John R. Hall
University of California - Davis and Santa Cruz
Indulge me for giving Theory a Durkheimian pat on its collective back. What a great section! We are more than 800 members strong, with participants from most every wing of our rambling split-level (social and sociological) theory house, truly impressive scholars honored each year by the section’s awards and prizes, strong theory journals, and a healthy engagement on the part of young sociologists, most spectacularly in the Junior Theorists Symposium held each year around the ASA meetings (Nota bene: you don’t have to be very junior to attend, trust me). To see more about all of this, check out the section website, http://www.asatheory.org, where you also can learn how to make a (self or other) nomination for next summer’s prizes and awards. We can all take pride in how much commitment there is to theory and the section.
So, what is it with theory? Yeah, maybe there are some rational actors who seek to feather their nests with cultural capital and advance their professional positions in theory as a Bourdieusian field. But that assumes a vibrant and growing field, well past near death. My own admittedly anecdotal experience does not rule out rational-choice or Bourdieusian analysis, but it is different.
The commitments that I have witnessed mark a wide sentiment that the section and theory matter. Across diverse sociological projects, theorizing is an activity that contributes to the commonwealth – of the discipline, of sociologists and other scholars concerned with substantive research questions, and of reflexive, global, and public understandings about the social, its institutions and structurations, and possibilities.
"... the transmission has become a 'Hydra,' a monster lurking at the entrance to the sociological underworld that regenerates theory two- or threefold with every attempt to slay it..."
After Parsons, enterprises of “grand theory” – meant to chart the overall character and trajectory of society – did not grind to a halt, as the works of Habermas, Luhmann, Giddens, Schluchter, Foucault, Beck, and Bauman attest. Nor is it appropriate to casually dismiss aspirations toward “general theory” as a project describing social processes, structures, and dynamics, e.g., by proponents of rational-actor models, Bourdieusian field theory, and network analysis. On a different front, new or reinvigorated philosophically based stances toward sociological inquiry – pragmatism, the ontological project of critical realism, the new interpretivism, and semiotic analysis – all have inspired path-breaking research.
In short, neither grand nor general theory nor philosophically grounded sociology has died. However, rather than undergirding the overall sociological enterprise, such projects, vital in their own terms, have become balkanized regions within a highly variegated realm of theory, itself often disjoined from empirical sociological research (Camic and Gross 1998:468-69).
Since the 1990s, the heterogeneous developments have inspired efforts to account for theory under the new conditions, both intellectually and institutionally. Surveying what theorists actually do, Charles Camic and Neil Gross (1998:470) laid the groundwork for future efforts to “problematize the form or forms appropriate to sociological theory under current conditions of possibility” by identifying eight different projects (including, e.g., “synthesis of multiple theoretical approaches,” “dialogue,” and “diagnosis of contemporary social conditions”). In a venture of “social epistemology,” I described four ideal-typical approaches to theoretical discourse based on their approaches to concept formation and meaning – each parsing social phenomena differently, thus moving inquiry in an alternative direction, but none logically primal or inadequate (Hall 1999: ch. 4). Cutting across theory on a different basis, and suggesting the need for epistemological and ontological modesty and pluralism, Gabriel Abend (2008) documented seven alternative meanings of the word “theory.” And Stephen Turner (2009, 2013, 2014), reflecting widely on the history and prospects of social theory and American sociology, argued that we have entered a “post-normal” phase in which knowledge is valued as “expertise,” for its bearing on political issues.
Turner’s wide-ranging discussions have spawned strong reactions, notably among sociologists committed to social justice in matters of gender and ethnicity (Albert 2015; Townsley 2015), who argue that his historical account of American sociology underplays feminist theoretical contributions and sociological analyses of privilege and inequality. And Peter Baehr (2015:50) rejects what he dubs “political partisanship posing as expertise” on the basis of his own preferred “norms of detachment and restraint and truthfulness” – a position that Turner (2015:63) finds “noble” as a “personal credo” but insufficient as a contemporary institutional basis of sociology.
Whither theory today? Its domain sprawls, peopled with sociologists of diverse persuasions about the answer. For Turner (2009:558), “the older relation to sociology of a semi-autonomous field of social theory doing theory-talk, and through this providing ideas which can be studied empirically, is no longer viable.” Yet, perhaps surprisingly in this light, he (563) sees potential new theory work – coming to terms with post-marxist critique, and taking on evolutionary theory, cognitive neuroscience, issues of social order and distributive justice, and the now relentless mediatization of the social.
Others propose metatheoretical communicative strategies. My approach has been to explore how inquiry can dialogue across various conceptual and methodological divides (1999:245-55). For Abend (2008), the differences among alternative meanings of “theory” and their associated projects suggest a “semantic predicament” that requires a practical political solution of communication or negotiation. And Peeter Selg (2013) proposes an “agonistic politics of theory.”
My point is not really to map these controversies, much less resolve them. Rather, I offer this rapid Cook’s tour (a eurocentric and orientalist metaphor!) both as a précis of the state of play concerning theory in our times, and, more practically, to introduce the 2018 ASA meetings Theory sessions.
