First Published in Sociology, Health, Women and Environment. Edited by Nazrul Islam. Dhaka: Bangladesh Sociological Association. 1999. Pages 9-19. Quote accordingly.
End of Sociological Theory
Nazrul Islam and M.Imdadul Haque*
theory is seen here as formal theory and as the core of the discipline so that,
a study of sociological theory, of necessity, refers to a study of the whole
discipline. Theory, here, refers to abstract generalizations with possible
empirical support and potential for prediction. Sociological theories, that I am
interested in, are those that have significance for the whole discipline and not
a part of it or for a sub-field, theories that resemble those attempted by the
Sociology, as it has
grown up to be, is essentially an American discipline. So that, when I talk of
the crisis of sociology or the "end of theory", I am referring to the
crisis or the end of theory in American sociology. I am treating sociology as
synonymous with American sociology. This paper is, thus, an attempt to examine
the present demise of sociological theory through an examination of the growth
and development of sociology in the U.S. and assess the probable implications
and lessons it might carry for sociology in Bangladesh.
That sociology, and in
particular sociological theory, is an a state of crisis is no longer an absurd
proposition. C.W. Mills (1959) was aware of the crisis in the 1950s; Gouldner
(1968) warned about the impending crisis in the 1960s. Many others have noted
this in the form of crisis of paradigm or crisis of theory. I have been writing
about crisis since the 1980s. And over the past decade or so it is becoming
increasingly clear to me that sociological theory has come to an end. In a
recent collection of essays, titled Formal
Theory in Sociology, Jonathan Turner (1994), like me, asked the final
question, "Why did formal theory die in sociology?" The volume itself,
Turner lamented, was “eulogy to formal theory” in sociology.
My conception of theory
is very much based on philosophy of science, comparative study of societies in
time and space, rather quantitative, formal and macro-level or grand theory. In
this conception of theory, symbolic interaction, exchange theory,
ethnomethodology and the such were found to be very inadequate and I began my
works on the crisis of sociological theory. Over the past years of my concern
with the crisis in sociological theory I have studied the issue in relation to
paradigms, the macro-micro debate, the concern with subjectivity and
objectivity, society versus individual etc. Most sociologists treat these and
other issues dealing with the subject matter of sociology as crucial for
understanding and dealing with the crisis. But all along I have had the feeling
that it is not these issues at all but the setting in which sociology has grown
that needs to be addressed. It is not
sociology as such but the sociologists
themselves, and their organizational
structure which need to be studied in order to understand this crisis or why
theory building in sociology has come to an end.
Although sociology in
America began with a heavy dose of Spencer and Comte, its development then and
its later growth was quite independent of the happenings in Europe. I have dealt
with these elsewhere (Islam 1987). Other sociologists like Hinkle (1994), Turner
and Turner (1990), and volumes of collected essays by Gans (1990) or Hage (1994)
have also dwelt on these differences at length.
One thing comes out very
clearly from these studies is that all through the growth of the discipline in
the U.S. theory has been the greatest sufferer. In spite of the initial
flirtation with theory by the early American sociologists, not much of theory
grew in the U.S. sociology. Both Hinkle (1994) and Turner (1994) have shown that
there was very little theory in the early American sociology. Turner (1994)
argues that the early American sociologists were not "trained" in
sociology nor were they even scientists, so that, there was very little chance
of the development of formal theory. Hinkle (1994) notes that prior to 1935
"virtually no session on theory were part of the annual program of the
ASS" (American Sociological Society - later American Sociological
Association or ASA). This lack of formal theory continued to plague sociology
through the first half or this century as well. Hinkle (1994) shows that between
1921 and 1937 no article was published in the American Journal of Sociology with
the word theory in its title. "Most disturbing of all" Hinkle
comments, is that theoretical stance had also disappeared from even the
personalized statements of sociologists in this era. During the whole period of
thirty years between 1915 and 1945 Maclver was the only president of the ASS
whose reputation was gained in theory.
Even then, whatever
development of theory occurred in American sociology, it began at about this
period -- from the 1930s on ward. A paper published by Wells and Picou in 1982
showed from a review of 707 articles chosen at random from the American
Sociological Review between 1936 and 1978 that although a little more than 12%
of the articles represented discussion on theory, a large portion, over 51% of
the articles during this time used theory for empirical studies. Indeed, the use
of theory for empirical studies continued to increase from 33.6% or one third of
the articles during 1936-49 period to over 66%, or two thirds, during 1956-78
However, in spite of this
apparent emphasis on theory, the period was known for the growth of methodology
and not of theory. Let me quote from
Wells and Picou (1982) again. The two most frequent use of theory they found in
their study of the ASR articles was a) the development of testable hypotheses
and, b) interpretation of research findings. Less than 5% of the articles dealt
with the development of theory per se. The period saw a phenomenal growth in the
use of statistics, including multivariate techniques. The Wells and Picou (1982)
study found that over 87% of the articles used the survey research format and
statistics. So that theory during this period became supplemental, if not
incidental, to survey research.
