Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings

By Charles Lemert | Go to book overview
Jeffrey Alexander ( 1947-) teaches sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles, having chaired the department for a number of years. After studying at Harvard, Alexander did graduate work at Berkeley, where he began his four-volume study Theoretical Logic in Sociology. He has written and edited many books and articles on theory, culture, and politics, including Neofunctionalism ( 1985), Twenty Lectures: Social Theory Since World War II ( 1987), Action and Its Environments ( 1988), Finde-siècle Social Theory ( 1995), and Neo-Functionalism and Beyond ( 1998).
Postpositivist Case for the Classics
Jeffrey Alexander ( 1987)The ratio between exemplars and classics is so much different in social science because in its social application science produces so much more disagreement. Because there is persistent and widespread disagreement, the more general background assumptions which remain implicit and relatively invisible in natural science here come vividly into play. The conditions which Kuhn defines for paradigm crisis in the natural sciences are routine in the social. I am not suggesting that there is no 'objective' knowledge in the social sciences, nor even that there is no possibility for successful predictions or covering laws. It is possible, it seems to me, to gain real cumulative knowledge about the world from within different and competing points of view, and even to sustain relatively predictive covering laws from within general orientations which differ in substantial ways. What I am suggesting, however, is that the conditions of social science make consistent agreement about the precise nature of empirical knowledge--let alone agreement about explanatory covering laws--highly unlikely. In social science, therefore, arguments about scientific truth do not refer only to the empirical level. They cut across the full range of non-empirical commitments which sustain competing points of view.There are cognitive and evaluative reasons for the vast differences in the level of consensus. I will mention here only the most fundamental.
1. In so far as the objects of a science are located in the physical world outside of the human mind, its empirical referents can, in principle, more easily be verified through interpersonal communication. In social science, where the objects are either mental states or conditions in which mental states are embedded, the possibility for confusing mental states of the scientific observer with mental states of those observed is endemic.
2. Resistance to simple agreement on empirical referents also emerges from the distinctive evaluative nature of social science. There is a symbiotic relationship between description and evaluation. The findings of social science often carry significant implications for the desirable organization and reorganization of social life. In natural science, by contrast, 'changes in the content of science do not usually imply changes in social structures' ( Hagstrom). . . .
3. Needless to say, in so far as it is difficult, for cognitive and evaluative reasons, to gain consensus about even the simple empirical referents of social science, there will be even less about the abstractions from such concrete referents which form the substance of social theory. . . .
____________________
Excerpt from "The Centrality of the Classics", Anthony Giddens and Jonathan H. Turner, eds., Social Theory Today ( Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1987), pp. 20-28. Reprinted with the permission of the publishers, Stanford University Press. 1987 Polity Press.

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