North Central Sociological Association 2008 Plenary Address: The Practice of Scientific Theorizing in Sociology and the Use of Scientific Theory in Sociological Practice

Article excerpt

Sociological practice operates at the margins of sociology partly because theorists do not develop testable theories, while researchers rely heavily on methodologies that are not conducive to theory testing. Sociological theorizing engages in activities such as ideological critique, meta-theorizing, history of ideas, hero-worship of the classical theorists, and epistemological negativism that deflect attention away from developing general theories of generic social processes. Research is excessively atheoretical, partly as the result of the fallings of theorists but also as a consequence of heavy reliance on survey methods and an overconcern with variable analysis and statistical techniques. Moreover, the expectation that theorists should also be researchers and researchers also theorists obscures the division of labor so evident in other successful sciences. The outcome of these trends is that practitioners do not have a clear and cataloged body of theoretical principles upon which to draw. Sociology needs to develop an engineering wing that uses theoretical principles that have been systematically tested by theoretically oriented researchers using a broad array of methodologies. Only in this way can sociological practice move to the center of the discipline. Until this transformation occurs, the place of practice within the discipline remains marginalized, and sociology will continue to be seen as irrelevant to policymakers and to clients in need of social science expertise.


At the midpoint of the last century, it appeared that sociology would take its place at the table of science by providing scientific explanations for the operative dynamics of the social universe. In providing these explanations, sociological theory could both inform policymakers, who make decisions shaping peoples lives, and offer guidance for those engaged in sociological practice. Today, this potential seems wasted, as the discipline has fractured along a number of fault lines. One fault line cuts through sociological theory, which often fails to develop testable theories. Indeed, much of sociological theorizing has floated into the philosophical clouds, become hero worship of the early masters, or incorporated ideologically loaded critiques of some evil social condition. Sociological theory, it now seems, appears to do just about everything except explain how the social world works. Another line dividing the discipline is the atheoretical nature of much research, where the methodology least likely to test theories is dominant and where theory is often only window dressing for descriptive research findings. A third fault line is the motion of social movements from the broader society into university systems, into the professional discipline, and into department politics - often creating a reign of terror by the PC police who condemn scholars who dare question ideologically charged biases. The result is that sociology is now a highly politicized discipline that does not embrace general theories as explanatory tools, is suspicious of any idea that questions current ideological orthodoxies, sanctions a political and ideological litmus test on its faculty and graduate students, and engages in research practices that are unlikely to promote the accumulation of knowledge. Yet a fourth fault line exacerbates the other points of fracture in the discipline: widespread epistemologica! negativism, which asserts that sociology can never be a natural science. The consequence of this negativism is that without the obligation to explain something with the tools of science, theory and research lack the necessary mental discipline. Instead, conditions can be defined as evil through exhortations of moral outrage; variables can be correlated with concern for only their statistical - as opposed to substantive - significance; and theories can continue to avoid explaining how the social world works.

What is remarkable to me is that most sociologists do not see these fault lines as a problem for the discipline. …