lizardo, “the end of theorists”

Omar Lizardo just posted his Lewis Coser award lecture “The End of Theorists: The Relevance, Opportunities, and Pitfalls of Theorizing in Sociology Today” as a delightful pdf pamphlet. Omar argues that theory today suffers from several structural problems, including the lack of a well-functioning hierarchy of modes of doing theory, the deinstitutionalization of “theorist” as a position in the field (as more and more programs now assign theory courses to specialists in other, empirical fields who only dabble in theory), and a lack of new, high quality theory to import from France and Germany. The solution for theory’s woes, Omar argues, has two parts:

The first is a move towards institutionalizing a new set of “positions” for the increasingly uprooted theory people floating around in the field. I will propose one model for such a position based on the role that philosophers play in the disciplinary collective known as cognitive science. Here the theorist is a generalist that is both familiar with the nitty-gritty empirical problems of the different fields and who uses a selective, generalist strategy to provide conceptual solutions to those problems.

The other productive pathway that I see opening up (and here I have been inspired by the recent work of Richard Swedberg) is a revival of interest in the notion of theorizing as a process and as an acquired skill. My recommendation will be that we should begin to move away from our obsession with theory as a finished product or as canon of works and towards a conception of theorizing as a creative activity.

The whole thing is short and witty, and highly recommended if you’re interested in the state of sociological theory today.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

1 thought on “lizardo, “the end of theorists””

  1. I was at this talk. It was very provocative, and I enjoyed it. I think my main issue with the whole enterprise of contemporary theory, which Omar alluded to, is the difficulty of transcending subfields with very different epistemological perspectives–what Knorr Cetina calls epistemic cultures. If theory requires some level of generality, how does that work in a balkanized discipline?

    Part of what scientific (epistemic) cultures or subcultures do is produce distinct “social objects/social facts”and vocabularies for talking about these observables. This irrevocably leads to arguments about what vocabularies are superior to other vocabularies (i.e., the sociology of concepts). So, rather than creating a useful general vocabulary for sociology, which is the failure of general theory, we are stuck with many new vocabularies that people fight about for awhile. And usually, these little fights end up rehashing old philosophical tensions: between agency and structure; qualitative vs. quantitative; discursive vs. embodied). That is, the subfields in sociology are too strong to produce a useful general vocabulary–everything cannot be reduced to a social capital (or network) (Coleman), a schema (Sewel), a field (Bourdieu; Fligstein & McAdam). So, we are mired in multiple vocabularies or “classical” retreads like hegemony, class structure, habit etc.

    This “subfield vocabulary” problem may also contribute to our “irrelevance” to the broader society (Patterson’s recent article). Economists’ general theory maybe wrong, but it is dam consistent and that makes for easy heuristics for policymakers and public discourse–you never have to worry about whether neoclassical economics applies to a new domain. Now, as a thought experiment: Try to explain Bourdieu to someone and then apply it to a social problem in less than 5 minutes. I’ve tried, it only leads to madness.

    Liked by 2 people

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