What sociologists actually do and what social theorists think they should do

There’s a great post on Daniel Little’s blog which uses a critique of analytical sociology and critical realism to explore a premise which he argues they both share: ontology dictates methodology. As he frames the issue:

Both groups have strong (and conflicting) ideas about social ontology, and both think that these ideas are important to the conduct of social-science research. Analytical sociologists tend towards an enlightened version of methodological individualism: social entities derive from the actions and nature of the individuals who constitute them. Critical realists tend toward some version or another of emergentism: social entities possess properties that are emergent with respect to the individual activities that constitute them.

Both groups tend to design social science methodologies to correspond to the ontological theories that they advance. So they tacitly agree about what I regard as a questionable premise — that ontology dictates methodology.

I want to argue for a greater degree of independence between ontology and methodology than either group would probably be willing to countenance. With the analytical sociologists I believe that social facts depend on the availability of microfoundations at the level of ensembles of individuals. This is an ontological fact. But with the critical realists I believe that it is entirely appropriate for social scientists to examine the causal and structural properties of social entities without being forced to attempt to provide the microfoundations of these properties. This is an observation about the locus and nature of explanation. There are stable structural and causal properties at the social level, and it is entirely legitimate to investigate these properties in full empirical detail. Sociologists, organizational theorists, and institutional researchers should be encouraged to investigate in detail the workings, arrangements, and causal properties of the regimes that they study. And this is precisely the kind of investigation that holds together researchers as diverse as Michael Mann, Kathleen Thelen, Charles Perrow, Howard Kimmeldorf, and Frank Dobbin. (Use the search box to find discussions of their work in earlier posts.)


This is an issue I’m very interested in but have struggled to come to any firm conclusion about. My most serious attempt to think through these issues is this working paper. On the one hand, I find Margaret Archer’s argument that social ontology regulates the kinds of entities which can be admitted into explanation intuitively plausible. On the other hand, I find myself intuitively hostile – even actively irritated by – the style of social theory that someone like Dave Elder-Vass sometimes lapses into, in which he appears to argue that sociological investigation is unable to proceed adequately until social theorists have provided the domain specific ontology sociologists need to undergird their activity.

I guess a lot depends on what we take the claim about ‘regulation’ to mean. Does ontology regulate methodology? Should ontology regulate methodology? Could ontology regulate methodology? I think a similar ambiguity can be found in Little’s own framing of the relationship between ontology and methodology in the aforementioned post:

Ontology is not irrelevant to methodology; but it provides only weak constraints on the nature of the methodologies social scientists may choose in their pursuit of better understanding of the social world.

Is this an empirical statement about sociological practice? If so then we’re in the domain of the sociology of social theory – a notion that I’ve played around with in the past and at some point in my life, when I’ve read an awful lot more than I have at present, intend to come back to. If it’s not an empirical claim of this sort then what is it? This is the question that interests me and it’s one I don’t feel I have a sufficiently firm grip on to try and answer – descriptive claims about sociological practice unavoidably include normative claims within their scope (i.e. describing what sociologists actually do includes descriptions of what their theories tell them they should do) and yet as such a purportedly neutral sociology of social theory comes to constitute a move within the same game.

I’m very interested in the possibility of an ethnographic study of how sociologists actually use theoretical concepts as part of the research process. But at the same time I find the possibility of the neutrality this would entail to be rather implausible… I guess this is why I’m so confused (and yet fascinated) by questions like the relationship between ontology and methodology. The tendency seems to be for explicitly normative claims about what the methodological implications of social ontology should be. My problem is not with the normativity here but rather with the slipperiness of the grounding, if any, in facts of the matter about sociological practice. I’m interested in the sociology of social theory as a normative project – how do sociologists actually use theoretical resources and what conclusions can we draw about how they should use them in light of such a state of affairs? This is a project which unavoidably confronts a messy reality, in which an underlying impulse towards theoretical tidiness (which I think animates the work of many social theorists even if they reflectively deny it – I’ve had a post about the psychodynamics of social theory which I’ve intended to write for ages) runs headfirst into the tangled reality of empirical research.

I guess what I’m saying comes down to this: can we incorporate what sociologists actually do and what social theorists think they should do within a unified frame of reference? 

13 thoughts on “What sociologists actually do and what social theorists think they should do

  1. I suspect that what a lot of sociologists actually do is work for government agencies, in which bogus concepts from journalistic and policy jargon are incorporated uncritically into research questions and the interpretation of results.

