Archive for the ‘just theory’ Category
John Levi-Martin is one of sociology’s most fertile thinkers. His book, Social Structures, was discussed at length on this blog and The Explanation of Social Action was a well discussed investigation of how social scientists try to approach causality. His new book, Thinking Through Social Theory, is a tour of foundational issues in social science and should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand current debate over the status of social explanation.
Roughly speaking, there is a long standing dispute among scholars about what constitutes a proper explanation of social action. The argument has many facets. For example, there is a dispute over realism, the view that people have fairly direct access to reality which can the be leveraged into causal explanation. There is a related argument about social norms and whether it makes sense to say that a rule “caused” or “forced” someone to act. And of course, there are arguments over the sufficiency of various schools of thought like functionalism, rational choice, and evolutionary theory.
Thinking Through Social Theory is Levi-Martin’s review of these issues. It not only summarizes the landscape, but offers answers drawn from one of his most theoretically rich articles, “What is Field Theory?” It is truly difficult to summarize this tome (e.g., there is multi-page analysis of the “gentlemen open doors for ladies” custom) but I can indicate some high points. First, there is a good review of the issues surrounding realism. And no, he does NOT side with those pesky critical realists. Second, there is an examination of two theories (rational choice and evolutionary psychology) that try to offer “ultimate” accounts of human action. Third, Levi-Martin offers a field theoretic alternative to theories of action that are found in schools as diverse as functionalism, institutionalism, and Swidlerian toolkit theory. The basic intuition is that individuals aren’t carrying around norms, but they are working in fields of action that push people into situations that generate behavioral, or even cognitive, regularities. Sounds like actor-network theory to me, but more meso-level.
So who is this book for? I see a few good audiences. One are social theory grad students. After marching PhD students though the history of soc up the present, it is good to sit back and think about the (lack of?) progress that has been made in building social theory. I also think that the philosophy of social science crowd would enjoy this, as would scholars in cultural sociology who often run into the issue of motivation. Thumbs up.
As readers already know, I am hard at work on a book that reviews contemporary sociology. In writing the book, I ran into two taboos: rational choice and Parsons (ironic, since Parsons was opposed to utilitarianism). The reviewers were very touchy about these two topics. The first makes sense. Sociology has always been allergic to anything “econ-y” or “math-y” from the beginning. I do understand why people might want to expunge a book of rational choice. I still don’t think it’s wise since the profession still has people working in related areas like Granovetter style embeddness research, social capital, Harrison White micro-network hybrid work, and applied game theory. Also, the rational choice tradition (including social capital) is the major link between sociology and the poli sci/economics axis.
The Parsons taboo really surprised me since (a) the book only had a total of about five paragraphs about Parsons, (b) I am definitely not a functionalist and I present it as background for more modern stuff like cultural sociology and institutionalism, and (c) Parsons’ descendants still have big followings, like Jeffrey Alexander and Niklas Luhmann. Also, another weird thing is that the reviewers asked me to incorporate Swidler’s recent work (Talk of Love), a discussion of Poggi’s theory of power and Vaisey’s work, which all explicitly speak of Parsons.
So what is up with this weird allergy to even *mentioning* Parsons? In 2015, are people still fighting the battles of 1975? Here’s my theory. Parsons’ did two things, one bad and one good. The bad thing is that he created a highly visible and rigid orthodoxy, complete with “religious” texts (i.e., his books). That is what the sociologists of the 1970s revolted against and that is what made Parsons the devil in our profession. And I can’t blame people. Reading classic structural functionalist texts is really taxing and frequently unhelpful.
The good thing is that he created, by accident, the kernel of a lot of modern sociology. Inside those big, nasty books, there were a lot of important insights that are now standard. For example, his 1959 ASQ article on organizations made the crucial distinction between the technical and “institutional” components of organizations, a core idea in modern organizational research. The functionalist approach to schools is still a standard reading. The distinction between achieved and ascribed status is “strat 101.” Even his much maligned theory of norm driven action lives on, even if we admit that norms are constructed situationally rather than ex ante.
