Posts Tagged ‘theory

critiquing criticical realism

So let it be known: not all the orgtheory bloggers dislike critical realism. My aesthetic disposition, of course, is a function of particular field formations: Phil Gorski was my dissertation chair and I did some research for him on critical realism near the end of graduate school. Reading Margaret Archer helped pay my bills. I wrote a piece on a big critical realism conference (and, actually, the brouhaha here at orgtheory) for the Theory Section newsletter some years ago and then, as now, I argued the proof will be in the pudding.

At that time, I was a bit hesitant to call myself a critical realist, mostly because I resented what I interpreted as a colonizing mentality (no different, mind you, from many other research programs with grand ambitions in the social sciences, but equally disturbing). I sometimes felt like Critical Realism treated sociology like theologian Karl Rahner’s famous concept of the “anonymous Christian.” For Rahner, if you were a Buddhist who lived an ethical life that highlighted particular virtues, you were actually a Christian without knowing it. I sometimes couldn’t shake the feeling that critical realists thought all good sociology was “anonymous critical realism” rather than just, you know, good sociology. Calling for a better and more reflective awareness of our philosophical priors is well and good (and frankly necessary) , but then claiming that such reflexivity means I’m on a particular team seemed a bit too much.

But critical realism is in a different position now (or perhaps it was always different and I misrecognized it). I’ve spent the past year in a really excellent series of discussions set up loosely around Critical Realism. They were actually divided into two groups: the first based on ethnography, the second on comparative-historical methods. I was in the ethnography group, and we had some excellent conversations about causation, agency, comparison and qualitative methods more broadly. We had a great conference at our last meeting.

I never felt like I was being indoctrinated. I felt like I was in a group that made unapologetic space for theory, and that really wanted to engage the best and hardest arguments. (This was especially true for an excellent meeting in Ann Arbor in which the comparative-historical and ethnography groups met.) These were great meetings that brought together sociologists from across the discipline. I’m incredibly grateful for them, and for those folks who call themselves critical realists for setting them up. Look: I’m still probably not going to call myself a critical realist. But I can tell you that none of the people there cared. I certainly think I’m a better sociologist for having been part of these conversations and working through some thrillingly difficult meta-theoretical questions. And becoming a better sociologist, is, I think the point.

Which brings us to Neil Gross’s recent review of two new books on critical realism. The review is pretty brutal, as Fabio described recently, which might or might not be warranted (I haven’t read either of these books). But I’d hesitate to judge critical realism based on these books, or to use this review as the final word on CR. I’d instead suggest you all read an excellent response from Timothy Rutzou. Tim is charitable and incisive in acknowledging legitimate complaints about CR, but then he shows why the work continues to matter. There’s a footnote with responses to Gross’s post (Fabio, it turns out Doug does JSTOR bro). But more important is the laying out of legitimate critiques of CR and an explanation of what CR can contribute to sociology as a whole.

Here’s a key passage near the very end:

At the very least I want to suggest critical realism opens a space in sociology for these discussions to take place. It tries to reflect upon the best practices of sociology and systematize those insights. It identifies certain problematics, and explores the traction certain philosophical concepts might have for sociology. It wants to explore the relationship between philosophy and sociology, and how one can inform the other. It creates a space for theoretical reflections, gives a useful orientation for how to do philosophy in sociology, and it provides access to a few good tools for thinking through certain problematics. Critical realism has been doing this for a while, and brings different but often overlapping and complementary perspectives and concepts than other theoretical positions. In short, critical realists tries to make space for different forms of reflexivity in sociology by engaging with certain traditions of philosophy. And in summation, frankly, friends should let friends do philosophy … particularly since they are already doing it (whether they want to or not).

But read the whole thing! Tim Rutzou’s work is always interesting. He’s a philosopher sociologists should know.



Written by jeffguhin

July 5, 2017 at 4:58 pm

normal science, social problems, and plugging and chugging


When I was a sophomore in high school, I had a math teacher who called some of our homework problems “plug-and-chug”: we knew whatever formula we had to use, and we just plugged in the numbers and chugged it out. I use the term now to describe certain kinds of articles, most of them quantitative, which identify some particular sociological problem, which is usually also a social problem (say, racial disparity in school discipline) and then find either a new data set or a new way to approach an old dataset, plugging in the data and chugging out some relevant findings.

