this offer. Just send proof that you signed up and your snail mail address.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

* Ok, none of that is true but the book give away is 100% the truth.

Written by fabiorojas

May 17, 2017 at 12:01 am