Monday, March 25, 2013

Do grad students have to know social theory?

I am writing this on the bus between Ann Arbor and East Lansing, Michigan. I gave a lecture at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Michigan on Friday. This was a great experience. The lecture (the “Jeffrey Parsons Lecture”) is run by the archaeology grad students - they are the ones who invited me, and my schedule was set to maximize my interaction with students. Normally when one visits a program, one has individual meetings with the faculty, and then maybe a lunch with a bunch of students. Well, I had lunch with some faculty, but meetings and events all day with grad students (including breakfast and dinner, not to forget Friday afternoon beers, called “007” at Michigan for some reason I can’t recall).

This is a great group of students. They are smart and competent and each one I talked to is doing good research. And they are solid empirical scientists who don't have much use for high-level social theory. But several expressed a concern about whether they would be expected to talk the social-theory talk when interviewing for jobs or otherwise interacting with outsiders. Has social theory so infected the discipline that everyone needs to deal with it (regardless of whether it helps their research or not)? That is an excellent question, one without a short, easy answer. So here are some thoughts on the question.

(1)  You Don't Need High-Level Social Theory

This is a scientific or scholarly statement, not one based on the sociology of the profession. I offer several claims, each of which requires consultation of published literature. That is, I will not spell out the intellectual argument in detail here; see the cited sources. Most of the empirical research in the social sciences proceeds just fine without consideration of high-level social theory. I support this claim in my urban theory paper (Smith 2011). Check out that paper, and read Robert K. Merton and some of the other sources. I am not just expressing my own opinion here; rather, this is the dominant epistemological view in the social sciences outside of anthropology and archaeology.

Here are some examples of empirical social science research that uses middle-range theory and has little or nothing to say about high-level social theory. All of these examples are relevant to archaeology. Or, I should clarify, they are relevant to the archaeological study of urbanism and state societies; there are probably equivalent works for archaeologists working on other issues. I am NOT talking about the idiosyncratic definition Lewis Binford gave the term “middle-range theory,” but about the standard social-science definition, explained at length in my urban theory paper. Try some of these works:

  •        (Sampson 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012)
  •         (Tilly 1992, 1998, 2001, 2005, 2008)
  •         (Gerring 2007, 2012; Gerring et al. 2011)

In case it is not clear, please note that I am using the phrase “social theory” to refer to high-level philosophical notions about the social world.  This is not theory about the nuts and bolts of how the social world works; the latter kind of theory is more often discussed in relation to causal mechanisms (see myprior posts on mechanisms, or see some of the sources in my urban theory paper). I am not saying that “theory” in general is not important, but rather that one particular kind of theory—popular in postmodern, poststructuralist, postcolonial, postprocessualist, and other post circles—is not important for empirical social science. If you haven’t read Abend, you should read his very important paper on the different meanings of the term “theory” in sociology (and, by extension, in anthropology and archaeology): (Abend 2008). You can see my post about Abend, but that is no excuse for not reading the original paper.

(2) But Social Theory is Important to Many Influential Archaeologists

This was one of the concerns of students at Michigan. Would they have to throw in some nominal social theory text to get their articles published, to get grants, and to get a job? My initial reaction is to answer in the negative. But one of the students told me of a young archaeologist working in his region who added a bunch of social-theory jargon at the start of an article just so that it would get accepted at a journal. (I know the paper in question, in fact it is sitting toward the bottom of my “to read” stack, and I have AVOIDED reading it because of the social theory, which seemed to me irrelevant to the basic paper.) I don’t know if the extraneous theory was necessary or not for the paper in question.

I found recently that archaeological proposals to Wenner-Gren that lack high-level social theory are less likely to get funded than those that include it. I don’t know the statistics, but my service on the W-G review panel for two years suggests that this is what students are being told by their advisors. Most complex-societies proposals I read had a bunch of high-level social theory that was not linked to the research design. I rated this as either a negative or a neutral attribute of proposals. That is, if the high-level theory substituted for middle-range theory, methods, and research design (such that the theory was unrelated to the research activities), I rated a proposal lower; if the high-level theory seemed to relate somehow to the research design and didn’t get in the way of the research, I did not rate the proposal lower.

Wenner-Gren nicely sent the reviews of those same proposals by other reviewers (all anonymous). I was shocked when proposals with fancy theory and highly deficient research design and analytical methods were praised (and rated highly) by some of the other reviewers. Similarly, proposals with a great topic and excellent research design but no social theory were rated down by those reviewers. I almost resigned from the committee. There were some outstanding proposals to Wenner-Gren that lacked gratuitous social theory and were not funded. It looks like you DO need to toss around gratuitous social theory to get an archaeology grant from Wenner-Gren (please note that I am NOT talking about any policies or regular practices at W-G; all I can claim is that the particular group of archaeological reviewers over a two-year period seemed to adhere to this perspective). So I wasn’t too surprised last week when one of the Michigan students told me that they all applied to NSF for dissertation support but rarely to W-G.

