The Impact of Social Theory

The Sociological Review has just published a thought-provoking review of Doug Porpora’s Reconstructing Sociology: The Critical Realist Approach. It gives a lucid, though brief, overview of the book’s core arguments: seven myths which afflict American sociology and seven philosophical counter-points. But what caught my attention was the account of how theoretical work can increase the discipline’s capacity for impact:

Porpora shows how critical realism adjudicates across the plethora of sociological paradigms to create new consistency, which can strengthen the validity and usefulness of our discipline. Imagine governments redefining obesity or poor mental health from medical problems into social problems, to be tackled by wide-ranging interdisciplinary research coordinated through a coherent framework of sociology and covering, for example, the related economics and politics, industries and services, healthcare and urban planning, with studies of the complex everyday life of the groups and individuals concerned.

The point is overstated but it’s nonetheless important: the internal dissensus of sociology militates against policy impact. The meta-theoretical (dis)orderliness of disciplines underpins the inarguable reality that “economists and psychologists are introduced as self-evidently respected scientists, whereas sociologists, if they are included at all, seem more likely to evoke scepticism than respect”. Rather than theoretical work being a distraction from aspiring to this status, it is in actual fact a condition for it:

One defence of our discipline’s diversity is that its adaptable rich variety can embrace numerous theories, methods and topics. However, variety does not preclude coherence, and coherence does not demand narrow uniformity – like the neoclassical mantras that now monopolise economics. Medicine is a hugely varied discipline yet, fortunately for society’s healthcare, it is unified by powerful common values and theories about causal realities. By contrast, and unfortunately for society’s wellbeing, sociology is split not only by disagreements but, more seriously, by basic contradictions: positivism accepts pristine independent social facts and aims to discover general laws, whereas interpretivism sees only local contingent variety; statistics and experiments are set against ethnography; sociology is variously taken to be value-free, relativist or a moral endeavour.

Bringing meta-theoretical order to sociology doesn’t entail imposition of a unified paradigm on the discipline. It simply necessitates that we “position its many valuable insights and methods in relation to one another, showing how they connect and interact within larger relations, to be more like a coherent jigsaw puzzle in progress, rather than a heap of pieces”. Can we find unifying principles, providing standards by which we might draw out connections between otherwise isolated outputs of the discipline, which respect the intellectual diversity of the sociological enterprise? Can we begin to agree on standards about what constitutes ‘better’ and ‘worse’ sociology?

The problem is that disciplines most in need of such standards, in order to provide a centripetal mechanism, prove least able to establish them. Calling for such standards doesn’t entail a final resolution of theoretical questions, as if we all have to agree on the same answers in order to move forward as a collective project. But it does entail clarity about why we are asking the questions to which we are offering different answers.


3 thoughts on “The Impact of Social Theory

  1. I am so glad you wrote about critical realism, because I was just thinking the other day how we have to keep reminding ourselves to work with the sociological empirical and that bridges concerns about public engagement but also about demystifying sociology because one is compelled to keep coming back to the experiences that are being shared with you.
    Similar to your phone call from the woman in the interested public who wanted to chat but not to be interviewed. Critical thinking is really just so important but can get lost in the peer pressure to think like a theorist.

  2. This has been my “battle cry” in Sociology for a while now; but not just mine alone. John Myles (2003) “Where have all the Sociologists Gone?” Canadian Journal of Sociology Vol 28(4) writes a similar critique. This has been going on for a while. There are a few aspects of this that I addressed at my Department’s Colloquium on “Where Does Sociology Go From Here?” The fundamental question was: can we do more than just trade papers amongst ourselves?

    I identified five main areas that need the most immediate addressing in our discipline:

    1) When society is complaining about the “elites” they are talking about us. We need to ask ourselves why.

    2) We have to become humble. When a theory doesn’t explain the everyday lived experiences of a society, we have to change the theory to fit social conditions; not change social conditions (vis-a-vis data) to fit the theory.

    3) We have to stop dictating the social (and economic) conditions of people, and return to studying them (this relates to #2). Empirics matter. Noah Smith, an Economics Professor friend of mine, makes this same argument for his field (posted here:

    4) We need to have an existential identity crisis. What is Sociology? What has it become? What is our purpose of existence? As Aristotle asked: do we have substance AND essence? What do we want to be when we grow up?

    5) We need to de-colonize Sociology. Sociology has completely ignored non-European/Western thought. How many have read the African Sociological Review (I have!)? The result is that we have applied our westernized social theories in an overarching way that inaccurately includes non-western people.

    I am one of those who has my social conditions dictated to me on a daily basis by my colleagues – I was not socialized by traditional western/European society. And I am not alone. Of course, I’ve gotten some hate-email over these points. Back to that humility thing.

    Your post is good stuff! It let’s me know that others are having the same thoughts as we trudge the road to happy Peacemaking within our own discipline.

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