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.

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