What about the job market? If a young professional were lucky enough to get a job interview at a place like the University of Chicago or Berkeley, they would certainly have to be able to talk the talk of high-level social theory. I interviewed at Chicago once, years ago, and this is probably one reason I didn’t get a job offer. But if you are interviewing at a mid-range department, there might be an archaeologist on staff who is into social theory. And if you are interviewing at a small anthropology department (or any size program, for that matter), you may very well have to deal with sociocultural anthropologists who might favor an archaeologist who is into such things. I recall hearing about a job search for an archaeologist where the sociocultural anthropologists almost hijacked the search by promoting a lower-ranked candidate over the top-ranked candidate of the search committee, just because the lower-ranked candidate was into social theory and could talk at length with the sociocultural types.

(3) So What is a Graduate Student to do?

Option 1: Ignore social theory, do your research, and accept the consequences. This is fully logical from a scientific standpoint, but dangerous from the point of view of the composition of the profession and its procedures and logistics. As a full professor I can afford to be cavalier about fads like social theory, but this is not a good choice for graduate students and new PhDs.

"Luke, join with me and together we will spread social theory across the galaxy!

Option 2: Read and learn about social theory. Maybe you will like it and be seduced to the dark side of the force (well, I hope not). Or maybe you will find some of it to be useful for your concerns. Or maybe it will seem interesting on a philosophical level, but irrelevant on a practical level (this is my view). Regardless of your views of the matter, it is probably a good idea to figure out exactly how social theory is useful or not useful for your specific research. Evaluate published works related to your research in their use of social theory. Be prepared to talk about the specific ways that you think social theory is or is not useful for your purposes. “Maybe it is fine for those other folks, but for my research, here is the situation.”

If you really don’t think you need social theory, that it is not useful for the kind of scholarship you do, then familiarize yourself with the various critiques that are available. Don’t take my word in an ephemeral thing like a blog (although please do follow out sources I list here and in other posts). Start with my urban theory article. Look for several kinds of things: (1) There are the works showing that social theory is just not needed for social science research (see the above and sources cited in some of my earlier posts; see one of my comments to this post.). If Robert Sampson can make it to the top of the sociology and criminology fields, be elected to the National Academy of Sciences, secure an endowed chair at Harvard, and do some of the best urban research around, all without high-level social theory, then you too can be successful without it (but I doubt he ever had to justify his empirical stance to postmodern colleagues early in his career). Read and digest the relevant works and make sure you can make a good argument from your own theoretical and topical standpoint.

(2) There are the more fundamental epistemological and ontological critiques of the kinds of research that rely on high-level social theory (approaches like interpretive studies, those positing a high degree of relativism, or those that denigrate science and objectivity). I list a few such critiques in a comment to a prior post.

(3) Pay attention to the empirical adequacy of arguments. Many (but not all) of the works that use or tout high-level social theory are empirically deficient in terms of how claims are supported with data, and how theory is used in conjunction with methods and data. Social-science methods texts like those cited above by John Gerring (and there are others) are useful for this.See my prior post on making arguments. I don’t know the causality here (do people with sloppy methods go for social theory? Or does social theory lead to sloppy methods? Or are both generated by a separate underlying causal mechanism?). There seems to be a correlation here, but not a fully determinate relationship.

Sorry to go on at such length. I want to thank the students at Michigan, not only for showing me a good time and good discussion, but also for showing me a program full of excellent students following a vigorous scientific social approach to archaeology.

Abend, Gabriel

2008    The Meaning of "Theory". Sociological Theory 26:173-199.

Gerring, John

2007    Case Study Research: Principles and Practices. Cambridge University Press, New York.

2012    Social Science Methodology: A Unified Framework. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, New York.

2011    An Institutional Theory of Direct and Indirect Rule. World Politics 63(3):377-433.

Sampson, Robert J.

2009    Racial Stratification and the Durable Tangle of Neighborhood Inequality. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 621:260-280.

2010    Eliding the Theory/Research and Basic/Applied Divides: Implications of Merton's 'Middle Range'. In Robert K. Merton: Sociology of Science and Sociology as Science, edited by Craig Calhoun, pp. 63-78. Columbia University Press, New York.

2011    Neighborhood Effects, Causal Mechanisms and the Social Structure of the City. In Analytical Sociology and Social Mechanisms, edited by Pierre Demeulenaere, pp. 227-249. Cambridge Universitiy Press, New York.

2012    Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Tilly, Charles

1992    Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1990. Blackwell, Oxford.

1998    Durable Inequality. University of California Press, Berkeley.

2001    Relational Origins of Inequality. Anthropological Theory 1(3):355-372.

2005    Historical Perspectives on Inequality. In The Blackwell Companion to Social Inequalities, edited by Mary Romero and Eric Margolis, pp. 15-30. Wiley-Blackwell, Malden, MA.

2008    Explaining Social Processes. Paradigm Publishers, Boulder, CO.


Dimitri Nakassis said...

My recollection is that it's the 007 club because it's the instructor code of a member of the faculty -- the number that would be appended to the course code of an independent study with him.

Michael E. Smith said...

So that is the code for Professor Bond? (And there really is an archaeologist named James Bond, but he does not teach at Michigan).

Dimitri Nakassis said...

It's the instructor code for KVF, not James Bond. It's a cool code to have, though.