Archive for the ‘sociology’ Category
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.
A little while back, Omar released a pamphlet called The End of Theorists. It’s an essay on the state of theory in sociology and some possibilities for the future. Originally given as address to the junior theorist’s symposium, he expanded it into an essay. Omar’s bad news is that the official role of “theorist” has been eroded in sociology. The good news is that one can come up with a new role for theorists that creates a new position for them in the profession. My summary is pithy and leaves out a lot, so I strongly recommend that you read the original.
My comments: First, there’s a conceit in the profession that Omar takes at face value. That we need a separate group of people called “theorists” who do things that other sociologists don’t do. Classically, this wasn’t the case. Max Weber (usually) didn’t do “theory.” He did political economy, though he had some writings that were purely theoretical in character. Durkheim had some purely theoretical texts, like Rules of Sociological Method, but his greatest works were focused on issues like political economy, religion, or social psychology.
So why are these people lumped into “theory?” Very good, or very interesting, answers to important questions have a prolonged impact because future readers try to draw more general lessons.* That fits one common definition of theory – general principles that guide a wide range of cases (e.g., gravity applies to all physical objects, supply and demand curves apply to markets in general). For this reason, I’ve always thought that we shouldn’t have separate theory developers. Instead, we should make our most wide ranging answers into our theory. That’s typically (but not always) how people enter into the “theory canon.”
Second, theory in modern times seems to correlate with some other attributes in sociology – qualitative, history of thought, verbal expression. This can be seen in many ways. For example, people who are heavy in theory tend to do things like historical work, ethnography and culture, which is often but not always qualitative in approach. Just check out the list of speakers for the junior theorist symposiums, or the empirical foci of now classic “theorists” like Bourdieu. Thus, what happens in heavily quantitative areas like criminology, public opinion, or demography has little influence on what the canon of sociological theory should be.
More might be said, but here is what I thought after reading Omar’s essay – The theorist is dead? Good riddance. I’m tired of old books, a balkanized sociology, and posturing. Instead, let’s create theory that distills what is learned from across the profession. That’s a theory that we all can use.
* There is also a political story as well, in that some scholars have big cheering sections while others do not. See Mannheim steamrolled.
Congratulations to Rory McVeigh, Omar Lizardo, and Sarah Mustillo on being named the incoming editors of the American Sociological Review. I wish them all the best and I look forward to being rejected by them!
A few interesting notes: First, if you ever wondered whether blogging damages your career chances, this should put your fears to rest. Second, on Twitter, I asked Omar about the problem of endless R&R’s, rotating reviewers, and other problems that have plagued the current incarnation of the journal. Omar directed me to the proposal that he submitted with Rory and Sarah. A few choice quotes:
- “We aim to maintain that standard, while also seeking out new ways to improve on past performance. We will address the issue of efficiency by strategically using members of the editorial board during the review process and by making a judicious use of the initial R & R decision. Our aim is to use the R & R decision exclusively on papers for which there is strong consensus on the part of the entire editorial team (inclusive of the deputy editors and members of the editorial board assigned to each paper) with regards to potential for publication and the feasibility of the revisions required by the reviewers. We believe that an astute use of the R & R decision will do a lot to improve the efficiency of the review process at ASR.”
- “Our plan is to address this issue by limiting the number of R & R decisions to a maximum of two and by being exceedingly sparing with the practice of granting second R & R decisions. There may be cases where a second R & R decision will be needed, particularly in cases where authors may be somewhat inexperienced and need an additional opportunity to improve the paper or address a critical point. Early editorial intervention, however, should reduce the need for second R & R decisions. However, in no case will we issue a third R & R decision. The decision after a second R & R will be rejection, acceptance, or conditional acceptance. “
Thank flippin’ gawd. The only down side is that I will no longer be banned from the reviewer pool. C’est la vie.
My friend and co-author Michael Heaney will be speaking about Party in the Street this week. Here is the info:
- On Monday, Michael will be in Washington, will be at Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC. 6:30 pm, catch it if you can.
- On Tuesday, Michael will be in Chicago at the Seminary Coop bookstore. They will be starting a series called “Fresh Ayers” where Chicago activist Bill Ayers will host a series of book talks. Michael will be is the first guest.
- On Wednesday, Michael will be in New York (yes, I know, he’s a busy guy) at Books and Culture. He will be hosted by Dan Wang of the Columbia Business School.
Come out and support the book. We’d love to see you there!