The Different Ways Of Conceptualizing Social Theory Philosophy

Add: 10-11-2017, 18:52   /   Views: 111

It is not difficult for one to ascertain that the social world is a complex and multi-faceted realm that thoroughly fascinates with each and every little intricacy it possesses. Many argue that the very nature of humanity has been exemplified in the social world through various civilizations and societies throughout history. It holds within its boundaries many answers to various questions that humans have had for many thousands of years regarding people, society and humankind in general. Therefore, it is no surprise that many theories have been developed regarding society in an attempt to unlock the mystery of human behavior and interaction within the social realm. Conceptualizing social theory is more than simply compiling an analysis of society based on a set of facts and their relation to one another. It is arguably an exercise paramount to the continuity of individuals, societies, and human existence.

We often scientifically conceive a theory as an explanatory, formulated, and logical array of interconnected assertions about a reality. These assertions typically consist of certain related facts linked by scientifically acceptable general principles hypothesized to explain social phenomena. This method of conceptualizing theory is frequently referred to as the natural science model. Theorizing, in this manner, consists of observing what human activity or behavior takes place in the real world, critically analyzing the data drawn from these observations and then developing systematic conclusions that have implicit and practical implications.

Mark A. Schneider: The Theory Primer

One modern day sociologist, Mark A. Schneider, attempts to develop a method of conceptualizing theory as an ability or skill along this classic model in his book, The Theory Primer: A Sociological Guide. Schneider defines a theory as "an integrated set of concepts, formed into propositions, that explains particular conditions of events in the world around us" (pg. 2). He then proceeds to hash out theory construction and evaluation in simple and concise terms. First, he distinguishes between three categories of explanation: analysis, explication, and causal accounting (or causal modeling). He demonstrates how analysis (the process of determining the individual conceptual parts of something, breaking down these parts down into their essential components, and showing how they are interrelated) and explication (the process of determining the true meaning of an act or expression) are part of the theorizing process. Schneider argues that the most effective form of theorizing is found in causal modeling (the process of determining the chain of causes or mechanisms that brought about a certain event) because it can explain human behavior when motives are hard to determine. Schneider then develops the criteria for theorizing as a process.

Schneider describes theorizing as a multifaceted process: (1) identifying and developing a problem, (2) creating a theory, and (3) evaluating the theory. Each of the facets in the theorizing process are then further elucidated into individual steps, giving the reader a precise road map to follow in conceptualizing social theory. Is here though that Schneider stipulates how conceptualizing social theory differs from the natural science model. He states that in social theory, all conceptualization must include what C. Wright Mills coined as the "sociological imagination." Schneider says "Sociologist wonder in a particular manner, guided by a sense of how the incidents or features of the surrounding world that we want to explain are best conceptualized and of where we are apt to find clues that will help us explain them" (pg. 15). Basically, that utilizing the sociological imagination alludes to the requirement of social theorists to recognize the connection between the individual experience (what Mills calls biography) and the wider, overall societal experience (what Mills calls history). Therefore applying the sociological imagination expands the perspective of the sociologist which allows him/her to perceive the world around them in a more complex way. For a sociologist, to use the social imagination allows them to identify the ways in which individuals are affected by social phenomenon and, in turn, how society is affected by its members.

Schneider then moves on to explain how identifying a problem, as well as constructing, a theory utilizes an allegory of the research process and tacitly emphasizes the importance of the experimental method in scientific theorizing. He uses the concrete example of the culture of honor theory of violence in the southern United States as developed by authors Nisbet and Cohen, to demonstrate this method. Schneider thoroughly explains the process of evaluating a theory using three essential tools: (1) robustness, or whether a theory holds across time and location, (2) substantive implications, or consequences that would flow from a theory if it were true, and (3) logical implications, or alternate theories and spurious variables agree with further data and analysis. Through his instruction, Schneider provides a solid and sound method of how to formulate theories.

