Sociological Theory Research Paper

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Sociologists share a map of the history of sociological theory in terms of phases. In the earliest phase, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a few individuals, working independently, produced massively influential works. By the middle of the twentieth century, these works were recognized as a common ‘classical’ heritage for the expanding discipline of sociology. A second, synthesizing phase was initiated through efforts to build a body of general theory. However, advocates of alternative perspectives rejected these postclassic theoretical systems. Thus, a third phase of sociological theory emerged in which multiple paradigms continue alongside renewed efforts to consolidate theoretical ideas. In this research paper, central attention will be given to the postclassical phase, treating two major efforts of generalized theoretical synthesis and, in each case, a major alternative perspective. The works of the classic phase appear here as intellectual resources for these efforts, both the syntheses and the theoretical alternatives. The recent situation in sociological theory is viewed as it emerges out of this postclassic phase.

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1. Classical Theory And The Convergence Thesis

The very term ‘sociological theory’ came to prominence only after World War II, especially in the influential writings of Talcott Parsons. In his classic prewar treatise, The Structure of Social Action ([1937], 1968), Parsons argued that a convergence had taken place in recent social theory. He analyzed the writings of four influential European social theorists (Marshall, Pareto, Durkheim, and Weber) with a view to demonstrating that these writers had expanded the scope of analytical social theory beyond the positivist and idealist traditions. Any analytical theory, Parsons argued, treats only selected aspects of a complex reality, formulating two kinds of conceptual schemes. One such scheme is structural in the sense of specifying parts and relations among them that are characteristic of a type of empirical system. The other kind specifies analytical relationships among defined ‘analytical elements’ or variables. Parsons’ convergence thesis pertains only to structural analysis. What this means and how it led to a particularly influential body of writings will be explained below.

1.1 Social Action Systems

Parsons treats social entities such as groups as empirical systems of the type he calls social action systems. The analysis of the structure of the general social action system attempts to delineate types of acts and types of relationships among them. Neoclassical economic theory employs a conceptual scheme of minimal structure. It analyzes a type of action system—a market or a system of markets—consisting of an aggregate of independent rational acts (decisions) by producers and consumers in a competitive setting. By contrast, the four writers that Parsons discussed developed more elaborate structural concepts. Pareto, for instance, starting as a neoclassical economic theorist, later embarked on a project devoted to general sociology with an analytical focus on nonrational components of motivation (e.g., ‘sentiments’). But it was Durkheim and Weber who, partly through Parsons’ analysis of their works, came to be regarded as the key founders of sociological theory.

In his writings, Durkheim defined some of the enduring concerns of sociological theory. In particular, his major works deal with the nature and types of social solidarity; the analysis of social reality as an emergent realm of social facts such as institutions; the explanation of social facts in terms of other such facts, exemplified in the explanation of variable suicide rates by reference to variable levels of social integration; and the genesis of emotion-laden collective representations and their role in creating and maintaining enduring bonds among people (see Giddens 1972). From Parsons’ point of view, these works were key contributions in the extension of the scope of analytical social theory while at the same time their common focus is clearly social integration.

In his writings on religion and society, Weber presented empirical evidence for a historical instance—the rise of modern capitalism—of the general idea that a cultural ethic or value system could influence the direction taken by economic forces. Weber also took on the task of constructing the conceptual foundations of sociology. In doing so, he started from the concept of action, defined as behavior with subjective meaning. He noted a variety of types beyond the instrumental-rational type featured in the market model. Sociology is defined as a discipline dealing with the interpretation and explanation of social action, defined as action involving orientation to the actions of one or more other actors (see Heydebrand 1994). This was the most direct source of Parsons’ own conception of society as a system of action.

