What sociologists actually do and what social theorists think they should do

There’s a great post on Daniel Little’s blog which uses a critique of analytical sociology and critical realism to explore a premise which he argues they both share: ontology dictates methodology. As he frames the issue:

Both groups have strong (and conflicting) ideas about social ontology, and both think that these ideas are important to the conduct of social-science research. Analytical sociologists tend towards an enlightened version of methodological individualism: social entities derive from the actions and nature of the individuals who constitute them. Critical realists tend toward some version or another of emergentism: social entities possess properties that are emergent with respect to the individual activities that constitute them.

Both groups tend to design social science methodologies to correspond to the ontological theories that they advance. So they tacitly agree about what I regard as a questionable premise — that ontology dictates methodology.

I want to argue for a greater degree of independence between ontology and methodology than either group would probably be willing to countenance. With the analytical sociologists I believe that social facts depend on the availability of microfoundations at the level of ensembles of individuals. This is an ontological fact. But with the critical realists I believe that it is entirely appropriate for social scientists to examine the causal and structural properties of social entities without being forced to attempt to provide the microfoundations of these properties. This is an observation about the locus and nature of explanation. There are stable structural and causal properties at the social level, and it is entirely legitimate to investigate these properties in full empirical detail. Sociologists, organizational theorists, and institutional researchers should be encouraged to investigate in detail the workings, arrangements, and causal properties of the regimes that they study. And this is precisely the kind of investigation that holds together researchers as diverse as Michael Mann, Kathleen Thelen, Charles Perrow, Howard Kimmeldorf, and Frank Dobbin. (Use the search box to find discussions of their work in earlier posts.)


This is an issue I’m very interested in but have struggled to come to any firm conclusion about. My most serious attempt to think through these issues is this working paper. On the one hand, I find Margaret Archer’s argument that social ontology regulates the kinds of entities which can be admitted into explanation intuitively plausible. On the other hand, I find myself intuitively hostile – even actively irritated by – the style of social theory that someone like Dave Elder-Vass sometimes lapses into, in which he appears to argue that sociological investigation is unable to proceed adequately until social theorists have provided the domain specific ontology sociologists need to undergird their activity.

I guess a lot depends on what we take the claim about ‘regulation’ to mean. Does ontology regulate methodology? Should ontology regulate methodology? Could ontology regulate methodology? I think a similar ambiguity can be found in Little’s own framing of the relationship between ontology and methodology in the aforementioned post:

Ontology is not irrelevant to methodology; but it provides only weak constraints on the nature of the methodologies social scientists may choose in their pursuit of better understanding of the social world.

Is this an empirical statement about sociological practice? If so then we’re in the domain of the sociology of social theory – a notion that I’ve played around with in the past and at some point in my life, when I’ve read an awful lot more than I have at present, intend to come back to. If it’s not an empirical claim of this sort then what is it? This is the question that interests me and it’s one I don’t feel I have a sufficiently firm grip on to try and answer – descriptive claims about sociological practice unavoidably include normative claims within their scope (i.e. describing what sociologists actually do includes descriptions of what their theories tell them they should do) and yet as such a purportedly neutral sociology of social theory comes to constitute a move within the same game.

I’m very interested in the possibility of an ethnographic study of how sociologists actually use theoretical concepts as part of the research process. But at the same time I find the possibility of the neutrality this would entail to be rather implausible… I guess this is why I’m so confused (and yet fascinated) by questions like the relationship between ontology and methodology. The tendency seems to be for explicitly normative claims about what the methodological implications of social ontology should be. My problem is not with the normativity here but rather with the slipperiness of the grounding, if any, in facts of the matter about sociological practice. I’m interested in the sociology of social theory as a normative project – how do sociologists actually use theoretical resources and what conclusions can we draw about how they should use them in light of such a state of affairs? This is a project which unavoidably confronts a messy reality, in which an underlying impulse towards theoretical tidiness (which I think animates the work of many social theorists even if they reflectively deny it – I’ve had a post about the psychodynamics of social theory which I’ve intended to write for ages) runs headfirst into the tangled reality of empirical research.

I guess what I’m saying comes down to this: can we incorporate what sociologists actually do and what social theorists think they should do within a unified frame of reference? 

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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2 replies »

  1. Trust a sociologist to go fractally-meta on meta. I had actually hoped this was going to be one of those “What my mum thinks I do / What social theorists think I should do / what I actually do” type memes. To answer: Yes, I think we can unify methodological theory with research practice. Apart from using words like, “underpinning” in methods sections, I think this is what solid methods classics such as eg. Charmaz on GT already do.

    The ontological comes into normative argumentation about the basis of how we view social relations: our unifying frame of reference is just that. We need to be pragmatic, and think about approach in terms of explanations for the social.

    You paraphrase Elder-Vass as, “…until social theorists have provided the domain specific ontology”. But this should not be a concern, because it is like saying that unless we can label grammar, we cannot use language. Reflexivity is probably a basic requirement to doing sociology, but as sociologists we engage in reflexive praxis. Our epistemological ground will usually stem back to one or other of the great philosophical paradigms, or be defined in opposition to one. As intelligent people, we do not need case specific, domain specific theoretical guidance as we are able to transfer previous understandings to new research situations (indeed, probably can’t avoid it). We synthesise knowledge from the mundane, ordinary daily life with abstractions, theory – and we make it sociological. This is why sociology is so sublime.

    Given the right conditions, I’m a relativist. My standpoint is putty in the hands of a persuasive writer. Whether their premise for sociological explanation goes from the myriad of individuals that make up the ant-heap, or the more familiar ‘I put it to you that’ methodological collectivist approach. Methodological individualism is actor oriented and (yet) you could say it lends itself to quantitative, positivist approaches because if the social is simply the sum of all these little parts, then why wouldn’t we just add them up? But then, Weber was probably a mild methodological individualist – methodological Individualism lets us think about roles, meanings, action, networks. What a weird collection of micro-ish and big data-ish sociology that approach lends itself to. Its ontological basis is well established (unfortunately, thanks Margaret “there is no such thing as society” Thatcher). Just goes to show that ontological position and choice of method CAN be two quite different things.

    I strongly agree that, “social ontology regulates the kinds of entities which can be admitted into explanation intuitively plausible.” That would have to be a basic premise. I don’t quite see how it contrasts with Elder-Vass on slipperiness.

    Where sociology is not watertight (and yes, I do think this is a problem) is in qualitative research with lack of reflexivity. Firstly, researchers must fess up to who they are. Note that the word “are” is the word “to be”: who we ARE is our ontological grounding. Like, I think, therefore, etc! The only slipperiness from a research point of view is if readers don’t have a fair shot at a more than one-dimensional interpretation of that ‘being’. Secondly, did the researcher spend a convincing amount of time with these people who they presume to describe and report on, and base a version of reality on them? Am I convinced that the researcher KNOWS them, their lives? Because if these two conditions are met, BEING and KNOWING, then we are ontologically safe.

    So in other words, sociology has to be rooted in data. Not exactly in a Glaser and Strauss way, but in the sense that we are doing sociology, not philosophy. We can argue about at what stage data must come into the project, but the decider is that it does at some point. And if it does, then we’re a LOT better off with sociology than standing on our own wobbly opinions. ie. sociology is better than an opinion at the pub, whether we’re talking about a regression line, or an understanding that gives us socially transformative potential. Further, sociology assumes normative argumentation about social relations – this is what lets us interpret what we’re looking at through our little lenses.

    Is this a normative claim? Well yes, but essentially its a description of the parameters of what sets sociology as a practice apart from at one end everyday musing, and at the other, philosophy.

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