Some section chairs, I have noticed, are as good at writing inspiring and informative pieces for their section’s newsletters as they are at crafting powerful works of sociological scholarship. That’s not me. Although a long time ago I had a stint editing Perspectives, I find the conventions of the genre elusive, and the pressure to say something profound about the state of the field too much to bear. I begin with this confession to forewarn you that what follows is neither well-composed nor profound. But perhaps it will do its job of giving you a sense for why I put together the panels I did for the meetings in Montreal.
Those of us in the theory community spend a fair bit of time scratching our heads over the strange position of theory in contemporary sociology. On the one side, there seems to be tremendous interest in theoretical matters. The Theory Section remains one of the larger sections of ASA. Theory journals routinely receive an abundance of high-quality submissions and command a broad audience of sociological readers. Year after year, the Junior Theorists Symposium is a dynamic event bustling with new talent. Theory remains a staple of the graduate and undergraduate curriculum, and woe to the manuscript submitted to our leading academic presses and generalist journals that does not demonstrate, to the satisfaction of reviewers, meaningful engagement with theory in some form or another.
On the other side, there seems to be little interest in theoretical matters! One piece of evidence for this is that it can be hard for young sociologists who are theorists to find work. Every now and again, departments will advertise for jobs in theory, but for the most part what they are looking for is someone who can teach theory, not someone who labors primarily in the theory area. Back in 2004, when she was chair of the section, Michèle Lamont observed that many of the faculty members teaching theory courses at prominent institutions were more affiliated with other subfields, such as political sociology, comparative-historical sociology, or the sociology of culture. That seems to me still true today, and to characterize the situation across various types of departments. Anticipating this job market, dissertation advisors and committee members regularly warn graduate students not to embark on projects that are primarily theoretical. One or two theory manuscripts is fine as part of a broader portfolio, advisors will say. But they’ll quickly add that American sociology is an empiricist enterprise at heart, and that you need hard facts at your disposal if you’re going to convince anyone to give you a job.
If you ask faculty members at top departments why they don’t tend to hire people who are theorists first and foremost, they’ll tell you it’s because they expect every sociologist to be well-versed in theoretical matters, so that there’s no need for specialists. But if it were true that everyone is well-versed in theory, conversations outside theory circles would be a lot more sophisticated. In the same vein, while peer reviewers might demand that all papers have a theoretical component, in practice that often means simply that empirical generalizations get dressed up to look as though they speak to deeper questions.
Consistent with the idea that theory isn’t anywhere near the top of the disciplinary agenda today, a Google ngram search (American English corpus) for the phrases “sociological theory” and “social theory” suggests that, while interest in social theory—an interdisciplinary enterprise—has been growing over time, the level of interest in sociological theory is much lower today than at its peak in 1970 or so.
Erin McDonnell was kind enough to generate another graph that shows a similar pattern. This one displays the number of times the word “theory” appears over the years in the American Sociological Review and the American Journal of Sociology. The chart isn’t adjusted for over-time changes in article length, etc., so take it with a grain of salt. The spike in theorizing in 1999 is because that’s the year The Matrix came out. (You can’t honestly tell me you’re not a superfan!)
I’ve planned two panels for Montreal that speak to these matters (in addition to open panels on classical and contemporary theory, organized by Natalie Ruiz-Junco and Aliza Luft, respectively; and roundtables organized by Alvaro Santana-Acuña). For the first, I’ve asked some widely admired, theoretically-savvy sociologists to share their thoughts on the state of theory and lessons they’ve learned about pathways toward successful careers in the theory area. We’ll hear from Claire Decoteau (Universty of Illinois-Chicago), Julian Go (Boston University), Isaac Reed (University of Virginia), and Robin Wagner-Pacifici (New School for Social Research), and we’ll be sure to leave plenty of time for an extended question and answer session with what I hope will be a large audience of graduate students and early-career scholars eager to talk these things through.
The second invited panel addresses the possibilities for publishing in theory. One can obviously place theoretical papers in journals like Sociological Theory and Theory & Society. But what are the best strategies for doing so? And what about in the top disciplinary journals? What, if any, are the viable paths to theoretical publication there? What if you want to publish a theory book? At what career stage is that possible or advisable, and how do such projects look from the standpoint of publishers? For this panel, we’ll be joined by Mustafa Emirbayer, the editor of Sociological Theory; Omar Lizardo, one of the co-editors of the American Sociological Review; and Elisabeth Clemens, the new editor of the American Journal of Sociology. Eric Schwartz from Columbia University Press will also be on hand to speak from the publisher side of things.
My hope is that these conversations—and they will be conversations, not formal panels—will give us all some insight into where theory in fact stands at this moment in the discipline’s development. Please plan to come and take part in the discussion.
Of course, there will be other theory-related festivities in Montreal as well. This year’s Junior Theorists’ Symposium, organized by Shai Dromi (Harvard University) and katrina quisumbing king (University of Wisconsin-Madison), promises to be a terrific event. Shai and katrina have lined up a star-studded cast of commentators and after-panelists, and I’ve heard tell of some exciting submissions in the works.
We’re also aiming for a rollicking reception—at least as rollicking as you can get given the current state of the world.
See, I told you I wasn’t very good at writing these things!