University of Notre Dame
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on this important collection. I am really pleased to have had a good excuse to make reading all these essays my highest priority, and I learnt a lot. It’s great to feel a little bit closer up to date to than I can usually claim.
The goals of the collection are to introduce and map the field of major theoretical traditions currently in circulation, to offer reflection about limitations and directions to proceed from within each tradition, and hopefully to create a platform for dialog and debate (2). I am going to focus my remarks on the first and third of these goals, as more feasible to address in brief remarks. It is impossible to do justice to the particularities of each of the many excellent chapters: suffice it to say that they do indeed offer critical introductions and articulate new lines of inquiry within each of the perspectives they address, and they will be influential for that.
So what I want to do in these brief comments is to reflect on how Social Theory Now accomplishes its mapping and dialogue goals, and what remains to be done.
Mapping the Field
Let’s think first about our initiation into the “stakes of social theory” (11). I suggest that what usually happens is this. What initial immersion in theoretical perspectives does for us– ideally, and often in reality– is open up new ways of seeing things, or perhaps, give us a systematic language for articulating things we’ve sort of vaguely thought, or we’re almost on the edge of thinking, based on various previous experiences– maybe bookish experience of big pictures of the world, maybe various forms of personal connection and disconnection. It gives a shape to incipient sociological imagination. That new conceptual language offers a broader intellectual mastery than had been available to us before. Not everyone is susceptible, but if you are, that opening up and systematic articulation is why theory’s wonderful--that’s why we love it, and want to be part of theoretical conversations. As the editors suggest, “students should go armed to the field with multiple possibilities of adjudicating what they have encountered” (12), and theory gives us all those resources.
On this criterion, I think Social Theory Now does a wonderful job. Even though I am probably not the ideal reader the editors might have had in mind, it certainly did enrich the conceptual languages with which I can think through empirical problems which confront me– and because of the range of contemporary approaches covered, it will be essential reading for anyone wishing to become better informed. These days, unlike during the years I taught theory earlier in my career, I encounter theory at several removes, so there is a lot here that I am acquainted with, but would like to know more about: I am not alone in this. There is something about the range of topics and the serious engagement in the voices of the authors that helps me see why people doing “social theory now” get excited about these ideas and perspectives, gives me a more precise idea of their contours, and leaves me thinking about new directions of inquiry.
That is probably an advantage of the editorial choice to invite authors actively engaged in developing the theoretical traditions they discuss. The essays are broad and serious but also fresh. You will find many new ideas here. Some are about meaning-making; how to understand the distinctiveness of cultural theory (Reed); how various micro theories are related (Benzecry and Winchester); how relational dynamics and belief formation inform rational choice (Ermakoff); how post-structuralism infuses sociology with a deeper grasp of the co-constitution of knowledge and power (Decoteau); how controversy, conventions, and testing are intrinsically linked (Potthast); and how norms and imagery, too, are intrinsically linked (Gross and Hyde).
"... more formal theory of various sorts is actually a lot more lively, I believe, than anyone would guess from this collection..."
As an illustration, I still recall an instructive exercise in a theory class I took as an undergraduate. We all had to read some rather ordinary study– an ethnography, or perhaps interviews, investigating some teen subculture in Australia. And each of us was assigned to present on what some theorist would say, how they would connect– Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and others such as Goffman, Althusser, and Foucault. I was assigned to think through a Marxist perspective on surfie subculture. As you know, Marx didn’t really write much about surfies, but I was quite pleased with the new view of the subject I thought he could offer: as I recall, it had something to do with the emergence of new age grades as the labor necessary for the capitalist mode of production changed. New generations of young sociologists would have a wonderful time doing the same sort of exercise with every chapter here. Just imagine– “Behavioral and Cognitive Uncertainty, Rational Choice, and the Big Wave;” “Global Surfing Circuits and Southern Theory;” “Pure Autonomy in the Surfing Field: What’s at Stake?” And so on.
So this collection certainly provisions us all afresh with important vocabularies and puzzles as we engage the social world. If students carry sociology forward with this toolkit, we will be in good shape. Inevitably, though, this map of “social theory now” also has systematic limits. I think the limits are justified and appropriate; nevertheless, I think it would be helpful to be more explicit about them, especially because mapping the boundaries of the perspective on theory represented in this volume helps to show better important grounds for dialogue among the theoretical voices so well-articulated in the collection. Taking this broader view, it’s easier to see what all these disparate essays share, and draw out grounds for better dialogue. There are two sorts of theoretical conversation in sociology that are mostly absent.
