Esser’s sociology

Sociology in Germany seems to be particularly prolific today, and this extends to the contributions that German sociologists are making to the sub-discipline of analytic sociology. One of the leaders who has played a key role in this active field is Hartmut Esser. Esser’s Soziologie. Spezielle Grundlagen 3. Soziales Handeln (2002) is particularly important, but it hasn’t been translated into English yet. (Here is a link to the second volume of this work on Google Books, and here is a link to Soziologie Allgemeine Grundlagen (1993).) So Esser’s contributions are not yet as widely known in the US sociology world as they ought to be. (Here is a short Wikipedia entry on Esser in German (link).)

One of Esser’s primary areas of empirical research is on the general topic of immigration and ethnicity. Here are a couple of relevant articles in English: “Assimilation, Ethnic Stratification, or Selective Acculturation? Recent Theories of the Integration of Immigrants and the Model of Intergenerational Integration” (link) and “How Far Reaches the “Middle Range” of a Theory? A Reply to the Comments” link). His goal generally is to consider the theories of ethnicity and assimilation that have been developed since the Chicago School and Robert Parks, and to attempt to reconcile the empirical experience of assimilation with a synthetic theory.

Several things seem fairly clear. First, Esser was an early and influential contributor to analytical sociology in two important ways. He advocates for social mechanisms as a foundation for social explanation. And he highlights rational individual actions as the heart of most (all?) social mechanisms. His work appears to be comparable in importance and impact to that of Raymond Boudon, James Coleman, and Jon Elster: rationality, microfoundations, mechanisms. (Here is a contribution by Esser on the topic of “Theories of the Middle Range” in a very interesting volume by Renate Mayntz available online; link.)

Second, Esser is especially interested in topics within the philosophy of science in connection to sociology. He is interested in the logic of explanation, the development of theory, and the role of models in scientific explanation. He is influenced by Karl Popper and Carl Hempel, and there are occasional references to other philosophers of science from the 1950s and 1960s. There are no references to Thomas Kuhn, W. V. O. Quine, or Hilary Putnam in Soziologie Allgemeine Grundlagen.

Another thing seems evident: that Esser is a sociologist in the tradition of Max Weber and interpretive sociology, with particular affinity to the “rational actor” Weber. Along with other German sociologists today, Esser appears to be helping to constitute a “Weber 2.0”, more attuned to issues of contemporary interest such as immigration and assimilation, but with a strong sense of the importance of appropriate use of social theory in arriving at explanations of complicated contemporary social processes. (Here is a link to a book chapter by Esser on “The Rationality of Value”.)

Here is an example of his use of rational choice theory in his theory of ethnic assimilation (“Assimilation, Ethnic Stratification, or Selective Acculturation? Recent Theories of the Integration of Immigrants and the Model of Intergenerational Integration”):

At the heart of the model are the options for those immigrants who are currently present within a receiving context. Options include activities which are related to the receiving country (receiving context option, in short: rc-option) and those which are related to the ethnic context (ethnic context option, in short: ec-option). Examples are changing or maintaining habits, relationships, or orientations. In order to explain when and why a certain activity occurs, we need a general rule for the selection between options that can be applied to, in principle, all empirical constellations. The model uses the rule of the expected utility theory as such a general selection rule. For each of the possible options a so-called EU weight is computed. The EU weight is the sum of both the negative and positive returns that can be achieved with the selection of a particular option, weighted with the corresponding expectation that the return actually occur with the selected option. Individuals would then select the option with the highest expected value [cfr. Esser 2004, 1135 ff.; Esser 2006, 39 ff. on details of the expected utility theory and also with reference to the model.

Esser has also attempted to find affinities between rationality theory and micro-sociology, including especially the phenomenological sociology of Alfred Schütz. Here is the abstract of “The Rationality of Everyday Behavior: A Rational Choice Reconstruction of the Theory of Action by Alfred Schütz” (link):

This article argues that Alfred Schütz, one of the founders of the interpretative paradigm in sociology, developed a theory of action whose basic structure is compatible with subjective expected utility theory (i.e., a specific variant of rational choice theory). Alfred Schütz’s view with respect to the characteristics of everyday action—the individual orientation toward routines and structures of relevance—is modeled in terms of subjective expected utility theory. In this perspective, these characteristics appear as the result of an action-preceding rational choice in the process of the cognition of situations, under the conditions of bounded rationality.

Esser is the object of quite a bit of discussion and reflection by other German sociologists. One whose name shows up frequently in these discussions is Rainer Greshoff (Die Transintentionalität des Sozialen. and Integrative Sozialtheorie: Esser, Luhmann, Weber (Rainer Greshoff and Uwe Schinank, eds.)).

(For those of us whose German reading knowledge is limited, I’m finding Google Translate to be a helpful source of assistance as I struggle with some of these texts; it helps with vocabulary even though the translations of complete sentences are not ready for prime time.)

Weber in America

Lawrence Scaff offered a fascinating preview of his forthcoming book, Max Weber in America, at a sociology seminar in Ann Arbor this week.  Scaff has written extensively on Weber in the past, and this current research is particularly intriguing and stimulating.  The book offers a careful reconstruction of Weber’s visit to the United States in 1904, and it then goes on to provide a brilliant interpretation of the “discovery” of Weber in the United States in the 1940s and forward.

Let’s start with the obvious: it is startling for those of us who are not Weber experts to learn that Weber spent time in the United States at all.  It’s weirdly dissonant for me to imagine this quintessentially German sociologist, wandering the streets of Chicago and the plains of Oklahoma.  What did he make of Chicago 1904?  How did it influence his development as a sociological thinker?

It’s even more eye-opening to learn that Weber met W. E. B. Dubois during his visit, and may have shifted some of his later thinking in fairly important ways as a result of his exposure to some of Dubois’ ideas about race in America.  (Dubois’ The Souls of Black Folk appeared in 1903.)

Scaff also writes quite a bit about the intellectual connections between Weber and William James during this period.  He explores important parallels between The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature and The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  This is significant, because the first part of The Protestant Ethic was written and presented for publication just before the trip to America, whereas the second part was written after the visit.

Scaff seems to have done a great job of piecing together archival materials to arrive at a new telling of the story of the trip to America with Marianne.  So this addition to the biography of Weber is of great value all by itself.  (Marianne Weber’s biography of Max provides only limited information about the trip; Max Weber.)

But even more important is the effort that Scaff makes to get inside the developing sociological imagination of the thinker.  This is what is most intriguing about the book, and what makes me most eager to read it when it appears in early winter.

Scaff makes a point that I find really intriguing about the way in which “Weber” was constructed as the founding sociologist we now summarize in courses on sociological theory.  This falls generally into the topic of the sociology of knowledge: how did concrete historical and institutional processes influence the construction of “sociology” or “physics”?  Scaff argues that much of our current representation of Weber derives, not from Weber directly, but from the ways in which Weber was appropriated and “re-broadcast” by American sociologists in the 1940s and 1950s, including especially Talcott Parsons. (Ironically, Scaff argues that the “Weber” who became important in German sociology in the 1960s was this American version, not a systematic re-reading and re-thinking of Weber’s corpus.  Weber was more or less forgotten in German intellectual circles during the Nazi period.)  So this standardized version of Weber’s sociology reduces the rich sociological thought of the thinker over a long career to a few standard theses.

One of Scaff’s goals, then, is to “blow up” the sociology expressed across Weber’s writings and try to see how the parts might be fitted together in other ways. Can the canonical Weber be interpreted in significantly different and more nuanced ways? This is a particularly interesting and fertile question, and it contributes directly to the important project of trying to rethink the making of modern sociological imagination and frameworks.