Turner and Turner (1990),
similarly, note that as a consequence the role of theory, as seen by the
methodologists of this period, was that a)
theory was to serve as a means of clarifying the domains to be rendered precise
and, b) was to be a source of hypothesis. Which, as we note in the Wells and
Picou (1982) findings, were exactly the case. Thus it was not theory but
methodology that grew by leaps and bound in what is mistakenly thought to be the
hay-day of theory building.
The result of this
emphasis on methodology would be very easy to predict. There was less and less
concern with theory and little or no integration among the research works.
Turner and Turner (1990) show that one result of this proliferation of research
was that for the first time in the history of the discipline researcher of the
quantitative sort typically knew little "theory" and had few
"theoretical" ambitions. Students in large "research shops",
they note, "received virtually no exposure to theoretical literature".
The use of theory merely to serve as an appendix to research also meant an end
to the "history of social thought" kind of study. Increasingly, it
became difficult to cultivate interest in theory as more and more journals
refused to publish articles without empirical research. And soon employment in
theory also became scarce.
This subordination of
theory to research was not accepted by many who felt that the kind of research
that was gaining supremacy had any possibility whatsoever to build up a
theoretical resource base for the discipline. Therefore, some like H. Zetterberg
and Mullins and A.L. Stinchcombe sought to organize theory and research into a
meaningful combination that would produce formal theory. This effort to
formalize theory building, or "theory construction" as it came to be
called, was taken rather seriously by many. Indeed, most universities from the
1970s began to teach "theory construction" courses to its graduate
students. Turner (1994) feels that this extra effort to formalize theory
building and shape sociology into a science like the natural sciences,
ironically, turned out to be the final undoing of theory building in sociology.
This happened, Turner (1994) argues, primarily because of the strictest demands
that were put on theory construction, which was difficult even for the natural
sciences to meet. The strict requirements demanded by the "theory
construction" approach also fueled debates against quantitative research in
particular and positivism in general. As it is, anti-positivism was gaining in
strength. The bid to formalize theory construction merely supplied the
anti-positivists with the final nail for the coffin of formal theory in
However, it would be an
over generalization to conclude from all these that theory building in sociology
came to a halt. On the contrary, theory building proceeded in two specific
areas, a) in the numerous sub-fields and, a) as “metatheories”. Neither of
these developments, unfortunately, meet the requirements of formal theory and
clearly point to the lack of genuine theory.
Most of these theorizing
took place in the various sub and sub-sub fields and the proliferating specialty
areas. So that, today you can have a "theory of (choose your topic)".
These, even if they met the requirements of theory, are not what would cut
across the discipline. In most case they loose their relevance when applied to
areas beyond the specialty areas for which they were developed. Although the
proponents of such theories often claim applicability beyond the boundaries of
the specialty areas or the sub-fields, none live up to the promise. Moreover, as
Turner and Turner (1990) argue, the proponents themselves do not accept each
The other group of
theories that have developed recently are what is now collectively known as
"metatheory". However, the metatheorist at best talk to each other, in
my opinion, mostly past each other, and there is no one out there to listen to
them. In the end, there are perhaps only about 500 or 600 who form a community
of theorists, comprising mostly of the sociologists from the older generation,
who are largely isolated from the rest of the discipline. The rest of the
discipline is too engrossed in its own sub-fields and specialty areas to bother
to listen to these theorists (Turner and Turner 1990), And that's what really
spells the end of sociological theory.
So, what went wrong? And
what to become of theory building, and the discipline in general in the future?
In recent years, some sociologists, metatheorists, I might add, have become
interested in these questions. Their studies point to three different but
mutually inclusive areas where one needs to look for answers. First, the subject
matter of sociology and the numerous sub-fields within it. Second the
organization and the institutions within which sociology operates. And, thirdly,
the resources at the command of the discipline, including student enrollments.
Put mildly, and as I suggested at the beginning of the paper, it is the whole
enterprise of sociology in America that has done away with the need for theory.
However, the subject
matter of sociology as such, is not at fault. What is at fault, is the
proliferation of that subject matter. This makes the sociologists themselves
directly responsible. No one has ever defined in an exact manner the subject
matter pursued by sociologists. Although in most cases the American sociologists
worked with social problem and social welfare related topics, over the last one
hundred years or so, sociology has added numerous areas, often exotic ones, to
its subject matter. It has, in the process, divided and subdivided its field,
sometimes losing some of its areas to other disciplines as well as encroaching
upon other's territory. ASA now recognizes more that 50 sub-fields as specialty
areas and within each specialty area, multiple sub-sub-fields. So that we can
end up with hundreds of specialty areas which continue to proliferate without
The agencies which could
exercise such control, the ASA for instance, have not only tolerated such
diversification but have actually contributed to it by passively accepting these
multiplications. From the very beginning, the American Sociological Society and
later American Sociological Association have looked the other way and have
allowed the specialty areas to grow under its own patronage and protection and
giving these the legitimacy they require.
