Sunday, February 21, 2010

What do we want from sociology?

Let's say we've absorbed the anti-positivism argued many times here -- sociology should not be modeled on the natural sciences, we shouldn't expect social phenomena to have the homogeneity and consistency characteristic of natural phenomena, and we shouldn't expect to find social laws.  What remains for the intellectual task of post-positivist sociology?  What do we want from sociology?

Here are a handful of topics that are both important and feasible.

  • description and theory of social movements / collective action / popular politics
  • comparative study of large historical social-political formations such as fascism, colonialism, fiscal systems
  • descriptive analysis of social inequalities (race, gender, class, ethnicity) and their mechanisms
  • descriptive and theoretical accounts of major social institutions (corporations, unions, universities, governments, religions, families) and how they work (mechanisms)
  • Concrete studies of identity formation
So there is plenty for a post-positivist sociology to do. But more specifically, what can the science of sociology offer us? To start, we would like to understand some of the myriad social processes that surround us. We would like to understand how social stratification works; how economic power is translated into political power; why racial disadvantage persists from one generation to another; and what leads people to behave as they do in specific social settings. To put a name on this, we would like to have convincing theories of social mechanisms and processes, and some idea of how these aggregate into larger social processes.

Second, to whatever degree possible, we would like to have theories of social behavior that will permit us to intervene to prevent undesirable outcomes. We would like to greatly reduce the rate of teen violence in cities like Detroit and Chicago. And this requires theories of the factors that lead to the behavior so we can have some hope of designing solutions. So we would like for sociology to provide a degree of theoretical support for the design of helpful social policies.

Third, we would like for sociology to be an empirical discipline. And thus means that we want to "test" or otherwise empirically evaluate the hypotheses and theories produced by sociologists.

All three of these goals seem to point in the direction of a sociology of the middle range (as Robert Merton put it) -- theories that attempt to capture mid-range social processes such as racial discrimination in housing, power brokerage, or identity formation. The value of this level of focus is parallel to the three points just made. Mid-level analysis is suitable to investigation and discovery of social mechanisms. Mechanisms and processes at this level are likely to be most useful when it comes to designing policies and social interventions. And, finally, this level of sociological theory is most likely to admit of empirical investigation and validation through piecemeal inquiry.

What this suggests to me is that piecemeal inquiry into specific social phenomena is a more promising approach than grand unifying sociological theories. And this in turn suggests the metaphor of toolbox rather than orrery -- a collection of explanatory hypotheses rather than a unifying theoretical system.

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