The Nature of Social Theory

I will start by defining social theory in an entirely conventional manner as the stuff we find in social theory books and teach on social theory courses. Although much of the work I have in mind is broad enough to exhibit more than one of them, for heuristic purposes I want to identify four tendencies in social theory: normative theory, Zeitgeist metaphors, agenda-setters, and social scientific explanation.

Normative theory tells us what the world should be like. It is not just description and explanation; it is also a blueprint for a better future. Overtly normative work is more common in political theory than in sociology but critical sociology and feminist sociology, for example, are generally normative: that is, they take sides.

Zeitgeist metaphors are works which try to capture the essence of the modern age in a single jaunty image. It is no accident that 'zeit' and 'cite' sound similar. The key to citation heaven is to coin a snappy new metaphor for the contemporary condition: disciplinary society; risk society; McDonaldization; network society; tribal society; the rhizome; bowling alone; liquid modernity; there is a lot of it about.

Then we have the agenda-setters. Feminist theory, queer theory and postcolonial theory are not primarily logically-connected explanations of related social phenomena, though they can be that. They are ways of looking. They alert us to topics which have not been given due attention and to questions about those topics which have not previously been asked.

I might add here that a lot of the social theory that is heavy on these three tendencies is not the work of sociologists but of philosophers, psychoanalysts and literary critics.[1] I don't want to get bogged down in boundary demarcation. Like W.G. Runciman I tend to the view that 'a distinction between sociology, anthropology and history will have meaning only in terms of incidental differences of technique' (1970: 12) but there is a clear difference between those subjects and, for example, philosophy. Philosophy and literary criticism could be conducted entirely in a sealed room; they do not require sustained observation. I would argue that much of the weakness of the three tendencies in theory I have thus far discussed is related to the fact that they are closer to philosophy than sociology.[2]

My fourth tendency in social theory might be thought of as social scientific explanation. Examples would include Emile Durkheim on suicide, John Goldthorpe on social mobility, Howard Becker on deviance or professional socialization, Harry Collins on science. Here theory is an attempt to explain research findings in general terms that allows further refinement, extrapolation and testing.

Theory in the Study of Religion

Before considering the merits (or otherwise) of each of these four tendencies for the social scientific study of religion, I would like to report a brief exercise in witless empiricism. I thought it would be useful to see just which social theorists figure most prominently in British sociology of religion. There are more rigorous ways of doing this but to get some idea of current usage I went through the bibliography of each article published in the Journal of Contemporary Religion (JCR) over the 15 years of volumes 11 to 25 and noted how often social theorists - defined in a cavalier fashion as those people who get anthologized and discussed in social theory books - were cited. The results were as follows.

In the last 14 years, the top 10 theorists in the JCR were, in reverse order: Theodor Adorno (with five mentions) and Clifford Geertz (with six). Roland Robertson shares the seventh equal spot with Michael Foucault. Zygmunt Baumann takes sixth place and just ahead of him is Anthony Giddens. Placed fourth is Emile Durkheim. And now we reach the top three. And they are, in third place, Pierre Bourdieu; in second place, Max Weber; and, at number one, the most popular sociologist of religion with contributors to the Journal of Contemporary Religion is Peter Berger.

In keeping with the principle that good research produces findings one did not expect, the most significant observation from my trawl is not the popularity contest result, though the presence of Weber and Durkheim and the absence of Marx are surprises. It is the relative absence of social theory. Almost half the 267 articles surveyed (48 per cent to be precise) cite no social theorists. In total, 38 theorists are cited but 17 of them (again almost half) are cited only once. Furthermore, at least half the citations are ritualistic. For example, almost all of Robertson's seven citations accompany a passing mention of globalization and what puts Berger in the top spot is not anything from his extensive work on religion: it is his popularizing of the phrase 'the social construction of reality'. Usually nothing in particular is said about how this or that bit of reality is socially constructed; the point being bolstered is almost always the very general one that culture matters.

Of course it does not follow that, because an article does not cite any social theory, it has not been informed by any. The work of Bryan Wilson and David Martin, for example, is thoroughly pervaded by sociological theory, though direct references to theory are rare. But actually many of the Contemporary Religion articles are primarily historical, descriptive or exegetical. There is nothing wrong with that except perhaps lost opportunity. It is routine that articles in more narrowly disciplinary journals such as the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (JSSR) or Sociology of Religion justify their publication both by the novelty of the substantive research reported and by their contribution to current theoretical debates. The high theory of social science supposes that empirical research should advance development by testing some general (that is, theoretical) ideas. We know that in practice the theory-substance link often works the other way round. We research some religious movement or activity because it intrigues us and then we search for some theoretical argument to which our material can be turned. Even this adventitious link between substance and theory is often missing. A long career of reviewing journal submissions leads me to conclude that one of their most common weaknesses is theoretical justification that is so obviously spurious that it borders on the cynical: for example, if nothing more germane occurs, almost any description of religious (or even 'implicitly religious' activity) can be justified by claiming that it refutes the secularization thesis. But nonetheless very many articles in such journals as the JSSR do manage a fruitful interaction of theory and substance. The absence of that interaction does not necessarily render a research publication pointless but it is reasonable to describe it as missed opportunity. Readers can, of course, make their own connections but as the researcher knows the material better than anyone, he or she is best placed to at least begin the work of trying to explore the research's wider implications.

As I am about to criticize much contemporary social theory, one might think the above regret at the absence of social theory is self-contradictory, like the judgement of the diner who complains: 'The food was disgusting. And such small portions.' There is something in that but rationality can be restored by noting in advance a point I will elaborate later: there is also a dearth of sociology in much superficially social scientific writing about religion in Britain.

  • [1] For example, Edward Said, whose claims about the nature of orientalism have been extremely popular, was a student of English literature and art. Judith Butler (1997), whose notions of performativity have been similarly popular, is a philosopher and literary critic.
  • [2] As an illustration of how remote from the matter-in-hand social theory can become, I offer Bryan Turner's brief judgment of the influence of religion in the United States (2011: 105) where an important argument about fact is dealt with by summarizing a debate between Jurgen Habermas and Pope Benedict XVI, neither of whom are known for their detailed empirical research.
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