"Theory" in sociology

What is a sociological theory? And how does it relate to the challenge of providing explanations of social facts?

In the natural sciences the answer to this question is fairly clear. A theory is a hypothesis about one or more entities or processes and a specification of their operations and interactions. A theory is articulated in terms that permit rigorous and unambiguous derivation of implications for the behavior of a body of phenomena — perhaps through specification of a set of equations or through a set of statements with deductive consequences. A theory may specify deterministic properties of a set of entities — thus permitting point predictions about future states of the relevant system; or it may specify probabilistic relations among entities, giving rise to statements about the distribution of possible future states of the system. And a theory is provided with a set of “bridge” statements that permit the theorist to connect the consequences of the theory with predictions about observable states of affairs.

So in the natural sciences, theories are expected to have precise specification, deductive consequences, and specific bridge relationships to observable phenomena.

Is there anything like this construct in the social sciences?

The question of the role of theory in social thinking is a complex one, and the concept of theory seems to be an ambiguous one (as Gabriel Abend points out in an article mentioned below). At one end of the spectrum (is it really a spectrum?) is the idea that a theory is a hypothesis about a causal mechanism. It may refer to unobservable processes (and is therefore itself “unobservable”), but it is solidly grounded in the empirical world. It postulates a regular relationship between or among a set of observable social factors; for example, “middle class ideology makes young people more vulnerable to mobilization in XYZ movements.”

At a much more abstract level, we might consider whether a theory is a broad family of ideas, assumptions, concepts, and hypotheses about how the world works. So Marxism or feminism might represent a theory of the forces that are most important in explaining certain kinds of phenomena. We might refer to this broad collection of ideas as a “theory”.  Or we might instead regard this type of intellectual formation as something more than a theory — a paradigm or mental framework — or something less than a theory — a conceptual scheme.

Consider this taxonomy of the field of social knowledge-creation:

  • concepts — a vocabulary for organizing and representing the social world
  • theory — one or more hypotheses about causal mechanisms and processes
  • mental framework / paradigm — a set of presuppositions, ontological assumptions, guiding ideas, in terms of which one approaches a range of phenomena
  • epistemology — a set of ideas about what constitutes valid knowledge of a domain

And we might say that there is a generally rising order among these constructs. We need concepts to formulate hypotheses and theories; we need theories to give form to our mental frameworks; and we need epistemologies to justify or criticize theories and paradigms.  In another sense, there is a descending order from epistemology to framework to concepts and theories: the framework and epistemology guide the researcher in designing a conceptual system and a set of theoretical hypotheses.

Where do constructs like feminism, critical race theory, or Marxism fall within this scheme?  We might say that each of these bodies of thought involves commitments in each of these areas: specialized concepts, specific causal hypotheses, an organizing framework of analysis, and an epistemology that puts forward some specific ideas about the status of knowledge and representation.
The theory of “resource mobilization” and social movements is somewhat less comprehensive (McAdam and Snow, Readings on Social Movements: Origins, Dynamics, and Outcomes; McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald, Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Cultural Framings ; link, link, link).  It functions as a linked body of hypotheses about how social movements arise.  So RMT is a good example of the limited conception of theory.  Zald, McCarthy, Tilly, McAdam, and others purport to identify the controlling causal variables that explain the success or failure of mobilization around grievance. Their theories reflect a mental framework — one that emphasizes purposive rationality (rational choice theory) and material factors (resources).  And they offer specific hypotheses about mobilization, organization, and social networks.