It’s a normal science approach to sociology, and some might scoff at it, but there’s a compelling argument that one of the reasons sociology is less powerful than, say, economics, is precisely because there are too many sociologist chefs trying to paradigm shift the kitchen. And, in those subdisciplines that have a more normal science approach (such as the sociology of education), there is a core problem and various scholars approach it. Some have bigger projects than others, but everyone’s basically putting water in the same bucket.

For what it’s worth, for the sociology of education, I think that bucket is inequality within and because of organized schooling, with that inequality understood to be along lines of SES, race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality. It’s hard for folks like me, who study schools without really looking at inequality, to fit into the sociology of education, but that might just be the cost of a subdiscipline with an admirably focused commitment to a particular social problem. As such, sociologists of education like me wind up doing work in culture or theory, or somewhere else in sociology’s pretty big tent (For example, I sent a paper to the education section this year, and it was rejected, but then picked up by the culture section.)

Of course, there are lots of articles in the sociology of education that are not plug-and-chug in the way I’ve described, but what I’m arguing here is that a kind of normal science approach makes plug-and-chug articles easier to pass muster: if there’s a set list of problems, then new data on those problems (data that isn’t necessarily acquired in a methodologically or theoretically interesting way) is important in and of itself.

There are other kinds of plug-and-chug sociology of course. There’s a qualitative species, which takes certain ethnographic or interview data and shows how some theorist would interpret it, without really telling us much about the theorist or the empirical site. And there’s plug-and-chug work in all of the many sociological subdisciplines. In fact, I’m going to propose a hypothesis that I think is testable but I don’t really have time: the closer an article is to a question about stratification or some other social problem about which sociologists are deeply concerned, the less it has to provide anything interesting in its methods or theory.

I don’t think that’s a bad thing (I want to fix stratification too!) but it does wind up having an interesting side-effect, which is that those who don’t study stratification or specific social problems more central to the discipline’s identity (prejudice or discrimination for example) have to develop particular theoretical or methodological chops to justify their work, in a way that those who study stratification or these other social problems do not. That winds up furthering the idea that certain subfields are “less theoretical” than others when there seems to me no obvious reason any one subfield should be more or less theoretical than any other.

Thanks to my comparative-historical cabdriver, Barry Eidlin, who I talked to about this, and who confirmed all of my findings in a pithy way that I will use to open my monograph. (Actually, he showed me how his own very interesting work might well disprove the perhaps facile categorization I described above, which is sort of always the way, I think. But that’s okay. That just means he’ll be the cabdriver anecdote in the conclusion.)

Written by jeffguhin

June 10, 2016 at 11:18 pm

a general theory of chest-bursting sociology

To me, learning about a scholar’s intellectual trajectory and philosophy is helpful for understanding the impetus for particular schools of thought.  One of the pivotal moments for me during my grad school days was hearing Neil Fligstein‘s candid perspective about having to advocate for one’s research question, methods, and claims.  In fact, he compared being an academic with being the creature from Alien(s).  That’s right, we’re not the flame-toting Lt. Ripley and the heroic but ill-fated Nostromo crew; we’re more like the chest-bursters who have to keep coming back, no matter how many times we get (spoilers ahead! cover your eyes, young’uns) burnt, ejected from the airlock into outer space, frozen, etc.

Not you.

Not you.

With that imagery in mind, have a look at Fligstein’s discussion of his most recent works. Fligstein talks in an interview with McGill student Nicole Denier about how he decided upon a PhD in sociology (hint: a foray with social movements), where he sees the field headed, and his agenda for grand general theory.

ND: …what do you think are the challenges for sociology to overcome in the next few years?

NF: What I have found most frustrating about sociology is that it is so Balkanized. One of the most depressing things about sociology is when I look at the American Sociological Association and see that there are forty-four sections, which could be reduced to about six. It tends to create these Balkanized theory groups (for lack of a better term) that are engaged in a discourse with ten other people. From a graduate student’s point of view, that’s the hardest thing to face in the field—how fragmented it is. The problem is that there just aren’t that many people. There are only about 15,000 sociologists in North America, I think. It was bad when I was a graduate student twenty-five years ago, it’s much worse now. It’s very frustrating for people and it’s hard to overcome. One of the things I like about the construction of something called economic sociology is that for the first time in 30 years there is a synthetic field – not a field which wants to break the field into smaller and smaller parts—but a field that wants to say that politics and law and economic processes and organizations and social movements are all part of the same thing. So to me, this is what this economic sociology thing is all about. It is more synthetic than breaking it into a smaller piece.

