Before theory comes theorizing or how to make social science more interesting

Br J Sociol. 2016 Mar;67(1):5-22. doi: 10.1111/1468-4446.12184. Epub 2016 Feb 22.


The basic argument in this article is that sociology and social science more generally are today severely hampered by the lack of attention being paid to theory. Methods--qualitative as well as quantitative methods--have proven to be very useful in practical research (as opposed to theory); and as a result they dominate modern social science. They do not, however, do the job that belongs to theory. One way to redress the current imbalance between methods and theory, it is suggested, would be to pay more attention to theorizing, that is, to the actual process that precedes the final formulation of a theory; and in this way improve theory. Students of social science are today primarily exposed to finished theories and are not aware of the process that goes into the production and design of a theory. Students need to be taught how to construct a theory in practical terms ('theorizing'); and one good way to do so is through exercises. This is the way that methods are being taught by tradition; and it helps the students to get a hands-on knowledge, as opposed to just a reading knowledge of what a theory is all about. Students more generally need to learn how to construct a theory while drawing on empirical material. The article contains a suggestion for the steps that need to be taken when you theorize. Being trained in what sociology and social science are all about--an important precondition!--students may proceed as follows. You start out by observing, in an attempt to get a good empirical grip on the topic before any theory is introduced. Once this has been done, it may be time to name the phenomenon; and either turn the name into a concept as the next step or bring in some existing concepts in an attempt to get a handle on the topic. At this stage one can also try to make use of analogies, metaphors and perhaps a typology, in an attempt to both give body to the theory and to invest it with some process. The last element in theorizing is to come up with an explanation; and at this point it may be helpful to draw on some ideas by Charles Peirce, especially his notion of abduction. Before having been properly tested against empirical material, according to the rules of the scientific community, the theory should be considered unproven. Students who are interested in learning more about theorizing may want to consult the works of such people as Everett C. Hughes, C. Wright Mills, Ludwig Wittgenstein and James G. March. Many of the issues that are central to theorizing are today also being studied in cognitive science; and for those who are interested in pursuing this type of literature, handbooks represent a good starting point. The article ends by arguing that more theorizing will not only redress the balance between theory and methods; it will also make sociology and social science more interesting.

Keywords: Theory; analogy; explanation; metaphor; process; theorizing.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Research
  • Social Sciences* / methods
  • Social Theory*
  • Sociology / methods