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Social theory is often considered a branch of sociology that is less concerned with explaining patterns of social life using the scientific method and more concerned with analyzing macro social structures using theoretical frameworks. Because of this, social theorists are often suspicious or critical of sociologists who model their work off of the successful “objective“ natural sciences like physics or chemistry. Social theory is inherently interdisciplinary, as it deals with multiple scientific areas (economics, theology, history and many others).
Often, however, science-based research can and will complement an underlying social theory. For instance, statistical research grounded in the scientific method that shows a severe income disparity between women and men performing the same occupation can complement a social theory such as either feminism or patriarchy.
Extremely critical theorists , such as deconstructionists or postmodernists, may argue that any type of research or method is inherently flawed while other theorists prefer to describe themselves as social theorists because they are either critical of the sociological community or were not trained as sociologists.
Many times, however, social theory is defined as such because the social reality it describes is so overarching as to be unprovable. The social theories of modernity or anarchy might be two examples of this.
Early Social Theorists
Prior to 1900, social theory was largely narrative and normative, versed in story form, and both assuming ethical principles and recommending moral acts. In this way, it is possible to find the earliest theorists as religious figures.
St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, were concerned exclusively with a just society . St. Augustine describes late Ancient Roman society but through a lens of hatred and contempt for what he believed for false Gods, and in reaction theorized The City of God. If we go outside the West, we find the same situation in a major "social theorist" of China, Master Kong (misnamed Confucius by Jesuits) theorized a just society and only glancingly described the actual society of Warring States. Later on, also in China, Mo Tzu recommended a more pragmatic sociology, but ethical at base.
Early theorist Herbert Spencer profoundly believed in "survival of the fittest" and recommended avoidance of governmental action on behalf of the poor (socialism) as a positive act. Another theorist John Stuart Mill hoped at best only to ameliorate and not change conditions.
Modern Social Theorists
Karl Marx as a social theorist
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. Fortunately all of its practitioners, without exception, have left off raving about master races and the dictatorship of the proletariat.
In fact, essential to the enterprise of "social theory" as practiced by 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...more sociology, in other words. The deep presumption of "scientific" sociology turns out to be economic, and a desire for market operations, which begs the question as to whether they are even fair, far less the question as to 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.
Of course, much nonsense has been emitted by social theorists. "Scientific" sociology avoids this 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 as to whether in a subject belonging to what 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".
But let's give the social theorist the last word in her very own section of this article. Dr. Pangloss was in fact theorizing, and the scientific sociologist who deals in "everyday" language assumes without much argument (much "theory") that "everyday" language, and not the language, let us say, of crazed bag ladies, is the best way to talk about the world.
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