Social theory as sociology’s meta-conversation

My notes on Lichterman, P (2017) On Social Theory Now: Communicating Theory Now. Perspectives 39(2)

In this response to Social Theory Now, Paul Lichterman offers a compelling vision of social theory as sociology’s meta-conversation, with communicating theory being “to keep track of and facilitate that conversation, treating it as always in movement”. It is a sprawling conversation about the conceptual terms we use to articulate empirical research, linking together the particular subfields within which theories are generated in a topology of the discipline as a whole. Facilitating that conversation involves a kind of “temperature-taking”, “assessing where we are in the various sub-conversations, rather than a statement about which theories best reflect our historical era, or which theories are currently the best contenders for sociological immortality”. He contrasts this dialogical approach to theorising as transmission:

Transmissive theorizing starts with a large conceptual framework, and promotes it, applies it, passes it down with improvements or at least updates.  I’m contrasting that with this book’s version of communicating theory — which I will call “dialogue.” Dialogical theorizing propounds questions, and a few central concepts such as “culture” or “gender.” It sustains questions and central concepts, more than sustaining master theorists or distinct schools as ends in themselves. In transmissive theorizing, the theorist or school is exalted. In dialogical theorizing, the theorist or school is. . .consulted.

It is an overdrawn distinction but it’s an important one which captures the essence of my discomfort with critical realism, which I think suffers from being institutionally locked into a transmissive mode. Transmission gets in the way of “minding the conversation, recognizing its limits, checking out the rest of the party”. It is ill suited to the reality of contemporary social theory, consisting of “relatively porous conversations, where participants invite new participants now and then, rather than a world of masters, and apprentices working their way in”. Critical realism is far from alone in being transmissive but it is a powerful exemplar of this mode of theorising.

He ends with an interesting discussion of vision questions: “the big normative questions that help us envision a society that is—more democratic (Habermas, or Dewey), more self-understanding (Shils), more radically democratic (Mouffe, Seidman), not to mention more solidary, more rational, or less alienating, to invoke the big three”. If I understand correctly, he’s claiming that these vision questions tend to be baked into theorising in the transmissive mode, locked within schools to be accepted or resisted as part of a whole. But could they not be better integrated into dialogue between subfields in a way which renders them autonomous from schools? Can social theorising involve “semi-autonomous, conversational room for explicit communication about vision questions and how they relate to concepts in subfields”? He suggest public sociology and civic sociology as contributing to this process. Could a broader dialogical approach to social theorising better integrate them?

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