From here, Schneider is explicit in making a distinction between what he calls paradigms and theories and argues that paradigms are too general. This is how he refers to conflict theory, functionalism, and symbolic interactionism. Schneider states "these are not theories as we're using the term here… They offer us models we can use to create theories, and they make general suggestions that can guide us in the detective work that goes into forming a theory, but they don't qualify as theories themselves. They don't explain any specific regularities in human social behavior" (pg.35). In other words, paradigms are generic and extensive by nature and therefore, only allude to where solid theory can be formulated. He finishes by stating, "Theories explain; paradigms do not" (pg. 36), essentially casting off any credence that has been lent to the prevailing classic theorist and their corresponding theories.

Charles Taylor: Social Theory as Practice

As mentioned previously, conceptualizing social theory has been argued to comprise of developing and formalizing a generalized theory and then validating the theory by observing how the real world acts in accordance with it. The collected data is utilized to corroborate the initial hypothesis, and from that a general assertion, a theory is formulated about society. However, some modern sociologists argue that there are several contemporary and amended techniques utilized when conceptualizing social theory today and these new methods may render the natural science model as entirely obsolete. Charles Taylor, a contemporary philosopher, argues that the natural science model approach is fundamentally flawed in his work, Social Theory as Practice, and states that, "we could gain a great deal by examining our theorizing about social matters as a practice" (pg. 91).

Taylor too disagrees with the paradigms developed by sociology's forefathers, but unlike Schneider whom feels that they are too general, Taylor feels that their problem lies in how they were developed. He staunchly disagrees with the natural science model being adopted as a basis for social theory. Where Taylor views a dichotomy between the natural science model and social theory is that social theory requires self-understanding. He states, "The practices which make up a society require certain self-descriptions on the part of the participants. The self-descriptions can be called constitutive. And the understanding formulated in these can be called pre-theoretical... in that it does not rely on theory" (pg. 93). Taylor is essentially arguing that classic theory was commonly developed in the past as external to society. However, for Taylor, society does not operate independently from theory, but instead a complementary, interdependent relationship exists between the two.

Taylor attempts to exemplify this notion by depicting how political theory is not akin to natural science theory, in that political theory transforms practice, but unlike natural science, this transformation is not external to the theory itself. This creates an inherent flaw with validation of political theory because when changes induced by theory cause a transformation of its object [society], it can not only render the theory inaccurate, but in fact, can validate it as well. Taylor states that there are those that argue that political theory does not transform its object and that regularities exist. Furthermore those individuals would also argue that self-understanding is irrelevant.

Taylor responds in two ways, first he states that this approach does not take into account underlying cultural conditions as a pre-existing variable to any perceived regularities. In other words, observed economic regularities are a result of cultural conditions (i.e. the development of economic institutions, money, markets, financial entities) and do not dictate a specific social behavior. The proposed regularities therefore only emerged due to preceding cultural behaviors developed throughout history as civilization progressed. Basically, perceived economic laws are strictly consequential and not independently regulating of society. Furthermore, their very existence is rooted within a cultural context.

Secondly, Taylor argues that regularities of economic law presuppose that human behavior follows a very precise, explicit, unfaltering path that is resilient to predisposition, discretion, or motivation. Taylor argues that human economic action, behavior or autonomous responses to specific economic conditions could never be narrowed down to one finite explanation or generalization. Ultimately, an economic theory of this type is not a illustration of a regularity of human fiscal behavior, but rather it is a single anecdotal depiction from numerous possibilities of what it is to behave in this particular economic model. Therefore, he argues, that economic laws, under the guise of an acknowledged irrefutable theory, actually function to shape human behavior to conform to this particular course of action.

Taylor essentially maintains that social theory is in no way analogous to that of the natural science model. Due to both the exclusion of the cultural aspect inherently present within economic laws and regularities, as well as the erroneous assumption that human behavior can be accurately calculated and therefore, literally predictable, Taylor asserts that social theory as practice must abandon the archaic natural science model. He rationally counters classical theorists who assert that there are laws and regularities in the social realm, ultimately suggesting that the world, in fact, does not function independently of individual autonomous beings within society. Instead Taylor says that the social world changes according to the changes of our self-understanding of what we do and how we act. The world is not independent of our observations of it. Thus, if you change, the world, in turn, also changes.