Let me stipulate theory as a domain of disparate and contentious projects positioned at the intersection of (1) philosophy, (2) substantive sociological scholarship, and (3) (today as much as ever) questions of political import about the world where we live. These intersections mark the 2018 Theory session themes identified by the planning committee with whom I worked – Isaac Reed of the University of Virginia, Anne Marie Champagne of Yale University, and Simeon Newman of the University of Michigan. Our hope is that each person who attends the Theory sessions in Philadelphia will be inspired to create something of a personal road map of how to proceed in relation to theory (in the face of the impossibility of proceeding without theory).
The first session, on Sunday morning, August 12, takes up “sociology and philosophy in conversation,” with Fuyuki Kurasawa, Luvell Anderson, Paige Sweet, Christopher Muller, and Christopher Winship as invited speakers. It aims to help recalibrate our most basic understandings of our discipline by asking what are the particular points of communication between philosophy and sociology today? How can philosophical concerns with epistemology and ontology inform social theory, and vice versa? How can sociologists and philosophers think together about definitions and conceptualizations, evidence and argument? And what might we say about the intersection of political philosophy and empirical sociology?
A second Sunday session, “social theory and political modernity in crisis: authority, power, violence,” with Julia Adams, Michael Rodríguez-Muñiz, Jeffrey Goldfarb, and Dylan Riley, engages contemporary politics, specifically, the rise of new nationalisms, the breakdown of governmental norms, and the reconfiguration of the post-1989 order. Engaging the widespread crisis of liberal politics, it asks whether the world now outruns theoretical schemas designed to comprehend modernity and neo-liberalism. How can we explain the social and political trends of our own era? How can theory help us comprehend the relationship between authority and authoritarianism, power and crisis, symbolic violence and bodily harm?
Then, on Monday morning, we continue with two open-submission sessions (deadline is January 11th, see http://www.asanet.org/annual-meeting-2018/2018-call-submissions-information). Instead of invoking the section’s conventional classic/ contemporary theory divide, we seek submissions bearing a strong relationship to substantive research that thematize “trespassing/ poaching/ raiding/ transcending: projects of integration in sociological theory.” Few sociologists today practice “grand” or “general” theory. Yet diverse projects of bounded theorizing thrive. These two sessions will focus on how sociologists can strongly engage theories in relation to research, through concrete exploration of substantive sociological questions about everything from the body and embodiments in social life to new economies of information and structural transformations of social orders.
Sunday afternoon’s Coser Salon lecture will be given by Gabriel Abend of NYU. Gabi reports that he is currently seeking to figure out under which of the meanings of “theory” (Abend 2008) he was tapped as a Coser-esque “theoretical agenda-setter” and what kind of “theory” he’ll be discussing. We can all look forward to hearing the resulting lecture, followed by wine, cheese, and conversation. And for other conversations, we have a series of Sunday morning roundtables, organized by Alison Gerber (Uppsala University), firstname.lastname@example.org. Plus, another wonderful Junior Theorist Symposium, this year organized by Linsey Edwards (Princeton University), email@example.com, and Allison Ford (University of Oregon), firstname.lastname@example.org. And I hope to see you at our reception, joint with the section on Altruism, Morality, and Social Solidarity, to be held Sunday, 7.30-9.30pm, at the famous McGillan’s Olde Ale House, 1310 Drury St, Philadelphia. We have an exciting year ahead, capped by a great time in Philadelphia. Mark your calendar, and do join in!
Abend, Gabriel. 2008. “The meaning of ‘theory’.” Sociological Theory 26:173-99.
Albert, Katelin. 2015. “Towards a new normal: emergent elites and feminist scholarship.” American Sociologist 46-29-39.
Baehr, Peter. 2015. “American sociology and the limits of partisan expertise.” American Sociologist 46:40-50.
Camic, Charles, and Neil Gross. 1998. “Contemporary Developments in Sociological Theory: Current Projects and Conditions Of Possibility.” Annual Review of Sociology 24:453-76.
Hall, John R. 1999. Cultures of Inquiry: From Epistemology to Discourse in Sociohistorical Research. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Parsons, Talcott. 1937. The Structure of Social Action, 2 vols. New York: Free Press.
Rorty, Richard. 1979. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Selg, Peeter. 2013. “The politics of theory and the constitution of meaning.” Sociological Theory 31:1-23.
Townsley, Eleanor. 2015. “Science, expertise and profession in the post–normal discipline.” American Sociologist 46:18-28.
Turner, Stephen. 2009. “The future of social theory.” Pp. 551-66 in The New Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, ed. by Bryan S. Turner. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
_____. 2013. “What can we say about the future of social science?” Anthropological Theory 13:187-200.
_____. 2014. American Sociology: From Pre-disciplinary to Post-normal. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
_____. 2015. “Going Post-Normal: A Response to Baehr, Albert, Gross, and Townsley.” American Sociologist 46:51-64.