What do we want from sociology?

Let’s say we’ve absorbed the anti-positivism argued many times here — sociology should not be modeled on the natural sciences, we shouldn’t expect social phenomena to have the homogeneity and consistency characteristic of natural phenomena, and we shouldn’t expect to find social laws.  What remains for the intellectual task of post-positivist sociology?  What do we want from sociology?

Here are a handful of topics that are both important and feasible.

  • description and theory of social movements / collective action / popular politics
  • comparative study of large historical social-political formations such as fascism, colonialism, fiscal systems
  • descriptive analysis of social inequalities (race, gender, class, ethnicity) and their mechanisms
  • descriptive and theoretical accounts of major social institutions (corporations, unions, universities, governments, religions, families) and how they work (mechanisms)
  • Concrete studies of identity formation

So there is plenty for a post-positivist sociology to do. But more specifically, what can the science of sociology offer us? To start, we would like to understand some of the myriad social processes that surround us. We would like to understand how social stratification works; how economic power is translated into political power; why racial disadvantage persists from one generation to another; and what leads people to behave as they do in specific social settings. To put a name on this, we would like to have convincing theories of social mechanisms and processes, and some idea of how these aggregate into larger social processes.

Second, to whatever degree possible, we would like to have theories of social behavior that will permit us to intervene to prevent undesirable outcomes. We would like to greatly reduce the rate of teen violence in cities like Detroit and Chicago. And this requires theories of the factors that lead to the behavior so we can have some hope of designing solutions. So we would like for sociology to provide a degree of theoretical support for the design of helpful social policies.

Third, we would like for sociology to be an empirical discipline. And thus means that we want to “test” or otherwise empirically evaluate the hypotheses and theories produced by sociologists.

All three of these goals seem to point in the direction of a sociology of the middle range (as Robert Merton put it) — theories that attempt to capture mid-range social processes such as racial discrimination in housing, power brokerage, or identity formation. The value of this level of focus is parallel to the three points just made. Mid-level analysis is suitable to investigation and discovery of social mechanisms. Mechanisms and processes at this level are likely to be most useful when it comes to designing policies and social interventions. And, finally, this level of sociological theory is most likely to admit of empirical investigation and validation through piecemeal inquiry.

What this suggests to me is that piecemeal inquiry into specific social phenomena is a more promising approach than grand unifying sociological theories. And this in turn suggests the metaphor of toolbox rather than orrery — a collection of explanatory hypotheses rather than a unifying theoretical system.

2 Replies to “What do we want from sociology?”

  1. I enjoy this argument so i'm sorry if this is long! There is a lot of new theory that has come about as we switched from the development project to the globalization project, as we switched from second wave feminism to third wave feminism. The problem for post-positivist sociology is that while we know that the world has changed, is changing, and will keep changing, all of the theories before these changes have stuck around while all of the new theories have conflated those old ones.What you describe is a reconfiguration of the politically minded sociology that most people wish existed but maintain does not due to the anti-marxian ideas of Weber and Durkheim. We struggle to remain separate while admitting we are not to peers. To reconfigure this idea invites in some rather unpleasant realities through which this new sociology has to approach. First, society exists without us. Second, society as it is now is based on profit and infinite growth. Third, Sociology must move to meet these ideas on their own turf. We already know what happens within that sphere as we have been talking about it since industrialization began. We would move from disconnected scientists to politically minded activists. We would require money to do such activism. Who is to say that we wouldn't simply change our data or act on false data simply because the career of a sociologist, a lifestyle, is in danger? Even in the still very prominent positivist tradition, the corruption of seeking tenure pressures some into falsifying data. One could also argue that within our frames, people do not act, rather, they are pawns for us to do with as we like (functionalism, conflict, symbolic interactionism, etc).Empiricism and experimentation are something connected to the positivistic ways that many of us wish would go away. To claim post-positivism whilst looking to reclassify the old methods does not cause change, but does the same thing we have been doing as the world develops. To me, it is time to rethink in its entirety, what it means to study society. Sociology is very good at description, very good at gathering generalities from large samples, perhaps this should be good enough.


  2. Theory, empirical, analysis? Sounds pretty positivistic to me. Positive physics envy. Just kidding.. what I mean is that any field looking for an analytical framework that produces theories with general (or limited) applicability from empirical observation/inference is part and parcel of the positivist project. Indeed sociology is extra-positivistic due to its intense adhesion to empirical methods and allergy to grand theory (hopefully, at least, with may lessons learned). All it takes is to include human nature in the broadest sense into the empirical materials of positivism, discarding the primitive disparagement of human emotions, etc. that was the hallmark of positivism and scientism a century ago.


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