  2. I’m totally serious. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but my impression is that a huge amount of sociological research (or, if you like, research on social issues done by people with training in sociology) is entirely policy-oriented and avoids theoretical issues altogether, and that much of this research (but by no means all of it) is done outside academia. I realise that the methodological issue you’re discussing is important, and I don’t mean to belittle it in any way, but the phrase “what sociologists actually do” brought this to mind and I thought it might put the issue you’re raising in a different perspective. Is there, as I suspect, a great deal of sociological practice in which theory itself is seen as largely or completely irrelevant, and research is based essentially on statistics plus commonsense concepts? Or am I exaggerating?

  3. Oh ok, yes I suspect you’re right, though the fact I never actually meet them makes my awareness of them feel dimly intellectual. I share your rejection of it but not the extent of your hostility – the question it leaves me asking is what it says about sociological theory that a widespread rejection of it could be a coherent & feasible intellectual move?

  4. I also don’t mean to belittle working researchers who I think are often are doing the best they can within the parameters defined by their employers, in a very tough job market. I think this situation isn’t theory’s fault, it’s a matter of autonomy. Theory is made by sociologists for sociologists, and the less theorists have to worry about what non-specialists think of their work (i.e. the more autonomous they are), the freer they are to talk about things that laypeople don’t care about or to question social reality in ways that laypeople (especially powerful ones) disapprove of. Policy-oriented and non-academic research is made to order for (often powerful) lay customers, and must therefore use categories that those customers are familiar with and approve of, whether or not the results are intellectually coherent.

  5. I’m really not denying this exists, I’m just sceptical that it represents quite the lack of autonomy you’re suggesting – the last chapter of Tom Medvetz’s Think Tanks book is very interesting on this point, looking at how the rise of think tanks has reshaped the ‘market place of ideas’ within which social science must try and sell its wares. I think some people strategically embrace this logic, producing the outcomes you’re talking about. I think the problem is that they’re embracing it rather than with applied policy research as such – I’m not denying there’s a pressure to “use categories those customers are familiar with and approve of” – I’m just denying that this pressure operates in the quasi-automatic way you’re suggesting. I think it’s negotiated and that the argument you’re making is the flip side of ‘applied researchers’ who say social science must embrace the logic of the marketplace of ideas in order to survive. Iyswim.

  6. I can believe it’s negotiated, but surely this negotiation takes place in the context of a huge power imbalance between employer and employee. This seems like it could be a great topic for an ethnographic study: how are decisions about theoretical concepts (or the lack thereof) actually made in practice in think tanks and government agencies?

  7. Can one look for an answer in the direction of a more stratified ontology ?
    This posts and the associated working paper pose many interesting questions about the autonomy of methodology versus social theory. One way forward is a sociology of social theory, but I want to argue that a complementary approach is to look at a more stratified ontology that gives autonomy to different levels :
    – Ontology of the real : human, cultural and social
    – Ontology of the actual : observables and perspectives
    – Ontology of the empirical : observer and his actions
    The idea is then to build accept the autonomy of each level yet achieve a synergistic framework. Observers have motivations and freedom of action. Observable and perspectives can be freely chosen but must refer to an actual society. There should be consistency between what is observed and the social ontology and inconsistencies can be sources of discovery.
    In a recent paper for the BSA I showed that on could interlink an enhanced sociocultural ontology with a new way of considering observables and perspectives. I identified three perspectives which are the relational/dimensional, the trajectories and the dispositional and argued that these three perspectives form a more interconnected set of perspectives and common observables than is found in the corresponding three disciplinary perspectives of the sociological , the historical/cultural and the psychological. The objective of these perspectives are to be a support for methodology while maintaining a link with social theory.
    Looking in the direction of a stratified ontology that gives autonomy to the different levels aims to resolve a key aspect of the problem:
    – maintain the link between theory, methodology and the observer
    – ensuring consistency and the visibility of discrepancies
    – accepting the freedom associated with each level.
    The interesting point I see raised by the project of sociology of social theory is that of posing the question of a complete and consistent sociocultural framework.

  8. I will be developing this interdisciplinary ontology and three perspectives approach in a paper I will be writing up over the summer. At present the ideas are summarized in the ppt presentation I did for the BSA in April if you want a copy.

  9. It looks like you need to review Stephan Fuchs, Against Essentialism: A Theory of Culture and Society
    Ontologization is itself a social process, as Fuchs shows in different ways.
    Free access here:

    Here’s a laudatory review by Randall Collins:

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