The importance of theory

The educational focus: sociological imagination

    The education of sociologists has four targets: (a) teaching the language of the discipline, a set of concepts with which social reality is grasped, (b) developing a particular vision, a perspective from which social reality is approached, (c) training in the methods, procedures and techniques of empirical inquiry, (d) providing information about main facts and data concerning contemporary social life. Let us put points (a) and (b) - language and perspective - under one label "sociological imagination", borrowed from a classical book by C.Wright Mills (1959). As he defines the notion: "The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relation between the two within society" (Mills 1959: 3). Let us elaborate the full meaning of this statement, and extend the concept beyond Mills' insight.
    I understand by sociological imagination the complex skill, or capacity made of five components: (a) to see all social phenomena as produced by some social agents, individual or collective, and to identify those agents, (b) to understand deep, hidden, structural and cultural resources and constraints which influence social life, including the chances for agential efforts (As Mirra Komarovsky puts it: "It takes patient training of the sociological sight to enable the students to perceive the invisible social structure (Komarovsky 1951), (c) to recognize the cumulative burden of tradition, the persisting legacies of the past and their continuing influence on the present, (d) to perceive social life in its incessant, dynamic, fluid process of becoming (Sztompka 1991), (e) to recognize the tremendous variety and diversity of the forms in which social life may appear (As Everett Hughes defines one of the main goals of sociological education: "The emancipation through expansion of one's world by penetration into and comparison with the world of other people and other cultures is not the only aspect of sociological imagination (...). But it is one great part of it, as it is of human life itself" (Hughes 1970: 16).
    To put it in other way: sociological imagination is the ability to relate anything that happens in a society to a structural, cultural and historical context and to the individual and collective actions of societal members, recognizing the resulting variety and diversity of social arrangements.
    C.W.Mills gives an example: "One result of reading sociology ought to be to learn how to read a newspaper. To make a sense of a newspaper - which is a very complicated thing - one must learn how to connect events reported, how to understand them by relating them to more general conceptions of the societies of which they are tokens, and the trends of which they are a part. (...) My point is: sociology, for one thing, is a way of going beyond what we read in the newspaper. It provides a set of conceptions and questions which help us to do this. If it does not, then it has failed as part of liberal education" (Mills 1960: 16-17). Teaching sociology cannot be limited to "sociology in books", it must go beyond that toward "sociology in life" allowing deeper interpretation, better understanding of everything that surrounds us. As another classical author Robert Park emphasized: "When there is no attempt to integrate the things learned in the schoolroom with the experience and problems of actual life, learning tends to become mere pedantry - pedantry which exhibits itself in a lack of sound judgment and in a lack of that kind of practical understanding we call common sense" (Park 1950: 58). Mirra Komarovsky makes the same point: "There is no greater educational danger than this: that the students learn the sociological concepts on a purely formal verbal level without the richness and fullness of meaning; that this body of words remains a sterile segment of mentality, relatively unrelated to the confused stream of life which it sought to interpret" (Komarovsky 1945).
    I consider the training of sociological imagination and the skill to apply it to concrete problems of social life, as absolutely crucial for the education of sociologists, both those who think about academic careers, and those who go to practice-oriented professions.