The “good” and “bad” Parsons explains my situation. You don’t have to be a functionalist to appreciate some of his good ideas, nor do you need to be a hard core follower to understand the historical importance of Parsons. For example, you simply can’t understand why Swidler’s (1983) toolkit argument was such a big deal unless you understand how Parsons’ theory of norms and his interpretation of the Protestant Ethic was dominant at the time. The Swidler critique set the agenda for cultural sociology for decades. So you need to address Parsons and point out the contribution. If you do that, however, people get angry because they remember (or their advisers told them) about the bad Parsons.
This also helps explain when and where you can get away with it. If the whole text is about critiquing work like Parsons and developing alternatives (e.g., Swidler or Vaisey), you can do it. If you are very senior scholar who is writing “big think” work (e.g. Gianfranco Poggi), you can do it. But not a synthetic and pedagogical overview – people will think that even including him (or the rational choicers) is a horrendous rear-guard action that puts discredited work back into the canon.
The accounting firm of Weber, Durkheim and Simmel has carefully counted the votes from last week’s book naming contest. The winner will get $20 (via PayPal or ASA handoff) or one my sociology books (From Black Power or Party in the Street) or ten copies of Grad Skool Rulz mailed to friends. The winner will also be given a place of honor in the acknowledgements should the book ever get published. Drum roll, please…
As usual, the Junior Theorists Symposium has an amazing line up. Day before the ASA. Check it out!
Junior Theorists Symposium
University of Chicago
Social Sciences Room 122
My first ever journal publication was an article called “A Game Theoretic Model of Sexually Transmitted Disease Epidemics.” It appeared in the journal Rationality and Society in 2002. As the title suggests, the goal of the paper is to model network diffusion using agents that play games with each other. Specifically, let’s assume people want to have sex with each other. The catch is that some people have HIV (or another disease) and some don’t. Further, let’s assume that people will estimate the probability that the partner has HIV based on the type of sex they offer and the current disease prevalence. In other words, offering unprotected sex in a world without STD’s is interpreted way differently than the same offer in a world where lots of people have infections. In this post, I want to briefly discuss what I learned by writing this paper. Tomorrow, I will talk about the small, but interesting, literature in biology and health economics that has referenced this paper.
Lesson #1: Interdisciplinary work doesn’t have to be garbage. The paper uses ideas from at least three different scholarly areas – game theory/economics; social networks/sociology; and probability theory/epidemiology. Orgtheory readers will be familiar with game theory and networks. But the paper uses a cool idea from probability theory called “pairs at a party model” – to model diffusion, you draw people from a pool and match them. I added these ideas: people can only be paired with people they know (the network) and then to decide if they have intercourse, they play a signalling game (game theory).
Lesson #2: Working with your buddies is amazing. My co-author on the project was Kirby Schroeder, who now works in the private sector. We developed the idea by thinking about his personal experience. Gay men often encounter the signaling problem – say you meet a partner and he offers unprotected sex. What does that suggest? We then joined forces to write the paper. Great experience.
Lesson #3: People can get angry at your research. During conferences and peer review, we experienced great hostility because we relied on the literature showing that sometimes, people don’t tell partners about STD’s and thus put them at risk. One woman, who claimed to be a researcher from Massachusetts General Hospital, literally yelled at me during an ASA session. The paper got rejected from Journal of Sex Research, after an R&R, because one reviewer got very upset and claimed that were defaming gay people and that “you don’t know what love means.” Do any of us, really?
Lesson #4: Long term matters. The paper was published in Rationality and Society and then quickly disappeared. But it had an interesting after life. It got an ASA grad student paper award from the Math Soc section. During the first couple of years on the job, it was the only journal publication on the CV, which saved me from complete embarrassment. In one review of my work, it was the *only* paper that the committee actually liked. Later, a member of the RWJ selection committee said that the paper was the only reason that they invited me for an interview, because it showed a genuine commitment to health research. Even better, starting around 2010, researchers rediscovered the paper and now it is part of a larger literature on sexual risk spanning biology, economics, and health. So even though it didn’t have an immediate impact, a well written paper can pay off in ways you might not expect.
Tomorrow: What people get from the Risky Sex Game paper.