Andrew Perrin, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
It is a strange artifact of the ASA structure that we have a distinct section on sociological theory. For some time in our discipline's history, virtually everyone in the discipline was mostly doing things that are now labeled “theory.” And a nod to theory-building remains a hallmark of most empirical work in sociology, even as formal training in theory becomes less central. Theory-as-specialty is sometimes understood as a ritualistic paean to disciplinary forebears: the textual touchstone for graduate students before moving on to real sociology. Sometimes, by contrast, it is the work every sociologist does to abstract or generalize empirical findings, or to set them in context. How ought we understand, even promote, theory-as-specialty in the context of a discipline that understands theory in these ways?
Perhaps the form of theory most familiar to our colleagues is theory-of, which corresponds roughly to Theory1-3 in Abend's article. In this formulation, theory is the conceptual apparatus that allows an empirical subfield to flourish: the theory is of a particular topic or question. As an example, consider the role “theory” plays in an exemplary 2011 article in American Sociological Review: Alexes Harris, Heather Evans, and Katherine Beckett's “Courtesy Stigma and Monetary Sanction: Toward a Socio-Cultural Theory of Punishment” (March 17, 2011). The authors show convincingly that financial penalties imposed on defendants are significantly more severe when those defendants are black or Hispanic, when they come from counties with high black or Hispanic populations, and when their offenses are drug-related and/or violent.
To frame this research, the authors propose a “socio-cultural theory of punishment.” The theory, encapsulated in a path diagram in the article, holds that interactions among the racial and ethnic context, the race and ethnicity of the individual offender, and the behavior s/he engaged in, combine to elicit reactions from the sentencing official (generally, judges). These include an “assessment of moral character” of the offender as well as an emotional reaction to the offender. If either of these is negative, the theory predicts “imposition of enhanced institutional sanction”—in this case, a higher financial penalty than would otherwise be imposed. The data and analysis confirm that, indeed, in many cases decisions about monetary sanctions are unequal along the expected lines.
In this study, the role of theory is to offer an abstracted causal story about the topic of the investigation. Another way of thinking about theory-of is that it explains why a pattern of observations occurs. What we know from this study is that the ways financial penalties are assessed are consistent with the model described by the article's path diagram. Many of these theories are justly famous in their subfields: the “broken windows” theory of neighborhood crime, for example; labeling theory in mental illness; or the second demographic transition in demography.
These examples of theory-of are all useful versions of theory in sociology. But they're the kind of theory that tends to take place already within other subfields of the discipline. Sociological theorists often participate in these subfields, particularly in the context of team science. For example, an exciting, NIH-funded transdiciplinary project I co-lead includes scholars from pediatrics, public health, psychiatry, clinical psychology, quantitative psychology, mass communications, sociology, and contemporary art history. We are investigating obesogenic and obesity-stigma messages in children's movies, and whether children can be taught to identify these messages. The role of theory here is to bring general theories about learning, perception, and social action to how we design and understand our research. A remarkable and vastly under-appreciated example of this kind of theory is Johnson-Hanks, Bachrach, Morgan, and Kohler's Understanding Family Change and Variation: A Theory of Conjunctural Action (Springer 2011), which distills a truly sophisticated theory of action from current cultural sociology and applies it to key questions in demography.
That same collaboration has included some great conversations about the second kind of theory, which I'll call theory-and. In contrast to theory-of, whose work is confined to a specific topic, theory-and seeks to structure inquiry across many domains, for example by establishing epistemological or ontological principles or by problematizing the categories and boundaries of research. It mirrors approximately Abend's Theory4-6. If theory-of mirrors the role of theory in science, theory-and mirrors that in the humanities: abstract, even elegant, and further away from the specific cases of study. In this vein, practitioners aim to use theory to influence research; the and in my terminology signals that the theory is held to be external to the research it is used to inform.
Some examples of this kind of theory—sometimes derided by our less-patient colleagues as “French theory”—include theories of fields and action derived from Bourdieu and similar scholars as well as Foucauldian, Frankfurt School, and postmodern critiques of conventional empiricism. Each of these offers reasons to suspect the transparent representation implied by some empirical sociology. But there are less dramatic examples too: critical realism, for example, establishes a set of principles that its adherents claim should, at least implicitly, guide research across subfields. Theory-and can offer structuring effects on research (i.e., we should design research with grand-theoretical concerns in mind) as well as cautioning effects (our models may be wrong because of threats revealed through theoretical investigation).