Similarly, over the
years, the ASA has allowed many associations to be formed along with the growth
of specialty areas. Today there are about 40 specialty associations within the
ASA. Along with this there has also been a phenomenal rise in the number of
journals catering for the specialty areas. There are over 200 journals in the
U.S. alone and more than 100 in the rest of the world to which a sociologist may
refer to and one or more of these are likely to print
his or her specialty area papers.
Add to this the nature of
teaching and the competition in the job market. In fact, it is the competition
in the increasingly shrinking job market that forces many sociologists to move
to, and often invent, one’s own specialty areas. The more exotic or uncommon
the area, the more likely that it will attract students and thus be sought after
by the departments. And in a market where tenure is very difficult to get one
needs to excel - to make a name - in any way one can, the urge to create ever
new areas is indeed very strong. And many do. So that, as Turner and Turner
(1990) argue, "there is, in a very real sense, a specialty for everyone in
No discipline can achieve
theoretical unity without having a unity of its subject matter. With literally
hundreds, if not thousands, of specialty areas sociology seems to have dispersed
beyond any recognizable boundary. Sociology has, thus, turned into the most
undisciplined discipline anywhere. To build a theory to cut across this mess
called sociology would be a task fit for Hercules. No wonder, Turner and Turner
called sociology an "impossible science" (1990).
Another crucial factor
for theory building is the question of resources at the disposal of sociology in
America. Resources, in terms of research money, turned out to be a hindrance for
the growth of the discipline from the earliest of times. From the very
beginning, sociology received research funds from philanthropic organizations,
including the churches and the state, and corporate money. Researches carried
out through such public money, of necessity, were oriented to social reform or
social problems. This forced American sociology to be biased towards the
question of order and stability and how to achieve these. Mills (1959) warned
that research carried out through such money could not be beneficial to the
growth of an academic discipline. And it has not been. Most of such money has
been channeled to the various specialty areas, to the hot topics of the day.
Indeed, there has been
very little fund available for purely academic research. These funds normally
come from the universities. And the universities dish out such money to
disciplines that attract larger number of students. The plight of sociology in
recent years, in terms of student enrollment, also point to the pathetic end
that formal theory has met with.
A declining number of
students obviously mean fewer resources and a very tight job market. The recent
statistics for the U.S. sociology is really alarming. The number of students
graduating with a Bachelor degree in sociology reached all time high of over
35,000 about the middle of the 1970s. Since then it has dropped very sharply to
less than one third and is now hovering around 10,000 to 12,000 students. The
number of graduate students, although lower than the mid 70s has not fallen to
that extent. These have meant two things. First, and the most obvious, is that
with the falling number of students the university support has declined and in
many instances the faculty sizes have been reduced, forcing many to retire and /
or to join the unemployment lines. Second, there are many more Ph.Ds in the
field than the job market can accommodate, forcing greater competition and more
unemployment. We saw earlier how sociologists try to keep afloat, by creating
specialty areas for instance, in such a tight market.
We also saw the
implications of these for theory building in sociology. This general loss of
jobs translates into fewer jobs in teaching theory as well. With more and more
students taking specialty area courses and ever fewer numbers moving to theory,
most departments are obliged to drop theory courses, often discarding them
altogether. Meaning even fewer jobs. Thus, with such a dwindling number of
students and even fewer teachers engaging in theory or finding a job there, I am
afraid, there may not be enough people in the next century to teach theory
courses and, possibly, none to build theory.
This doomsday scenario,
as I noted at the out set, is the creation of the continued lack of control over
the discipline, which allowed it to grow in every direction without ever
reaching any boundary line or finding a core. The organizations of control, such
as the ASA, or the institutes have all contributed to this end. The
proliferation of specialty areas, with students, sociologists, and research
money all running after these, has spelled the doom for theory building. Thus,
it is the sociologists and their institutional setting that have brought an end
to formal sociological theory.
Is there a way out? The
answer is both "yes" and "no."