Several members of the Ann Arbor seminar commented on the fact that there are some parallels between Weber’s interpretation of the “American difference” (chiefly a higher level of civic involvement than in Germany) and the main lines of Tocqueville’s observations of America in Democracy in America.  Scaff shared that two things are known about this question — first, that Weber never refers to Tocqueville anywhere in his corpus; and second, that he read Democracy in America in French at some point, since an edition of the book annotated in his hand is contained in his book collection in Heidelberg.  (Klaus Offe comments on this parallel in Reflections on America: Tocqueville, Weber and Adorno in the United States, based on the Adorno Lecture that he presented in Frankfurt in 2003.  Here is a limited Google Books view (link).)

This is all really important material for those of us who are interested in the contingent development of modern sociology.  So Scaff’s book is one that I’m eagerly anticipating when it appears in January.

Here is the table of contents for the book.


Lawrence A. Scaff


List of Illustrations




Part I. The American Journey


Chapter 1 Thoughts about America

Traveling to Progressive America

The Horizons of Thought

A “Spiritualist” Construction of the Modern Economy?


Chapter 2 The Land of Immigrants

Arriving in New York

Church and Sect, Status and Class

Settlements and Urban Space


Chapter 3 Capitalism

The City as Phantasmagori

Hull House, the Stockyards, and the Working Class

Character as Social Capital


Chapter 4 Science and World Culture

The St. Louis Congress: Unity of the Sciences?

The Last Time for a Free and Great Development: American


The Politics of the Arts and Crafts

Gender, Education and Authority


Chapter 5 Remnants of Romanticism

The Lure of the Frontier

The Problems of Indian Territory

Nature, Traditionalism, and the New World

The Significance of the Frontier


Chapter 6 The Color Line

Du Bois and the Study of Race

The Lessons of Tuskegee

Race and Ethnicity, Class and Caste


Chapter 7 Different Ways of Life

Colonial Children

Nothing Remains except Eternal Change

Ecological Interlude

Inner Life and Public World

The Cool Objectivity of Sociation


Chapter 8 The Protestant Ethic

Spirit and World

William James and His Circle

Ideas and Experience


Chapter 9 American Modernity

Strange Contradictions

Becoming American

Cultural Pluralism


Chapter 10 Interpretation of the Experience

The Discourse about America

A Way Out of the Iron Cage?

America in the Work


Part II. The Work in America


Chapter 11 The Discovery of the Author

Author and Audience

Networks of Scholars

Translation History

The Disciplines


Chapter 12 The Creation of the Sacred Text

An American in Heidelberg

Parsons Translates “The Protestant Ethic and the ‘Spirit’ of Capitalism”


Chapter 13 The Invention of the Theory

Gerth and Mills Publish a Weber “Source Book”

Parsons’ “Theory of Social and Economic Organization”

Weber Among the Emigrés

Weberian Sociology and Social Theory

Weber Beyond Weberian Sociology


Appendix I: The Webers’ Itinerary

Appendix II: Selected Correspondence with Americans, 1904-1905

Bibliographic Notes



Merton’s sociological imagination

Robert Merton began life as Meyer Schkolnick, son of impoverished Eastern European Jewish immigrants in Philadelphia, and he became one of the most influential American sociologists of his generation.  He is most often associated with a couple of phrases that came to embody common knowledge in the social sciences — “theories of the middle range,” “unforeseen consequences,” “focus group,” and “standing on the shoulders of giants.”  But what, precisely, was his conception of sociology as a science?  What sort of knowledge did he believe that sociology should aspire to?  Did he offer anything like a “paradigm” for sociology as a body of research, theory, and explanation?  And what does his work have to offer to today’s generation of sociologists?

Craig Calhoun and others organized a conference at Columbia in 2007 involving a group of pathbreaking sociologists in a variety of sub-disciplines to consider the legacy of Merton, and the result is a highly interesting volume of essays, Robert K. Merton: Sociology of Science and Sociology as Science.  Contributors include Craig Calhoun, Alehandro Portes, Charles Tilly, Robert Sampson, Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, Viviana Zelizer, Thomas Gieryn, Aaron Panofsky, Alan Sica, Ragnvald, Kallebert, Peter Simonson, Harriet Zuckerman, and Charles Camic, and jointly they consider a very wide range of themes and perspectives from Merton’s work.  The volume isn’t presented as a festschrift; Gieryn provided just such a collection in 1980 during Merton’s life (Science and Social Structure: A Festschrift for Robert K. Merton).  Instead, this volume is conceived as a way of taking the measure of Merton’s contributions to sociology as the field continues to develop, and to sound out ways in which Merton’s theories and ideas have either flourished or declined in the decades since the most influential ideas were published.  The volume therefore serves very well as an avenue through which to ask the analytical question: what defined Merton’s sociological imagination?

In his introduction to the volume, Craig Calhoun presents one important part of Merton’s work as being the job of “professionalizing” sociology.  But he also believes that Merton’s contributions were substantive and fundamental.  He quotes Merton from “On Sociological Theories of the Middle Range” on the overall purpose of sociology:

Each to his last, and the last of the sociologist is that of lucidly presenting claims to logically interconnected and empirically confirmed propositions about the structure of society and its changes, the behavior of man within that structure and the consequences of that behavior. (14-15)

This is a very focused statement about the nature of sociology; it involves <empirically justified> <theories> about social <structures> and social <behavior>.  It defines a method (empirical, fact-based research), a research product (a body of “logically interconnected statements”), and a subject matter (social structure and behavior).  At the same time, it isn’t a wholly informative statement.  What falls under the topic of “social structure”?  Is the theory of organizations a component of a theory of social structure?  How deeply into the intricacies of social psychology should the sociologist go in researching social behavior?  Calhoun makes it clear that he believes that Merton’s “philosophy of sociology” becomes more concrete through his efforts to clarify the concepts and theories that sociologists advance.  This is a move from the more abstract to the more concrete — and very consistent with the idea of “theories of the middle range.”  And in fact, much of the value of the volume comes from the efforts made by the contributors to delve more deeply into some specific areas of research and theory formation in which Merton involved himself.

The sociology of science is certainly one of the important areas where Merton made a lasting contribution, and several essays in the volume are devoted to this field.  Thomas Gieryn asks whether Merton formulated a paradigm for the sociology of science — a good question, since Merton himself was one of the first (along with Thomas Kuhn) to use the word “paradigm” to analyze scientific and intellectual activity.  Gieryn does a very useful job of collating the many things that Merton attributes to his core uses of the concept of paradigm throughout his work from 1968 to 2004 (115):

  • assumptions
  • problem sets
  • problematics
  • key concepts
  • generalizable concepts
  • central concepts
  • conceptual apparatus
  • logic of procedures procedures of inquiry
  • scheme of analysis
  • vocabularies
  • postulates
  • classification
  • ideological imputations
  • inference
  • substantive findings
  • inventory of extant findings
  • types of pertinent evidence
  • basic propositions
  • interpretative schemes
  • provisional agreement

Gieryn attempts to codify this list into three areas: “what we know about the social world … ; how sociologists should study the social world … ; prototheories that explain in causal fashion why society is the way it is” (115).  (Another way of boiling these elements down would be along these lines: concepts and interpretive schemes; inference and evidence;  broadly accepted substantive findings.)