1.2 The Fundamental Dynamic Theorem Of Sociology

In arguing that there had been a convergence on a conceptual scheme that generalized economic theory, Parsons went on to suggest what he regarded as a core idea of sociological theory. Namely, a stable social equilibrium—social order—is contingent upon the existence of a system of common values that are institutionalized so as to control the play of economic and political interests. The psychological foundations for this idea were developed further in his postwar writings, leading to his ‘fundamental dynamic theorem of sociology’ in The Social System (1951): the stability of social equilibrium requires the institutionalization of a value system that is also sufficiently internalized in the personalities of members. This idea reflects emphases in the writings of Pareto, Durkheim, and Freud concerning the nonrational foundations of social order.

1.3 Functional Analysis

In Parsons’ later work, functional analysis became very prominent in the form of the ‘AGIL scheme.’ (For the most elaborate statement of the AGIL scheme, see Parsons and Platt 1975, see also Functionalism in Sociology.) Any action system, the argument goes, has four functional imperatives: adaptation to its environment (A), attainment of its goals (G), integration of its parts (I) and what Parsons calls latent pattern maintenance (L). Functional subsystems of a society include an economy (social adaptation function), a polity (social goal attainment function for society), societal community (social integrative function), and a ‘fiduciary’ system (latent social pattern maintenance function). At any level of functional analysis, the other functional subsystems form part of the immediate environment of any one such subsystem. A society itself is one of four functional subsystems of an overall action system, namely, the action-integrative (I) functional system, comprised of institutional structures. Its action environment consists of instances of the three other subsystems of general action: cultural systems (L), personality systems (G) and behavioral systems (A). Parsons describes relationships among these systems in terms of theoretical ideas such as the fundamental dynamic theorem of sociology.

1.4 The Fundamental Problem Of Sociological Theory

Through elaboration of numerous ideas in the context of the AGIL scheme, Parsonian theory became an extraordinarily comprehensive but also rather complex framework. The complexity arises in part because Parsons was working on at least three levels of theory: general action theory, social theory, and sociological theory. That is, there is an implied ‘tree of theory’ in which sociological theory is only one among a family of interrelated analytical theories. Call the root of the tree ‘the general theory of action.’ The idea that action is behavior with subjective meaning belongs at this level, as well as the notion that any action has both rational and nonrational elements. Then there are four branches, corresponding to the AGIL scheme. One branch is social theory, focused on the integrative functional subsystem of action, the social system. This level too has four branches, one of which is focused on the integrative functional subsystem of the social system. It is this branch that constitutes the core of sociological theory, in Parsons’ action framework. It relates to the problem of integration of a system whose structure contains instances of collectivities, roles, norms and values. These structural parts may be quite differentiated, e.g., in values, leading to strains in intergroup relations, among other integrative problems.

This analytical view of sociological theory as focused on the problem of social integration leads to a specification of a fundamental problem: what holds society together? Alternatively, it has been framed as the problem of order. It also has a long history in social thought, as was pointed out by Ralf Dahrendorf (1959). He argued that the Durkheimian–Parsonian mode of addressing this question favors a reply in terms of common values, institutional rules, and socialized motivation that stabilizes a system. By contrast, he argued, a very different type of theoretical answer has been given in another stream of social thought, namely conflict theory. This type of theory is exemplified by Marx’s theory: coercion and domination of some by others is what holds society together, but with a constant latent conflict relationship that may break out into more or less major episodes of social change. Where Marx focused on property relations as the structured basis of latent or actual conflict and change, Dahrendorf argued that a more general and analytical theory would make power relations central. Any organization, and not just the private enterprise of capitalism, is treated as a structure of power relations between actors with and without authority. Subsequently, Collins (1975) attempted a synthesis of Durkheimian theory with a Dahrendorf type of conflict theory.

Criticism of Parsons’ theory came not only from those who favored a conflict theory alternative but also from theorists adopting other perspectives. Prominent among these was George Homans, and his ideas constitute another mode of generalized synthesis in sociological theory that also was met with critical reactions from alternative perspectives.

2. The Behavioral Foundations Of Social Bonds

As equally devoted to generality and synthesis as Parsons, Homans focused more specifically on the second of the two types of conceptual scheme mentioned earlier—the analytical element type.