Gabriel Abend’s article “The Meaning of Theory” (link) in Sociological Theory (2008) is a valuable contribution on this subject. Abend offers explications for seven varieties of theories and shows how these variants represent a wide range of things we might have in mind by saying that “theory is important.”  Here are his formulations:
  1. Theory1. If you use the word ‘theory’ in the sense of theory1, what you mean by it is a general proposition, or logically-connected system of general propositions, which establishes a relationship between two or more variables.
  2. Theory2. A theory2 is an explanation of a particular social phenomenon.
  3. Theory3. Like theory1 and theory2, the main goal of a theory3 is to say something about empirical phenomena in the social world. However, the main questions that theory3 sets out to answer are not of the type ‘what x causes y?’ Rather, given a certain phenomenon P (or a certain fact, relation, process, trend), it asks: ‘what does it mean that P?,’ ‘is it significant that P?,’ ‘is it really the case that P?,’ ‘what is P all about?,’ or ‘how can we make sense of or shed light on P?’
  4. Theory4. The word ‘theory’ and some of its derivatives are sometimes used to refer to the study of and the students of the writings of authors such as Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, Parsons, Habermas, or Bourdieu.
  5. Theory5. A theory5 is a Weltanschauung, that is, an overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world. Unlike theories1, theories2, and theories3, theories5 are not about the social world itself, but about how to look at, grasp, and represent it.
  6. Theory6. Lexicographers trace the etymology of the word ‘theory’ to the late Latin noun ‘theoria,’ and the Greek noun ‘the¯oria’ and verb ‘the¯orein’ (usually translated as “to look at,” “to observe,” “to see,” or “to contemplate”). The connotations of these words include detachment, spectatorship, contemplation, and vision. This etymology notwithstanding, some people use the word ‘theory’ to refer to accounts that have a fundamental normative component.
  7. Theory7. Many sociologists have written about issues such as the ‘micro-macro problem,’ the ‘problem of structure and agency,’ or ‘the problem of social order.’ This type of work is usually thought to fall within the domain of sociological theory. One may also use the word ‘theory’ to refer to discussions about the ways in which ‘reality’ is ‘socially constructed’; the scientific status of sociology (value freedom, the idea of a social law, the relations between explanation and prediction, explanation and understanding, reasons and causes, and the like); or the ‘relativity’ of morality. In these examples the word ‘theory’ assumes a distinct meaning, which I distinguish as theory7. (177-181)
Abend comes to a very good conclusion about the ways we should think about theory — and refrain from legislating the forms that theory can take.  He argues for a principle of “ontological and epistemological pluralism”:

I believe that a satisfactory solution to SP [semantic predicament] should make as few ontological and epistemological demands as possible. The set of conditions under which the word ‘theory’ can be correctly used should not have too much built-in ontological and epistemological baggage. I call this the ‘principle of ontological and epistemological pluralism.’ The reason why I advocate this principle is, very roughly put, the following. Suppose sociologists made a certain picture of the world or idea about what can be known a prerequisite for something being a sociological theory at all. Consider some examples. We may demand that theories be underlain by the assumption that “the social world consists of fixed entities with variables attributes” (Abbott 1988:169). We may require that causality be taken to be the cement of the universe, the most important relation that can hold between two entities. Or, we could build into the definition of ‘theory’ the idea that social processes are regulated by laws of nature. Alternatively, we may demand the belief that the distinction between text and reality is misleading, or even the belief that there are no such things as ‘reality’ and ‘objectivity.’ Or else, we may demand the assumption that nothing exists but what can be actually observed or otherwise grasped by our senses, thereby denying existence to such ‘mysterious’ things as causality and similar ‘underlying theoretical mechanisms’ (Steinmetz 2005). In any of these scenarios, only to the extent that you shared the required ontology or epistemology, could you be said to have a theory of the social world. You could have other things about the social world—opinions, views, beliefs, ideas—but not a theory. By definition, that particular ontology or epistemology would be obligatory for one to be allowed to enter a theoretical discussion, make a theoretical contribution, or theorize at all. (195)


One response

  1. As an analyst in the tradition of Ludwig Wittgenstein might say, the meaning of a term is shown by its use in various contexts. These uses are often overlapping and interwoven, so they might be conceived as "family resemblances" in a family of language-games that employ the term "theory."

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