Gieryn goes on to offer his own account of a paradigm for sociology as a series of oppositions:

  1. Science is social and cognitive
  2. Science is cooperative and competitive
  3. Science is institutionalized and emergent
  4. Scientific objects in the world are real and constructed
  5. Science is autonomous and embedded
  6. Science is universal and local
  7. Scientific knowledge is cumulative and … not (120)

This formulation demonstrates one of the emergent values of a project like this one: inventive sociologists are led to push forward an important question (“What is a paradigm for sociology?”) through careful consideration of Merton’s work and its strengths and limitations.

An area where Merton is not so well known is in the area of “cultural sociology.”  In fact, “culture” seems entirely absent from the short definition quoted above.  Merton is usually read as offering an abstract, structural-functional approach to the social world that pays little attention to cultural factors and meaningful behavior.  Cynthia Fuchs Epstein and Viviana Zelizer take issue with this interpretation, however, in their chapters in the volume.  Epstein puts her perspective in these terms: “Many of Merton’s key concepts for the analysis of social life centered on the cultural domain, mated with structural variables” (79).  And she thinks that a key part of Merton’s approach to sociological thinking invokes a cultural interpretation of social life:

Learning to think like a sociologist, according to Merton, requires going beyond the individual as the unit of analysis, as is the focus of rational-choice theorists or mainstream psychologists today.  The sociologist is required to consider the cultural web in which individuals are embedded, the social context that causes them to make certain choices and to act in concert with others because they share or are persuaded by social conventions that lodge them in institutional frameworks, which in turn circumscribe their options. (81)

Merton’s sociology of science is perhaps a particularly clear example of Epstein’s point here; Merton invokes the idea of the ethos of science, the norms and values that govern the choices of scientists, as one of the key sociological facts about science as socially embedded activity.  And this ethos is plainly conveyed to scientists through concrete social arrangements of training and education.

Another area that is less familiar is “sociological semantics” and rhetoric — basically, Merton’s interest in tracing some of the metaphors and concepts that have been important in the ways that people have conceived of history and society.  His book, On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript, traces the phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants” as a metaphor for the advancement of science.  (He traces the lineage past Isaac Newton’s usage of the phrase to Bernard of Chartres in the twelfth century.)  Essentially, it is a phrase that captures the idea of cumulation and progress, incorporating and extending the body of knowledge received from prior generations.  Charles Camic notes that Merton often insisted on a sharp delineation between the history of ideas and the sociology of ideas (275).  But Camic argues that Merton actually pursued inquiries that crossed over this line repeatedly in his interest in tracing quotations, concepts, and metaphors through the history of science (278).  His treatment of “serendipity” is a good example; and Camic argues that Merton regarded this kind of analysis as a serious exercise in sociological research.

That Merton himself viewed these writings in light of a larger intellectual project, rather than as occasional amusements, is something he made increasingly explicit, however. (279)

Merton summarized this area of interest under the heading of “Neologisms as Sociological Concepts: History and Analysis” and as a “study in sociological semantics” (279, 280).  Camic quotes Merton as holding that “the frequency and nature of quotations in society [serve] as objects of study in themselves” (283), and he links this kind of inquiry to the study of propaganda and mass persuasion as well.

In short, Merton is a sociologist who repays careful, extensive review, and this volume is a very good start.  It proves the notion that we can not only stand on the shoulders of giants, but can also gain insights that go beyond and beside those predecessors.

Sociology in China

Social investigation has a history in China that extends into the Ming-Qing dynasties and earlier, in the form of reports by scholar-officials on local conditions. Scholars undertook to provide descriptions of agricultural conditions, farming methods, famines, drought and flooding, the conditions of the poor, banditry, and many other topics of interest to the state or potentially of value to the people. These reports often show great attention to detail and concern for veracity, and they provide important sources of data for contemporary historians. They do not constitute “scientific sociology,” any more than the writings of Mayhew or the findings of Parliamentary commissions constituted a British sociology in the 18th century. They fall in the category of careful fact-gathering, with some efforts at diagnosing causes of some of the phenomena identified. We may also refer to the tradition called “evidential research” (kaoju), which emphasized “empirically rigorous methods” by historians and linguists to gather evidence for reconstructing China’s early history.

Sociology as a science involves several more specific ideas over and above simple descriptive reportage of social behavior: the idea of empirically rigorous methods of data gathering and analysis, the idea of providing explanations of the phenomena that are discovered, the idea of formulating theories about unobservable social processes or mechanisms, and the idea of identifying some level of patterns or regularities among and across groups of phenomena.

So what were some of the main turning points in the development of modern sociology in Chinese academic institutions in the twentieth century? How did sociology first appear in China? What were the primary influences? What assumptions about social theory and social research methodology were important, at what periods in time? When did the institutions of academic sociology develop—departments, associations, and journals?

As a European intellectual development, sociology took its shape in the 19th century as a result of several important currents of thought: the development of empiricism or positivism as philosophical theories of human knowledge, the development of “classical sociological theories” of modern societies (Weber, Durkheim, Marx, Tocqueville, Simmel); and the refinement of the methods of social description and analysis associated with public policy and reform efforts. Durkheim’s theories of social solidarity and cohesion, Weber’s theory of rationality and norms as causes of large historical developments such as the emergence of capitalism, and Marx’s theory of class conflict as the historical cause of social change—these classical theories constituted a first generation of sociological theory that twentieth century sociologists worked with in their efforts to deal with complex sociological phenomena. New theories in the twentieth century acquired classical standing as well: Parsons’ structural-functionalism as a general theory of social organization, the anthropologists’ formulation of theories of culture and language, and the Chicago School’s blend of pragmatism and policy provided a reservoir of theoretical ideas in the context of which more specific sociological inquiries could be framed.

Early in the twentieth century there were several important early Chinese sociologists who studied these theories in the west and brought them back to Chinese universities. There was a “founding group” of sociologists who studied in the US, in Chicago, California, and other universities in the 1930s and who created significant pockets of social research in China. The primary fields were rural development, ethnic groups, labor issues, gender and family. These founders published in English and Chinese. Yan Fu (1853-1921) was one of China’s first scholars of sociology, and translated Herbert Spencer’s Study of Sociology into Chinese in 1903). Quite a few Chinese students received Wisconsin, Columbia, USC, Chicago PhDs in the 1920s and 30s, and one students received a PhD from the University of Michigan in 1936.

Following the Communist Revolution, sociology went through several serious periods of crisis. In the 1950s the “socialist” character of the revolution led officials in China to ideological objections to the science of sociology.  The view was that sociology had to do with addressing social problems.  But this is a socialist society, so how can we have social problems?  Therefore, we don’t need sociology.  Departments of sociology were disbanded in the universities.  A few went to the Labor Cadre School.  Others went to statistics departments.  Quantitative and statistical methods were acceptable; but sociological theory and applied research were not.  This was described as “bourgeois science.”

In 1956-57 there was an attempt by some professors to revive sociological research.  Prof. Ma Yinchu wrote an article addressed to Chairman Mao about population issues.  He advocated for research on this question, arguing that population increase could interfere with China’s economic future.  There was some openness to this research, and Chairman Mao invited open thinking and ideas.  There had been an important meeting of a group of social scientists to re-start sociological research.  All the participants in this meeting were identified as “rightist”.  Participants included Yuan, Chen, Ma, and Fei.  Yuan was identified as “ultra-rightist” because he had done some organizational work for this small informal group.  He was sent to Northeast China for “labor re-education” in 1957.