Sociological imagination and theoretical resources

    To a great extent training sociological imagination is synonymous with training in sociological theory. But not in the sense of memorizing names and schools, definitions and arguments. Rather in the sense of using theory, i.e. referring it to concrete experience, looking at current problems, surrounding society, its dilemmas and opportunties, and also our personal biographies and life-chances, with the help of theory. Sociological imagination should provide a map, better orientation in the chaos of events, changes, transformations. It should give us deeper understanding, more thorough enlightenment, and in this way better opportunities for informed, rational life and sound social practice. In this paper I will review the resources for such indispensable theoretical training that we possess in the sociological tradition, as well as in the recent social theory.
    One huge pool of theoretical ideas is to be found in the history of the discipline, from the early nineteenth century onwards. Teaching history of sociology is not an antiquarian pastime. The tradition of our discipline is still extremely vital. Most of the concepts, models, issues, queries that we study today, have been inherited from the nineteenth century masters. They have put very solid foundations under a sociological enterprise, and their work is still very much alive. They should be studied not in the strictly historical fashion, in the context of their time, or the authors' buiographies, but in the context of our time, as their seminal ideas throw light on our present realities. Of course they must be studied critically and selectively, because not all have left equally relevant heritage. My personal selection includes of course the "big three": Karl Marx, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim - the true undisputed giants of sociology, but also Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, Georg Simmel, Ferdinand Tonnies, Vilfredo Pareto, Alexis deTocqueville, Charles Cooley, William Sumner and George H.Mead. Reading and rereading them is crucially important for discovering new insights and questions, formulating sociological problems, confronting them in a sort of dialogue with our own ideas, and perhaps most importantly finding good models for intellectual work. As Robert Merton puts it: "Exposure to such penetrating sociological minds as those of Durkheim and Weber helps us to form standards of taste and judgment in identifying a good sociological problem - one that has significant implications for theory - and to learn what constitutes an apt theoretical solution to the problem. The classics are what Salvemini liked to call 'libri fecondatori' - books that sharpen the faculties of exacting readers who give them their undivided attention" (in Sztompka 1996: 31-32). There is one additional benefit: the student learns that the social world is multidimensional, extremely complex and therefore requires many approaches to understand it. Studying history of sociological theories is a great lesson in theoretical pluralism, tolerance for variety and diversity of perspectives, and the best medicine against narrow-minded dogmatism and orthodoxy.
    But let us leave sociological tradition, as my main focus today is the current sociological theory and its relevance for teaching. I will argue that we have four types of theory and theorizing in contemporary sociology, and that they have unequal importance for educational purposes, for training sociological imagination. In the order of diminishing importance, I will discuss: (a) explanatory theory, (b) heuristic theory, (c) analytic theory and (d) exegetic theory.

Theoretical boom

    In general, the last decade of the XX century is a good time for sociological theory. Only half a century ago, in the middle of the XX century there was a lot of talk about the crisis of sociological theory (e.g. Gouldner ). Now the situation has changed. Many observers would share a claim of a British sociologist Gerard Delanty: "Social theory is in a position of great strength at the moment" (EJST/1). To support this claim let us first look at some institutional or organizational facts. The Research Committee on Theory (RC 16) of ISA, which I founded together with Jeffrey Alexander in 1986 has grown to become one of the biggest among more than fifty committees of the Association. In American Sociological Association the theory section is the biggest of all. In the last decades of the century a bunch of theoretical journals has dramatically increased circulation and new titles appeared: "Theory, Culture & Society", "European Journal of Social Theory", "Theory" (published by ASA), "Theory and Society". A new "Journal of Classical Sociology" is being launched by Sage under the editorship of Brian Turner. A number of major compendia of theoretical knowledge have come out: Polity reader in social theory (1994), Blackwell companions: "to Social Theory" (1996), "to Major Social Theorists" (2000), "Handbook of Social Theory" at Sage (2000). There are new monographs taking stock of current theory: Patrick Baert's "Social Theory in the XX Century" (1998), John Scott's, "Sociological Theory: Contemporary Debates" (1995). Major publishers - Polity Press, Cambridge University Press, Sage, put out rich lists of theoretical work, both classical and recent, including important book series: e.g. "Cambridge Cultural Social Studies" (edited by J.Alexander and Seidman). All around the world there are theoretical conferences, focusing on theoretical issues. As a sample, just two recent ones in which I have participated myself: "Reappraising theories of social change" at Montreal 2000, or "New sources of critical theory" at Cambridge 2000. It is also very characteristic that a theory returned to its craddle, to Europe, after a long detour to North America (Nedelman and Sztompka 1993). It is Britain, France and Germany which currently provide the most fertile grounds for theoretical work. As Neil Smelser admits: "In fact, in the past 50 years, the center of gravity of general theoretical thinking has shifted from the United States to Europe, and this shift is represented in the works of scholars like Alain Tourine, Pierre Bourdieu, Jurgen Habermas, Niklas Luhmann, and Anthony Giddens. Much of current theoretical thinking in the US stems from the influence of these figures on faculty and graduate students" (Smelser 1990: 47-48). From European side this is echoed by Brian Turner who predicts: "European social theory may once more emerge to evolve to a new form of domination in the world development of social theory" (in: "The Tasks..." 1998).