This form of theory can seem particularly frustrating to empirically-minded sociologists, because it is at least as likely to complicate the picture as it is to clarify. For example, taking seriously the theory-and insight that people adjust their behavior to respond to external representations of that behavior—as they appear to do frequently on public opinion polls, for instance—serves to make empirical research more difficult and the conclusions potentially less definitive. This is a tremendously valuable role, and one theorists ought to embrace at least as enthusiastically as theory-of.
The third form of theory I want to raise is what I'll call theory-from. Theory-from, representing roughly Theory6-7 in Abend, sits conceptually between the other two. Like theory-of, it is closely related to observation; indeed, it depends upon and informs empirical sociology. But it transcends a specific domain to extract generic theoretical principles from observed social realities. Theory, in this sense, comes from the synthesis of research and observation. This form of theorizing ought to be the ambition of sociological theory: commensurating apparently unrelated findings to understand commonalities and construct abstract understandings of society and behavior. It's also likely the most difficult of the three modes.
Let me offer two examples. One is the claim—present in, but not limited to, critical realism—that groups are ontologically real. This claim rests on observations of many different kinds of groups acting in ways that transcend the actions of their component individuals. Individuals act in ways they wouldn't have if they were alone in various contexts. For examples, in political groups people may reflect or refute the views of others or adopt extreme positions in reaction to others. In economic groups they make financial and consumption decisions based on their observations of others; in leisure groups they choose riskier or wilder behavior than they would alone; and in task-oriented groups, they may demonstrate “groupthink” or other forms of the spiral of silence. Given that we observe the general phenomenon of individuals' behavior depending fundamentally on group context, we can theorize that groups in general are ontologically real because they irreducibly cause real outcomes. One need not agree with that conclusion, or the implied mechanisms, to recognize the direction the interpretation takes: from several disparate observations to a single larger claim. This mode of theorizing differs from theory-and's concern with ontology because it draws out a commonality by examining features of behavior that transcend the boundaries into which they are normally set. Theory-and offers cautions for research based on ontological commitments; theory-from draws ontological conclusions from varied research findings.
The other example is the claim emerging from areas like Science and Technology Studies (STS) and Actor-Network Theory (ANT) that accepted understandings at earlier points in time tend to crystallize into technologies and practices that, in turn, constrain future actions and understandings. This is a plausible mechanism for various forms of social inertia, as well as of the roles of technology (conceived broadly) in social life. As above, one need not accept this claim in order to understand that it constitutes a general claim resting on specific observations in domains as diverse as the economy, political behavior, and social media.
I don't want to suggest that these three forms of theory encompass all theorizing in sociology. There are certainly other forms, and there are certainly forms that combine elements of each of these ideal types or that delimit others. But concentrating even on just these three, it can seem as if the diversity of what goes as “theory” in sociology is too wide to foster intellectual progress. Instead, I want to build on the STS/ANT claim to suggest that the “theory” label has helped facilitate exchange among scholars in each of these forms, so each of the three is better informed by the others. The fact that one must be facile with theory-of, theory-and, and theory-from in order to claim sociological theory as a specialty was not a guaranteed outcome, as the sheer volume of polemics in favor of one or another demonstrates. Rather, this intellectual triangulation is the result of the institutional colocation of these modes of thought within a single subfield (and, by extension, ASA section). This productive colocation, in turn, offers the opportunity to each mode of theory to improve through dialogue with the others. The panels for the 2015 meetings are designed to try to facilitate that dialogue, and I think the way theory is structured in sociology offers more of this opportunity than many of our neighboring disciplines experience. In my next chair's letter I will be exploring similarities and differences between sociology and several other disciplines in terms of the roles and positions of theory.
Abend, Gabriel. 2008. “The Meaning of ‘Theory.’” Sociological Theory 26(2): 173-99.
Harris, Alexes, Heather Evans, and Katherine Beckett. 2011. “Courtesy Stigma and Monetary Sanction: Toward a Socio-Cultural Theory of Punishment.” American Sociological Review 76(2): 234-64.
Johnson-Hanks, Jennifer A., Christine A. Bachrach, S. Philip Morgan, and Hans-Peter Kohler. 2011. Understanding Family Change and Variation: A Theory of Conjunctural Action. New York: Springer.