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

ABSTRACT ‘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.

Download full-text


Available from: Gabriel Abend, Nov 15, 2014
  • Source
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract]
    ABSTRACT: This article integrates key theories and concepts associated with the Capability Approach to community informatics (CI), a domain of sociotechnical theory and practice concerned to improve the lives of people in need. While the social value propositions for com munity informatics are useful for orienting pragmatic research and practice, they are currently not well considered theoretically. Sociological theory is therefore explored to provide a stronger an chor to community informatics as compared to the narrower the oretical agenda of information systems. Within this framework, the Capability Approach is identified as one example of a strong social theory with potential for adaptation into community infor matics. This would have several effects, including strengthening internal theory, and building capacity to engage in stronger dia logue with other disciplines, including sociology and information systems. This new approach to CI theory via sociological theory also allows for the adaptation and testing of other bodies of theory.
    The Information Society 05/2014; 30(3):200-211. · 1.24 Impact Factor
  • Source
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract]
    ABSTRACT: We consider identity as a historically emerging discourse that requires genealogical analysis - not to discover the roots of our identity but to commit [ourselves] to its dissipation (Foucault 1977, p. 162). We suggest analyzing identity through the history of socio-economic classes, their life struggles, ambitions, development, and reproduction. We see learning not as a project of transformation of identity, but rather as developing access to socially valuable practices and developing one's own voice within these practices (through addressing and responding to other voices). The access and voice projects free agents from unnecessary finalization and objectivization by oneself and others (Bakhtin 1999; Bakhtin 1990). In education, we should develop indigenous discourses of learning and develop a conceptual framework that makes analysis of diverse discourses possible. We argue that learning, as transformation of participation in a sociocultural practice to gain more access, is a better conceptual framework than learning as transformation of identity.
    Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science 02/2012; 46(3):274-95. DOI:10.1007/s12124-012-9192-0 · 1.11 Impact Factor
  • Source
    Information Communication and Society 08/2009; 12(5). DOI:10.1080/13691180902865986 · 0.70 Impact Factor