Archive for the ‘just theory’ Category
Question for the weekend: I am searching for an example of a theory or empirical work that combines rational choice theory with some other style of social theory. A few candidates:
- Analytical Marxism
- Michael Chwe’s theory of ritual and interaction
- A friend recommended Anthony Giddens’ structuration, as it has goal oriented actors who behave in endogenously created social structures
Other suggestions? Bonuses for recent work, work that is empirical, or accessible to general educated readers.
I am often asked, why do I relentlessly criticize obscure theory yet find a place in my heart for Foucault? The answer is simple. I judge rhetoric separately than intellectual content. I think it is possible, and often helpful, to separate how an idea is discussed from the idea itself. How do I do it? Simple – take some tangly-talk and then translate it into the simplest language possible. If the idea is still interesting after decontamination, I give a thumbs up. If I get a platitude, or worse, thumbs down.
So let’s get back to Foucault. What happens if we drop Foucault in solvent? I’d say that some of Foucault’s biggest insights are:
- Discipline and Punish: Western society has moved from punishing people through physical force to having people regulate themselves.
- History of Sexuality: Sexuality varies greatly over time and is more diverse than people expect. Then, people created a science to make sexuality intelligible to intellectuals.
- Archaeology of Knowledge/The Order of Things: There is an order, or structure, to how people understand things and we can see that through a close reading of intellectuals of various eras.
These hypotheses can be debated, but, at the very least, they are hypotheses that make sense and can be assessed. There are hypothesis which are falsifiable (e.g., maybe Foucault’s description of the history of corporal punishment is simply wrong). My beef with much theory is that when you translate and simplify, you either get platitudes, obvious points, extremely wrong points, or a modest point dressed up in confusing verbiage.
Last week, we discussed Omar’s essay on the end of the “theorist” in sociology. I share the concern of many people who don’t use the label of “theorists.” Theory is often presented in a way that obscure and appears disconnected from the core concerns of sociologists. In the comments, Omar responded to me, and others, by noting that one legacy of Parsons was the creation of the “theorist.” In other words, now that we have theorists, we need to give them something useful to do.
Here is my suggestion: Take a field that is empirically deep and important, but under developed theoretically. Then, work on a synthesis that ties it together and integrates it with current “theory.” Here are my candidates:
- Public opinion
In each case, the topic is hugely important and well developed but even practitioners admit that it is fairly atheoretical. They need your help, theorists. So put that Judith Butler back on the shelf and return that Zizek to the library and show me what you can do.
Announcement from one of the hippest groups in sociology:
CALL FOR ABSTRACTS
2015 Junior Theorists Symposium
August 21, 2015
SUBMISSION DEADLINE: FEBRUARY 13, 2015
We invite submissions for extended abstracts for the 9th Junior Theorists Symposium (JTS), to be held in Chicago, IL on August 21st, 2015, the day before the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA). The JTS is a one-day conference featuring the work of up-and-coming theorists, sponsored in part by the Theory Section of the ASA. Since 2005, the conference has brought together early career-stage sociologists who engage in theoretical work.
We are pleased to announce that Patricia Hill Collins (University of Maryland), Gary Alan Fine (Northwestern University), and George Steinmetz (University of Michigan) will serve as discussants for this year’s symposium.
In addition, we are pleased to announce an after-panel on “abstraction” featuring Kieran Healy (Duke), Virag Molnar (The New School), Andrew Perrin (UNC-Chapel Hill), and Kristen Schilt (University of Chicago). The panel will examine theory-making as a process of abstraction, focusing on the particular challenge of reconciling abstract “theory” with the concrete complexities of human embodiment and the specificity of historical events.
We invite all ABD graduate students, postdocs, and assistant professors who received their PhDs from 2011 onwards to submit a three-page précis (800-1000 words). The précis should include the key theoretical contribution of the paper and a general outline of the argument. Be sure also to include (i) a paper title, (ii) author’s name, title and contact information, and (iii) three or more descriptive keywords. As in previous years, in order to encourage a wide range of submissions we do not have a pre-specified theme for the conference. Instead, papers will be grouped into sessions based on emergent themes and discussants’ areas of interest and expertise.
Please send submissions to the organizers, Hillary Angelo (New York University) and Ellis Monk (University of Chicago), at firstname.lastname@example.org with the phrase “JTS submission” in the subject line. The deadline is February 13, 2014. We will extend up to 12 invitations to present by March 13. Please plan to share a full paper by July 27, 2015.
I am now old enough that I have seen three traditions in American sociology die. In describing them, I am not necessarily saying that I don’t like them. In fact, I am a published practitioner in one of them. Rather, these traditions have not been able to reproduce themselves at the core of the profession. They may be popular in other fields, but not in soc:
- Rational choice
Each promised a lot and had a moment in American sociology. Munch, Alexander, and others led the charge on neo-functionalism in the 1990s, and Luhmann has a following. Rational choice still has notable adherents, like Doug Heckathorn at Cornell or Richard Breen at Yale. And the AJS and ASR had their share of articles discussing postmodernism (here, for example). But still, it’s hard to say that these traditions aren’t dormant in American sociology. Few students, few placements.
The question is whether there is any commonality. Is American sociology resistant to certain types of theory? If these three cases indicate a deeper process, then I’d make the following guesses:
- “Strong assumptions” – American sociologists don’t like models with what appear to be overly strong assumptions. Rational choice models have smart actors; postmodernism has overly complex actors; and the various functionalisms had actors that were hyper sensitive to social norms and communities were overly structured.
- “High tech” – With the exception of applied statistics, American sociologists don’t like fancy things. The AGIL system in functionalism; math for RCT; European philosophy/social theory for post-modernism.
So the ideal theory would be one with weak assumptions and requires little machinery. Many of the dominant theories these days seem to fit this: institutionalism/field theory; intersectionality theory; theories of racial privilege; etc. Network theory rests on simple, but weak, assumptions and uses only stats.
It is unclear to me if this is a good or bad state of affairs. However, if you think it’s bad, then you have a real problem. The most obvious way to change it is to recruit different kinds of people into the profession who like demanding theory or high tech tools. That seems like a tall order given our undergraduate audience, which is the major talent pool for the profession.