Explanatory theory

    How these facts and tendencies can be interpreted? Sticking to the old, traditional opposition of "theory versus research", or "theoretical versus empirical sociology" (as exemplified by Parsons-Merton debate in 1947 at the annual convention of ASA, see: Merton 1948), one could think that the ascent of theory signifies the escape from research toward scholasticism and the realm of pure ideas, avoiding real social problems and concrete social facts, abandoning of empirical research. Nothing could be further from the truth. Exactly the reverse is the case. The impressive career of theory is due to the fact that it won its way into all domains of empirical sociology, has found its place in all sociological specialisms, has finally become accepted as a valid and necessary component of sociological research. The separation of theory and research is no longer feasible. Instead we witness proliferation of theories dealing with various substantive social problems and issues.
    The theorists and researchers meet half-way. Many theorists are no longer pursuing purely abstract ideas, but turn toward real problems: globalization, identity, risk, trust, civil society, democracy, new forms of labor, social exclusion, cultural traumas etc. Empirical researchers are no longer confined to fact finding and data gathering but propose models, generalizations of their domains informed by accumulated research: theories of deviance, collective behavior, social movements, ethnicity, mass media, social capital, post-materialist values etc. For example, a just published "Handbook of Sociology" by S.Quah and A.Sales, (2000), intended as the summary of state of the art in various sociological sub-disciplines - in each chapter includes in fact considerable amount of theory. As a result theory is coming closer to addressing real "social problems", as opposed to esoteric "sociological problems", i.e. problems experienced by common people, and not only professional sociologists. It provides explanations of pressing social issues (generating hypotheses, more or less directly testable). And may influence wider audiences, common people, providing them guidelines for thinking, maps of specific domains of their social "life-world".
    This first type of theory may be labeled "EXPLANATORY THEORY". It represents, what Bryan Turner calls "strong program" for theory (1996: 6). Let us ask three indicative questions - theory of what, for what, and for whom? - to this kind of theory. Of what? Of real social problems: why more crime, why new social movements, why poverty, why ethnic revival? For Merton, Bourdieu, Turner theory should grow out from research and be directed toward research. "For theoretical contributions to be worthwhile, they need to be question-driven" (Baert 1998). "Social theory thrives and survives best when it is engaged with empirical research and public issues" (Turner 1996: 12). For what? For providing explanations, or at least models allowing better organization of dispersed facts and phenomena, interpretration of multiple and varied events and phenomena. For whom? Not only for fellow theorists, but for common people, to provide them with orientation, enlightenment, understanding of their condition. An important role of theories is to "inform democratic public discourse" (Calhoun 1996: 429). This role will become even more pronounced as more societies become democratic, and in a "knowledge society" of the future, of informed, educated citizens who care about social, public issues where democracy will take a form of "discoursive democracy" (Dryzek 1990).
    Let us phrase a hypothesis in the framework of the "sociology of knowledge": the roots of such a career of explanatory theory are to be found in a rapid, radical, overwhelming social change. We are experiencing the next "great transition" (to paraphrase Polanyi). Theories are particularly needed, demanded in times of change. There is a pressure on sociologists, by the common people, but also politicians who need orientation in the chaos. They all want to know where we have come from, where we are and where we are going. No facts and data can answer such questions. The vision, map can be provided only by generalized explanatory models. "Nothing presses this theoretical venture on us more firmly than the experience of historical change and cross-cultural diversity" (Calhoun 1996: 431).
    Teaching explanatory theories is for me the most important goal of sociological education, and particularly so in the periods of overwhelming social change. This kind of theory provides the strongest stimulus for developing sociological imagination, as it links theorizing with concrete experience.

