What is involved in providing a compelling and justified formulation of an abstract theoretical concept in sociological theory?
When we engage in theorizing about human action and the social world, we would like our statements to be rationally grounded in some specifiable sense; we would like to be able to offer evidence and reasons for believing that these statements are likely to be true — or are at least more likely than available alternatives. What counts as evidence and reasons in the field of sociological theory?
Take Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of “liquid modernity”. This seems like an insightful way of thinking about the modern world. But is it more than a metaphor? Does it have more grip on the world, or on the investigations of empirical sociologists, than Carlyle’s notion of “sartor resartus” in Sartor Resartus? Is there empirical content in the concept of liquid modernity?
Or consider Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of a “field” of cultural and intellectual activity (link) in The Field of Cultural Production. The heart of Bourdieu’s concept of “field” is “relationality” — the idea that cultural production and its products are situated and constituted in terms of a number of processes and social realities. Cultural products and producers are located within “a space of positions and position-takings” (30) that constitute a set of objective relations.
The space of literary or artistic position-takings, i.e. the structured set of the manifestations of the social agents involved in’ the field — literary or artistic works, of course, but also political acts or pronouncements, manifestos or polemics, etc. — is inseparable from the space of literary or artistic positions defined by possession of a determinate quantity of specific capital (recognition) and, at the same time, by occupation of a determinate position in the structure of the distribution of this specific capital. The literary or artistic field is a field of forces, but it is also a field of struggles tending to transform or conserve this field of forces. (30)
Is “cultural field” a concept that can be observationally evaluated, analogously to a magnetic field or a gravitational field? No, and no. The logic of “field” for Bourdieu is not the same as the logic of a gravitational field; it does not specify a single, simple mathematical relationship between several variables. Testing the hypothesis of a gravitational field is straightforward: the theory postulates a force between two objects proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. Having specified this simple relationship, it is simple to test the gravitation-field hypothesis. We can set up an experimental situation with objects of known masses and measure the force exerted between them at various distances; we can evaluate the accuracy of the gravitational constant; we can evaluate whether the relationship of distances is an inverse square relationship or possibly non-integer exponent: 1/r^2.001, for example. So the physical theory of a gravitational field is very simple from the point of view of empirical or experimental evaluation.So what about sociological theories like liquid modernity or cultural field? Can these theories be supported with empirical evidence? The most direct answer seems not to be available in these cases: the idea that scientific statements are ultimately justified by their direct empirical implications. The question of whether Bourdieu’s theory of the field is a true description of some aspects of human reality is not one that can be directly decided by experimentation or observation. Rather, the value of the theoretical concept derives from our assessment of how well it serves to organize and explain the behavior of actors within systems — novelists, colonial administrators, scientists. It is a theoretical concept, valuable in its capacity to organize a range of more observational facts. And this assessment depends ultimately on the empirical adequacy and fecundity of the research communities that make use of these concepts.
These sociological concepts (field, liquid modernity) are more akin to ideal types along the lines of Weber’s concept (link) than to single-dimensional statements about a domain of entities and forces in the sense of physical theory. An ideal-type concept is a complex amalgam of properties, meanings, and causal dispositions defining the supposed behavior of its referent. Here is a statement from Weber’s Methodology of the Social Sciences in his explication of “commodity-market”:
This conceptual pattern brings together certain relationships and events of historical life into a complex, which is conceived as an internally consistent system. Substantively, this construct is itself like a utopia which has been arrived at by the analytical accentuation of certain elements of reality. Its relationship to the empirical data consists solely in the fact that where market-conditioned relationships of the type referred to by the abstract construct are discovered or suspected to exist in reality to some extent, we can make the characteristic features of this relationship pragmatically clear and understandable by reference to an ideal-type. (90)
Bourdieu’s construct of cultural field and Bauman’s conception of liquid modernity have many of the features of an ideal type: they are offered to “bring together certain relationships … into a complex”.
There is also a range of theoretical constructs in sociology that have a closer relationship to sociological observation — what we might call “mid-range” theoretical constructs. The questions of whether people have ideologies that influence their actions; whether there are concrete material social mechanisms that recur across social settings; or whether pragmatism offers a better theory of the actor than does the theory of economic rationality — each of these issues can be linked to observation in direct and indirect ways. Claims about ideology can be linked to various methodologies of social psychology, public opinion research, and qualitative interviews. Claims about specific causal social mechanisms can be evaluated through research methods found in comparative historical sociology. And the realism of pragmatist theories of agent intentionality are amendable to the kinds of investigations offered by researchers in experimental economics.
It is the range of highly abstract sociological constructs that are most distant from direct application to the empirical and historical worlds we investigate. And, unlike the most abstract theoretical constructs of physics, they do not have precise quantitative or predictive consequences. Instead, they are more like the organizing mental frameworks through which a sociologist or a historian makes sense of a wide range of human activity and historical changes. And we might say that these frameworks acquire credibility to the extent to which they give rise to productive sociological research at the meso level. In this way they function less as empirical concepts and more as ontological hypotheses or frameworks: “This is how the social world is structured; causation and meanings flow along these lines.” Advocates for one theoretical framework or another offer diverse arguments designed to make their positions plausible and compelling to the reader. But the rational credibility of the construct depends ultimately on the empirical reach and credibility of the research and theories to which it gives rise. We will be justified in believing in cultural fields or liquid modernity to the extent that a robust body of empirical sociological research has been created that makes use substantial of these ideas.
Gary Ebbs captures much of the thrust of this naturalistic view of theoretical assertions in his book, Carnap, Quine, and Putnam on Methods of Inquiry:
In our pursuit of truth, we can do no better than to start in the middle, relying on already established beliefs and inferences and applying our best methods for reevaluating particular beliefs and inferences and arriving at new ones. No part of our supposed knowledge, no matter how clear it seems to us or how firmly we now hold it, is unrevisable or guaranteed to be true. Insofar as traditional philosophical conceptions of reason, justification, and apriority conflict with the first two principles, they should be abandoned. In particular, the traditional philosophical method of conceptual analysis should be abandoned in favor of the method of explication, whereby a term we find useful in some ways, but problematic in others, is replaced by another term that serves the useful purposes of the old term but does not have its problems. A central task of philosophy is to clarify and facilitate our rational inquiries by replacing terms and theories that we find useful in some ways, but problematic in others, with new terms and theories that are as clear and unproblematic to us as the terms and methods of our best scientific theories. (Ebbs, introduction)
This is a coherentist view of scientific knowledge, and it provides a surprisingly compelling approach to the question of how to evaluate abstract sociological theories.