The theory of theory

May 9th, 2008  |  Published in Social Science, Sociology

Teppo Felin has a post over at OrgTheory that quotes Homans’ advice on theory-building. Thinking about where I agree or disagree with these strictures helped me see some of the ways I differ from much of mainstream social science. To take his points in order:

Look first at the obvious, the familiar, the common. In a science that has not established its foundations, these are the things that best repay study.

That one I agree with wholeheartedly. I guess it’s something everyone from Henri Lefebvre to the Freakonomics guys would concur on. Hannah Arendt wouldn’t like it, though.

State the obvious in its full generality. Science is an economy of thought only if its hypotheses sum up in a simple form a large number of facts.

This I’m much more ambivalent about. Often, attempts to theorize at maximum generality lead to theories that are false or vacuous. Just as important as generality is understanding the context in which a theory does or does not apply.

Talk about one thing at a time. That is, in choosing your words (or, more pedantically, concepts) see that they refer not to several classes of fact at the same time but to one and only one. Corollary: Once you have chosen your words, always use the same words when referring to the same things.

On the face of it, this seems like it should be uncontroversial. But I think it reflects a naive belief that scientific and literary language can easily be separated. I often find that when I’m writing up a sociological argument, I want use different words and different constructions for the same concept, in order to make the tone seem less clunky and flat. And I think this is more than a matter of stylistics. Freshman composition to the contrary, language is not a window onto your thoughts. It is a social fact, and it is full of ambiguities and misunderstandings. In order to really get a new idea across, it is often necessary to restate it and rephrase it in many different ways, circling around your concept in order to triangulate your position in a way that is intelligible to others. If you just use one word, referring to one thing, you are at the mercy of whatever connotations and resonances that word will have for your audience. And that leaves you open to all kinds of misinterpretation.

Cut down as far as you dare the number of things you are talking about. “As few as you may; as many as you must,” is the rule governing the number of classes of fact you take into account.

This one is the flip side of the maximum-generality rule, and I object to it for similar reasons. It’s implicitly anti-dialectical, since it implies that the way to understand social phenomena is to break them down into little pieces and separate them from their context, rather than fitting them into a totality.

Once you have started to talk, do not stop until you are finished. That is, describe systematically the relationships between the facts designated by your words.

That’s a good one, and it’s advice I should be better at following. When I have a good idea, I sometimes have a hard time cashing it out before I get sick of it and abandon it.

Recognize that your analysis must be abstract, because it deals with only a few elements of the concrete situation. Admit the dangers of abstraction, especially when action is required, but do not be afraid of abstraction.

That’s a good one too, but it all depends on what you mean by abstraction. The commodity form is an abstraction I really like. The concept of utility, not so much. For Homans, of course, it would be just the opposite.

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