2.1 The Human Group As A Social System

In the first of his two major theoretical works, The Human Group ([1950], 1992), Homans argued that the creation of sociological theory should begin with a scope restriction to small groups, those in which each member could interact with every other. Just as Parsons had looked to major works of leading theorists to create his convergence thesis and to launch his own theory program, Homans looked to significant works of empirical research and to the more specific findings emergent from them. Homans asked: What makes customs customary? In other words, how do we account for order? But here, as in all his work, the focus is not on the problem of integration of distinct groups but the more elementary problem of the construction, maintenance, or change of relationships among persons that constitute a human group.

In the book, Homans develops the theoretical answer in conjunction with a review of empirical cases: a work group, a street gang, the family in a preliterate society, a group of professionals, and even a small town. However, he also cites Durkheim and Pareto, drawing upon the latter’s system idea. Order in the form of social integration is explained through an emergent ‘internal system,’ given external conditions. Social bonds among members and shared norms are generated by mechanisms that are described in terms of specific hypothesized linkages among analytical elements pertaining to activities, sentiments, and interaction. For instance, the more frequently people interact with each other, the more similar their sentiments, normative ideas, and activities become. Each hypothesis qualifies the others, forming a dynamic system. Clearly, Homans’ theory is illustrative of the second of Parsons’ two types of conceptual schemes and far more clearly than in Parsons’ own work.

2.2 Reductionism

In his second major work, Social Behavior: Its Elementary Forms ([1961], 1974), Homans asked the question: If these sorts of analytical hypotheses or laws describe group dynamics and the build-up (or dissolution) of a group, what explains the laws? In searching for this more fundamental level of theorizing, Homans invoked a conceptual scheme from behavioral psychology. A typical element is the frequency of reward, and a key mechanism is reinforcement: the greater the frequency of reward, the greater the frequency of the rewarded behavior. As in his earlier system of hypotheses, each such fundamental behavioral proposition is qualified by the others; for instance, a satiation proposition says that as a reward is given repeatedly, each additional unit of it declines in value. As applied to interaction, the sources of the reward (or cost) are other actors. Hence, interaction is an exchange involving material and nonmaterial goods and social approval is a fundamental category of social reward.

The basic theoretical aim is the explanation of social life from a nonsocial foundation. This is analogous to the explanation of molecular levels of existence from a purely atomic basis. That is, it is an explicit theoretical reduction program. But what if atoms only could have the postulated properties they have if these properties emerge out of molecular relations? Then there would be no sense to the reduction. Treating persons as social products implies just that conclusion. For this reason, many theorists deny the premise of ‘methodological individualism’ that Homans is here presupposing. But this denial, in turn, may rest upon a misunderstanding.

What Homans takes as his fundamental conceptual scheme does not involve the socialized individual of everyday life. It involves the concept of a behaviral act and principles about behavioral processes, such as reinforcement. Behavioral acts, not persons, are the basic theoretical units. The socialized individual and the social system are equally outcomes of complex interactive behavioral processes. Thus, Homans has his own implied tree of theory, with behavior theory as the root. Analyzing group processes is one branch of such a tree.

2.3 Mind, Self, And Society

In this interpretation, Homans can agree with the classical sociological theorist Charles Cooley ([1909], 1962) who argued that individual and society are ‘twin-born,’ in that the person is socially constructed in social interaction and that a society is a system of interaction. However, Cooley stressed the importance of the concept of the self, a notion that Homans employs without theoretical elucidation. It is a branch of his tree of theory that he does not climb out on. Another classical theorist, the philosopher George Herbert Mead—writing in the first third of the twentieth century—had argued that the self can only emerge in a symbolic environment in which interaction involves a common system of meanings (Mead 1934). This is another branch of Homans’ tree that he did not explore. Homans presupposes but does not treat the capacity for symbolization that is part of the human condition. And his behavioral focus intentionally avoids any discussion of the ‘internalized conversations’ that make up the mind in Mead’s view. Hence, ‘mind’ is another branch that went unexplored. In practice, then, Homans simply took mind, self, and symbols as givens in the pursuit of a pure theory that would formulate and explain group processes.

