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i no longer teach history of thought

For a long time, I bought into the idea that when you teach social theory, you are teaching history of social thought. I also bought into the idea that history of social thought helps students better understand sociology.

I no longer hold these views. I think social theory and history of social thought are two different scholarly areas that have vastly different goals. Social theory, especially as it is understood in social science programs, is a positivist endeavor. At some level, you have a real phenomenon and you have an explanation for why it looks the way it does. I don’t think you need to be a hardcore Viennese philosopher to adopt this view. Rather, I simply mean that about 95% of sociology faculty work on specific areas such as social change, organizational analysis or culture and their work is about making theories meet data in some systematic way.

In contrast, history of social thought has a different goal. The aim of most historical thinking is to understand specific people and ideas, trace out connections over time, and appreciate the social milieu of a previous era. In this sense, history of social thought is a sort of humanistic exercise conducted in sociology courses that provides some background and context to the discipline. It does not necessarily or usually lead to a student being able to better understand the main arguments of the field as they exist today or to use those ideas in their research.

Is history of social thought relevant to social theory? Sure. But that’s not the relevant question. The real question: is history of social thought so important that you would displace other topics in your social theory course? The answer is clearly no. Just as we would not want to drop biological theory for history of biology, we would not want social scientists to drop social theory for history of social thought. The same goes for other topics that sometimes appear in “social theory” courses. For example, we often see theory instructors invest a lot of time in philosophy of science issues, but it’s probably not the best use of time.

So here is my message: Dump history of social thought. When you teach theory, teach theory! Ask your self: what are the models of human behavior and social structure that you think are important to modern sociology? Then, boil those down and teach them. If you enjoy history or philosophy, use it as an occasional topic. But stick to the core of the discipline. It’s in the course title!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($5 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street

PS. I am not against history of social thought courses. If departments offer a separate course on history of thought, that’s great. But don’t let it displace theory.

Written by fabiorojas

February 2, 2017 at 12:11 am

book spotlight: postcolonial thought and social theory by julian go

go_postcolonial_book

This is probably the book that Julian Go will be remembered for. For the last forty or fifty years, there’s been a stream of theoretical writings in the humanities that has been ignored by most sociologists and Postocolonial Thought and Social Theory is the book to bring it into sociology. It’s a joy to read and raises important issues. If Go succeeds in persuading sociologists that this is important, it would have a big impact on historical sociology, the sociology of race, urban studies, globalization, and related areas.

So I will briefly summarize the contents and then tell you about the strong and weak points in the book. First, in the humanities, there has been an extended discussion about the role that imperial politics and culture has on the literature, historical writing, and the arts. It might be summarized in the following way. The colonization of the world by European powers from 1500 to the mid-20th left an ubiquitous mark on everything. “Postcolonial” theory is a collection of ideas and claims about how one should incorporate an appreciation of imperial and colonial culture and politics into the study of arts and letters. For example, if a novel discusses brown and black people, you should think about the sense of “otherness” they feel since they are the subordinate class in a colonial society. Another example – the way we interpret “indigenous” cultures is wrapped up in our desire to either conform to narratives that support imperial power or the narratives that nationalists offer.

What does colonial theory offer positivist social science? Roughly speaking, Go suggests that social science should refine and amend its empirical focus. For example, there is a “metropolitan bias.” We use the imperial center as our model of global society. There is also an elaboration of standpoint theory, which suggests that there is great value to be had in exploration the social world of non-elites in the empire.There is a lot more in the book and I suggest you read it if you have an interest in the issues I raised.

Here, I’ll praise the book and critique it. One extremely strong feature of the book is that it is very well written. This is important to say because so much postcolonial theory is written like garbage. If Go’s only contribution to social theory were to produce a lucid account of Spivak, Bhabha, and others, it would be well worth reading. I use a social theory anthology when I teach, which includes a selection from Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and, frankly, it’s horridly written. This book will help me explain it better.

Another praiseworthy feature of the book is that Go does not get tangled up in the critical aspects of postcolonial writings. I have often found that authors in the postcolonial tradition spend too much time complaining about the Enlightenment, positivism, and science. This is bad for two reasons. One is that critique is valuable, but limited. I need the “so what?” Second, quite simply, a lot of these authors seem to know very little about intellectual history or the philosophy of science. Like a like of “critical theory,” they don’t really engage in the literature and often attack straw man versions of their opponents.Thankfully, Go reviews their arguments and moves on.

