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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Available from: Gabriel Abend, Nov 15, 2014
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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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    • "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. "

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