ND: Similarly, your field theory has the possibility to span a number of areas. You’re not so optimistic about it overcoming the differences between the institutionalisms in economics, political science, and sociology. But do you think it can bridge the gaps within sociology?

NF: I’m an optimistic person. I hope that it becomes more synthetic. People have moved so far from (I’ll use a dirty word) a general theory of society or a theory of society that it’s not in their vocabulary any more. It was so discredited so long ago that you’re a bad person if you even have that thought. It’s a big taboo in sociology to say that, you know, there really is a general theory of society. Again, you get off stage with people and you talk to them and a lot of people think there is a general theory of society….[snip!!!]…. Sociologists tend toward understanding action in groups, yet we don’t even think about it most of the time. Field theory is about that: how groups of people and groups of groups do these kinds of interactions and watch other people and reference other people and take positions, a very generic level of social process. I figure a lot of people are ready to hear that message in sociology. Hopefully, it will go a little further beyond where it is right now.

(See Fligstein’s past orgtheory posts here and here on his work with Doug McAdam on strategic action fields, as well as other colleagues’ reactions here, here, and here.)

You when you finally get a love note.

When you find a like-minded colleague.

Written by katherinechen

December 11, 2013 at 12:08 am

Why the debate on “public intellectuals” is faulty (pt. 2 of 2)

Hello, OrgTheory readers—Tom Medvetz here, returning after a brief blogging-sabbatical* with my fifth and penultimate guest post. As the title indicates, this post is a continuation of my last one, which focused on the status of so-called “public intellectuals” in the U.S. However, one of my main points in that discussion was that the debate itself—having grown zombie-like (by which I mean lurching aimlessly for a quarter-century, well past its natural lifespan)—deserved critique.†


The Talking Dead: some leading figures in the debate on “public intellectuals”

If you didn’t get a chance to read part 1 of this post, here are the main take-home points:

(1) First, I made the far-from-novel observation that any attempt to make meaningful statements about “intellectuals,” public or otherwise, is fraught with all kinds of analytic, theoretical, and conceptual difficulties—the main ones being linked to the concept intellectual itself (and its closest kin: e.g. experts, pseudo-intellectuals, etc.). As Zygmunt Bauman put it, “Any attempt to define intellectuals is an attempt at self-definition.”‡ In fact, you could plausibly argue that making a definitive statement about who “truly” counts as an intellectual is in a sense the ultimate intellectual act inasmuch as it presupposes a kind of meta-level knowledge about what “real” knowledge is, who really has it, etc.

(2) So I dealt with these issues by invoking an analytic framework snatched directly from the work of Gil Eyal—and the purpose of the framework was to give us a coherent way to talk about the relationships among social actors and groups who make claims to expertise. (Really, you should go back and look at the first post.)

(3) The key point of that framework was that it’s useful to think about experts in terms of a field-like space of relations, which Eyal calls the field of expertise. For my purposes, the key opposition in that discussion was between two stances intellectuals can take vis-à-vis their audiences: “openness” and “closure.” In this usage, openness is a willingness to produce knowledge that’s freely accessible to a non-expert “laity,” whereas closure is an expert group’s attempt to exercise proprietary control over its knowledge, especially through credentialization, but also by giving its knowledge a degree of esotericism or “mystery.”

In my own work, this opposition became relevant when I asked where the think tank category came from. Limits of space prevent me from explaining fully why this is a puzzle in the first place, so for the most part you’ll have to trust me. But very briefly: part of the issue is that many of the organizations that we now call “think tanks” (e.g.­­ Brookings, CEIP, CFR, NBER) emerged in the 1910s and ‘20s, decades before anyone classified them as members of the same organizational “species.” Other complexities aside, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the think tank classification developed in anything resembling its present day form, with postwar military planning groups like the RAND Corporation becoming the early prototypes—and the older, Progressive Era-groups getting lumped in afterwards.

In the book, I argue that the think tank classification formed as the result of a merging together of two sets of organizations with competing claims to expertise on matters related to public policy. On the one side were some of the aforementioned organizations, which had by the 1950s claimed for themselves important roles in economic, social, and foreign policy-making affairs. In the absence of a formal technocratic arm of the state, groups like Brookings, CFR, and RAND were centrally involved in devising the social programs of the welfare state, supplying technical assistance to the defense industry, staffing the economic administration, helping to broker deals between management and labor, and so on.

