The Social Life of Theory: Partiality, Conflict and Innovation

Clearing out my stock of library books, some of which I’ve had for a number of years, I’ve inevitably been drawn into looking through books I was once excited about before subsequently forgetting. Jeff Alexander’s Twenty Lecture in Social Theory is foremost among these, as a book I’d skim read but on second reading is even better than I remembered. This is his account of how theoretical disagreement can be read in terms of a multifaceted grappling with the various contours of social reality, taking place over time. From pg 283:

Reality is multivalent. At first glance it might seem to be composed of objects which differ widely from one another and are, therefore, in great disarray. It is for this reason that ‘partial theories’ always arise. On the other hand, if we put these partial theories side by side we can see not only that each contributes to our understanding of reality in a different way, but that, taken together, they provide an outline of the larger whole itself. Reality, it seems, is multidimensional. If one theory becomes influential by taking up one part of reality, a succeeding theory will have to move towards an emphasise on another. Yet, judging from this postwar period, the possibilities for emphasis are far from infinite; indeed, they are relatively simple and few. When Parsons set out to investigate reality, he pointed to certain elements. His critics, when they set out to challenge his theory, ended up by pointing to the same things in different ways. This convergence helps convince us that effort, means, ends and conditions really are ‘there’. If they are not conceptualized from the outset by an act of ecumenical synthesis, they will all be brought back in the end through theoretical critique.

I couldn’t agree more with this, at least until the last sentence. The apparent faith in the integrative capacity of critique over time is not just wrong, but fascinatingly wrong. One way to explore this is to ask what conditions need to be in place to ensure such an outcome:

  1. Theoretical work needs to be facilitated by an underlying conceptual literacy which facilitates meaningful conversation in the face of apparent incommensurability i.e. even if people talk about things in different ways, they still talk.
  2. Intellectual imperatives need to predominate over institutional ones. Inevitably, both will always be active factors shaping theoretical work, but unless intellectual motivations reliably win out over the imperatives of institutional advancement, self-promotion and school-building then convergence won’t happen.
  3. Both 1 and 2 necessitate a degree of systematicity to the canon and a level of acquaintance with it that makes it possible to sustain theoretical debates over time and place them in meta-theoretical context.

From my point of view, none of these conditions currently hold. What I was trying to argue here, in a chapter expunged from my thesis because it had nothing whatsoever to do with it and was also the most absurdly dense piece of writing I’d ever produced, was that the socio-cultural dynamics of theoretical disagreement within the academy militate against the cultural systemic possibility of theoretical resolution. Or, in other words, there are all sorts of meso-social factors which mean that theorists argue in a way that foregrounds disagreement and backgrounds agreement: 

These trends have contributed to the state of affairs which Scott (2005a) describes: the nature of the ‘social’ rarely being defined with any precision, despite its centrality to sociology as a discipline. When agreements at this level do exist, they tend to emerge as conflictual consensuses (the obvious example being the structure/agency debate) such that their holistic reconstruction qua agreement tends to be restricted to theorists elaborating accounts within them (driving their spiralling complexity and, over time, eroding the practical utility of the emergent consensus) or their simplified reconstruction for pedagogical purposes. What gets systematically squeezed out is dialogue about the explanatory implications of the broader agreement (rather than just a particular party to it) and, with it, the development of explanatory tools which can help bridge the gap between social ontology and practical research. This is something which has consequences beyond sociology in and of itself, as disciplines like criminology and other, more or less integrated, areas of inquiry that sociology has fed take concepts and problematics from the ‘parent’ discipline (Rosenfeld 2010). This disciplinary dynamic tends towards the further detachment of ontological debate from empirical research. Yet, as Reed and Alexander (2009: 22) observe of the renewed vigour of empirical research which has emerged in this context, “the return to the empirical in our sociological practice has also had the effect of obscuring our understanding of just what the empirical is”.

The point being made is not that explanatory tools, when they are elaborated, must somehow transcend second level disagreement in order to consolidate first level agreement but simply that the ontological basis upon which they are forged at level 2should be translatable into shared terms of reference at level 1. Unlike the concepts we draw upon in everyday life, examined knowledge seeks to maximise practical adequacy (Sayer 1992: 151). Yet it is only with shared terms of reference that this maximisation can progress in a theoretical register. Cruickshank (2010) is correct in his observation that Archer’s (2000b) invocation of the causal criterion (i.e. establishing reality through its causal efficacy) to ground the reality of social structure does not in itself justify her substantive ontological claims because there are other ways in which the recognition (individuals confront social circumstances which exercise causal powers even if they fail to recognise these, mischaracterise them or wish them away) could be characterised ontologically. But the causal criterion can establish the dimensionalityof the social world and, if the underlying principle is accepted, constitutes an explanatory gain over an ontology which fails to recognise this dualism. Similarly, contra Kemp (2012), theoretical knowledge can (and sometimes does) progress through practical reason i.e. by seeking to establish some claim X on the basis of logical argument preceding from shared premises rather than on some evidence Y which incontrovertibility establishes its truth (MacIntyre 1981, Taylor 1995). Al-Amoudi and Willmott (2011) suggest that ontological reasoning in this mode, arguing from shared assumptions rather than foundational claims, has been an important trend within critical realist thought, albeit an under recognised and under theorised one. Unlike the moral issues which have been the primary focus of neo-Aristotelian account, ontological disagreements within a context of broader consensus will tend to generate empirical questions which cannot be settled in theoretical terms. If and when research addresses such issues which have emerged theoretically these then become directly pertinent for the theoretical programme from which they ensued.

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