The Theory of Theory (Theoretical)

uniteWhile I re-read the theoretical magnum opus of C Wright Mills’ Sociological Imagination (simply because I can soak it in without academe distractions), Economist Noah Smith is on a Twitter tirade about the lack of new economic theory in modernity. Sociology has had the same problem, and I find that every few months there is a crescendo of moaning from the Academic Institutions. There has been no new Sociological theory since Mills (1956), and no new Economic Theory since Keynes (1932). Most of the new stuff in the journals is mostly off shoots of older theory.

The creation of new theory however can be double-edged sword.

Good theories are theories because they’ve stood the test of time with empirical evidence. They present a framework in how to think about things that can be taken as a given. For example, Max Weber came up with the original theory behind socioeconomic status. It’s a given because we all know (empirically) that education, occupation and income determine a person’s “life chances.” That theory is about 100 years old, and has stood the test of time.

However, social institutions (such as the economy) are social institutions because social institutions change over time, at least theoretically. It stands to reason that as social institutions change over time, so should the theories about social institutions. The economy of 1848 is not the same as the economy of 2015. Yet in both economics and sociology, there has been little new theory on the institution of the economy since then (with the exception of Thorstein Veblen in 1904). Creating new theory however, means that it cannot really be proven wrong or right until some time goes by.

I do not believe that the lack of passed time should stop us from trying to create new theory, or even to critique old ones. We have to stop being afraid of being wrong. Progress has rarely meant getting it right the first time (just ask Herbert Spencer). Of course, some have gotten it right the first time (just ask John Maynard Keynes).

After 9/11 there was a new wave of sociological theory called the “Sociology of Emotions.” It was heralded by many as a grand new theory of how people’s shared emotional experiences intersect with social institutions. I found it an interesting take on the Sociological Imagination. However, I also found that the grand new theory was basically just a pasting together of Durkheim’s theory of Collective Effervescence and Weber’s Social Action Theory; both of which are over 100 years old. It was a creative method of theory building for modern times though.

A better example is perhaps this: after the 2007 global economic collapse, a number of social movements arouse in response that tested sociological theory about social movements, with a lot of institutional economic implications. Yet there was next to no academic studies of these movements. Not only was previous theory on social movements not critiqued, but no new theory to try and explain what was happening in the Occupy movements was even attempted. It was a lost opportunity to create new theory with on-the-scene empirics. I did some theory building/critiquing work on the Occupy movements, which proved interesting to colleagues, but I didn’t have access to real-time empirics back then.

In economics, there’s been a lot more naval gazing, mostly because the discipline of economics has had an identity crisis since about 1848. Everyone else on the planet sees economics as a social science, while economics has fought long and hard to be a natural science on par with biology, physics and chemistry. This schism started with Jevons and Walras’ rebuke to Karl Marx. Marx saw the economy as a social process, while the French economists, not liking Marx because he was “Pinko Communist” used mathematics to explain economic activity among humans. The problem with using mathematics to explain human activity is obvious; humans are unpredictable, especially in social groups. Since then, with notably rare exception, economic theory has largely been about ideology than science (natural or social), with the establishment of “axioms;” assumptions that do not have to be proven. This divides economists into many camps and usually against each other – from the neoclassical, to the post Keynesians, to the Institutional Economists, with the Heterodox (social) Economists being the redheaded stepchildren.

Economics needs to unite in order to throw off their own chains if they want new theory.

Unlike Economics, most Sociologists largely are not pitted against each other over methodology or theory. There’s just a fragmentation of sub-specialties, with a generalized fear of ever re-framing the “founding fathers” of theory. If one does re-frame the founding fathers of theory, then it has to be presented as “new” theory in order not to get labeled as a heretic (social forces, anyone?).

In either discipline, it seems that regardless of the motivators for not coming up with new theory, it is clear that theorists are largely trapped within “iron cages” of their own fields and their own thinking. If social institutions and economies change over time, I can find no philosophical reason why theory shouldn’t change as well. Zeitgeist comes to mind.

As C. Wright Mills pointed out however, all social sciences are still social sciences, and have a lot of overlap. At the end of the day, economics and sociology may be apples and oranges, but we are all still just fruit.

This entry was posted in Economic Theory, Economics, Sociological Theory, Sociology. Bookmark the permalink.

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