Archive for the ‘social 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

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

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

dan hirschman discusses go’s new postcolonial theory book

Over at Scatterplot, Dan Hirschman has a lengthy discussion of Julian Go’s new book on postcolonial theory. The issue? How should sociology think about the strand of humanities based theory stemming from folks like Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhaba?

Postcolonial Thought tries to reconcile the seemingly incompatible: postcolonial theory, represented in the work of humanists like Said, Spivak, and Chakrabarty, with mainstream sociology and its theoretical tradition and predilections. Go situates Du Bois – along with Fanon and Césaire – as part of the first wave of postcolonial thought. These thinkers laid the groundwork for the movement that becomes postcolonial theory in the 1970s and 1980s. These authors made three fundamental, and connected, moves that Go identifies as central to the postcolonial project: foregrounding empire as an influential structuring force and category of analysis, rejecting analytical bifurcation (the tendency to binarize and treat as isolated “the west” vs. “the rest”, “the North” vs. “the South”, the “developed” and the “developing”, and so on), and emphasizing the agency of the colonized. Black Reconstruction showcases especially the last of these three moves brilliantly. For example, Du Bois demonstrates the centrality of slave revolts and freed slaves’ labor and military service to the Union’s victory in the Civil War.

It’s funny. I grew up around this stuff. As a Berkeley undergrad, this seems very intuitive to me. When I teach theory, I use Lemert’s anthology, which has lots of these authors. And yes, I try to explain to Indiana undergrads what the “subaltern” means. So I fully welcome Go’s book and I encourage you to read Dan’s post and Julian’s book.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

Written by fabiorojas

November 30, 2016 at 12:20 am

who’s afraid of w.e.b. dubois?

At the Social Science History Association meetings, I was part of the Author Meets Critics panel about The Scholar Denied, Aldon Morris’ book on the career of W.E.B. DuBois and the institutions that shape academic discourse. The panel included Vilna Bashi Treitler and Melissa F. Weiner. The conversation was interesting and focused on how DuBois strove to bring empirical rigor to social science and how he used empirical social science to counter racist social science.

On my account, I offered a few critiques of Professor Morris’ book and he pushed back on one. I argued that he needed to more clearly articulate the question of “who is this for?” He said (correctly) that DuBois is not frequently taught in a lot of graduate sociology programs. Here’s my point – DuBois is no longer a fringe figure, if he ever was:

  • Citation count: Souls, by itself, has 11,000 citations!
  • There is a DuBois Institute at Harvard
  • There is a DuBois journal
  • There is a DuBois award from the ASA (promoted by Professor Morris, by the way)
  • His work is included in all kinds of anthologies and overviews of American letters

I could go on and on. So what’s the issue? My hypothesis is that DuBois is resisted by the sub-specialty of people who use the label “social theorists” and thus DuBois’ work is not appreciated by people outside the sociology of race who take a single theory course. That is why you get this weird situation where DuBois has a big impact across academia but is seen as secondary within sociology. The canonizers haven’t gotten on board, but that doesn’t prevent the rest of us from reading him.

What do you think? Where and how did you read DuBois? Use the comments.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

Written by fabiorojas

November 29, 2016 at 12:08 am

sociology and postcolonialism

There’s an increasing amount of great sociological work about places and people that are not European or North American.  That’s important not just because they provide empirical sites and theoretical resources that European and North American scholars have previously ignored* but because looking at the world from the south helps deprovincialize North American sociology, and given the power of the ASA, AJS, ASR et al, global sociology as well.

Here, for example, is a really wonderful interview with three very important figures in discussions of postcolonialism, feminism, and social science. It’s an interview by the student editors of Political Power and Social Theory (which Julian Go edits) and part of a special issue edited by those same figures, Evren Savci, Ann Orloff, and Raka Ray.  (Full disclosure: I was part of another PPST volume on postcolonialism). Evren Savci

I’m pasting a chunk of the interview below, though I’d encourage you to read the whole thing:

SE [Student Editors]: This volume complicates a simple understanding of feminism. How would you define something as feminist, especially if it is “a set of political projects” rather than a “unified movement”? (a) What do you think/how do you feel about the term “feminism”? Must we replace or reshape it?

ES [Evren Savci]: During one of our meetings, I remember mentioning that I would much more willingly give up “woman” as a category before I give up feminism, and I believe that this is also at the heart of our volume. Inspired by many feminist scholars, the authors in this issue are putting pressure on the effectiveness of “woman,” and still are committed to feminist theory and politics to think about social justice. Feminist thought and movements themselves are always changing, yet generation after generation, many people find feminism’s political vision inspiring and appealing. They challenge the parts they find unfit, modify certain things, add others, but they do not feel that they need to discard feminism altogether. One of the outcomes of this interrogation is that there is no “we” who is in charge, and who could or should replace or reshape feminism.

Raka Ray (RR): There was a time when the term feminism was so synonymous with its dominant liberal expression that I had to distance myself from it. The feminism I embrace today is capacious. It is the opposite of Mackinnon’s Feminism Unmodified. It understands the fundamental inequalities inherent in the gendered ordering of the world, but understands also that while the gendered ordering of the social world is foundational, it does not stand alone.  It is co-constructed at the very least with race, class, and nation.  This feminism therefore understands why all women do not wish to vote for Hillary Clinton! It is a democratic stance towards the world that must include but does not end with gender.