Yes, because building theory of the type that I associate myself with
were once the central core of the discipline. There is no reason why it cannot
be done today with far greater resources, in terms of data bases, available to
us. In a recent critique of sociological theory building and sociology in
general, Jonathan Turner searched for a way out. He was forced to conclude that
it is not in the realm of specialty areas nor even with the theory construction
approach that theory building can resume in sociology. He argued very strongly
that the only way out is to construct "grand, general, formal and abstract
theories" the variety of theory built by the "armchair
theorists". He goes on to say that "unless some try to build such
theories and demonstrate their relevance to specialists, sociology will remain
the "impossible science". He further adds that "[s]ociology can
become the 'possible science' if general, armchair theorists can formulate
theories that appeal both to researchers and fellow theorists" (Turner,
No, because American
sociology is not the place for such grand theories. Grand theory requires grand
vision and that requires knowledge of other societies and cultures both in time
and space. I am sorry to conclude that American sociology, to date, has not
displayed any possibility of that grand vision. Like rest of the society,
American sociology has remained bounded by the two oceans. Very little of what
lies beyond ever matters to it. Very rarely, if ever, American sociologists
refer to the outside world in their works. They are too busy with the "here
and now". There has been little or no comparative study of societies and
practically no historical studies of other societies. It is this lack of concern
and the failure to appreciate the realities of other societies that have forced
American sociology to abandon the search for macro level theories and
concentrate in ever-finer micro settings and on individuals. Grand theories
cannot grow out of such a situation.
Let's now look at the
implications of all these for sociology in Bangladesh and what lessons we might
draw form them. To begin with, let's not even pretend that sociology in
Bangladesh and American sociology are comparable either in their organizational
aspects or the contributions made by them. All we seek here is to see if we too
have some common little experiences and what they speak for the future of
sociology in Bangladesh.
Keeping these in view we
look at the implications of the study above for Bangladesh. First, the status of
theory. We have not really achieved much by way of building theory. But in terms
of teaching theory there has been definitely a gradual decline in interest both
among the students and the teachers. Although the number of courses have
increased in all the universities, these have been mostly in the specialty
areas. At Dhaka University students enroll for the compulsory theory courses but
few register where these are optional. The Contemporary Sociological Theory
course, taught by the co-author, has only one student. During the last fifteen
years I have been able to encourage one teacher, my co-author, but no student to
take up theory seriously. Indeed, I am worried that soon there may not be any
one to teach theory courses in Bangladesh either.
Much like the U.S.
experience both students and teachers are moving increasingly towards the
specialty areas. This is happening as teachers with training abroad come back
with degrees in specialty areas. New courses are opened in the sociology
departments to accommodate them. And as new areas open up, students rush for
these courses expecting future job openings in those areas. Most jobs for a
sociologist in the country today are in the specialty areas, like population and
demography, environment, women issues and in various development related areas.
Many reform and social welfare oriented programs of the government and
particularly of the NGOs also attract sociologists. So that with training in a
specialty area one has a better chance of getting a job in Bangladesh as well.
In terms of research and
research money, there is very little or none in the universities for purely
academic research. No one, to my knowledge, has received funds for such research
from the government either. The research money that is available from the
government and the various donor agencies directly relate to the specialty areas
and social welfare projects. These researches have little to contribute to the
academia as there is almost a total lack of communication between these research
organizations and the universities. Although some teachers and students work on
some research projects out side the
universities, their works never form a part of the class room teaching. Thus, no
one can really expect to build theory in Bangladesh with the research money from
So far as the
organizational aspects are concerned, there is virtually no influence of the two
sociology associations of Bangladesh on the growth or the direction the
discipline may take. It is the universities who, for the most part, decide the
fate of sociology in Bangladesh. The move towards the specialty areas was in
response to the teaching needs and not so much because outside organizations
were asking for them. There really isn't too many jobs available out there.
conclude from these then, sociology in Bangladesh is also falling behind in its
practice of theory, with fewer theoreticians available for the future. Specialty
areas are where the students and teachers are moving to in greater numbers and
the university departments are reciprocating by offering courses in such areas.
There has been little contribution in the theory area in any case but I feel
that, given the strong foundation that earlier programs offered in theory, there
might yet be some prospects of theory building in Bangladesh and this will, of
necessity, have to be of the armchair variety.
Herbet C. 1990. Sociology in America.
Jerald 1994. Formal Theory in Sociology:
Opportunity of Pitfall. State University of New York Press.
Roscoe C. 1994. Developments in American
Sociological Theory. State University of New York Press.
1987. "American Sociology: Crisis in Isolation", Bangladesh
Journal of American Studies, 1 (winter) 1987. PP 67-71.
C.W. 1959. Sociological Imagination.
Oxford University Press.
Jonathan 1994. Formal Theory in Sociology.
Stephen J and Jonathan H. Turner 1990. The Impossible Science: An Institutional Analysis of American
Wells, Richard H. And Steven J Picou 1982. American Sociology: Theoretical and Methodological Structure. University Press of America.
* The first part of the essay is authored by N. Islam while M.I. Haque joins him for the Bangladesh portion.
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