Is Sociological Theory Dead?

Economist Noah Smith as a great take on the death of Theory in Economics. Smith’s laments are very similar to mine in Sociology, which has (in the past) had a very close relationship with economics. After all, Economics is a Social Exchange, both on a micro and macro level.

I’d argue that, Theory wise, the last great marriage between Sociology and Economics was Thorstein Veblen, and he died in 1929. Now Economics and Sociology are widows.

Noah Smith mourns that Economists want to know what’s going on in the real world first (inductive), before coming up with a theory. I’d argue that even the great John Maynard Keynes chased his theories based on what he observed in the real world, along with Max Weber, and Veblen. Karl Marx chased his economic theories based on what he observed, too, except what Marx observed was more like a long  hallucination. We can’t make the world fit the framework, but we can make the framework fit the world. This is the primary DIFFERENCE between Economics and Sociology; though Economists are starting to see the light in the post-Keynesian world.

We see some overlap in Sociology in Economics (and vice versa), but Sociology students get no real sense of what economics is really all about, even through Grad School. Marginal Theory of Value, which Max Weber was a worshiper of, is rarely discussed, because I guess it’s in an Economics Department. Marx’s theories were just relegated to a corner of the room that you couldn’t ignore.

Sociologist/Economist Thorstein Veblen did a lot of work on consumption and price adjustments; but Veblen is treated as a separate idea. Max Weber was a member of the German Historic School of Economics, and the only Professorships he ever held were in Economics Departments. Max Weber is one of the pillars of Sociology, and his economic views (or the Historical School of Economics) are rarely discussed.

As an Economics Professor, Sociology Pillar Max Weber had a lot of interesting things to say about Economics. In fact, the concept of Socioeconomic Status has its roots in Max Weber. Weber thought that in an Ideal Type (a.k.a. perfect competition), bureaucracies were more efficient (a.k.a. market efficiencies) because they could distribute resources better (a.k.a. macroeconomics).

While I’m not a Critical Race Theorist, my work on Labor Theories as they relate to low wages and the economics of slavery never actually involved Split Labor Market Theory. When I learned about Split Labor Market theories in Sociology, it was just explained that this was the reason for labor inequality. It was never explained that the theory was based on economic data or posed the idea of economic motivations. Then I found out that Split Labor Market Theory didn’t really fit into what I was doing; Keynesian Aggregate Demand models fit better into what I was doing on a Sociological level (low wages and slavery). All with not much of an Economics Background – other than a course called Economic Sociology.

Which leads me to the death of Sociological Theory. The death of theories, I think (with no data to back it up) comes from the fact that we try to come up with new ideas couched in theory that increasingly doesn’t totally apply. John Maynard Keynes came up with economic theories to make the world a better place (see his book: Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, 1930). He has his rightful place in Economics, but his applications can apply to all sorts of fields in Sociology. Yet, Keynes is not a social theorist; I think he should at least be given a gloss-over in Sociology.

The void in Social Theory has been filled in largely by “micro” theories, such as Gender Studies, Environmental Sociology, Critical Race Theory, Deviance, Criminology, etc. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not new “theory”. In his book “Suicide”, Durkheim tried to take a micro issue and turn it into a macro one. Some argue that he didn’t succeed; at least he tried. Max Weber used economics as a way of explaining his social phenomena, which is probably why most Sociologists don’t know what “camp” to put Weber in as a Theorist.

Many are data driven (don’t get me wrong, data is very important); and then they try to make an old theory fit a new dog. Instead, sometimes new dogs call for some new theories; or at least alterations of old ones. If anyone is going to create new theories, we are all going to have to think outside of our respective boxes.

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