Heuristic theory

    Let us move to a second kind of theory: theoretical orientations, or what I would call a "HEURISTIC THEORY" (not directly testable, but more or less fuitful, generating relevant concepts, images, models). It is closest to social philosophy, and particularly the ontology or metaphysics of the social world, as it attempts to answer three perennial ontological questions about the constitution of social reality: (a) what are the bases of social order?, (b) what is the nature of human action?, (c) what is the mechanism and course of social change? Such questions were addressed by all classical founders of sociology. Good examples of the classical orientations dominating in the middle of the century and attempting to handle such issues were structural- functionalism, symbolic interactionnism, exchange theory, Marxism. Since that time several new trends have emerged, which will be discussed later.
    What are the characteristics of this kind of theory. Again, let us ask our three questions. Theory of what? Of the foundations of social reality. It poses questions not of "why" type but of "how" type: how is social order possible, (how the social wholes exist, how people live together, cooperate, cohabit?), how social action is carried out, how social change proceeds? Theory for what? To provide the conceptual framework for more concrete explanatory theoretical work, to sensitize to specific types of variables, to suggest strong categories to grasp the varied and dispersed facts. Theory for whom? Mostly for researchers building explanatory models of specific domains of reality, answering concrete problems.
    The formidable career of such heuristic theories at the end of the century cannot be explained by reference to social facts, but rather to intellectual developments. It must be approached not with the tools of the sociology of knowledge but rather history of ideas. It seems due to new, contingent intellectual developments; new trends, attractive, innovative, original perspectives. There is an excitement of a "paradigmatic shift" (Kuhn ), in fact three parallel paradigmatic shifts that we witness in recent theory. The first shift is from the fixed organic systems to fluid fields of social forces. In other words, from "first" to "second" sociology (Dawe 1978). Social order is seen as emerging, constructed, constant achievement of agents, produced and reproduced by human action. Examples of such perspective are to be found in the work of Berger and Luckmann, Elias, Giddens, Bourdieu. The second shift is from the image of evolution or social development to social becoming. There is the emphasis on open ended historical scenarioes, moved by decisions, choices, but also contingent, random occurrences. This is best represented by "historical sociology" - authors like Tilly, Archer, Skockpol, myself (Sztompka 1991, 1993). The third shift is from the image of 'homo economicus' (calculating, rational, purposeful actor), still represented by "rational choice theory" (e.g.Coleman, Elster), and from 'homo sociologicus' (normatively directed role player) still represented by "neo-functionalism" (J. Alexander, N.Luhmann, R.Munch), to 'homo cogitans'(knowledgeable and meaningful actor informed and constrained by collective symbolic systems of knowledge and belief). This tendency is often called interpretative turn, cultural turn, linguistic turn. "Contemporary social theory has done an about-face in analytical terms by giving prominence and priority to cultural phenomena and cultural relations" (Turner ). It has many varieties. In one, which somebody has called mentalism, there is the stress on the invariant components of human minds. Examples would include structuralism of Levi-Strauss or DeSaussure, and phenomenology of Schutz. The second kind is what some authors call textualism is represented by poststructuralism, or theory of discourses by Foucault, where social reality appears as a form of text with specific semantic meaning and its own rules of grammar. The third is sometimes labelled intersubjectivism, with a great contribution by Habermas in his theory of communicative action. Finally there is the reaction against "overintellectualized image of man" - thinking, knowledgeable, yes, but not only discursively. The emphasis shifts to practical knowledge (Giddens), ethno-methods (Garfinkel), but also body as an instrument of action (Turner), emotions as accompanying actions, things one uses, objects encountered, environment providing context for action. Individuals appear as carriers of routinized, typical complex sets of practices (Bourdieu).
    Thus we have presently a rich and varied menu of heuristic orientations. Teaching them should sensitize a student to the necessity of using many of them, looking at society from various perspectives, approaching it from various sides, if the full understanding of social life is to be attained.

