Social theory and social research – what went wrong?

Underlying much sociological explanation is an attempt to bridge the gap between the ‘micro’ and the ‘macro’ within the context of a specific empirical inquiry. As the authors put it, “in the human and behavioural sciences, the analytical connection or co-relation between individual and social processes, between cognitive (mental) and social (group) structures, or between ‘habitus’ and ‘field’ … is often understood and elaborated as the big problem of bridging the ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ levels” (Lydaki and Tsekeris 2011: 68). The apparent diversity with which this ‘gap’ is characterised within social theory points to the intractability of the underlying issue: how do we make sense of the relationship between the individual actors we see around us and the wider social order which appears to shape but also be shaped by their actions? The dualisms which proliferate within social theory do so, in part, as a result of a failure to resolve this underlying question. An inability to establish consensus on the underlying explanatory question posed by social research has, as its flip side, the continual elaboration of a sometimes strikingly imprecise conceptual vocabulary which attempts to come to terms with various aspects of this foundational challenge: “constructivism-positivism, subjectivism-objectivism, intentionalism-functionalism, agency-structure, individual-society, or micro-macro” (Lydaki and Tsekeris 2011: 70). Depressingly large tracts of sociological discourse have proceeded from the personal investments and logical entailments which stem from occupying one side or another of these dualisms. Even as the last couple of decades have seen a variety of attempts to bridge these dichotomies, or even abandon them entirely as terms of reference, these moves have in turn bred new dichotomies (e.g. structurationist and post-structurationist) which, perhaps as the one last sign of my past life as a Rortyean philosophy student, never cease to appal me on an aesthetic level.

Drawing on the work of Nicos Mouzelis, Lydaki and Tsekeris argue that this “pluralization of approaches seriously impeded the epistemologically healthy capacity for meta-theory  – that is, for a sincere, uninterrupted and open-ended dialogue between opposing worldviews and paradigms” (Lydaki and Tsekeris 2011: 71). The proliferation of competing paradigms, often driven by technical polemics rather than practical disagreement over shared aims, worked to erode the common frame of reference within which sociologists were able to evaluate ‘theories’ as competing ways of making sense of underlying practical questions of explaining the social world. It contributed to a ghettoization of social theory, with its practical implementation too often limited to those who, having seen the explanatory gains which emerged from a particular approach, ensconced themselves within it and worked with others to elaborate it within its own theoretical terms of reference e.g. bourdieusian theory. As a consequence, social theory ossifies as, with the conceptual logics of particular theoretical approaches increasingly insulated from the practical logics encountered in the practice of social research, the point of social theory becomes increasingly unclear. Likewise the uses to which social theory is put within social research become less helpful than they would otherwise be because of this broader lack of clarity. It almost seems, perhaps, that social theory becomes something which sociologists are self-conscious about. In a way it should be. The characteristics which many find frustrating about contemporary social theory are, I wish to argue, indicative of things having gone badly wrong. They are a sign of people having talked too much, for too long, about predominately practical issues which, it seems, we might have come to some sort of working agreement on if circumstances had been different. My point is not that we should all agree on one ‘paradigm’ but simply that the fixation on ‘paradigms’ has precluded a consensus about the practical purposes which these sorts of discussions should serve.

Tsekeris, C., & Lydaki, A. (2011). The micro-macro dilemma in sociology: Perplexities and perspectives. Sociologija, 53(1), 67-82. doi:10.2298/SOC1101067T

Mark Carrigan is editor of the Sociological Imagination. He blogs about stuff here and tweets about things here.

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