But this was not how other theorists viewed Homans’ project. For them, it was a misconceived exercise in sterile behaviorism. They preferred the social behaviorism of Mead, as reinterpreted by Herbert Blumer (1969). Blumer stressed the existence of interpretive processes by which actors define each other’s conduct and creatively develop actions in situations rather than merely automatically acting out pre-existing structural roles. This ‘symbolic inter- actionist’ approach won a considerable following within sociology after the 1950s, especially through the influential analyses of interaction produced by Blumer’s student, Erving Goffman (1967).

2.4 Sociological Explanation Revisited

In taking the reductionist approach, Homans accompanied his work with a polemical argument. He took aim at Durkheim, who had argued that what explanation means for sociological theory is a causal account that remains at the level of social facts. For instance, to explain varying rates of deviance in groups, Durkheimian theory would point to varying levels of solidarity: the greater the solidarity of the group, the lower the rate of deviance from its norms. What Homans argued is that an analytical law or proposition stated in terms of social facts itself requires scientific explanation. We cannot be satisfied with purely group-level laws. What Homans argued was that such a proposition, if it is true, could be derived logically from a behavioral foundation. For instance, in a highly solidary group, members experience or can anticipate receiving high costs for undertaking some deviation from the group’s norms, while in a less solidary group, such costs are lower. This is so because ‘solidarity,’ when analyzed in behavioral terms, means that members value each other’s social approval to a certain degree. Hence, the mechanism that explains why varying rates of solidarity lead to varying rates of deviance is behavioral and the Durkheimian law is explained.

3. The Current State Of Sociological Theory

Subsequent to Homans’ work, the philosophy of science and social theory itself underwent some basic shifts of viewpoint. Both were strongly influenced by Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions ([1962], 1970) in which it was argued that a normal science is characterized by a shared paradigm but that there are also revolutionary episodes in the history of science involving paradigm shifts.

3.1 Multiple Paradigm Science

In application of the paradigm concept to sociology, commentators characterized the field as one with multiple paradigms. By the late 1970s, most texts reflected this consensus, featuring separate chapters on functionalism (Parsons), conflict theory (both critical theory and the Dahrendorf tradition), exchange theory (Homans), symbolic interactionism (Blumer), structuralism (French and US versions), and phenomenology (social constructionism and ethnomethodology). (See Turner 1998 for overviews of these and other perspectives in contemporary sociological theory.) To make the picture even more diverse, two other developments occurred. Feminists launched a wide-ranging critique of sociological theory and helped to make the study of gender a key research topic. Postmodernist sociologists attacked the project of sociological theory as a continuation of the Enlightenment’s grand narrative with scientific pretensions that could not succeed. Critics respond by attacking the cognitive relativism of this approach.

Some commentators argue that there is no possibility of placing these paradigms under a common intellectual framework, thereby seeing the discipline as permanently fractured and at war with itself. Others regard the situation as a positive one, emphasizing the importance of diverse viewpoints that could be brought to bear on any particular feature of social life. Still others recognize the diversity but argue for integrative theorizing, as described below.

3.2 The Spirit Of Unification

The two most prominent midcentury efforts in sociological theory—each aiming toward generality and synthesis—have failed on the criterion of acceptance as the paradigm of general sociological theory. Yet the spirit of what they tried to accomplish is not gone. We can call it ‘the spirit of unification,’ meaning a value-commitment to generalizing synthesis efforts in episodes of consolidating components of distinct theoretical systems (Fararo 1989). Robert Merton emphasized this idea in his often-cited paper ‘On Sociological Theories of the Middle Range’ (in Merton [1949], 1968). A middle range theory employs a general conceptual scheme with analytical elements, but it is scope-restricted to some abstractly specified class of empirical systems, e.g., thermodynamic systems. It cuts through folk classification schemes, explaining intuitively very different empirical systems using the same analytical elements and laws that do not exhaust the content of the empirical system. In short, a middle range theory is an analytical theory. Its scope is limited, not in the sense of dealing only with a class of concrete entities as classified culturally, but in the sense of treating only a certain system of variables.

