Access to the full content is only available to members of institutions that have purchased access. If you belong to such an institution, please log in or find out more about how to order.



Sociology, theories of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-R034-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 27, 2021, from

Article Summary

Throughout the history of sociology, three types of theorizing have co-existed, sometimes uneasily. ‘Theories of’ provide abstract models of empirical processes; they function both as guides for sociological research and as sources for covering laws whose falsification or validation is intended to provide the basis for a cumulative science. ‘Presuppositional studies’ abstract away from particular empirical processes, seeking instead to articulate the fundamental properties of social action and order; meta-methodological warrants for the scientific investigation of societies; and normative foundations for moral evaluations of contemporary social life. ‘Hermeneutical theory’ addresses these basic sociological questions more indirectly, by interpreting the meanings and intentions of classical texts.

The relation between these three forms of theorizing varies historically. In the post-war period, under the institutional and intellectual influence of US sociologists like Parsons and Merton, presuppositional and hermeneutical issues seemed to be settled; ‘theories of’ proliferated and prospects seemed bright for a cumulative, theoretically-organized science of society. Subsequent social and intellectual developments undermined this brief period of relative consensus. In the midst of the crises of the 1960s and 1970s, presuppositional and hermeneutical studies gained much greater importance, and became increasingly disarticulated from empirical ‘theories of’. Confronting the prospect of growing fragmentation, in the late 1970s and early 1980s there appeared a series of ambitious, synthetical works that sought to reground the discipline by providing coherent examples of how the different forms of sociological theory could once again be intertwined. While widely read inside and outside the discipline, these efforts failed in their foundational ambitions.

As a result of this failure, over the last decade sociological theory has had diminishing influence both inside the discipline and without. Inside social science, economic and anthropological theories have been much more influential. In the broader intellectual arena, the most important presuppositional and hermeneutical debates have occurred in philosophy and literary studies. Sociological theorists are now participating in these extra-disciplinary debates even as they have returned to the task of developing ‘theories of’ particular institutional domains. The future of specifically sociological theory depends on reviving coherent relationships between these different theoretical domains.

Citing this article:
Alexander, Jeffrey C.. Sociology, theories of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-R034-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

Related Searches