University of Southern California
The following two essays were delivered at a session organized at the Social Science History Association's annual meeting in Montreal. Professors Paul Lichterman and Lyn Spillman reflected on the contributions of Social Theory Now (Chicago 2017), edited by Claudio E. Benzecry, Monika Krause, and Isaac A. Reed.
I was going to preface my comments by saying I’m honored to have been asked to share them. After all, I don’t often identify as a theorist, even if my own work orients to questions sociologists consider theoretical. Then I realized that my modest disclaimer assumes a particular notion of what do when we communicate theory, and this book is inviting us to move beyond that. That will be my gambit then, a suggestion that taken as a whole, the book itself is communicating theory in a distinctive way. Given my own notion of what social theory itself is, that means the book offers a fresh vision of what it is to do social theorizing.
So I have a different take on the book’s contribution and I’ll summarize with two points: One is that to communicate theory is to enter a sprawling conversation about the terms we use to articulate empirical research. Those terms themselves are “theoretical” or “conceptual.” So I’m defining social theory as sociology’s meta-conversation. In that way, I think there still is a place for “social theory” apart from theories that pertain to a subfield-- theories in social psychology or the sociology of education, for example. And, to communicate theory now, more than “before,” is to keep track of and facilitate that conversation, treating it as always in movement. Communicating theory now is a kind of conceptual temperature-taking. It means assessing where we are in the various sub-conversations, rather than a statement about which theories best reflect our historical era, or which theories are currently the best contenders for sociological immortality. To make this simple in so little time, let me overstate my case, with several dichotomous distinctions:
"Dialogic social theory is less heroic, and I suspect Hannah Arendt wouldn't like it, but to me it's more humane, and therefore more appealing"
There’s an older version of communicating theory that the book gently nudges aside at the start, and it is what I’ll call theorizing as “transmission.” Transmissive theorizing starts with a large conceptual framework, and promotes it, applies it, passes it down with improvements or at least updates. I’m contrasting that with this book’s version of communicating theory -- which I will call “dialogue.” Dialogical theorizing propounds questions, and a few central concepts such as “culture” or “gender.” It sustains questions and central concepts, more than sustaining master theorists or distinct schools as ends in themselves. In transmissive theorizing, the theorist or school is exalted. In dialogical theorizing, the theorist or school is. . .consulted.
This gets to something else about the dialogical version of communicating theory: I think it is more pluralistic than the transmissive enterprise. Social theory is an arena of relatively porous conversations, where participants invite new participants now and then, rather than a world of masters, and apprentices working their way in. This may sound dangerous. It makes social theory quite a lot more profane. It opens the conversation to a wider combination of ideas and topics, and people. The dialogical view invites us to take, for example, postcolonial theory the way Julian Go’s chapter does, as its own locus of meta-conversation. We don’t have to say it is legitimate social theory because it extends Marx, or Foucault. We don’t necessarily have to work at valorizing it as transgressive theory that lets DuBois or Fanon into the canon. Dialogical theory is actually less about who is in the canon than who is in the meta-conversation right now. To me those do not sound like the same thing. They’re not the same understanding of knowledge in history, not the same self-understanding of social science’s project. Dialogical social theory is less heroic, and I suspect Hannah Arendt wouldn’t much like it, but to me it’s more humane, and therefore more appealing.
The editors have some precursors for inspiration. Their own elective predecessor, Social Theory Today, was also a collection of conversations about where theory is and where it is or was going. But even so, I notice that the chapters of that older book take canonized schools as central objects, with chapters written by several of those schools’ masters of the day. I think Social Theory Now is more of an ambitious project of redefinition than its own editors may lead us to believe when they say we needed an update to the 1987 text.
This gets to my last point. I’ve been proposing that this book is quietly doing something remarkable, maybe even radical. I’ve offered a little Deweyan take on the book, imagining theory as communicative enterprise in which social theorists reflect now and then on what sociologists are doing with concepts. But I want to keep thinking about one of the distinct roles of theory in the transmission mode, and not only for teaching purposes, where I think it’s essential, if not enough. For some of us, communicating theory means transmitting the big normative questions that help us envision a society that is—more democratic (Habermas, or Dewey), more self-understanding (Shils), more radically democratic (Mouffe, Seidman), not to mention more solidary, more rational, or less alienating, to invoke the big three. Traditionally, sociologists find those questions packed into, or implicit in, some of the theorists’ oeuvres or schools that have been central to the transmissive enterprise. In the more dialogical view of theory, theorists would discuss those questions if, and maybe only if, researchers are themselves influenced by them as they conceptualize in subfields. Dorit Geva’s remarks on our panel make clear that she and gender theorists care about those questions. But they’re not necessarily part of what it means to communicate theory in the dialogical mode as I have sketched it. So are these questions purely up to practitioners in subfields? Are there any other ways they might enter into the meta-conversation of social theory “now”? I’d like to figure out other ways that the communicative acts we call social theorizing could honor or be in contact with the vision questions, while honoring the dialogical, participatory spirit of theorizing that I think this book embodies.
So here’s a modest proposal. I’m just trying this out; it is not a finished statement, but an attempt to imagine a fresh division of conversational labor. Maybe it’s good for much of the meta-conversation to focus cleanly on concepts and questions that practitioners are using for research in particular subfields. And then we can also imagine some distinct, differentiated conversations that take up, transparently, the vision questions and their relation to concepts in subfields. Sometimes those questions come from existing master frameworks in sociology, sometimes from political or moral philosophy, sometimes from all of those. To reiterate for clarity’s sake: When I say much of sociology’s meta-conversation would focus on practitioners’ research concepts and questions, I’m not saying we should delete vision questions from social theory. I’m saying we could try differentiating them more cleanly than master frameworks or schools of theory tend to. We could be more explicit about them, in the spirit of welcoming the discipline to scrutinize them, instead of sneaking them in. Social theory can make some semi-autonomous, conversational room for explicit communication about vision questions and how they relate to concepts in subfields.
Suppose that happens. Already there have been initiatives in that direction-- the various versions of public sociology, and very recently, “civic sociology.” Well then, we might imagine the next editions of Social Theory Now to include a couple essays that take stock of how vision questions are interacting with other kinds of conceptualizing in our field. When we do that, the discipline might get even better at addressing the big vision question that Helen and Robert Lynd put bluntly to U.S. sociology 70 years ago: Knowledge for what?