A value-commitment to the construction of limited scope but abstract theories coupled with a value commitment to a recursive process of unification of such theories may well be a plausible path for the advance of sociological theory. At present, this approach is most strongly institutionalized in the field of research known as group processes, in which theorists elaborate and integrate their theories over time in connection with the construction of experimental situations that provide opportunities for testing the implications of theories. (For examples of group process research programs in relation to theory growth, see Berger and Zelditch 1993.)

3.3 Mutations And Innovations In The Paradigms

Recent developments indicate certain mutations in the paradigms and the emergence of new paradigms. Parsons’s theory has been transformed into what is now called ‘neofunctionalism,’ while Homans’s paradigm has mutated into part of ‘rational choice theory.’ Neofunctionalism departs from Parsons in a number of ways that reflect the influence of cross-paradigmatic critiques, attempting to incorporate ideas from conflict theory and interactionism, for instance, so that its advocates regard it as a new synthesis (Alexander 1985). Rational choice theory has departed from the behavioral psychological foundation that Homans advocated, often favoring a more mathematically tractable rational action model.

One of the new paradigms is social network analysis. Although social system theorists often employed ‘network’ as a metaphor for the relational systems they analyzed, they did not employ formal tools. The social network paradigm incorporates a strong mathematical and statistical foundation into a program of cumulative research on the properties of social networks. But critics argue that there is little actual specification of explanatory mechanisms in the research undertaken under this paradigm.

In terms of influence on empirical research, these three paradigms are not on an equal footing. Social network analysis has been incorporated into a great deal of ongoing research. Indeed, its focus on formal techniques for the description of networks implies that it can be employed as a tool along with virtually any other perspective. Neofunctionalism has had a limited following. Most macrosociological research avoids use of the function concept. A return to functionalism as a dominant approach appears unlikely at this point, although some conceptual breakthrough that reinvigorates it cannot be ruled out.

By contrast, rational choice theory created a considerable debate in the late twentieth century. Given that the classic writers and Parsons created ideas that were seen by sociologists as overcoming the scope limitations of economics, a ‘return’ to rational choice as a postulate seemed regressive and was criticized on that basis. Defenders of rational choice theory can point to its strong contribution to the formulation of micro–macro linkage. This is particularly clear in the formulation set out by Coleman (1990). Macrolevel systemic givens constrain and enable microlevel situations of actors. Making rational choices based on their internal preferences and the situational constraints, actors then collectively shape macrolevel outcomes. This is not equivalent to Homans’ reduction program. Instead it is a working strategy for incorporating agency into any sociological explanation, a point emphasized strongly by other recent theorists who are nevertheless critical of rational choice as an explanatory mechanism (Giddens 1984, Bourdieu 1990, Boudon 1998; see also Macrosociology–Microsociology).

If the Parsonian notion is accepted, that the problem of social integration defines the core problem of sociological theory within the broader framework of social theory, the route through the middle-range strategy is not inconsistent with the more general project that Parsons and others have pursued. A key contribution of sociological rational choice theorists has been their sharp theoretical focus on variants of the basic problem, treating coordination, cooperation, and trust, as well as solidarity. At the same time, the synthesis of the Durkheimian theory of solidarity with conflict theory undertaken by Collins (1975) provides a different middle-range perspective on the problem of social integration. Thus, given the centrality of the problem and the existence of explicit theories treating it, the topic may well constitute an important locus of episodes involving theoretical unification. Finally, some of this work illustrates the use of mathematical models in bringing precision and deductive fertility to sociological theory (Doreian and Fararo 1998). Such model building can fulfill a variety of goals, including the clarification of concepts, the representation of processes, and the specification of theoretical constructs that explain a variety of phenomena (Berger et al. 1962). Developments such as these are a major hope for the future of sociological theory.


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