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.Social theory has always had an uneasy, love/hate relationship to the more classic academic disciplines, especially sociology. Many of its key thinkers were neither sociologists nor ever held a university position.
Unlike disciplines within the “objective“ natural sciences -- such as physics or chemistry -- social theorists are less likely to use the scientific method and other fact-based methods to prove a point. Instead, they tackle very large-scale social trends and structures using hypotheses that cannot be easily proved, except by the history and time, which is often the basis of criticism from opponents of social theories. Extremely critical theorists, such as deconstructionists or postmodernists, may argue that any type of research or method is inherently flawed. Many times, however, social theory is defined as such because the social reality it describes is so overarching as to be improvable. The social theories of modernity or anarchy might be two examples of this.
However, social theories still play a major part in the sciences of sociology, anthropology, economics, and others. Objective science-based research often begins with a hypothesis formed from a social theory. Likewise, science-based research can often provide support for social theories or spawn new ones.
Statistical research grounded in the scientific method, for instance, that finds a severe income disparity between women and men performing the same occupation can complement the underlying premise of the complex social theories of feminism or patriarchy.
In general, and in particular among adherents to pure sociology, social theory has an appeal because it takes the focus away from the individual (which is how most humans look at the world) and focuses it on the society itself and the social forces which control our lives. This sociological insight (often termed the sociological imagination) has appealed to students and others dissatisfied with the status quo because it looks beyond the assumption that societal structures and patterns are purely random.
In a sense, "social theory" is either a reversion-to or continuation of this subterranean mainstream because it revives abstract speculation, narrative, and normative assumptions and normative results.
Essential to the enterprise of "social theory" as practiced by Theodor Adorno and others is a methodological challenge to the hegemony of a scientific method. Sharing its core commitment to truth the social theorist points to the radical difference in phenomena between the subject matter of physics and that of sociology.
In sociology, the "objects" of study regard themselves as equal "subjects" with the researcher and for this reason must be gamed, carefully, by the researcher to get objective answers and also to avoid the ethical issues raised in the Milgram experiment, where the people whose authoritarianism was being investigated were persuaded to inflict what they thought was severe pain on others.
The social theorist is suspicious of "objectivity" not as a lifestyle choice but because his social theory, self-applied in a responsible way (vaguely reminiscent of mathematics) generates the notion that people deal in social constructs by default. He doesn't reject confirmation and denial by the facts, only adds the need for a theoretical venture that typically takes into account self-interested behavior that in turn results from oppressive conditions.
Of course, "mainstream" sociology has developed a continual body of minor theory to avoid false results, such as the double-blind experiment. But it still must act as part of the social phenomena it would describe while the physicist doesn't have to enter a black hole in order to fully describe a black hole.
In fact, in terms of the general Western and non-Western history of social theory, which usually appears in philosophy and religion with a strong normative streak, "scientific" sociology is the exception rather than the rule, and it derives from Daniel Bell's work on the end of ideology. The deep presumption of "scientific" sociology turns out to be economic, and a desire for market operations, which raises the question whether they are even fair, far less the question whether the respondent hopes for anything better.
World-wide, both economists and sociologists including Amartya Sen start from a questioning as to the justice of markets and the relation between the developed and underdeveloped world to come to quite different conclusions than often supported by the American mainstream, such as "a rising tide lifts all boats" and models showing economic progress at the hidden expense of human rights.
"Scientific" sociology avoids extreme views in its purest form. But, the social theorist might reply, scientific sociology then meets the market and turns into political pollstering in which it is gamed, using hidden computer models, to give predetermined answers after all.
Of course, the "mainstream" sociologist would as a "pure", academic practitioner disclaim any association with pollstering and spinmeistering; but this places, in play, the question whether in a subject belonging to what Immanuel Kant would call practical reasoning even bifurcates into the pure and the applied in the first place.
Again, this relates to the very different situations of physics and mathematics versus sociology. Albert Einstein and the physicists had to cross a very bright line between pure and applied physics to build the Bomb, but because sociology takes place inside its phenomena, any social research can at any time, it seems, have a political implication.
One of the most recent theorists in America was C. Wright Mills, who in White Collar: The American Middle Classes and The Power Elite, assumed and narrated social divisions in an America still thought to be roughly egalitarian. Basing his work both on statistics and narration, Mills seems to have noticed early on how America was changing from a country of "self made men" to people who depended on far more powerful combinations for their existence and who for this reason looked to others for their "cues": another member of this group of "theorists" was David Reisman, who originated the phrase, and book, The Lonely Crowd, to describe the resulting phenomena.
The way in which a social theorist like Mills is "confirmed", or refuted, occurs over several years. Mills seems to have been confirmed because certainly today, "white collar" and other Americans are in fact far more dependent on large employers. But his confirmation involves acceptance of a complex view of contemporary society which other people simply do not share.
It is true that "social theory" is very different from "sociology" insofar as the sociologist looks for neat, predetermined problems to which she can apply equally neat methodologies, while the theorist gets rather flustered by the brute fact of human suffering.
But as Pierre Bourdieu shows in 'The Weight of the World', social theory can be very empirical, in fact far more than spreadsheets, as long as we believe that there are "True Stories" to be told, and that listening is a profoundly empirical act. In The Weight of the World, Bourdieu as a theorist goes beyond polls which show that native French people dislike Arabs to find that their dislike contains envy of the communitarian structures of Arabs by French people isolated in housing projects, whose children live far away. Dislike/envy complicates the software but nonetheless exists if we believe the narrative.
But for the "mainstream" scientific sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu becomes a sort of high-class Studs Terkel, listening to "Tales of Woe" with a tape recorder that remain anecdotal. The totalized fact may, in fact, be Panglossian, and (as Voltaire's professor "proved") this may be "the best of all possible worlds".
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