Sociology 304 Notes

January 6 and 8, 1998

Issues in Modern Sociological Theory

Before looking at the specific issues that are to be examined this semester, it may be useful to consider the nature of sociological theory. The following notes are a short summary of my view of what sociological theory is or ought to be.

What is Sociological Theory?

There are many theoretical approaches:

Sociological theory - or social theory - is usually thought of as a systematic set of ideas and statements about the social world that aim to make sense of the social world. To be sociologically useful, these ideas and statements should be such that they can be subjected to empirical observation and testing. In addition, there should be a set of procedures to decide which ideas and statements are considered valid and which ones are not. If a theory is to be useful in the social world, it should also provide some conclusions which help us understand or explain the social world. It would also be useful for the theory to be able to make predictions which can be used that will assist in making policies that concern the social world. Hopefully this social theory can help individuals and society as we all attempt to improve the nature of the social world.

Schematic Diagram of Theoretical Frameworks: Structure and Construction.

A schematic diagram that I have adapted and modified from J. H. Turner, The Structure of Sociological Theory (fifth edition) is on the handout Theoretical Frameworks: Structure and Construction. The central panel provides a way of thinking about how a theory or theoretical framework can be considered to be structured. The panel on the left outlines a few of the ways in which a theory can be regarded as emerging, that is, how a theoretical framework is constructed. The panel on the right notes how the theoretical framework is tested and revised, once it has been initially constructed.

This schematic diagram is overly simplistic, but is intended to show some of the essential aspects of a theory and also to show the difference between the construction (left panel) and refinement (right panel) of a theory and the internal structure (middle panel) of a theory. In sociological practice, these different aspects are not as separable as shown in the schematic diagram, with sociologists continually moving back and forth between examination of the social world and theorizing.

Courses in Social Theory. Courses in sociological theory or social thought tend to concentrate on the internal structure of a theory, examining the assumptions and concepts, and showing how the statements and models of that theory are derived from these. The internal consistency of the theory and the implications for policy and practice that come from the theory are important aspects of an examination of theory. In Sociology 250, the structure of the theories of Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Parsons, etc. is examined in line with the middle panel of the diagram.

Courses in Social Science Methods. Courses in sociological or social science methods tend to concentrate on the left or right panels, sometimes showing the connections with the middle panel, at other times examining the methods in a manner that is quite distinct from the particular theoretical approach. For example, Social Studies 203 and, to some extent, Social Studies 306, try to show the connections between sociological methods and theory. Social Studies 201, the introductory statistics class, may mention these, but is primarily concerned with how the methods in the left or right panel work and can be used.

Sociology 304. In this class, we will mostly concentrate on the theoretical frameworks and structures, as shown in the middle panel. Various theoretical frameworks will be outlined and compared, with a view to considering their overall structure, consistency, and use. At the same time, keep in mind that some of the approaches we are considering are much more complete or developed than are others. For example, the theories of Marx and Durkheim are well developed and well understood structures that can be examined using primarily the middle panel - keeping in mind that no theory is ever complete, and that the processes of all three panels can be used to further develop these theoretical frameworks. But at least the written work of Marx and Durkheim is complete. In contrast, feminist, multicultural, and new technology theoretical frameworks are in the process of being revised and developed every day. These latter issues are approached from many different points of view, sometimes contradictory, so that the processes in all three panels are more at work when looking at these new theoretical frameworks.

Definitions, Assumptions, Concepts. A social theory begins with certain definitions of what the social world is (e.g., feminist, neoclassical, or Marxist approaches may differ), assumptions concerning how humans act and interact (e.g. rational, competitive, sharing, individualistic, altruistic). In a theoretical approach, these lead to certain concepts, the building blocks of a theory (norm, status, culture, socialization, exploitation, alienation). Some concepts may be common to all sociological theories, others may be unique to a specific theory. Each theoretical framework constructs various statements and propositions that connect the concepts. Three examples illustrate this process.

Examples of Statements and Propositions. Two short examples from Folbre, Who Pays for the Kids? show how these are constructed within the respective theoretical frameworks of neoclassical economics and Marxian theory. First, Folbre notes that the neoclassical model of the Rational Economic Man generally argues as follows:

He is a rational decision-maker who weighs costs and benefits. ... All his decisions are motivated by the desire to maximize his own utility. (Folbre, Who Pays for the Kids? p. 18).
About the Marxist Mr. Prol, Folbre says,

He ... has nothing to sell except his labour power. ... His capitalist employers pay him less than the value of what he produces, extracting a surplus in the form of profits. (Folbre, Who Pays for the Kids? p. 29).

Some of the assumptions are rational decision-maker, maximizing utility, and nothing to sell but labour power. Some concepts in these statements are costs, benefits, utility, labour power, value, surplus, and profits. Each of these are defined within the theoretical framework, and a study of that theory shows how the concept is defined, constructed, and used. The two quotes from Folbre show how the concepts can be connected to construct meaningful propositions within the theory, and hopefully the theory can be applied in such a manner that these propositions say something about the operation of the social world.