Analytic theory

    The third and still different kind of theory may be called "ANALYTIC THEORY". What it does is generalizing and clarifying concepts, providing typologies and classifications, explications and definitions applicable in explanatory theory. It has important, but subsidiary, instrumental use. It should not degenerate into eternal polishing of tools but never going for a kill, or into legislating closed, binding systems of concepts. The attempts to construct close conceptual systems, special languages comprising the whole domain of sociology, seem to have ended with Niklas Luhmann (earlier only Talcott Parsons had similar ambitions). But at the more limited level the effort is highly useful, needed and comes closest to what Merton was labelling as "middle range theory" (in Sztompka 1996: 41-50): empirically informed conceptual schemes, applicable to concrete empirical problems (e.g. his m-r theories of roles and role-sets, of reference groups, of stratification, mobility, of anomie, deviance etc.).
    What is the nature of such a theory? Of what? Of rich concepts useful for grasping phenomena. For what? For identifying, unraveling, explicating, phenomena, or important dimensions of phenomena. For whom? For sociologists providing them with canonical vocabulary, technical language to deal with their subject matter, superior to fuzzy vernacular and common sense. Teaching analytic theory is crucial for developing student's ability to think and talk sociologically. It provides the student with basic tools of the trade. The focus in introductory courses of sociology should rest precisely on this kind of theory.

Exegetic theory

    Finally there is the fourth kind of theory. It may be called "EXEGETIC THEORY". It comes down to the analysis, exegesis, systematization, reconstruction, critique of existing theories. It is of course valid as a preparation for theoretical work. It should be treated as a stage in scientific career, a period of apprenticeship. Most major theorists have gone through that: Parsons with "The Structure of Social Action" (1937), Giddens with "Capitalism and Modern Social Theory" (1971), Alexander with famous four volumes of "Theoretical Logic in Sociology" (1982), Smelser with his "Explanation and Social Theory" (1968). I would include my "Sociological Dilemmas" (1979) in this category. But it is a displacement of goals if it becomes the main concern, the endless dissecting and analyzing the work of fashionable authors: what a certain scholar did say, how he could supposedly say it better, what he could have said but did't, is he consistent, what he really means and doesn't mean? The more esoteric, incomprehensible, unclear, muddled a theory, the better chances it gives for exegetic debates. It inspires frantic search "in a dark room, for a dark dog, which is not there". This is the secret of some current theories (e.g. the whole school of "postmodernism") and their popularity among interpreters. If a theory is straightforward, problem-oriented, precise and clear, there is not much to interpret and criticize.
    Our three questions are very revealing in this case. Theory of what? Of other theories, certain books, texts, phantoms of sociological imagination, resulting in self-referential exercises. Theory for what? For apologies or destructions of proposed theories: which easily implies factionalism, dogmatism, orthodoxy of schools, sects, fans, and degenerates from the "free market of ideas" into a vicious "battlefield of ideas". Theory for whom? For other theorists who play intellectual games within the sects of the initiated. In my view such theories are least consequential, often futile, irrelevant. They often deteriorate into epigonism. This opinion is encountered among several theorists. "Social theory is at once the most futile and the most vital of intellectual enterprises. It is futile when it turns inward, closes into itself, degenerates into a desiccated war of concepts or an invidious celebration of the cognitrive exploits of this author, that school, my tradition, your orthodoxy" (Wacquant, in "The Tasks...", 1998), "It is necessary to let fresh air into the often closed compounds of indoor theorizing. Social theory is not only conceptualizations and discourse on other theoretician's concepts". (Therborn in ibid.), "Without commitment to a public role, sociological theory will become an internal leisure pursuit of academics providing merely decorative consequences for academic careers" (Turner in ibid.). "Without these political and public commitments, social theory is in danger of becoming an esoteric, elitist, and eccentric interest of marginal academics" (Turner 1996: 13). "Quite a number of scholars seem to assume that theoretical progress depends solely on close scrutiny and recycling of preceding social theories. (...) This strategy is unlikely to provide innovative and penetrating social knowledge" (Baert 1998: 203).
    Needless to add, I would not recommend this kind of exegetic theories for the sociology students. If at all, their place in the curriculum should be only marginal, perhaps limited to graduate, or post-graduate levels, as a kind of mental exercise in reading and debunking of esoteric texts.