This brings to me some criticisms. Perhaps the biggest one is that Go let’s a lot of authors off the hook when they deserve more scrutiny. He takes a lot of postcolonial claims for granted. One example: the critique of the Enlightenment. Yes, it is absolutely true that many Enlightenment figures profited from or were active participants in colonialism. But it is also true that the Enlightenment also birthed the classical liberal tradition. For example, Adam Smith was an opponent of slavery, John Stuart Mill fought in parliament for relief for Jamaicans who were subject to colonial abuse, and Herbert Spencer was an anti-colonialist. So, yes, the Enlightenment included many hypocrites, but it included a lot of genuine criticism of slavery, servitude, and colonialism. Similarly, a lot of postcolonialists have other empirical and historical claims that should not be taken at face value.

Bottom line: If you like social theory, buy this book. Recommended!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($5 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

Written by fabiorojas

January 27, 2017 at 12:22 am

should you assign theory for the working sociologist?

This April, Columbia University Press will publish Theory for the Working Sociologist. This book is my attempt to explain how sociologists think in clear language. Should you assign this book in your class? I think it makes sense for a number of classes. Let me tell you a little about what is inside and then I’ll tell you which classes this would be suited for:

  • Following Randall Collins, I focus on four major strands of theory: power/inequality; values/culture/structure, choice/strategic action, social construction.
  • Instead of reviewing classical theory, I mix and match. I use a lot of examples from modern research. For example, when talking about inequality, I talk about classical approaches, like Marx and DuBois, but I also talk about lots of modern people like Pierre Bourdieu, Annette Lareau, and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva.
  • Application to concrete cases: As you can guess by now, this book is about translating theoretical intuitions into concrete research paradigms. So, for example, you get a discussion of habitus and then you get examples from Lareau and Bonilla-Silva who apply the idea to social class and race.
  • Plain language: One reviewer said that the book had the clearest explanation of Bourdieu that s/he had ever read. Mission accomplished! The book is my attempt to present tricky ideas in ways that most social scientists can understand.

So who should read this book?

  • Upper division theory students – After taking topical courses on inequality or organizations, students usually need a framework for pulling it together.
  • Beginner graduate students – This book also seems to work well with early career graduate students who don’t quite get all the connections between research areas in sociology (e.g., Why did Ann Swidler take the time to trash Parsons and rational choice in her’83 article? Chapter 4 tells you why!)
  • Outsider who just want to catch up on sociology. Sure you can read lots of wonderful summaries of Durkheim and Weber, but this book walks you through a lot of 21st century sociology.

I hope this summary piques your interest. The press will send exam copies.Thanks for reading.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($5 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

Written by fabiorojas

January 26, 2017 at 12:16 am

on theory fetishism: a conversation with andrew perrin

poli_theory_phil_flowchart

I wish I had come up with this diagram…

Last week, I got into a Facebook discussion with my friends Jeff Guhin* and Andrew Perrin** about the value of theory. Long time readers know I have very ambivalent feelings. Sometimes, I feel as if a lot of “theory” is simply bloated talk. At other times, I find writers in the “wordy” theory tradition to be extremely valuable … sometimes. As we were discussing these issues, which stemmed from Jeff’s desire to include some Habermas in his syllabus, Andrew suggested that we have a public discussion.

So last week, Andrew posted a few comments at the Scatterplot blog. Roughly speaking, Andrew offers the following two statements: First, challenging theories are often worthwhile to read. Second,  there is value in this genre of theory beyond history of thought and it actually has a real pay-off to empirical sociology.

Response 1: If you read my comments, and my prior blogging, I never say that the difficulty of a reading *by itself* is reason to dismiss it. Rather, I have a clearly stated criterion for judging *any* reading. Translate what the author is trying to say into more direct language. If it is still important and insightful, then good! If not, ignore it. You will notice that this criterion requires that you occasionally read challenging materials.

I should also note that my criterion applies to all forms of obfuscation. Andrew, for example, writes out an equation and uses it to support his view that sometimes it is valuable to wade through challenging things. I think Andrew is onto something important but he misses the mark. Fancy “theory talk” and math can be valuable but only if each can be clearly explained in simple parts. They can also be used to dress up poor ideas.