First, more formal theory of various sorts is actually a lot more lively, I believe, than anyone would guess from this collection. For example, exchange theory emerging from the work of sociologists like Homans, Blau, Emerson, Cook, and Molm is a live research tradition with a lot of participants, and simulations and experiments investigating the evolution of cooperation are thriving. Even Ivan Ermakoff’s chapter on rational choice is more historical and less formal. Emily Erikson’s chapter is valuable for pointing out the consequential distinction between more formal and more relational network theory. I think these chapters are more valuable with their historical and relational emphasis, and would not ask them to change. But I do think it would be helpful to see more explicitly recognition and reflection from the editors about the fact that when quite a number of sociologists think “theory,” formal theory is what they are thinking of.
The other set of conversations that could be more explicitly acknowledged, I think, is the sort of mid-range theory that emerges in connection with specific empirical areas of sociology, like organizational and institutional theory, race and ethnicity, or even stratification. There is a somewhat oblique passage in the introduction which mentions a distinction between social theory –more interdisciplinary, less American– and sociological theory. The editors reject the distinction because it tends to be used, they say sharply, “by sociologists who want to separate what is relevant to their research concerns from other scholarly work that they should not feel obliged to read” (6). I endorse the sort of theory in Social Theory Now, and I think it should be promoted, but I don’t think that makes a good argument for dismissing mid-range theory. I think sociologists who do institutional theory, or intersectionality, or other mid-range theory closely connected to specific empirical topics have valid reasons for doing so, and the more mid-range conversations are legitimate conversations (nor do they happen only in the United States.) This book doesn’t have to delve into them, but I think it would be helpful to be clearer about those other conversations, and how they might differ from the conversations included here.
Grounds for Dialogue
How could we do that? The introduction notes in passing that sociology is positioned between “two cultures” of arts and sciences– but the implications of that need to be understood better to see grounds for dialogue more clearly. In fact, I think sociology is constituted in the tensions between three orientations, not two. And recognizing that helps us see better how the theory discussed in Social Theory Now relates to more formal theory, on the one hand, and more mid-range theory, on the other.
This idea is not mine. Here, I want to introduce – and honor– a lovely essay by Neil Smelser, who recently passed away. I’d like to pass on from him to you a way of thinking that represents something of the breadth of balanced and inclusive judgement he brought to his assessment of sociology. That judgment is evident in his short essay “Sociology as Science, Humanism, and Art” (by “art,” he means both aesthetic orientation and applications to problems). He points out that “all three orientations not only constitute the significant moral/intellectual environments of sociology but also are simultaneously parts of the sociological enterprise itself” (Smelser 2014, 150) –that is, that sociology is actually constituted in the three-fold tension– the tension is where sociology as a discipline lies. (I find this idea of sociology as constituted through tensions very reassuring and inspiring). He traces this overall picture of sociology through familiar differentiations like American vs. European sociology, as well as all the familiar methodological divides we don’t have to repeat here– between positivism and phenomenology, and so on.
"The introduction notes ... that sociology is positioned between 'two cultures'... I think sociology is constituted in the tensions between three orientations, not two."
I suggest that the full mapping of social theory would recognize conversations about theory in a more formal register, conversations about theory in the register represented in Social Theory Now –essentially a humanities register– and conversations about theory in a more mid-range register as emergent in different parts of the sociological enterprise: science, humanism, and art (as application), respectively. We can’t participate in all those conversations, but that mapping helps identify better what all the theory represented in Social Theory Now shares, and it opens up clearer lines of dialogue within the conversation represented here.
So I suggest that productive grounds for more dialogue among the authors and positions in Social Theory Now could be found by developing more explicitly and centrally consideration of temporality and historicity. As the editors note, “the more formal sociological theorizing becomes, the more it tends to forget its historical presuppositions” (10). The theory conducted in the register of the humanities here does not forget, but it remembers in different ways. What are the different rates of change involved in the processes that are theorized? Obviously, they are quite different in micro-social processes and world systems theory, for instance. What is the view of what’s important in temporal processes encompassed in each theoretical perspective? What historical range do the main theoretical proposals encompass? Do different perspectives clash or nest in their understanding of temporality? That’s the dialogue I’d like to see happen next, among all the theoretical perspectives here.
Smelser, Neil J. 2014. “Sociology as Science, Humanism, and Art,” pp. 148-62 in Getting Sociology Right: A Half-Century of Reflections. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. Originally published in Tocqueville Review 15(2) 1994: 5-18.