However, the 1960s saw the growth of a major challenge to the authority of technocrats, one led by an emerging set of figures I call activist-experts. Doubtless the most provocative part of this claim is that it counts certain sub-factions of the Left and the Right as two sides of the same coin. This isn’t to say that they were engaged in a secret conspiracy, only that if we momentarily bracket the ideological differences between them, there are certain nontrivial commonalities that help to illuminate the question at hand. The general point is that both the left- and right-wing movements of the 1960s were animated largely by suspicion toward professionalized rationality and its carriers: i.e. “technocrats.”

Of course, the right- and left-wing critiques of technocracy took on very different forms and had different targets. For the New Left, it was the image of the Cold War military planner that became the key symbol of technocracy run amok. (Read the Port Huron Statement for its denunciation of professionalized rationality—or watch the movie Dr. Strangelove for its caricaturized representation of a crazed military adviser.) For conservatives, the main technocratic villain was the New Deal welfare state planner. (Read the Sharon Statement for its denunciation of “government interfere[nce] with the work of the market economy”—or watch the movie Brazil for its dystopian vision of a suffocating state bureaucracy.)§ In both cases, the argument was that technocratic experts had become too powerful, too unaccountable to the public, and too consumed by their own professional self-interests.


Villainy we can agree on: Deranged nuclear scientist Dr. Strangelove (left), a character often said to have been based on Hudson Institute founder Herman Kahn, and a faceless bureaucrat from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (right).

For me, the idea of the field of expertise became useful as a tool for understanding what happened next. First, it’s important to recognize that both sets of activists faced the same paradox inherent in any attempt to challenge “expertise”: Put simply, to try to undermine the authority of an expert is already to claim for yourself a kind of expertise. It should come as no surprise, then, that with virtually no credentials or academic titles to speak of and no recognized body of authoritative knowledge at their disposal, activists on both sides established hundreds of new nonprofit research centers that served a kind of self-credentialing function. In my formulation, the activists became “activist-experts.” In the language of field analysis, they pursued a strategy of closure by attempting to “certify” their knowledge and constitute themselves as experts of a new breed.

Among the best examples are the Institute for Policy Studies and the Worldwatch Institute (on the left) and the Heritage Foundation (1971) and the Manhattan Institute (1978) (on the right). The growth of these organizations had major effects for their technocratic predecessors, which increasingly found themselves under scrutiny for their public unaccountability, their secrecy, and their supposed self-interestedness. In the theoretical language I’ve used, they faced a problem of too much closure. Accordingly, they began moving “vertically’” toward the center of the field of expertise by “opening up” their knowledge. Organizations like Brookings, CFR, and RAND, having once tried to operate entirely “behind the scenes,” increasingly sought media attention, produced shorter and more accessible writing for the general public, and expanded their memberships.

The result was a kind of structural convergence. Notice that this framework allows us to avoid any essentializing labels for either set of organizations. In fact, the main point is that to the degree that the activist-oriented groups succeeded in getting their policy recommendations taken seriously by politicians (i.e. in becoming political “insiders”), they became more “technocratic” themselves. And vice versa: to the degree that the more technocratic groups engaged in public outreach, they became more like the activist-experts. The overarching result of the convergence, I argue, was that the organizations became increasingly interconnected, more oriented to one another in their judgments and practices, and more focused on common goals. By the 1980s, the distinction between them had become muddier—and the political folk category think tank was born to describe all of them.

What does all this have to do with the debate about “public intellectuals”? First, it suggests a wholesale reframing of that debate. The term public intellectual itself is best understood, not as referring to a flesh-and-blood individual, but to a theoretical position in a space of relations. Second, it suggests that the period since the 1960s has been marked neither by the “demise of the public intellectual” in any simple sense, nor by the opposite process (i.e. the flowering of public intellectuals), as others have argued. Instead, it has been marked by the appearance of a new intellectual figure known as a “policy expert.” Commentators who celebrate policy experts as “public intellectuals” invariably overlook the severe economic and political constraints they face in conducting policy research.