Let’s take Andrew’s example. At first, you might think, “bleh!!” However, you can apply my clarity test.

screenshot-from-2017-01-18-15-25-18

This equation has the following components, which can be easily explained and each has a very precise definition:

  • Conditional probability (for any time T bigger than a cut-off t,  the probability that T will be between t and a close by number t + delta_t)
  • a limit – as the difference between t and delta_t gets small, you get a sequence of numbers – the ratio of the conditional probability and the little numbder delta_t – that converges (a term that has a precise technical definition) to some number h(t)

But we’re not done! Just because some math has a precise definition, it does not mean that it is worth our time. Additionally, we have to ask about the application and whether we judge it to be important. Then finally, we have to ask if we have the appropriate data with which to see if this model  describes the real world.

The lesson I am trying to impart here is that we don’t judge the value of scholarly work on how hard it is to read or how intimidating it sounds. We do messy work and figure out. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. My judgment is that a lot of “theory” fails this test.

Response 2: A few years ago, my position on history of thought was a bit closer to Andrew’s. I too believed that making people read a lot of history of thought was important. Then, I noticed a few things. First, very few people actually thought about theory once they were done with their graduate course. Second, people got the wrong message about “theory.” Since instructors were teaching old books and books that did not use clear language, a lot of students just come away thinking that theory is a game for “theory specialists.”

And who can blame them? The message that people get from a lot of theory instructors is “to be theory, it must be old and hard to read.” Furthermore, a lot of what is included in theory courses has a stunning lack of connection to concrete sociology.

Let’s take Habermas, for example. Some Habermas is extremely grounded in empirical work. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere is an exemplary text that makes a concrete historical argument and then actually gives you lots of evidence to back up the case. Then you have works like Theory of Communicative Action, which seems to have multiple, overlapping goals, ranging from an explanation of a just/free society to arguments with other social theorists about individualism/holism in social explanation. You can forgive students if they have a tough time processing all of this, especially since it is sparse on application.

Bottom line: I am not against hard readings, but there needs to be a pay off eventually. Also, history of thought is a misleading way to teach theory. Just teach theory!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($5!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street  

* Only a real friend would sit with me and watch a dude in pink spandex play a single note for an hour on an accordion. #minimalism #jeffranaway

** I am not sure if Andrew counts as a friend, but surely my desire to spare him the agony of reading the latest Zizek is a sign that I value his personal safety.

Written by fabiorojas

January 24, 2017 at 12:12 am

theory week at the blog

This week will be dedicated to exploring social theory:

Thanks for checking in.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($5!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street  

Written by fabiorojas

January 22, 2017 at 12:35 am

a bunch of institutionalism

Written by fabiorojas

January 6, 2017 at 12:10 am

the not-so-new institutionalism

The “new” institutional theory isn’t so new anymore. Anyone trained in organizational theory post-1990s will recognize the brand of institutionalism popularized by people like Woody Powell, Paul DiMaggio, John Meyer, and Dick Scott as a healthy part of the status quo. In fact, it has become such a dominant perspective in org. theory circles that new students might mistake the entire field as being about institutional theory. Concepts like institutional logics, institutional work, institutional entrepreneurship, or institutional [insert term here] are common tools of the trade. All of this is to say that institutional theory isn’t so revolutionary anymore.

A few years ago Fabio wrote a post in which he wondered if we’ve reached the end of institutionalism.

Around 2004 or so, I felt that we were “done” with institutionalism as it was developed from Stinchcombe (1965) to Fligstein (2000). My view was that once you focused on the organizational environment and produced a zillion diffusion studies, there were only so many extra topics to deal with.

In one sense Fabio was clearly wrong about institutional theory being finished. If you pick up any management journal, you’ll find lots of references to the classics of institutional theory. The average issue of AMJ or Org. Studies or Org. Science might have one or two papers with”institutional” in the title or abstract. Even if Fabio was right that we’ve reached a theoretical cul-de-sac with few escape routes, it seems to be a wide lane in which many empirical cars can do circles.

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Written by brayden king

January 2, 2017 at 6:20 pm