AO [Ann Orloff]: Speaking as a social scientist as well as political actor, I am in favor of “remaking,” historicizing and contextualizing our foundational terms, including “feminism.” The feminisms emerging in different times and places may have a certain commonality in challenging gendered hierarchies, but the specific elements of the hierarchies to be targeted, and the particular political strategies and tactics to be deployed are sure to vary. I would appeal to a notion of multiplicity – varieties of feminisms, rather than a single feminism, however modified (or not).  Feminist analysts should understand that different women will respond differently to particular political hailings (e.g., the Clinton campaign, or MacKinnon’s anti-sex-trafficking projects). Different groups of people embrace different visions of how to challenge very diverse gendered hierarchies.  The unity of such projects has to be seen as a contingent political achievement, and we should be prepared for debate and dissent, and the possibility that different groups of feminists will not see eye to eye.  Demands for perfect unity and perfect inclusiveness are, I think, harmful. Unity and inclusion cannot be guaranteed prior to politics; a democratic feminist politics consists in (imperfect) claims being made and challenged, and remade. My own feminism is linked with my commitments to social-democratic and anti-imperialist politics, but I can see that other varieties of feminism are also thriving.  Each of us as feminist political actors does our best to convince others of the rightness of our calls, but we need to be prepared to debate! I’d like to note also that, in studies of change, multiplicity (or multiple schema, such as might be present in different feminisms) is associated with innovation!  

There are a lot of important networkers in this deprovincializing project (not least the three editors described above, or the student editors who interviewed them).  Among those people who push sociology to be more global, Julian Go has been an important voice for some time, not least as editor of PPST.  Here he is on a “southern solution” in an essay excerpted from his book,  Postcolonial Thought and Social Theory (Oxford University Press, 2016):

To propose a Southern standpoint sociology is not to reinsert cultural essentialism. Feminist standpoint theory was correct to point out that the “woman” standpoint does not summon an essential identity but a gendered social position: a social location based upon experiences rather than biology or culture. “Groups who share common placement in hierarchical power relations,” Hill Collins (1997: 377) avers, “also share common experiences in such power relations.” A Southern standpoint is thus not an essence but a relational social position that lies at the lower runs of a global social hierarchy. To assume that the Southern solution requires essentialism is to overlook its fundamental sociology – and (mis)read it for a traditional anthropology.

If the charge of essentialism can be dispatched, so can the charges of epistemic relativism. A sociology based upon a southern standpoint does not impede scientific truth, it facilitates it because all truths are perspectival. Enter perspectival realism. This is the notion that there is indeed a “world” out there that is knowable, but (a) knowledge is always socially-situated, and hence perspectival, and (b) no single perspective (or theory, concept, or discipline) can represent everything we might want to know about the world. “Objective” truth can indeed be had. But those truths must always be recognized as partial– precisely because all knowledge is perspectival (Go 2016).

At UCLA, we’re getting an increasing amount of students interested in studying majority Muslim countries and looking at parts of the world sociology has traditionally ignored or left to the anthropologists. From what I understand, that’s the case across the discipline, which is a great sign.

On a much more pedestrian note, I’d say one of the biggest hindrances we still face is that there’s no value-added for language study and cultural immersion, and, in fact you get just as much reward for studying the United States or Europe, in a language you already know.  Why learn Arabic or Thai or what have you when you could get better at stats, or do a few more years of ethnography down the street? The opportunity costs are too great. That means that global sociology is much harder for people who don’t enter graduate school with the language and cultural tools already ready to go.


*an earlier version of this said “previously unexplored” and while I meant this in reference to North American and European scholars actually learning about parts of the world that aren’t them, it did sort of sound like columbusing.

Written by jeffguhin

May 30, 2016 at 2:58 pm

aldon morris book forum #3: some criticisms

If you’ve read the three posts so far on The Scholar Denied (here, here and here), then you will know that I hold the book in high esteem and that I am very sympathetic to its overall claim that sociology really needs to put DuBois, and his legacy, at the center of the history of American sociology. Here, I’ll raise to criticisms of the book.

First, there is a criticism raised by Al Young in his Contexts review of The  Scholar Denied. From Young’s perspective, Morris under-develops certain ideas and the omission of specific details makes it hard to assess the claim. The best example is the claim that DuBois and his followers and students constituted the first true school of American sociology. Young correctly points out that Morris does not exactly tell you about the commonalities among these scholars. Aside from a focus on race, one doesn’t know what ties them together – common methods? theories? Etc.

Second, there are some tensions within Morris’ text, including one that undermines a major thesis of the book. One of Morris’ major goals of the book is to claim that DuBois is a major theorist, but in an early chapter, Morris reveals that DuBois viewed himself as an anti-theoretical writer. DuBois, like many of his era, were tired of “grand theory” like Comte and specifically wanted to create an empirically grounded sociology of race and racism. One should then be forgiven if DuBois comes off as a sociologist of race rather than as a theorist, like Durkheim. In fact, the gifted scholar of race is how most people understand DuBois’ and his work. This doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t appreciate the theoretical insights, but “scholar of race” is closer to DuBois’ presentation of self than “theorist.”

Overall, a wonderful book that surely stimulates a lot of discussion.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

April 20, 2016 at 12:01 am