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WHY SOCIAL

THEORY?
Alan Scott
SOCY340
Topic 1
1) SOCIAL THEORY:
meaning, uses, styles
Why social theory?
Short Answer:
! Without social theory sociology would appear as a
list of perhaps interesting but only loosely
connected topics.
! ‘If research consisted only of data collection, it
would lack all order and sense’ (Harrington 2005:
5). Theory sets research agendas.
! All observation of ‘the world’ is informed by
interests, values, prejudices, theories. Observation
is ‘theory impregnated’.
! We need theory when we ‘do not know how to go
on’ either in our actions or in our research.
What is social theory?
! An attempt to make clear and systematize the
assumptions with which we work; both ‘common
sense’ assumptions and those which underlie
social research.
! The term did not have great currency until after
WWII (contra ‘political theory’ which has a c.2000
year old history).
! Social theory often serves or guides social and/or
political ends and practices – think of Marxist or
feminist theory. Examples: Critical Theory and
‘Spring 68’; Stuttgart 21.
Components of the term
(see Harrington 2005: 2)
! Social is derived from the Latin socius =
cooperation between merchants (cf. societas
(society) = an association of merchants). This
economic connotation is retained in many
European languages (e.g. Gesellschaft in
German) but only traces are left in English.
! Theory is derived from the Ancient Greek
theōria = contemplation/reflection. The term
that contrast with theōria was/is praxis
(practice).
Some ambiguities
! Social theory or sociological theory?
! Things are clearer in political studies where there is a
threefold distinction between political science, the
history of political thought and political theory/
philosophy.
! It is political theory/philosophy that is normative
(what is the best political regime? etc.). In contrast,
social theory can be either normative or analytical
(or both).
! ‘Social theory’ is a term often used – as in the title of
this unit – to mean simply the history of social/
sociological thought (c.f. history of political thought).
! Social theory overlaps with, but is not identical to, the
philosophy of social science.
Some contrasting styles of theorizing
! Grand theory = marco-level search for a general model of society.
Examples: Talcott Parsons (1902-79), ‘structural functionalism’; Nikolas
Luhmann (1927-1998), ‘systems theory’; Jürgen Habermas (1929-),
‘universal pragmatics’; Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002), theory of ‘habitus’;
early work of Anthony Giddens (1938-), ‘structuration theory’;
Margaret Archer (1943-), ‘critical realism’.
! Middle-range theory (Robert Merton, 1910-2003) = theory intended to
generate empirically testable hypotheses. Examples: rational actor
theory (RAT), ‘analytical sociology’; Mary Douglas’s ‘Cultural Theory’(?).
! Formal theory = search for abstract and universal social forms. Examples:
Georg Simmel (1858-1918), formal sociology; network analysis;
mathematical modelling.
! Historical theorizing: search for long-term historical trends and
developments (e.g. the rise of the state). Examples: Norbert Elias
(1897-1990), Charles Tilly (1929-2008), Michael Mann (1942-) and
Theda Skocpol (1947-).
! Social theory as Zeitdiagnose (diagnosis of the times). Examples:
Zygmunt Bauman(1925-): later work of Anthony Giddens;
George Ritzer (1940-); Ulrich Beck (1944-).
2) SOCIAL THEORY:
canon, controversy and context
Foundations
‘A science which hesitates to forget its founders is
lost’ (Alfred North Whitehead, ‘The organization of
thought,’ Science 22, September 1916)
! In contrast to the natural science and many social sciences
(e.g. economics), sociology ‘remembers its founders.’
! In this respect is it more like a humanities subject (e.g.
philosophy) than a science (narrowly understood). One other
social science has this characteristic: social/cultural
anthropology.
! This suggests that sociology is not progressive in the sense of the
natural sciences; that there is a continuity of concerns; that
older – ‘classical’- texts still have much to teach us.
! These ‘classical’ texts date from the mid-late 19
th
and early 20
th

