Archive for the ‘just theory’ Category

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

top secret: get 30% off new theory book

Written by fabiorojas

April 24, 2017 at 12:42 am

where are the institutionalists? answer: not sociology

Neo-institutionalism was and remains a major strand of organizational theory. However, it seems as if it has receded from sociology programs. Some of the esteemed senior scholars in this tradition, such as Art Stinchcombe and Lynn Zucker, are emeritus faculty. A number of key figures such as Woody Powell, Brian Rowan, and John Meyer work in professional schools (education). And the bulk of early and mid career institutional scholars work in the b-schools, with Oxford and Alberta being the center of much work.

So where in sociology do we still see institutionalism? If you look at, say, the top 20-30 PhD programs, you get the following count: Neil Fligstein (Berkeley), Paul DiMaggio (NYU), Tim Hallett (IU), me (IU), Melissa Wooten (U Mass – Amherst), Tim Bartley (Ohio State). And it would be easy to whittle this list down. Paul DiMaggio’s recent work is more culture and cognition rather than institutionalism. Tim Bartley is less of an institutionalist per se and more of a scholar of industrial regulation. Perhaps, you might add Berkeley’s Cristina Mora, whose book on pan-ethnicity employs some aspects of institutionalism. But once again, you could argue her work is mainly immigration and ethnicity, not an attempt to develop institutionalism. Still, out of the 300-400 faculty who teach in the biggest PhD programs, it says something when only about 5 of them actually work on one of sociology’s most important contributions to the social sciences.

Is this a bad thing? Probably not. There is no reason to believe a theory of organizations has to live in sociology programs. One might also argue that institutionalism in sociology has simply transformed into a different thing – a theory of fields/dynamics of contention school that focuses more on conflict and mobilization than isomorphism.  So perhaps the number of people I could have identified would be larger. But I suspect it would not be larger.

What are your thoughts? Is this another example of org theory migrating to b-schools?

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

February 28, 2017 at 12:46 am

let’s argue about social theory

We had three posts on the value and teaching of social theory. Take a few moments to catch up!

We also recently discussed Julian Go’s book on postcolonial theory and my forthcoming pedagogical book on theory.

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

February 24, 2017 at 4:11 am