The Meaning of ‘Theory’*

Northwestern University
Sociological Theory (Impact Factor: 0.97). 05/2008; 26(2):173 - 199. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9558.2008.00324.x


‘Theory’ is one of the most important words in the lexicon of contemporary sociology. Yet, their ubiquity notwithstanding, it is quite unclear what sociologists mean by the words ‘theory,’‘theoretical,’ and ‘theorize.’ I argue that confusions about the meaning of ‘theory’ have brought about undesirable consequences, including conceptual muddles and even downright miscommunication. In this paper I tackle two questions: (a) what does ‘theory’ mean in the sociological language?; and (b) what ought ‘theory’ to mean in the sociological language? I proceed in five stages. First, I explain why one should ask a semantic question about ‘theory.’ Second, I lexicographically identify seven different senses of the word, which I distinguish by means of subscripts. Third, I show some difficulties that the current lack of semantic clarity has led sociology to. Fourth, I articulate the question, ‘what ought “theory” to mean?,’ which I dub the ‘semantic predicament’ (SP), and I consider what one can learn about it from the theory literature. Fifth, I recommend a ‘semantic therapy’ for sociology, and advance two arguments about SP: (a) the principle of practical reason—SP is to a large extent a political issue, which should be addressed with the help of political mechanisms; and (b) the principle of ontological and epistemological pluralism—the solution to SP should not be too ontologically and epistemologically demanding.

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    • "From a sociological perspective , there is a great deal of dispute and confusion as to what " theory " actually means. Abend provides an extended discussion, suggesting that the problem is in part semantic—that the problem is that people are talking about very different things when they mean " theory, " due to the polysemic (multiple) meanings of the word (Abend 2008). There are, of course, other valuable discussions on how to categorize types of theory (Mjøset 2001), but Abend's discussion has the strength of being comprehensive, lucid, and self-contained. "
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    The Information Society 05/2014; 30(3):200-211. · 1.24 Impact Factor
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    • "That thought is basic to what I say today. Gabriel Abend (2008), in an article published in Sociological Theory a few years ago, recognizes the paradox in my talk's title. He observes that the word " theory, " constantly and consequentially used by sociologists, is taken to be a good thing, but underlies miscommunications and conceptual muddles in sociological discourse. "
    Sociological focus 01/2014; 47(1):1-10. DOI:10.1080/00380237.2014.853261
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    • "(paper abstract, np) The present article takes issue with regard to the use of literary materials as source texts for sociologists to generate new theories (Erasga, 2010). Literary materials, it argues, should no longer be judged exclusively in terms of truth claims as this stance has epistemological problems (Denzin, 1990; Mouzelis, 1995; Charmaz, 2000; Norton, 2006 Abend, 2008), but in terms of the meanings and insights they convey through imaginative reconstructions of social experience. Imagination via storytelling is a form of narrative thinking and not just an aimless gallivanting of the mind, which Gardner (1980, p. xxii) likened " to the works of those peerless poets who[se minds] range freely within the zodiac of their own wits. "
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    ABSTRACT: Sociological imagination is an open invitation to theorize from the stories we tell about ourselves and others. More than self-expression, the sociological ethos of auto/biographical narration is to extend the reality of a solipsistic and exclusive existence into a common and public experience. In order to achieve this, the narrator must convert biographies into scribed realities. The narrating process, however, has unique epistemic anchorage (memory-based) and stylistic requirement (literary) that encage lived lives in a fictional genre, giving this mode of writing a unique interpretive lens that projects new visions of the social. Consequently for theorizing purposes, auto/biographies are meaning-claims that should no longer be read exclusively in terms of their dramatic and documentary values, but more in terms of their theoretical affordances. This paper explores the implications and utility of fictionalized auto/biographical narratives in expanding the ambit of sociological theorizing.
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