On the other hand, commentators who lament the “death” of public intellectualism typically romanticize the late 1950s and early ‘60s as its golden age. This was the era of John Kenneth Galbraith, C. Wright Mills, David Riesman, and Richard Hofstadter. However, if the germ of a public intellectual project was incubating then, it represented the lesser of the two developing challenges to technocracy. Furthermore, the project’s failure cannot be explained in terms of a simple retreat by scholars into the “ivory tower.” Unlike the structural convergence between technocrats and activist-experts that gave rise to the “policy expert,” the relations among academic scholars since the 1960s have been marked by divergence. Whereas some took the path of “hyper-professionalization” (to quote Steve Shapin), others opted to imitate the style of the “policy expert.” Yet others still have persisted in a civic-intellectual mission—only to face a double-marginalization: first, from American public debate, and second, from the mainstreams of their own disciplines. Meanwhile, the main cause of this divergence, and the primary obstacle to the development of a viable civic-intellectual tradition in the US—viz. the institutionalization of “policy expertise” through the blending of activist and technocratic styles of intellectual production—has gone largely unnoticed.



* Much like blog posts themselves, blogging-sabbaticals are inevitably quite short.

† In retrospect, I should have incorporated a zombie angle into the book—zombies currently being a surefire path to the bestseller list.

‡ Zygmunt Bauman. 1992. “Love in Adversity: On the State and the Intellectuals, and the State of the Intellectuals,” Thesis Eleven 31: 81-104. Quoted in Jerome Karabel. 1996. “Towards a Theory of Intellectuals and Politics.” Theory and Society 25: 205-233.

§ Incidentally, one of the original working titles for Brazil was (I’m not making this up) The Ministry of Torture, Or How I Learned to Live with the System—a clear reference to Dr. Strangelove’s full title. Also, I should state outright that I’m not suggesting Brazil is an inherently “conservative” movie (although I would point out that the website seems to think it is)—and even the somewhat less ideological summarizes the film’s point in terms of a critique of the welfare state: “In the end, Brazil shows how the depths of humanity can be crushed in a dystopic future where individuality and human rights become completely subservient to societal ‘welfare.’”

Written by Tom Medvetz

November 15, 2012 at 5:21 am

Why the debate on “public intellectuals” is faulty (pt. 1 of 2)

Hi, Tom Medvetz here, checking in with my fourth OrgTheory guest post (posts 12, and 3 here). Today I’ll sketch a few notes about one of the big issues my book speaks to: the complex relationship between social knowledge and public action in the US. Perhaps the best-known debate on this topic is the one associated with Russell Jacoby’s 1987 book, The Last Intellectuals, which famously lamented the disappearance of “public intellectuals” from American life. In the years since its publication, Jacoby’s book and the idea of the “public intellectual” have earned enormous attention from journalists, pundits, and scholars.

However, reading over some of the major entries in this debate, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the “public intellectual” discussion has yielded more heat than light. In the first place, it’s striking how much disagreement still attends the central question a quarter-century later: Is public intellectualism declining or thriving in America? It depends on who you ask. Three days ago, Henry Giroux’s Counterpunch essay “The Disappearance of Public Intellectuals” seemed to take the basic truth of Jacoby’s thesis for granted. Meanwhile, many other writers have taken the opposite stance by arguing that public intellectuals are alive and well in the US. A good example is Daniel W. Drezner’s 2008 paper “Public Intellectuals 2.0,” which maintained that “the growth of online publication venues has stimulated rather than retarded the quality and diversity of public intellectuals.”

A second glance at this debate reveals a likely reason for the disagreement. Put simply, there has never been any consensus about the proper definition of the term public intellectual. In fact, it’s fair to say that how a given writer operationalizes the term tends to determine where he or she stands on the issue.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Tom Medvetz

October 12, 2012 at 12:41 am

Dude, here’s my social theory

Hi, Tom Medvetz here with my third guest installment for OrgTheory.* In this little excursion, I’ll extend the “Dude, where’s my social theory?” discussion that’s been percolating on the site over the last couple of months. The main points of that conversation, which originated with Kieran Healy’s August 22 post and continued more recently in Fabio’s posts (here and here) were that: (1) the category “theorist” seems to be disappearing as an occupational position in American sociology, and that (2) fewer sociologists identify themselves as theorists.

There’s no denying the basic fact underpinning the first point: namely, that the number of jobs with the label “theorist” attached to them has gone down in American sociology over the last few decades. Kieran posits that one result of this trend is growing semantic confusion over the meaning of the term theory:

As a consequence, many people are not sure what, from a disciplinary point of view, theory in sociology is supposed to be any more, or how it should be done, or what if anything distinguishes it from intellectual history, or philosophy, or normative political theory, or humanities-style ‘Theory,’ or mathematical modeling.