Some opinions that emerged during the apparent thaw in 1956 were critical of one-party rule. There was an elite of scholars and officials from pre-1949 who were critical of one-party system. An important turning point was Wang Shengquan’s “Big Character Paper” in 1956 or 1957. He criticized Leninism as contrary to Marxist theory. Marx believed that socialism could only occur when the world had developed to the point of socialism; not “socialism in one country. Lenin and Stalin deviated from this belief. Wang said that Lenin was untrue to Marxism. He was consequently labeled “rightist”.

The brief emergence of critical opinions among social scientists in 1956 led to a crackdown on “Rightist thinking” and the squelching of emerging social research.  The emerging sociology and social science, social reform, political reform thinkers were all identified as rightists. Even criticism from the left—e.g. “The Party is not doing enough for peasants” was identified as rightist and counter-revolutionary.  In the anti-Rightist campaign in 1957 about 100,000 people were labeled as “rightist”.  There were quotas for institutions to identify a certain number of rightists among them.  The anti-Rightist Movement by the CCP/Propaganda Department crushed the re-emergence of social science research at this time.  The fear was that social research would turn to criticism and lead to calls for changing the political system.

The period of the Cultural Revolution was also an unpropitious period for sociology as a discipline.  The universities were closed for much of the period of 1966-76, and when they reopened, sociology remained a suspect discipline.  It was only in the early 1980s that sociology began to regain its place in the university and in the field of social-science research in China.  “In 1980 the Institute of Sociology under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences was established with Fei Xiao-tong as director” (Zheng and Li, 461).

Important Chinese sociologists

A particular leader in Chinese sociology was Prof. Fei Xiaotong.  He was educated in the 1930s and did field research in Jiangsu and Yunnan in the 1930s-1940s.  He was the first president of the Sociological Society of China, and he was a leading figure in re-establishing sociology after 1979.  He became a party official in a “democratic party”.  He died in 2005. Prof. Fei was a major influence after the Cultural Revolution in reviving sociology in China. An important book in English translation is Peasant Life in China: a Field Study of Country Life in the Yangtze Valley, based on his field survey in a village in Jiangsu province in 1930s (Google Books link).  Later he did field research in Yunnan.  After 1979 his best work was field research on the rise and roles of small market towns after the collapse of the people’s communes, focusing on Jiangsu Province.  (See David Arkush, Fei Xiaotong and Sociology in Revolutionary China.)  Fei became the first President of the Sociological Society after the CR in 1979. Yuan became the second president. (Here are obituaries from the New York Times (link) and ChinaDaily (link).)

Chen Da took a PhD at Columbia and became a specialist on Chinese labor.  He was a prominent sociologist in the 30s and 40s.  He became a key influence on the development of sociology at Tsinghua University, becoming founding director of the General Census Center there in 1939.  After the revolution he was prohibited from research and teaching and was eventually assigned to the Labor Cadre School.  His areas of research included survey methodology and surveys of workers’ households.  (Here is a brief history of sociology at Tsinghua University; link.)

Another important figure is Yuan Fang. He was educated at Kumming at Southwest Union University, a university that was relocated during the anti-Japanese War. He was a student of Chen Da.  He taught quantitative methods at a time that this was dangerous; “bourgeois science”.  Some professors disapproved of the workshops he organized.  People who participated were told to “be critical from a Marx-Mao-Lenin point of view.” After the anti-Japanese War, he went to Tsinghua as professor. He then went to Peking University as chair of sociology in 1984.

Lei Jieqiong.  USC 1932.  She advocated for the five-city survey. Family and marriage.  After the Cultural Revolution she became Vice Mayor of Beijing, representing a “showcase democratic party.”  She was also a Peking University professor.  Here is a ChinaDaily article on the occasion of her 105th birthday.

Pan Guangdan.  Sociology/anthropology.  He studied ethnic groups.  He was a professor of Fei.  He was the first translator of Darwin into Chinese and became China’s leading promoter of eugenics.

Yan Yangchu [James Yen].  Another renowned sociologist in the 1930s.  See Charles W. Hayford, To the People: James Yen and Village China (Google Books link).

Li Jinghan. Ph.D. from Chicago (?) in the late 1920s. Social survey methods.  Statistical study of household surveys.  Both rural and urban. Major report of fieldwork: Dingxian shehui gaikuang diaocha (a general social survey of Ding county); first published in 1934 and recently reprinted.

Wang Shengquan.  Chen and Yuan educated him.  His “Big Character Paper” in 1956 or 1957 was a precipitating incident leading to the Anti-Rightist Campaign.  He was sent to the Cadre School.

A chronology

A History of Chinese Sociology, by Zheng Hang-sheng and Li Ying-sheng (China Renmin University Press) includes a fairly detailed appendix listing “Major Events in Chinese Sociology.” Here are a few significant events from the early twentieth century:

  • 1921 Xiamen University established the department of history and sociology — first department of sociology in universities run by the Chinese
  • 1922 Yu Tian-xiu set up “Association of Chinese Sociology” and started Journal of Sociology
  • 1923 Shanghai started the department of sociology; stipulated that the teaching took the theoretical basis of Marxism and Leninism, i.e. historical materialism as its guide.
  • 1924 The Fund Board of Chinese Education and Culture was established in Beijing and the Department of Social Survey was led by Tao Meng-he and Li Jing-han.  Published a large number of findings reports, including Rural Families in the Suburbs of Beiping.
  • 1926 Li Da published Modern Sociology.
  • 1928 Chen Han-sheng conducted three large-scale surveys of rural areas in Hebei, Jiangsu and Guangdong Provinces through the early 1930s.
  • 1930 The department of sociology in Yanjing University established an experimental base at Qinghe Town, where Xu Shi-lian and Yang Kai-dao directed students to survey the population trend, families, bazars, organizations of village and town in Qinghe Town (Google Books link)

The entry for 1957 is laconic:

1957   Inspired by the principle, “let a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend” set forth by the Central Committee of the CPC led by Mao Ze-dong, Fei Xiao-tong published an article A Couple of Words about Sociology in Wenhuibao.  Chen Da, Wu Jing-chao and other distinguished sociologists also expressed their opinions about the restoration and reconstruction of Chinese sociology at Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conferences and in influential newspapers or journals in Beijing and Shanghai.  The opinions of the former sociologists evoked big repercussions and attracted the attention of the leaders in departments responsible for the work.  However, when the Anti-Rightist Campaign began, the opinions about restoring and reconstruction of sociology were criticized as part of the plot to restore capitalism, and a number of former sociologists were mistaken for rightists and were persecuted.  From then on, sociology became a restricted academic zone.

The next entry is 1979, 22 years later.

International social science

Last month the International Social Science Council (ISSC) launched a major review of the status of the social sciences worldwide (link).  The report was commissioned and partially funded by UNESCO.  The full report is available as a PDF file, and it is an important piece of work.  It includes review essays by leading social scientists and chiefs of social science research organizations in Europe, North America, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean, and it makes an effort to provide a fairly comprehensive snapshot of the current state of affairs in the institutions, funding, and patterns of collaboration that currently drive social science research programmes in almost all regions of the world.  (It is interesting to observe that there is not a single mention of social science research in Israel.)

The primary focus of the report is on the institutional settings within which social science research takes place globally: for example, funding systems, universities and institutes, peer review systems, and publication systems.  To what extent are these institutions, in various regions of the world, succeeding in supporting and encouraging the kinds of social science research that will further the policy and informational needs of the publics they serve?  And to what extent are there substantial differences across regions of the world with respect to the depth and effectiveness of these institutional supports for the social sciences?

