Wed Jan 30, 2008

Theory is dead, long live theory

In comments at Scatterplot, Dan Hirschman asks,

A colleague of mine in graduate school interested in social theory claimed there were no longer job postings available for specialists in theory. Instead, budding theorists have to masquerade as ‘cultural sociologists’ or something like it. Does that hold up to your impressions of the Sociology job market? What advice would you give to a budding sociology PhD who wanted to concentrate on social theory?

To which the answer surely is, forget it. To a first approximation, if you want to be a good social theorist in sociology, do empirical research. Here’s a diagnosis from a survey article I wrote a while ago:

[Sociology] is the most heterogeneous social science, which is perhaps another way of saying that it has been less successful at institutionalizing itself as a discipline than its close relatives. … This has not stymied efforts to rally the troops under a single banner. … But these claims have never prevailed in practice. Methodologically, the practice of sociology has always been considerably more heterogenous (and rougher around the edges) than the claims of general theorists would imply. In a similar fashion, sociological theory is better characterized as having its roots in a few intellectual traditions which, while they have often overlapped and interbred, have never succeeded either in subsuming their competitors or expelling them from the disciplinary conversation. The most successful effort (in professional rather than intellectual terms) was the structural-functionalist program of Talcott Parsons … The “orthodox consensus” he helped achieve was brittle and short-lived, however, and even in its heyday was subject to strong criticism …

By the 1970s, the Parsonian project had been rejected within sociology, but no single alternative arose to take its place. Instead, two related trends were discernable. Intellectually sociological theory in this grand style fragmented into several competing approaches. … And while important theoretical work appeared in the 1980s and 1990s, professionally theory began to decline as a specialization in its own right. By the turn of the century, sociological theory remained a standard part of a sociologist’s education but, at least in elite departments in the United States, was in general not taught by researchers who identified themselves as theorists. These changes, however, do not mean the field lacked well-defined research programs and theory groups. The point is that the retreat of grand theorising in the Parsonian mode – where the aim was to integrate the entire field within a single general theory of social action – has meant that the most productive theoretical developments are both better-integrated with empirical research and more focused in their aims.

The citations are in the article.

Which is all well and good, as in my view the accumulation of small studies that at least produce real findings is less of a vice than the elaboration of a vacuous language that cannot explain anything. But of course you’d rather have something other than these two alternatives, which are just our old friends Abstracted Empiricism and Grand Theory by other names. The most productive theoretical work in the field connects strong explanatory ideas with teachable (often in some sense formal) methods you can put to work. A good program will teach theory more as the construction and evaluation of argument than as the exposition of classic texts—or, worse, as the performance of some sort of language game.

I’m not entirely happy with what I’ve written so far because, often, arguments over the value of theory can become a kind of positional struggle where participants signal their commitment to, variously, pragmatically hard-headed applied work, the pure core of the field, the true warp and woof of social reality, contempt for mere quantification, ineffable grasp of the multidimensional qualities of things which by their nature preclude clear expression, or what have you. So my point is more about occupational realities than abstract debates about theoretical vs applied work. To return to the original question, if you’re interested in doing social theory these days you will need more items in your toolbox than your copies of the classics. If you think of social theory in exegetical terms – as the history of theory – those surely aren’t your translated copies, are they? You do at least speak French or German, right? If not, your prospects of really becoming a genuine specialist in this kind of work are pretty slim. Sociology is not the History of Ideas. If you see yourself as doing “pure” theory, without any empirical research or technical apparatus, consider whether this is at least partly conditioned on an aversion to math, a dislike of archives, or revulsion at the prospect of long periods of fieldwork in unpleasant locations. Sociology is not Philosophy, either.

None of which is to deny that it’s extremely useful to have people around the department who can argue you into a corner if they feel like it, and who know an awful lot about the provenance of apparently new ideas in the field.