I agree—this is probably true. However, it’s worth pointing out that semantic confusion is neither a necessary nor a ubiquitous feature of the shift being discussed. Furthermore, when we start to think about what it means to “do theory,” the discussion takes on a different cast and the issue of “theory’s” status as an occupational position becomes secondary.

I’d begin by noting a seeming exception to proposition #2 above: namely, the recent growth of a vibrant network of young sociologists who identify themselves explicitly as “theorists”—best signaled by the popularity of the ASA Theory section’s Junior Theorist Symposium. Started in 2005 by Neil Gross and Michèle Lamont and resumed in 2008 after a two-year hiatus, the event has grown steadily over the past few years. The list of past “senior theorist” discussants includes Andrew Abbott, Jeffrey Alexander, Craig Calhoun, Randall Collins, Phil Gorski, Richard Swedberg, Ann Swidler, Loïc Wacquant, Andreas Wimmer, and Viviana Zelizer.†

Of course, the popularity of the JTS doesn’t contradict the fact that there are fewer jobs for “theory” specialists. But it does raise another question already anticipated in Kieran’s post: Who are these people, and what do they mean by “theory”? On this general topic, Kieran writes that, “Crudely, the sort of people who once would have thought of themselves. . . primarily as theorists now think of themselves as sociologists of culture instead, or (less often) as disciplinary historians of ideas.” Is this true? Certainly there’s a lot of overlap among these areas—theory, culture, and the history of ideas—in terms of ideas and personnel. Nevertheless, I think there remains, both in the JTS events and in other work done under the banner of “theory” today, a coherent mission that’s not reducible to the sociology of culture per se, or to the history of ideas. It’s also something that can’t be expressed in terms of an opposition between “theoretical” and “empirical” work. I’m referring to the specific focus on the task of analytic construction, including the work of formulating rigorous concepts, historicizing the categories of one’s research (not for its own sake, but as an ongoing feature of their implementation), and taking into account their social effects. And I’d submit that the level of appreciation for these things in American sociology is more important than the specific fate of “theory” as a subdiscipline.

I can clarify this point by returning to the topic I’ve been discussing on this blog: think tanks. Doubtless the two most common questions I get about my research in this area are: (1) “Which think tanks did you study?” and (2) “Would you consider [organization X] a think tank?” These are both perfectly good questions, and they have something important in common: they’re both fundamentally about category boundaries. The first question is essentially, “What is the boundary of your study?”, and the second is, “What is the boundary of the think tank category?” The only thing I don’t like about these questions is that there’s no easy 30-second “elevator version” answer to either of them. That’s because one of the contributions of my study, as I see it, is precisely to build a rigorous analytic concept of a think tank that lays bare some of the hidden features of the reigning political folk concept.

I say ‘build a rigorous concept,’ but I don’t mean build from scratch. In my case, this has meant applying and extending existing sociological concepts like network and field. And while space limitations prevent me from going into detail here, the conception of a think tank that I develop in the book is decidedly “practice-oriented” (to use a fashionable phrase): To be a think tank, I say, is to become ensnared in a never-ending game of separation and attachment vis-à-vis the more established institutions of academia, politics, business, and the media. Think tanks must constantly signal their “independence” from these institutions, on which they depend for resources, personnel, and legitimacy, even as they use their associations with each one to mark their putative separation from the other institutions. It’s from this idea that I develop a description of “policy research” as a hybrid practice of generating policy prescriptions while competing with other think tanks for donations, press coverage, and political attention.

Why the need to be so “theoretical”? At one level, it allowed me to ask certain important but neglected questions about think tanks. By separating the analytic concept from the political folk concept, I could treat the latter’s growing use in American public and political life as something that needed to be explained. And because some of the organizations now included in the folk category predate the think tank classification by more than 60 years, the process I’m referring to isn’t reducible to a simple story of organizational creation. Instead, it was a complex process of network formation. The term think tank became meaningful only when a formerly disparate array of organizations became oriented to one another in their judgments and practices, and only when the members of this network developed novel intellectual products to separate themselves from more established institutions.