Here are three high-level changes in the social sciences that are noted in the report:

Three changes in the environment of social science production are particularly likely to affect their content, role and function. These are first, globalization, leading to the parallel internationalization of some public concerns and of social science research itself; second, changes in the institutional and social organization of social sciences; and third, the increased role of new information technology (IT) in the production and dissemination of social sciences. (1)

A more pervasive finding that structures many chapters in the report is the idea of “divides” within and across the world’s communities of social scientists.  Most fundamental is the gap in resources and institutional capacity that exists between North and South with respect to social science research:

For any observer of social sciences worldwide, the most striking divide is between countries and regions. There is not much in common between a social science department in a well-endowed university of the global North and a social science research institute in a Southern country suffering from economic and political instability. (3)

(Here is a map indicating widely different levels of spending on tertiary education across the globe:)

But the report also highlights divides across the practices of the social sciences that reflect real differences in intellectual commitments:

From an epistemological point of view, social sciences have been diverse and are characterized by a multiplicity of methods, approaches, disciplines, paradigms, national traditions and underlying political and social philosophies. (3)

Before undertaking such a survey, it is necessary to have a working conception of the definition and role of the social sciences.  The report takes a pragmatic approach; the social sciences are “the disciplines whose professional association is part of ISSC” (3).  But here is the closest the report comes to framing the intellectual task of the social sciences:

The social sciences are concerned with providing the main classificatory, descriptive and analytical tools and narratives that allow us to see, name and explain the developments that confront human societies. They allow us to decode underlying conceptions, assumptions and mental maps in the debates surrounding these developments. They may assist decision-making processes by attempting to surmount them. And they provide the instruments to gauge policies and initiatives, ‘and to determine what works and what does not’. (9)

Another organizing thread in the work of this large team of collaborators is the idea that the social sciences are most valuable when they make a contribution to the solution of important social and political problems.  They specifically refer to a set of common challenges that are of concern to virtually all the regional research communities surveyed here:

Challenges such as environmental change, poverty, financial crisis and inequality, as well as trends affecting human societies such as ageing, marginalization and the rise of cities as strategic economic spaces in the global economy are occurring everywhere but take on different forms according to local contexts. The authors discuss a wide array of challenges and trends, but other challenges such as gender issues, public health concerns, security, food crisis, migrations, diversity and integration, and burning issues and trends could also have found a place in this section. (9-10)

The greatest value and interest of this report is the degree of detail it is possible to glean from the summary reports provided by the regional associations of the social sciences.  This gives a cumulatively detailed impression of the ways in which the social sciences are framed in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America, as well as North America and Europe.  Here is a nice example from Huang Ping’s survey of the status of the social sciences in China, where Ping provides historical context for Chinese social science:

In terms of what we see today, the status of the social sciences in China can be traced back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the first generation of Chinese students and scholars returned from Western countries, mostly the UK and the USA, after completing their degrees or their research.

After the Second World War and since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, social sciences in China have developed along three traditions: Chinese scholarly academia, especially Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism; focusing on economics in line with Soviet influences and Marxist studies; and later, Western approaches.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), social sciences almost disappeared and were hardly taught. After the opening-up process initiated in 1978, social sciences, along with science and research in general, were resumed and given a mandate to support the reform process. The Soviet influence gradually disappeared, and Western, especially US, social science approaches became the most influential. Sociology, for example, had been banned since 1952 and was reintroduced in 1979. During the past decade, traditional Chinese academic traditions have been reintroduced in universities and have caught the interest of an increasing number of students. (73)

The report does not explicitly attempt to map the range and diversity of research priorities in different regions of the world; but it is possible to begin to do so by paying close attention to the surveys offered by the regional associations for social science research. Topics vary across regions. What is more difficult to assess is the degree to which epistemologies, theories, and intellectual frameworks vary as well — though Sandra Harding’s contribution points in this direction. (See an earlier posting discussing work by Gabriel Abend on “Styles of Epistemology” (link).)

Particularly interesting for me are short pieces by Saskia Sassen (“Cities in today’s global age”), Craig Calhoun (“Social sciences in North America”), Akhil Gupta (“Construction of the global poor”), David Harvey (“A financial Katrina?”), Jon Elster (“One social science or many?”), and Sandra Harding (“Standpoint methodologies and epistemologies: A logic of scientific inquiry for people”).

In short, this is a genuinely interesting and detailed review of the status of the social sciences in the world today, and anyone with an interest in the “sociology of the social sciences” and the globalization of social knowledge will want to read it carefully.

Concrete sociological knowledge

Is there a place within the social sciences for the representation of concrete, individual-level experience?  Is there a valid kind of knowledge expressed by the descriptions provided by an observant resident of a specific city or an experienced traveler in the American South in the 1940s?  Or does social knowledge need to take the form of some kind of generalization about the social world?  Does sociology require that we go beyond the particulars of specific people and social arrangements?

There is certainly a genre of social observation that serves just this intimate descriptive function: an astute, empathetic observer spends time in a location, meeting a number of people and learning a lot about their lives and thoughts.  Studs Terkel’s work defines this genre — both in print and in his radio interviews over so many years.  A particularly good example is Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.  But Studs is a journalist and a professional observer; does he really contribute to “sociological knowledge”? (See this earlier post on Studs.)

Perhaps a better example of “concrete, individual-level experience” for sociology can be drawn closer to home, in Erving Goffman’s work.  (Here is an earlier discussion of some of Goffman’s work; link.)  Here are the opening words of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956):

I mean this report to serve as a sort of handbook detailing one sociological perspective from which social life can be studied, especially the kind of social life that is organised within the physical confines of a building or plant. A set of features will be described which together form a framework that can be applied to any concrete social establishment, be it domestic, industrial, or commercial. 

The perspective employed in this report is that of the theatrical performance; the principles derived are dramaturgical ones. I shall consider the way in which the individual in ordinary work situations presents himself and his activity to others, the ways in which he guides and controls the impression they form of him, and the kinds of things he may and may not do while sustaining his performance before them. In using this model I will attempt not to make light of its obvious inadequacies.  The stage presents things that are make-believe; presumably life presents things that are real and sometimes not well rehearsed. More important, perhaps, on the stage one player presents himself in the guise of a character to characters projected by other players; the audience constitutes a third party to the interaction — one that is essential and yet, if the stage performance were real, one that would not be there. In real life, the three parties are compressed into two; the part one individual plays is tailored to the parts played by the others present, and yet these others also constitute the audience. Still other inadequacies in this model will be considered later.

