on February 4, 2010
The mark of arrival of a mature field is its possession of a core theoretical structure, agreed upon by all researchers in the field as a starting point for creative experimentation and theory building. Of course, infrequently but virtually inevitably, some parts of the core theory are discredited because of their inability to explain a novel phenomenon, or their incorrect predictions. In a mature field, it does not take long for a single, uniformly accepted, superior explanation, one that can do all the older core theory could do an more, to displace the discredited theory.
I am certain that I will be attacked as an antediluvium heretic for affirming the previous paragraph in the face of several decades of the postmodernist critique of science. Yes, I have a deep appreciation for Thomas Kuhn's paradigm concept and Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, but the relativist interpretations of these great thinkers are just drivel. I knew Kuhn personally, and heard him lament many times the nefarious and incorrect use to which his Nature of Scientific Revolutions was put by the radical relativists. I am sure Wittgenstein would be equally shocked at the application to his ideas by David Bloor and the "social construction of knowledge" crew or the Critical Theorists.
If you want to really understand the scientific method read about Imre Lakatos (one of my intellectual and political heroes---he changed his name to that of a famous Hungarian general who stood up to the Nazi deportation of the Jews when they controlled his native country), whose theory of "research programs" is a creative synthesis of Kuhn, Popper, Duhem, and Marx.
I offer this exegesis on a matter seemingly tangential to an undergraduate reader in sociological theory to stress the point that there is no core sociological theory. One learns sociology the way one learns philosophy or art, by learning to appreciate a parade of superstars, each of whom is careful to differentiate his product from all of the others (unless they are long-dead, and hence no real threat to intellectual or artistic supremacy). One learns sociology normally by reading the works of Weber, Durkheim, Pareto, Simmel, Parsons, Marx, Mead, Hobbes, Goffman, and so on. Sociologists do not agree on what any two of these thinkers have in common, much less all of them. In a realistic understanding that sociologists will not teach from this book unless it remained faithful to the pluralistic disarray of the field, yet yearning for a scientific approach to the study of society, the authors decided to organize their material not around the Great Masters, but rather the Great Ideas of sociology. This book is called "Theories..." rather than "Theorists" for this reason, and "Theories..." rather than "Theory..." because they do not want to single out one set of ideas as superior to another set, or even to suggest that there might be "One True Theory" of which the fragments presented in this book are simply important aspects.
The authors organize their material around "five solutions to the problem of social order" (p. 340). These are individuals, hierarchies, markets, groups, and networks. I doubt that the authors really believe that these are alternative solutions, as opposed to aspects of a unified explanation of social, but presenting the material in this way with no attempt to show the links among the five probably speaks to the horror prospective teachers might have in using a book that undermined the "creative diversity" of sociological thought.
In their introductions to above five topics, the authors in fact do take certain stands that favor some approaches to social theory over others, although they do not dwell on this point. For instance, in dealing with the relationship between social structure and individual behavior, they suggest that macro structure --------> individual internal states -------> individual action ------> macro outcome, although they do add a direct link macro-structure ------>macro outcome. Now, even including individual-level variables is hostile to many theories of social order, as is suggesting that there is any value in mediating the link between macro structure and macro outcome by the constitution and behavior of individuals. Many structurally- and systems-oriented brands of social theory have no use for human psychology and choice behavior, and treat individuals as simply "bearers" of their social relations and who, when the proper time comes, carry out the demands of the macro system automatically, much as the molecules in your teapot react to being heated by obligingly increasing their mean velocity. By contrast, other approaches to social theory would not permit a direct link between macro structure and macro outcome at all (I personally favor such theories).
Despite the profession of irreducible heterodoxy in sociological theory, there is in fact a virtually uniform belief in all sociological variants (I know of no exception among the great sociologists) that rational behavior is the antithesis of moral behavior, of emotional behavior, and of habitual behavior. Here is how Hechter and Horne put it: "In existing theories, the most common behavioral assumption is rational egoism. ...At the same time, we know that everyone is not rational all of the time. Individuals might also be acting according to values, emotion, habit, or some other motivation." (p. 21) This treatment of human motivation, which I consider completely incorrect, goes back at least to Pareto (not excerpted in this book), but is well expressed by Weber, whose treatment from Economy and Society is the first entry in the book under "individuals." [Disclosure ethics bids that I reveal that the second entry is that of Ernst Fehr and myself.] "Social action," says Weber, "can be oriented in four ways." The first of these he calls "instrumentally rational" (zweckrational in German), and takes the form of choosing means that are most effective in achieving one's ends. The second is "value rational" (Wertrational in German), which he characterizes as "determined by a conscious belief in the value for its own sake of some ethical, aesthetic, religious , or other form of behavior, independently of its prospects of success." The third is "affectual (especially emotional), that is, determined by the actor's specific affects and feeling states." Finally, the fourth is "traditional, that is, determined by ingrained habitualism." This widely accepted description of motive heterogeneity, despite its long-standing acceptance in sociology is just wrong, and accounts, in my estimation, for the inability of sociology to develop a core theory. I will devote the rest of this review to this important point.
Rational behavior can be deeply ethical and moral. General Lakatos defied the German directive to round up the Hungarian Jews for deportation because this behavior violated his ethical principles, yet his renown stems from his instrumental capacity to organize an effective military force against German occupation. Rational behavior can also be deeply value-oriented, as when we keep our promises in market and other contractual exchanges. Honesty and trustworthiness are not simply constraints on behavior, and surely are not followed irrespective of its costs or "independently of its prospects of success," as Weber would have it. If the cost of being honest increases, individuals will be increasingly tempted to be dishonest, and if the costs are high enough, almost all individuals will be dishonest (e.g., when the Nazis kidnapped Lakatos' son and promised to release him only if Lakatos surrendered his military position, Lakatos abandoned his struggle against the Germans). Moreover, the idea that rational and ethical behavior must be non-emotional is a Kantian-like distortion of human nature. Read, for instance, Antonio Damasio's Descartes' Error and references therein, or Jesse Prinz on the emotional basis of morality. Finally, traditional behavior consists of a set of values and beliefs about the nature of society and the natural world that is routinely overturned when these values and beliefs are successfully challenged or ineffectual.
One can unify all of Weber's categories in a broad but cogent version of the rational actor model in which individuals have material and moral goals determined by the actor's physiology, tastes, and moral constitution. The resulting preference ordering of the individual is consistent and hence can be represented by a "utility function," the maximization of which accurately describes individual choice (the individual of course does not consciously maximize anything, any more than an optimally foraging ant is consciously maximizing). It seems clear to me that this version of the rational actor model can serve as a part of core sociological theory. Of course, this model is considerably oversimplified, and must be carefully expanded to deal with any but the simplest situations.
For instance, most expositions of the rational actor model assume that the individual makes choices based upon his beliefs (so-called subjective priors), but in fact in complex situations where beliefs are fallible and it is costly or impossible to get sufficient information for accurate decision-making, the individual will generally consult others, or refer to a reservoir of social wisdom (tradition?). Thus beliefs are not really defined at the individual, but rather at the group level, and the dynamics of belief formation and change follow the macro to micro back to macro structural paradigm. For an exposition of this point of view, see my book, The Bounds of Reason (Princeton 2009).