Herbert Blumer: Symbolic Interactionism

Another prominent modern day sociologist that also criticized mainstream social theory was Herbert Blumer. He simply disregarded classic social theory and more precisely fashioned the theory of symbolic interactionism from other modern intellectual scholars, most notably George Herbert Mead, John Dewey, and Charles Cooley. According to Blumer in his book, Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method, symbolic Interactionism is "a label for a relatively distinctive approach to the study of human group life and human conduct" (pg. 1). Mead suggests that this term rests upon three simple premises. First, "human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them." Second, "the meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with one's fellows." And third, "these meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he encounters" (pg. 2).

Blumer further draws upon these core ideas when he expounds on what he calls "root images" of symbolic interaction. The root images are basically iterations of the nature of six matters: (1) the nature human society or human group life, (2) nature of social interaction, (3) nature of objects, (4) the human being as an acting organism, (5) the nature of human action, and (6) interlinkage of action. In the first image, Blumer postulates that humans enact in a multitude of ways through numerous encounters with each other. It is through these encounters that they may act either individually or collectively, but the activities always belong to the acting individuals. Blumer states that, "fundamentally human groups or society exists in action and must be seen in terms of action (pg. 6). In the second image, Blumer says that society is composed of individuals that interact with each other. For Blumer, it was this social interplay that was often overlooked or shunned as an essential component of sociological schemes, whose authors often preferred to attribute such behavior to factors of status, culture, norms, values, sanctions, etc. (pg. 7). Here Blumer defaults to Mead's interpretation of symbolic interaction, where he views the theory as a demonstration of gestures and expressions and a response to the meaning of those gestures and expressions (pg. 9). In the third image, Blumer states that the "worlds" that individuals perceive are made up of "objects," which he separates into three classes: 1) physical objects; 2) social objects; and 3) abstract objects. He asserts that "the nature of an object-of any and every object-consists of the meaning that it has for the person for whom it is an object" (pg.11) Furthermore, that meaning has to be formed, learned and transmitted through a social process. In the fourth image, Blumer explains that humans are actors that interact with both others as well as their own selves. Therefore, an individual can essentially be an object unto himself/herself which makes it possible for individuals to interact with themselves. In the fifth image, Blumer argues that the ability of an individual to acknowledge their own self as an object with which they can interact is a distinguishing feature of a human being as an acting organism. Basically, because an individual confronts the world that they then have to interpret, they must also construct an action to it instead of simply responding to the environmental factors around them (pg. 15). In the last image, Blumer explains "joint action" as the fitting of lines of action to one another, which is what human society essentially consists of and exists in. It is the group of individual actions with a common goal. Each act component is unique in the group; however they all form a single social action (pg. 17).

According to Blumer, meaning is constructed through social interaction. How others act with regards to the world, influences the meanings of the world for the individual. Meanings are used to form action through the process of interpretation. Human beings are active organisms. They make indications to themselves, act upon objects, interpret their environment, and engage in action. What is important here is that interaction is interaction between actors and not environmental factors. Social interaction is an ongoing process, which shapes human conduct as actors fit their actions with one another and form a continuous flow of interaction. In an online course, when participants fit their actions to each other's actions, they can respond to each other's messages or they can ignore them. Participants have intentions that influence interaction. However, individuals ceaselessly consider other individual's actions, and once those actions are contemplated, they revise, abandon, replace, or follow their initial course of action.

What are the different ways of conceptualizing social theory? What is your preferred conception and why? You must draw on Schneider, Taylor, and Horkheimer. Symbolic interactionism can be referred to, but is not required. At least 9-pages, double spaced. Due February 7th, 2011