centuries and are associated – above all – with the names
Marx, Weber and Durkheim (canonical works).
The qualities of these ‘canonical’
texts
(see Charles Turner 2010: 17-21)
! Intellectual authority.
! Aesthetic power: reduces ‘complexity, rendering it
manageable’ and provides ‘the intellectual tools
with which this can be done (Turner 2010: 17).
! Foundationality: ‘attempting to place social
inquiry on firm foundations’ (ibid: 18).
! Inexhaustibility: they can be reread with gain;
! Superiority of canonical texts over others and over
secondary accounts.*
* The first three Turner takes from Baehr and O’Brien 1994. The forth he adds and fifth is my stab at
capturing his final point.
Canons and controversies
! But canons are always controversial:
! The question of Eurocentrism and/or a western bias;
! Exclusion: of women, of those outside the metropolitan
‘core,’ the ‘Global South,’ etc.
! Much contemporary social theory – feminist,
postcolonial, queer, postmodern, etc. – can be
understood as a challenge to, or extension of, the
‘classical’ canon of social thought (see Topic 12).
! But here we need to know something of the context
of the emergence of social/sociological thought.
The context of ‘first wave’ social theory:
A Europe that was shaped by:

! Artistic, intellectual and religious movements:
! 14
th
-17
th
century: The Renaissance (‘Rebirth’), a movement in the arts and
literature which spread out from the ‘city states’ of Northern Italy;
! 16
th
Century: The Protestant Reformation;
! 18
th
century: The Enlightenment.
! 16
th
century on: the Copernican Revolution and the rise of science.
! 17
th
century on: rise of ‘modern’ institution: the (nation) state, the market
economy, (arguably) secularization, urbanization.
! Late 18
th
-19
th
centuries: industrialization and the triumph of capitalism.
! 18
th
-20
th
centuries: political and social revolutions: the French Revolution
(1789); class revolutions and attempted revolutions (1848, 1870, 1905,
1918); the Russian Revolution (1917).
! 19
th
-20
th
centuries: mass warfare, mass democracy plus nationalism and
colonialism.
! Late 19
th
-20
th
century: welfare state.
! ‘First wave’ social the theory (and sociology) was an attempt to
understand a European, capitalist modernity that went global via the
mechanism of European colonialism and the rise of the US power (NB.
the first modern political revolution was in the US – 1770s – and the first
modern mass war was the American Civil War (1861-65)).
3 THIS UNIT:
Rationale and Structure
Rationale
! Coming clean on my own position.
! Contextualization of social theory as a response to
(capitalist) modernity (from the medieval Latin
Modernus and modernitas = present):
“[modernity is] a cultural orientation […] that turns its
back on the achievements of the past, embracing the
new present with a view to constructing a novel, this-
worldly future’ (Gőran Therborn 2011: 55).
! This unit is necessarily selective. It offers one ‘lens’
through which to view, or one ‘door’ into, social
theory.
Structure
! Topics 2-7: an attempt to contextualize the
emergence of social theory and sociological
thought in the context of the ‘modern’
institutions of capitalism (market society), the
state, etc. which was first European, and now
global.
! Topics 8-12: covers some of the main schools
and lines of thought that emerged in the 2
nd

half of the 20
th
century, and are continuing to
develop.
Studying for this unit
! Textbooks as guidebooks.
! Reading the selection from original texts.
! remember Charles Turner’s point about the
superiority of original texts over
commentaries.
! as the only way of really understanding
social theory.
! the lectures will help you.
! Assessment.
References
Baehr, Peter and O’Brien, Mike (eds) (1994) Current Sociology
42/1, special issue on canons.
Harrington, Austin (2005) ‘Introduction.’ In A. Harrington (ed.)
Modern Social Theory. Oxford: OUP.
Therborn, Gőran (2011) The World: a Beginner’s Guide.
Cambridge: Polity Press.
Turner, Charles (2010) Investigating Sociological Theory. London:
Sage.