The illustrative materials used in this study are of mixed status: some are taken from respectable researches where qualified generalisations are given concerning reliably recorded regularities; some are taken from informal memoirs written by colourful people; many fall in between. The justification for this approach (as I take to be the justification for Simmel’s also) is that the illustrations together fit into a coherent framework that ties together bits of experience the reader has already had and provides the student with a guide worth testing in case studies of institutional social life. (preface)

 Goffman’s text throughout this book relies on numerous specific descriptions of the behavior of real estate agents, dentists, military officers, servants, and medical doctors in concrete and particular social settings.  Here are a few examples:

[funerals] Similarly, at middle-class American funerals, a hearse driver, decorously dressd in black and tactfully located at the outskirts of the cemetery during the service, may be allowed to smoke, but he is likely to shock and anger the bereaved if he happens to flick his cigarette stub into a bush, letting it describe an elegant arc, instead of circumspectly dropping it at his feet. (35)

[formal dinners] Thus if a household is to stage a formal dinner, someone in uniform or livery will be required as part of the working team. The individual who plays this part must direct at himself the social definition of a menial. At the same time the individual taking the part of hostess must direct at herself, and foster by her appearance and manner, the social definition of someone upon whom it is natural for menials to wait. This was strikingly demonstrated in the island tourist hotel studied by the writer. There an overall impression of middle-class service was achieved by the management, who allocated to themselves the roles of middle-class host and hostess and to their employees that of maids — although in terms of the local class structure the girls who acted as maids were of slightly higher status than the hotel owners who employed them. (47-48)

[hospitals] Thus, if doctors are to prevent cancer patients from learning the identity of their disease, it will be useful to scatter the cancer patients throughout the hospital so that they will not be able to learn from the identity of their ward the identity of their disorder. (The hospital staff, incidentally, may be forced to spend more time walking corridors and moving equipment because of this staging strategy than would otherwise be necessary.) (59)

[hotel kitchens] The study of the island hotel previously cited provides another example of the problems workers face when they have insufficient control of their backstage. Within the hotel kitchen, where the guests’ food was prepared and where the staff ate and spent their day, crofters’ culture tended to prevail, involving a characteristic pattern of clothing, food habits, table manners, language, employer-employee relations, cleanliness standards, etc. This culture was felt to be different from, and lower in esteem than, British middle-class culture, which tended to prevail in the dining room and other places in the hotel. The doors leading from the kitchen to the other parts of the hotel were a constant sore spot in the organization of work. (72)

So Goffman’s sociology in this work is heavily dependent on the kind of concrete social observation and description that is at issue here.  Much of the interest of the book is the precision and deftness through which Goffman dissects and describes these concrete instances of social interaction.  This supports one answer to the question with which we began: careful, exacting and perceptive description of particular social phenomena is an important and epistemically valid form of sociological knowledge.  Studs Terkel contributes to our knowledge of the social world when he accurately captures the voice of the miner, the hotel worker, or the taxi driver; and a very important part of this contribution is the discovery of the singular and variable features of these voices.

At the same time, it is clear that Goffman goes beyond the concrete descriptions of restaurants, medical offices, and factory floors that he offers to formulate and support a more general theory of social behavior: that individuals convey themselves through social roles that are prescribed for various social settings, and that much social behavior is performance.  (This performative interpretation of social action is discussed in an earlier post.)  And this suggests that there is a further implicature within our understanding of the goals of sociological knowledge: the idea that concrete descriptions should potentially lead to some sort of generalization, contrast, or causal interpretation.

The disciplines of economics

Economics is sometimes presented as the most “scientific” of the social science disciplines.  It is mathematical, it involves sophisticated models, it makes use of enormous data sets, and it is invoked in the formulation of social and economic policies in much the way that the science of mechanics is invoked in the building of bridges.  So one might imagine that the foundations, objectivity, and empirical credibility of modern economics are now beyond question.

Each of these assumptions is debatable, however.  Daniel Hausman, a sympathetic critic and the leading authority in the philosophy of economics, casts doubt on the claims for precision and comprehensiveness of economic theory in The Inexact and Separate Science of Economics.  Essays in my volume, On the Reliability of Economic Models: Essays in the Philosophy of Economics, cast doubt on the validity and reliability of some of the computational models that are used in current economics, including especially the computable general equilibrium models (CGE).  And economists like Bruce Pietrykowski have pointed out that there are multiple traditions bundled into the history of contemporary economics, some of which have been overlooked to the detriment of the science of economics (The Political Economy of Consumer Behaviour: Contesting Consumption).  (See an earlier post on Pietrykowski’s work).

We need to have a better history and sociology of the formation of the disciplines of economics in order to have a better understanding of the scope and limits of current theory.  There is, of course, a major literature on the history of economic thought, including such beacons as Joseph Schumpeter’s History of Economic Analysis, Mark Blaug’s Economic Theory in Retrospect, and I. I. Rubin’s History of Economic Thought.  (Rubin saw the muzzle-end of economic history, by being executed by Stalin in 1937 for crimes against the state.)  But traditional approaches to the history of economic thought almost always look for synthesis and logical progression; so the account that we often get represents the development of economics as a fairly linear evolution from the physiocrats to the classical political economists to the marginalist revolution to Keynes and general equilibrium theory.  The differences, contingencies, and choices that occurred along the way tend to disappear.

What the sociology of science can add to the history of science is a detailed, empirical examination of the institutions, processes, networks, and knowledge systems of a discipline.  Sociologists like Robert Merton (link) and Andrew Abbott (Chaos of Disciplines) attempt to provide a micro-level account of the development and workings of a scientific discipline, using the empirical and theoretical tools of sociology.  And this approach sheds a great deal of light on the way the particular field of science works, as well as providing greater granularity to the status of scientific claims within various disciplines.  (It should be said that the current generation of historians of science also sometimes take this kind of micro-level view — for example, Peter Galison’s treatment of Einstein and Poincaré in Einstein’s Clocks, Poincare’s Maps: Empires of Time.  But to date this hasn’t been true of historians of the social sciences.)

Marion Fourcade’s profoundly innovative book, Economists and Societies: Discipline and Profession in the United States, Britain, and France, 1890s to 1990s, takes a sociologist’s toolkit to work on the disciplines of economics.  Here is a good statement of her fundamental thesis:

Economics arose everywhere.  But everywhere it was distinctive.  If we look back just a few decades, we see that the institutionalization of economics expertise in science, policy, or business took different routes across nations.  Scientific and practical knowledge about the economy was conceptualized and institutionalized in different ways in different places, and for identifiable reasons. (3)

What is some of the evidence for thinking that “economics” is different in different national settings?  Here is a good example of an empirical approach a sociologist can take to this question.  Fourcade cites opinion surveys that have been conducted of “professional economists” in seven European and North American countries, on topics relevant to economic theory and policy.  For most of these questions there are significant differences between U.S., French, U.K., and Canada economists — documenting the idea that there are meaningful differences in the theoretical presuppositions of economists in those national cultures.  Here are a couple of questions from table 0-2 (p. 6):

Tariffs and quotas reduce welfare

Agree          U.S. 95%  France 70%   U.K. 84%

Disagree      U.S.   3%  France 27%   U.K. 15%

Reducing the influence of regulatory authorities (e.g., in air traffic) would improve the efficiency of the economy

Agree          U.S. 75%  France 37%   Canada 56%

Disagree      U.S. 21%  France 56%   Canada 43%

On these two questions (only a subset of eight in the table), economists in the U.S. and France demonstrate very significant differences of judgment on very basic economic policy issues, with U.K. and Canada falling between them.  The regulatory question is particularly revealing.  So survey research — a very basic tool of sociological research — turns out to have useful and surprising results when directed at the profession of economics.

Another tool that Fourcade uses to good advantage is something that Merton emphasized as well: examination of scientific biographies and interviews with current practitioners.  How did specific influential individuals develop into professional economists?  And what can the sociologist learn about the profession from these detailed intellectual itineraries?

Fourcade is careful and reflective in formulating the methodology she pursues in the book.  She makes use of the comparative framework employed by comparative historical sociologists in other fields as well; she singles out the U.S., U.K., and France as specific national cases within which she attempts to reconstruct the specific values, attitudes, and institutions that defined “economics” as a profession.  (This is methodologically similar to Frank Dobbin’s study of “policy cultures” in these same three countries; Forging Industrial Policy: The United States, Britain, and France in the Railway Age.)  She calls her approach “critical organized comparison” (13).

