ask a scatterbrain (jr. faculty edition): talking theory

In a comment on the job talk thread, I confessed that I struggle to communicate with students what exactly I am looking for when I want them to make explicit their theoretical contribution. My struggle usually comes when students have an interesting case that they want to study and perhaps a field site tied to that. They get tied up in the case itself, rather than using that case to answer larger questions that might contribute something to some subfield of sociology. 

I ask them to identify the subfield that they want to contribute to, but I think this is difficult to accomplish as a graduate student, because it’s tough to see how the literature is organized when you haven’t read much. And sometimes, they are so excited and passionate about their case that it’s tough for them to see beyond it. And maybe it’s just me, but when I ask questions about larger questions and contributions their research might make, I elicit more anxiety than insight.

So, my question was not nearly clear enough in the comment thread. I’m not wondering about definitions of theory or applications of theory. Rather, I am wondering if folks have thoughts about how to effectively communicate about theory to students. Do you have a specific process that you have them go through? Do you target a particular literature that you are guessing might be related? Is there a secret key to getting students to that aha! moment when they see the difference between case, data, and theory?

8 thoughts on “ask a scatterbrain (jr. faculty edition): talking theory”

  1. The timing of this question could not be more ideal. I had one of those frustrating conversations just last week where I kept asking about “mechanisms” and “puzzles” and kept getting case descriptive answers in return. HELP!


  2. To some degree I sympathize with students in this position, because a lot of the time in sociology particular cases or datasets are much more immediately interesting and compelling than the available body of theory.

    I don’t have a well-tested solution to your problem. A lot of the time my strategy is to begin by talking less directly about theories and more in terms of questions like, What’s the argument of this paper? What is this project supposed to change people’s minds about? Questions like that tend to rule out the “No one has looked at this before” response. But I’m not sure there’s any secret key here.


  3. As someone on the other end of this (just start my first real empirical work), I do not have anything close to an answer. But I do have a thought, which is that I am glad I am not starting my work until after having being immersed in the literature of my subfield (Economic Soc) for the past 6 months studying for a prelim exam. Independent of any other usefulness of ingesting that much material, it did give me a lot of ways to answer questions like “where does this fit into the literature?” I think that’s part of why Michigan reorganized a bit to push the prelims earlier and move the empirical work later in the program.

    Do your students, at some point, get tested on knowing the field? If so, could you wait to press them on theoretical contributions until they have done so, letting them immerse themselves in the case for 6 months or a year first? I guess that depends a lot on the overall structure of the program, over which presumably you don’t have a ton of control.


  4. My experience in this is mostly through directing undergrad senior theses, where the distinction between those who do an ‘interesting descriptive project’ and ‘good sociology’ is usually stark.

    I usually start by telling them that they are not studying what they think they are studying. Their topics are often instantiations of underlying social processes. This leads to blank stares.

    Then I try, “what would you have to talk about with another sociologist who cares deeply about sociology but doesn’t care at all about your particular topic?” Better. So I try this:

    Theory is like a cocktail party conversation, and while your topic may be ‘building a reputation in online social worlds’, not many people are studying exactly that. Instead, there is a group over here talking about presentations of self; another group over there talking about power, weak networks & structural holes; a third group speaking about millennials bowling alone. Each of them have different ‘cases’, but those are the conversations – and that’s theory. The question is, what conversation(s) do you want to participate in? How would you contribute based on your case?

    Then I go back to shouting at them, “Your thesis is not about teachers and NCLB! Your thesis is not about Chinese immigrants in NYC! Your thesis isn’t about the internet!”



  5. Another way to think of theory is that it is statements of “how things work” that transcend particular cases or instances. Understanding theory is intimately linked to understanding what a research question is. Erik Wright makes a useful distinction between two models of research, both of them using theory, but differently. In the theory-centered project, there is some theoretical issue or problem and this particular research project contributes to understanding theory. So a theoretical research problem might be “how do people act when they are confronted with self-contradiction in their beliefs?” or “Why and how do people sustain self-contradiction in their beliefs?”

    The other kind of research question is clinical: you have some particular problem or phenomenon you are trying to understand, and you bring in whatever theories are out there that might help you understand the thing you are trying to understand. So, say, you really want a particular presidential candidate to win and you want to know how to persuade a particular group, say, White working class voters to vote for your candidate. You could bring together a lot of different theoretical ideas from a lot of theories that would give you ideas about what is important in how these people vote.

    Both kinds of problems involve puzzles. A puzzle is a question you don’t already know the answer to that there is reason to want to know the answer to. A theoretical puzzle is a question that arises and makes sense in a single theoretical tradition. A clinical or empirical puzzle is a question that arises in a particular case. You use theories in both cases, but in the former case, your inquiry is centered on theory and you pick an empirical case that will help you answer the theoretical question. In the latter case, your inquiry is centered on an empirical puzzle, and you bring in whatever theories might help you figure out the empirical case.


  6. Isn’t this Glaser & Strauss territory?

    One of the problems may be that your students are doing case studies. They start with a source of data (e,g,, a field site) rather than a research question. It’s the reverse of survey research, where you have some questions you’re interested in, maybe specifically derived from some theory, and you seek out the relevant data.

    For field observation, going in sans theory might be a good thing. Theory might act like blinders to limit what you see. One way to get from observation to theory might be comparison. How is this site I’m studying like some other thing I know about, and how is it different? Making that comparison forces you to use some set of concepts and categories, and those in turn may lead to even more theoretical formulations and realizations.


  7. (I speak from the grad student rather than the fac perspective.)
    One: I second the helpfulness of prepping for prelims. It’s a peak lit-knowing time.

    Two: One of my profs always pushed us to think in terms of, “case/s as instance/s of what generic process?” His article “Generic Processes in the Reproduction of Inequality” could be a good tool, for those doing certain work, to make some larger connections.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: