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What is social theory? Interview with Douglas Porpora

Published in Latest Posts, Theory by Mark Carrigan on April 11, 2018

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This is the first of a set of interviews conducted by Mark Carrigan, in which he explores the definitions and uses of social theory with a number of theory-oriented academics. This first interview is with Douglas Porpora. Douglas is Professor of Sociology in the Department of Anthropology at Drexel University. He has published widely on social theory. Among his books are The Concept of Social Structure (Greenwood 1987), How Holocausts Happen: The United States in Central America (Temple 1992) and Landscapes of the Soul: The Loss of Moral Meaning in American Life (Oxford 2001). Further information on Douglas is available here.



Mark: What is theory?

Douglas: On the received positivist view, theory is an axiomatic set of propositions describing a closed system of law-like event-regularities. Since as a critical realist, I do not believe in law-like event-regularities, an axiomatic system of propositions is not what I think theory is. It does not even conform to theory in the natural sciences. The structure of DNA is not an axiomatic system and nor is the structure of an atom. Both are theoretical images of reality.

So what do I think theory is? Well, I think the word has application at several levels. At one level, it refers to a hypothesized causal mechanism operating in a case or set of cases. At a higher level, as when we speak say of Marxian theory, we are talking about a complex system of interrelated ideas about the operation of something or other, in the case of Marxian theory, capitalism or world history. At a higher level still, theory — or its study — refers to our basic concepts and assumptions, and meta-theory to a more philosophical reflection on them.

Mark: Why is theory important?

Douglas: Theory as I describe it above is important because it is essentially everything —or at least the whole point of our research. Theory is both the hypothesized mechanisms we suspect in play and the mechanisms we eventually confirm. We speak of the theory of evolution or relativity, but they are no longer just hypotheses. We are pretty sure the mechanisms they describe are what govern their respective domains of reality. So theory is important because it is our picture of what is going on in the part of the world we are concerned with.

Mark: How does it feature in my work?

Douglas: In two ways. Like all other sociologists, when I do empirical work, I go into it with some question and some working hypothesis or theory about what is going on. As I research, I generally revise my hypothesis in light of the data because it is often simplistic or in some cases completely wrong. But even when wrong, having that hypothesized theory helps direct me to a better understanding of the situation.

But a lot of my work is meta-theoretical. I tend to be very linear in my thinking, which in part means I begin at the beginning with first principles. And I tend to be both obsessive about ideas and actually — although I may appear the opposite — scientifically humble. Meaning I am willing to entertain doubt about just about anything I believe. Which means I am concerned that my first principles are the most tenable they can be. Which means — and here I don’t seem humble, in contrast with most of my American colleagues in sociology, I don’t just take our starting assumptions for granted and go on with empirical work. Especially, as many of those assumptions strike me as highly questionable. So unlike a lot of my colleagues, I have spent much of my career exploring sociology’s basic assumptions. And actually, I think that study has paid off in a more tenable and sophisticated understanding of the social domain.

Mark: This study of ‘basic assumptions’ is sometimes framed as a distraction from the ‘real work’ of empirical research. How can we counter this view?  

Douglas: Yes, I agree that sociologists tend to consider the study of assumptions to be a distraction from the “real work” of empirical research. That attitude is what remains in sociology of positivist empiricism. There are a couple of things to say in response. First, if its basic assumptions are untenable, then a discipline can waste decades generating research that is ultimately a dead end. Consider how many years psychology avidly devoted to S-R behaviorism, despite the early warnings of Charles Taylor and others that it was conceptually wrong-headed. Same in sociology with rational choice theory and other approaches that are just ill-conceived. You can generate results, but they do not show what you hope they will show. You produce only a pretend science rather than anything real.

The second point is that historically the big moves in sociology have all been conceptual rather than empirical. Why did we abandon functionalism? Was it because of new findings or because of conceptual weaknesses? Similarly, many abandoned Marxism not due to new findings but because of its alleged economistic reductionism. Few anymore claim to be postmodernists. Is that because of new empirical findings? I don’t think so. I am not saying that empirical results never matter, but I think they matter less than supposed.

Mark: What advice would you give to those who want to build a career focusing on theoretical work within an academy which often doesn’t seem to value it? 

Douglas: That is a good question. I would say that if, like me, you are called to theoretical work, then you must do it. But protect yourself. Reduce the risks. Specifically, don’t make theoretical work the only thing you do. It has never been the only thing I’ve done. I also do empirical work involving case analysis, content analyses employing ANOVAs, survey research, in-depth interviews, and so on. That work is still consistent with my meta-theoretical leanings and is more welcomed by the profession.



Mark Carrigan Mark Carrigan is Digital Engagement Fellow at The Sociological Review Foundation and Research Associate in the Faculty of Education at University of Cambridge


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