This approach defines the bulk of the book; Fourcade provides chapters on the economic cultures of professional economics in the U.S., U.K., and France, in which she examines in detail the academic institutions, policy environments, and epistemic assumptions that went into the creation of economics as a discipline of knowledge and expertise in each country.  She argues that each national setting represents a “constellation of practices” that distinguishes it from the others; so that the profession of economics is defined differently in the three settings.  Here are the components of the French constellation as she sorts it out: limited private jurisdiction, segmentation of economics training, legitimacy of technocratic generalist discourse, state jurisdiction dominant, and late and piecemeal institutionalization (16).

A key insight in the book is Fourcade’s insistence that economic knowledge, economic policies, economic expertise, and the profession of economics are jointly specified within a specific national culture.  They are socially constructed in ways that she makes perfectly understandable.  These social products are interrelated, and they are differently understood in the separate cultures studied.  “In short, we want to examine the historical conditions that helped crystallize the very idea of what economics is, and attend closely to changing local classifications and representations of this idea over time” (13).

She also pays close attention to the institutions through which economists are trained and validated — another key sociological insight:

The structure of the academic system and the place of economics education and research within it are particularly relevant to understanding the nature of economic knowledge production in each country.  As an academically organized form of knowledge, and a training ground for a vast array of business and administrative professions, economics is shaped by broader research and higher education ecologies. (22-23)

Here is a nice statement of how she sees her work hanging together:

This book has been particularly concerned with one specific type of affinity, that which ties knowledge to its social setting.  Instead of focusing–in Foucault’s manner– on what makes particular sorts of knowledge possible at a given historical moement, I have thus tried to analyze interactions between forms of political organization and forms of knowledge making within specific social contexts. (239)

Economists and Societies is a very appealing piece of sociology, and it is a highly insightful contribution to a very fundamental question: what is the status of economic knowledge?

(Related work on the significant differences that can be discerned across national traditions of a social science discipline is being done for the discipline of sociology as well; see this post on national differences in the discipline of sociology, highlighting work by Gabriel Abend.)

What makes a sociological theory compelling?

In the humanities it is a given that assertions and arguments have a certain degree of rational force, but that ultimately, reasonable people may differ about virtually every serious claim. An interpretation of Ulysses, an argument for a principle of distributive justice, or an attribution of certain of Shakespeare’s works to Christopher Marlowe — each may be supported by “evidence” from texts and history, and those who disagree need to produce evidence of their own to rebut the thesis; but no one imagines there is such a thing as an irrefutable argument to a conclusion in literature, art history, or philosophy.  Conclusions are to some degree persuasive, well supported, or compelling; but they are never ineluctable or uniquely compatible with available evidence. There is no such thing as the final word, even on a well formulated question. (Naturally, a vague or ambiguous question can always be answered in multiple ways.)

In physics the situation appears to be different.  Physical theories are about a class of things with what we may assume are uniform characteristics throughout the range of this kind of thing (electrons, electromagnetic waves, neutrinos); and these things come together in ensembles to produce other kinds of physical phenomena.  So we often believe that physical theories are deductive systems that attribute a set of mathematical properties to more-or-less fundamental physical entities; and then we go on to derive descriptions of the behavior of things and ensembles made of these properties.  And the approximate truth of the physical theory can be assessed by the degree of success its deductive implications have for the world of observable ensembles of physical things.  So it seems that we can come to fairly definitive conclusions about various theories in the natural sciences: natural selection is the mechanism of species evolution; gravitational force is the cause of the elliptical shapes of planetary orbits; the velocity of light is a constant.  And we are confident in the truth of these statements because they play essential roles within deductive systems that are highly confirmed by experiment and experience.

So what about the empirical domains of sociology or history? Is it possible for careful empirical and theoretical research to provide final answers to well formulated questions in these fields? Is it possible to put together an argument in sociology on a particular question that is so rationally and empirically compelling that no further disagreement is possible?

There is a domain of factual-empirical questions in sociology where the answer is probably affirmative. What is the population of Detroit in 2000? What percentage of likely voters supported McCain in October 2008? What is the full unemployment rate among African-American young people in Ohio? When was the International Brotherhood of Teamsters recognized in Cleveland? There are recognized sources of data and generally accepted methods that would allow us to judge that a particular study definitively answers one or another of these questions. This isn’t to make a claim of unrevisability; but it is to assert that some social inquiries have as much empirical decidability as, say, questions in descriptive ecology (“what is the range of the Helicinidae land snail in North America?”) or planetary astronomy (“what is the most likely origin of the planetary body Pluto?”).

But most major works in sociology do not have this characteristic. They do not primarily aim at establishing a limited set of sociological or demographic facts. Instead, they take on larger issues of conceptualization, explanation, interpretation, and theory formation. They make use of empirical and historical facts to assess or support their arguments. But it is virtually never possible to conclude, “given the available body of empirical and historical evidence, this theory is almost certainly true.” Rather, we are more commonly in a position to say something like this: “Given the range of empirical, historical, and theoretical considerations offered in its support, theory T is a credible explanation of P.”  And it remains for other scholars to either advance a more comprehensive or well-supported theory, or to undermine the evidence offered for T, or to provisionally accept T as being approximately correct.  Durkheim put forward a theory of suicide based on the theoretical construct of anomie (Suicide).  He argued that the rate of suicide demonstrated by a population is caused by the degree of anomie characteristic of that society; and he offered a few examples of how the theoretical construct of anomie might be operationalized in order to allow us to measure or compare different societies in these terms.  But his theory can be challenged from numerous directions: that it is monocausal, that it assumes that suicide is a homogeneous phenomenon across social settings, and even that it overstates the degree of consistency that exists between “high anomie” and “high suicide” social settings.

Take Michael Mann’s analysis of fascism (Fascists). He considers a vast range of historical and sociological evidence in arriving at his analysis. His theory is richly grounded in empirical evidence. But numerous elements of his account reflect the researcher’s best judgment about a question, rather than a conclusive factual argument. Take Mann’s view that “materialist” and class-based theories of fascist movements are incorrect.  I doubt that his richly documented arguments to this conclusion make it rationally impossible to continue to find support for the materialist hypothesis. Or take his definition of fascism itself. It is a credible definition; but different researchers could certainly offer alternatives that would lead them to weigh the evidence differently and come to different conclusions. So even such simple questions as these lack determinate answers: What is fascism?  Why did fascist movements arise? Who were the typical fascist followers? There are credible answers to each of these questions, and this is exactly what we want from a sociological theory of fascism; but the answers that a given researcher puts forward are always contestable.

Or take Howard Kimeldorf’s analysis of the different political trajectories of dock-workers’ unions on the East and West Coasts (Reds or Rackets?: The Making of Radical and Conservative Unions on the Waterfront). Kimeldorf provides an explanatory hypothesis of the differences between the nature of these unions in the east and west in the United States, and he offers a rich volume of historical and factual material to fill in the case and support the hypothesis.  It is an admirable example of reasoning in comparative historical sociology.  Nonetheless, there is ample room for controversy.  Has he formulated the problem in the most perspicuous way?  Are the empirical findings unambiguous?  Are there perhaps other sources of data that would support a different conclusion?  It is reasonable to say that Kimeldorf makes a credible case for his conclusions; but there are other possible interpretations of the facts, and even other possible interpretations of the phenomena themselves.