So being “theoretical” allowed me to focus on the social relations underpinning the emergence of think tanks. At another level, it allowed me to avoid what I saw as the main pitfall in the study of think tanks: the danger of inadvertently becoming harnessed to the interests of think tanks and their affiliated “policy experts.” As I say in the book, “orphaning the think tank for operational purposes subtly harnesses the scholar to its mission because the think tank’s first goal, even prior to that of exercising political influence, is to differentiate itself from its nearest neighbors in social space.”


What’s the connection between all this and the “Dude, where’s my theory?” discussion? Two summary points:

(1) The status of sociological theory is different from its distinctiveness as an occupational position.

I agree with the gist of the previous discussion as it appears in the posts I linked to above—and there’s nothing in it that contradicts this point. Nor would I deny the importance of the issue raised by Kieran and Fabio. Nevertheless, it seems to me that more relevant than whether or not “theorist” is in decline as an occupational position are some other issues anticipated in Kieran’s original post: inter alia, how strongly do American sociologists appreciate the importance of constructing rigorous analytic concepts? Do we reward those who take seriously the effects of classification systems, including the ones used by social scientists? Is it mandatory or merely optional to subject the conceptual dimension of your own work to relentless self-questioning? The presence or absence of people who specialize in these things might be indicators of theory’s health or sickness. But insofar as we’re all theorists, it’s not a perfect one.

(2) I ♥ empirical data.

The notion of “theory” I’m suggesting here (which is far from original) isn’t built on an opposition between “theoretical” and “empirical” work. In fact, in my own experience, being “theoretical” has meant having to gather more data, not less. Or, to be blunt, I didn’t spend two years in the swamp of Washington, DC visiting dozens of think tanks, interviewing their staff members, rooting through their archives, building a database of the educational and career backgrounds of over 1,000 think tank-affiliated policy experts, attending their public events, and even finagling my way into some of their private ones—like some kind of low-rent Irwin M. Fletcher—to be labeled “non-empirical” (if that’s what’s implied in the term “theoretical”).


The author (left, in disguise) gathering empirical data.

Nevertheless, the theoretical component of my study, by which I mean the work of analytic construction, required its own effort. If nothing else, it should be clear by now that lurking behind questions like, “Which think tanks did you study?” is a whole series of other questions for which commonsense answers aren’t sufficient.‡ As I put it in the book, “for those involved in the world of policy research and advocacy, the practice of calling one’s organization a ‘think tank’ is rarely a neutral act of self-description. It is also a strategic move in a social game, the rules of which we should try to understand…. [T]o become a think tank is to rise above mere interest-group struggles and claim membership in the ranks of experts.”§



* My first and second posts can be found here and here, respectively.

† My own connection to the JTS is as follows: I presented at the event in 2008; I co-organized it with Michal Pagis in 2011; and I attended all but one of the others.

‡ It should also be clear why any answer I give to these questions might threaten to make my study look like some kind of exercise in “deconstruction.” On the first question, consider my two best options. Option #1:

Questioner:      Which think tanks did you study?

Me:                  The book is partly a study of the think tank category itself, by which I mean its emergence in public and political life, its changing boundary, and the historical conditions that made the classification possible.

Questioner:      Come again?

Me:                  I mean that the focus is not so much on the members of a clearly defined organizational “species” or “type,” but on the social forces and relations that made this blurry concept thinkable in the first place. Only after having examined this process historically could I identify specific org…

Questioner:      Ah… got it. Now go back to your Parisian café, Derrida.

But I’m no poststructuralist—far from it—and insofar as my aim was ever to “deconstruct” anything, including the think tank concept, it was only as a prologue to reconstructing it analytically, with lots of empirical data. Which helps to explain why I’ve become partial to option #2:

Questioner:      Which think tanks did you study?

Me:                  All of them.‡*

§ I fully grasp the key methodological question raised here: viz. If the think tank category is constitutively fuzzy and always in flux, as I say, then how does one decide which organizations to leave in or out of the study? This will/would have to be a topic for another post, but (very) briefly, the working solution in my case was to sample from various locations in the organizational network, including its center and periphery, and then to consider more broadly how this network was situated within bigger social structures.

‡* Plus, as a precautionary measure, I carry around with me a copy of the Empirical Loyalty Oath, which quotes liberally from the Sedition Act of 1918 and reads, in part, “I hereby declare that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a poststructuralist.”

Written by Tom Medvetz

October 4, 2012 at 12:34 am