Another example comes from Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship:

One source of cultural diversity is the coexistence within a given state of more than one nation , where 'nation' means a historical community, more or less institutionally complete, occupying a given territory or homeland, sharing a distinct language and culture. A 'nation' in this sociological sense is closely related to the idea of a 'people' or 'culture'-indeed, these concepts are often defined in terms of each other. (Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship, p. 11).

Here culture, diversity, and nation are concepts that are defined within a theory of multiculturalism. These concepts are connected to illustrate how diversity can be examined in a sociologically meaningful manner. Different approaches to multicultural issues may lead to different definitions of the concepts, and other theorists might connect these concepts in quite a different manner.

Formats and Schemes. The statements and propositions of a theoretical framework can be connected in various ways, into formats and schemes. In the case of neoclassical economic models, these include demand and supply diagrams - indicating what an individual REM purchases, or how much labour is supplied. In the case of the Marxist model, an example would be the theory of the state. Folbre outlines a Marxist theory of ruling class in capitalism as follows:

Lack of access to means of production and repression of efforts to organize collectively constrain the proletarian to 'choose' the only alternative open to him, wage labour. The ruling class, on the other hand, controls Capital and tried to control the State, defending property rights and rules that work to its advantage. In democracies, elections become an arena of class conflict in which capitalists hold the future of the economy hostage. (Folbre, Who Pays for the Kids? p. 29).

In this example, workers are exploited and powerless in economic and political matters. Capitalists, on the other hand are powerful economically, and this economic power may lead to the capitalists becoming the ruling class of society. While a political regime may nominally be considered to be democratic, political power, ideology and culture may be so strongly controlled by this ruling class that elections are a sham and political choices do not express the real interest for all people. In the multicultural example above, Kymlicka discusses different types of diversity (mainly national and polyethnic), showing how liberal political theory can be modified to include some diversity.

As can be seen each of these formats or schemes creates a number of hypotheses (working class interests are not expressed within a bourgeois democracy), explanations (alienation of workers is a result of the labour process that exist in capitalism), solutions (multicultural policies are a way of according rights and ensuring peaceful forms of accommodation of diverse groups), predictions (the Liberal party will pursue austerity just as much as conservative parties) and control (it is necessary to form a socialist party so that workers' interests and rights can be put into practice).

As an example of hypotheses, consider the second sentence of the following quote. Kymlicka makes several hypotheses here, that distinctiveness is primarily in the immigrant groups' private lives and voluntary association. He also notes that this form of distinctiveness does not necessarily mean they are not integrated into the majority society. While presented as statements from his theoretical arguments, each of these could be tested empirically to see whether or not they are correct. In distinguishing national minorities from polyethnic states, Kymlicka notes:

Immigrant groups are not 'nations', and do not occupy homelands. Their distinctiveness is manifested primarily in their family lives and in voluntary associations, and is not inconsistent with their institutional integration. They still participate within the public institutions of the dominant culture(s) and speak the dominant language(s). (Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship, p. 14).

Summary. At the same time as this schematic diagram provides a general framework, it applies more to well developed theoretical models (classical models) than to approaches that are in the process of being developed. There is often a major difference between the final theoretical approach that is developed over a long period of time, and the way in which the theory is initially developed and constructed. Much of contemporary sociological theory can be considered to be of the latter type.

Some Summary Statements Concerning the Nature of Contemporary Social Theory


The approach taken here is that social theory should be pragmatic and flexible, rather than rigorous and fixed. Social theory should adapt to changing society, and reflect the developments that go on there, hopefully leading to ways of improving our understanding of society and our ability to improve society. We must be sensitive to the social changes that occur and we must attempt to develop an understanding of people and society. In doing this, it is useful to develop a systematic theoretical structure and use the scientific method when it is appropriate. As sociologists, we certainly have to continually move back and forth between observation and reasoning, test theories in society, and test theories against each other. But the real test is not the internal consistency or logic of a theory, but the theory's ability to lead to improved understanding and explanation of society, and to help in the improvement of society. If the theory is not useful in these latter senses, then it may not be worth maintaining - then we have to revise or abandon theory.

Sociological Theory and the Issues for this Semester.

Each of the issues and texts selected for this semester illustrate a number of aspects of the above approach to sociological theory. That is, the concern this semester is not so much with the internal logic and consistency of certain theoretical approaches, and with the consistency of assumptions and hypotheses of well developed theoretical approaches and models. We will be concerned with some of this in Who Pays for the Kids and Multicultural Citizenship but in general we will be more concerned with how social theory can be developed and used to explain some real social issues and problems, both in contemporary society and historically.

These notes from January 6 and 8 were revised on January 10, 1998.

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