These are both outstanding examples of sociological theory and analysis; so the point here isn’t that there is some important defect in either of them.  Rather, the point is that there is a wide range of indeterminacy in each of these examples: in the way in which the problem is formulated, in the basic conceptual assumptions that the author makes, and in the types and interpretation of the data that the author provides.  Each provides a strong basis, in fact and in theory, for accepting the conclusions offered.  But each is contestable within the general framework of scientific rationality.  And this seems to suggest that for the difficult, complex problems that arise in sociology and history, there is no basis for imagining that there could be a final and rationally compulsory answer to questions like “Why fascism?” and “Why Red labor unions on the Pacific Coast?”  And perhaps it suggests something else as well: that the logic of scientific reasoning in the social sciences is as close to arguments in the humanities as it is to reasoning in the physical sciences.  It is perhaps an instance of “inference to the best explanation” rather than an example of hypothetico-deductive testing and confirmation.

Current historical sociology: George Steinmetz

George Steinmetz, professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, is a leading scholar in the contemporary field of historical sociology.  His most recent book is The Devil’s Handwriting: Precoloniality and the German Colonial State in Qingdao, Samoa, and Southwest Africa, and his volume The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences: Positivism and Its Epistemological Others is a major contribution to current debates on the methods and aims of the social sciences today.  Here is a video interview and conversation I conducted with George at the University of Michigan this month.  Quite a few of George’s academic papers are available on his website.

This is part of an ongoing series of interviews I am conducting with innovative social scientists.   The goal of the series is to provide a forum in which some very innovative and productive thinkers are able to reflect on some of the ideas and perspectives that are creating innovative work in sociology today.  Visit my research page for links to prior interviews.  All the videos are available on YouTube.

Styles of epistemology in world sociology

One of the basic organizing premises of the sociology of science is that there are meaningful differences in the conduct of a given area of science across separate communities, all the way down.  There is no pure language and method of science into which diverse research traditions ought to be translated.  Rather, there are complex webs of assumptions about ontology, evidence, observation, theory, method, and reasoning; and there are highly significant differences in the institutions through which scientific activities are undertaken and young scientists are trained.  Sociologists and philosophers such as Thomas Kuhn, David Bloor, Paul Feyerabend, Bruno Latour, and Wiebe Bijker have attempted to lay out the reasons for thinking these forms of difference are likely to be ubiquitous, and several of them have done detailed work in specific areas of scientific knowledge to demonstrate some of these differences.  (Here is a post on Kuhn’s approach to the history of science.)

In this vein is a genuinely fascinating and important article by Gabriel Abend with the evocative title, “Styles of Sociological Thought: Sociologies, Epistemologies, and the Mexican and U.S. Quests for Truth” (Sociological Theory 24:1, 2006).  Abend attempts to take the measure of a particularly profound form of difference that might be postulated within the domain of world sociology: the idea that different national traditions of sociology may embody different epistemological frameworks that make their results genuinely incommensurable.  Abend offers an empirical analysis of the possibility that the academic disciplines of Mexican and U.S. sociology embody significantly different assumptions when it comes to articulating the role and relationships between “evidence” and “theory.”  Here is how he summarizes his findings:

[The] main argument is that the discourses of Mexican and U.S. sociologies are consistently underlain by significantly different epistemological assumptions. In fact, these two Denkgemeinschaften are notably dissimilar in at least four clusters of variables … : their thematic, theoretical, and methodological preferences; their historical development and intellectual influences; the society, culture, and institutions in which they are embedded; and the language they normally use.(2)

The core of Abend’s analysis is an empirical study involving content analysis of four leading sociology journals in Mexico and the U.S. and sixty articles, randomly chosen through a constrained process.  He analyzes the articles with respect to the practices that each represents when it comes to the use of empirical evidence and sociological theory.  And he finds that the differences between the Mexican articles and the U.S. articles are highly striking.  Consider this tabulation of results on the question of the role of evidence and theory taken by the two sets of articles:

His central findings include these:

  • U.S. and Mexican sociologists have very different understandings of “theory” and the ways in which theories relate to data.  U.S. sociologists conform to Merton’s idea of “theories of the middle range” in which a theory relates fairly directly to empirical observations through its deductive consequences.  Mexican sociologists tend to use theories and theoretical concepts as ways of interpreting or thematizing large social phenomena.
  • U.S. sociologists see the burden of their work to fall in the category of testing or confirming sociological hypotheses.  Mexican sociologists see the burden of their work in detailing and analyzing complex social phenomena at a fairly factual level.  “93 percent of M-ART are principally driven by the comprehension of an empirical problem” (10).
  • U.S. sociologists are strongly wedded to the hypothetico-deductive model of confirmation and explanation.  This model plays very little role in the arguments presented in the sample of articles from Mexican sociologists.
  • U.S. and Mexican sociologists have very different assumptions about “scientific objectivity”.  U.S. authors aspire to impersonal neutrality, whereas Mexican authors embrace the fact that their analysis proceeds from a particular perspective.
  • U.S. authors attempt to exclude value judgments; Mexican author incorporate value judgments into their empirical analysis.  “Among U.S. sociologists, the standard reference is Weber’s purportedly sharp distinctions between value and fact, Wertfreiheit (value freedom or ethical neutrality) and Wertbezogenheit (value relevance or value relatedness), and context of discovery and context of justification” (22).   Concepts such as “oppression,” “exploitation,” and “domination” are used as descriptive terms in many of the Mexican research articles.

Here is a striking tabulation of epistemic differences between the two samples:

Abend believes that these basic epistemological differences between U.S. and Mexican sociology imply a fundamental incommensurability of results:

To consider the epistemological thesis, let us pose the following thought experiment. Suppose a Mexican sociologist claims p and a U.S. sociologist claims not-p.  Carnap’s or Popper’s epistemology would have the empirical world arbitrate between these two theoretical claims. But, as we have seen, sociologists in Mexico and the United States hold different stances regarding what a theory should be, what an explanation should look like, what rules of inference and standards of proof should be stipulated, what role evidence should play, and so on. The empirical world could only adjudicate the dispute if an agreement on these epistemological presuppositions could be reached (and there are good reasons to expect that in such a situation neither side would be willing to give up its epistemology). Furthermore, it seems to me that my thought experiment to some degree misses the point. For it imagines a situation in which a Mexican sociologist claims p and a U.S. sociologist claims not-p, failing to realize that that would only be possible if the problem were articulated in similar terms. However, we have seen that Mexican and U.S. sociologies also differ in how problems are articulated—rather than p and not-p, one should probably speak of p and q.  I believe that Mexican and U.S. sociologies are perceptually and semantically incommensurable as well. (27)

Though Abend’s analysis is comparative, I find his analysis of the epistemological assumptions underlying the U.S. cases to be highly insightful all by itself.  In just a few pages he captures what seem to me to be the core epistemological assumptions of the conduct of sociological research in the U.S.  These include:

  • the assumption of “general regular reality” (the assumption that social phenomena are “really” governed by underlying regularities)
  • deductivism 
  • epistemic objectivity
  • a preference for quantification and abstract vocabulary
  • separation of fact and value; value neutrality

Abend is deliberately agnostic about the epistemic value of the two approaches; he is explicit in saying that he is interested in discovering the differences, not assessing the relative truthfulness of the two approaches.  But we cannot really escape the most basic question: where does truth fall in this analysis?  What is the status of truth claims in the two traditions?  Are there rational grounds for preferring one body of statements over the other, or for favoring one of these epistemologies over its alternative north or south?

This is important and original work.  Abend’s research on this topic is an effort well worth emulating; it adds a great deal of depth and nuance to the effort to provide a philosophy of sociology.  I hope there will be further analysis along these lines by Abend and others.

(There is a lot of social observation and theory in the image above — and no pretense of academic objectivity.  Class opposition, global property systems, and a general impression of deep social conflict pervade the image.)