Social Theory & Its Relation to Social Problems: An Essay about Theory and Research with Social Justice in Mind

By Caputo, Richard K. | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Social Theory & Its Relation to Social Problems: An Essay about Theory and Research with Social Justice in Mind


Caputo, Richard K., Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


This essay examines the relationship between social theory and social problems, the truth-value of theories, and the importance of theorizing about the role of the state, i.e., national government, in the resolution of social problems and the achievement of social justice. The author argues that much contemporary social theory has lost its moorings in regard to amelioration of social problems, that Popper's criterion of falsification is a requisite for more meaningfully applied social theory, and that the state should be part of any social theory meant to address social problems. Moral and political philosophy is used to provide criteria to justify a positive role for government to develop and implement policies to achieve a more justice society than would be the case if market mechanisms were deemed the most appropriate arbiter of economic and social exchange. The author concludes with examples of his own theoretically driven and empirically grounded research on social justice to tie together the elaborated themes of social theory, falsification, and retaining the state as an object of theoretical inquiry when addressing social problems.

Keywords: social theory, role of the state, social problems, social justice

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This essay covers three broad topics: the relationship between social theory and social problems, the truth-value of theories, and the importance of theorizing about the role of the state, i.e., national government, in the achievement of social justice. First, much contemporary social theory has interest in ameliorating of social problems, a goal of classical social theorists. Second, many social theorists tend to fall into two camps, those who are more concerned that their theories be correct (have truth value) and those who want their theories to be useful. Each camp, however, fails to see that truthfulness and utility are important to theoretical developments meant to have any viability in regard to amelioration of social problems and realization of social justice. Third, without the legitimate, tangible incentives and moral exhortations inherent in policies issued by national governments, these goals cannot be achieved. The contemporary global economy requires national level leadership.

This essay draws on Mouzelis (1995) and Unger (1987/2004a&c. Also see 1975), whose "old fashion theory books" apply a set of critical arguments on conceptual themes (Cohen, 1996). It also relies on Popper (1961, 1965, & 1968) whose efforts to demarcate scientific theories/knowledge from other bases or claims of theoretical knowledge (e.g., ideology, religion, law, logic) provide a useful criterion by which to judge the capacity of social theories to adjudicate truth claims (Also see Baert, 2005; Magee, 1985). Evans, Rueschemeyer, and Skocpol (1985) and others (e.g. Barry, 2004; Peters, 2004) provide theoretical insights into the importance of the state in safeguarding against the erosion of the public sphere, promoting protections against the vicissitudes of the market, and providing the institutional structure within which contested aspects of social justice can be settled. Finally, this essay illustrates how normative or emancipative social justice theories, types of which Popper would reject on principle because they are not scientific, can nonetheless provide a basis for empirical investigation for purposes of knowledge building in a way that Popper would in all likelihood approve. To do this, the author relies on examples of his own conceptual and empirical works (Caputo, 2005a & b; 2004; 2003a & b; 2002a & b) that can be used in support of arguments justifying a positive role for national government in the amelioration of social problems and the achievement of social justice.

It should be clear from the outset that this essay will be silent in regard to theory development for its own sake, a position advocated by Kiser and Hechter (1991; Also see Hage, 1994; Jasso, 2001). …

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Social Theory & Its Relation to Social Problems: An Essay about Theory and Research with Social Justice in Mind
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