    To conclude, it has been argued that the most important, fruitful and promising types of theory, crucial for sociological imagination, are the explanatory and heuristic theories. Analytic theories have subsidiary role in sharpening conceptual tools and prividing the language for sociological thinking. Exegetic theories are useful at most in preparing the background for theorizing, developing critical skills, but do not contribute to theory proper, and should not replace other forms of theorizing.
    The explanatory and heuristic theories make up a pluralistic mosaic of theoretical explanations and theoretical orientations. How to deal with this considerable fragmentation of the theoretical field. For explanatory, practically relevant theory, addressed to the people and not only to fellow theorists, a good advice is the attitude of "disciplined eclecticism" (Merton 1976: 169). This should be imparted on sociology students. "Disciplined" - means critical approach, appraising theories on their internal merits, coherence, persuasiveness, fruitfulness for generating hypotheses. "Eclecticism" - means open, inclusive, tolerant attitude, free from one-sided dogmatism. Some recent authors seem to support this strategy: "It is generally not possible to ask all the interesting questions about any really significant phenomenon within the same theory or even within a set of commensurable, logically integratable, theories" (Calhoun 1996: 435). "It is possible to gain cumulative knowledge about the world from within different and competing points of view" (Alexander 1988: 79). Disciplined eclecticism allows to cross inter-theoretical borders, but also inter-disciplinary borders, back toward "social theory" as practiced by the classics, rather than only narrowly defined "sociological theory". The Report of the Gulbenkian Foundation ("Open the Social Sciences" ed. by I.Wallerstein) shows how by intellectual necessity sociology should link with psychology, economics, anthropology, cognitive sciences, political science, and how important it is to abandon some pernicious interdisciplinary divisions which emerged in the nineteenth century and have proved very resilient (Wallerstein 1988). The same message is forcefully articulated by Mattei Dogan: "The networks of cross-disciplinary influences are such that they are obliterating the old classification of the social sciences. The trend that we perceie today is from the old formal disciplines to new hybrid social sciences" (Dogan 1997: 442). The teaching of sociological theory should emphasize inter-theoretical and inter-disciplinary links rather than traditional divisions. This is perhaps the biggest challenge facing sociological education today.


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Note about the author

    Piotr Sztompka is a Professor of Theoretical Sociology at the Jagiellonian University at Krakow (Poland). He has been a regular Visiting Professor at Columbia University (1974-1979), and University of California at Los Angeles (1986-1996), as well as other universities in Europe, Australia and Latin America. He has been a Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study at Uppsala, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. He is a member of the Polish Academy of Science, Academia Europaea (London) and American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Cambridge, Mass.). Received "New Europe Prize" in 1995, and in 1998 was elected a Vice-President of International Sociological Association (ISA). Among his books are: System and Function, New York, Academic Press 1974; Sociological Dilemmas, New York, Academic Press 1979; Robet Merton: An Intellectual Profile, London, Macmillan 1986; Society in Action: The Theory of Social Becoming, Cambridge, Polity Press 1991, The Sociology of Social Change, Oxford, Blackwell 1993; Agency and Structure, New York, Gordon Breach 1994; Robert K. Merton on Social Structure and Science (ed.), Chicago 1996: Chicago University Press, and Trust: A Sociological Theory, Cambridge 1999: Cambridge University Press.

Address: Institute of Sociology
Jagiellonian University
Grodzka 52, 31-044 Krakow, Poland
tel: +48-12-4116769
E-mail: ussztomp@cyf-kr.edu.pl