Murray Davis. 1971 "That's Interesting"

That's Interesting! Towards a Phenomenology of Sociology and a Sociology of Phenomenology

By Murray S. Davis
Phil. Soc. Sci. 1 (1971), 309-344 (Modified)


  • To be a great theory it is more important to be interesting than true.
  • Goal of essay is to explain what makes one theory interesting, another not.
  • Normal rules of "theory construction" will produce dull theories; technique here described will produce theories people notice.
  • This is about interesting sociological theories but THIS theory probably applies to other fields.

Stop and Think: What does Davis mean by "the level of abstraction of the analysis" in paragraph 4?

To abstract is to consider something apart from its concrete particularity. Another way to say this is to ask "what is this a case of?" Suppose, for example, you see two people arguing. You can consider THESE people having THIS argument at THIS time or you can "move up a level" and think about "fights these people have" or "things that are going on here at this time" or we can go "up" two levels and think about "arguments" (not this argument and not just these people).

1. Interesting non-propositions

2. The interesting and the routine

  • "…[A] new theory will be noticed only when it denies an old truth…"

3. The interesting in theory and in practice

  • On the theoretical level, we have to overcome "of course" and "that's obvious." On the practical level, "so what?" and "who cares?"
  • Basic logic of all research: 'It has long been thought …' 'But this is false …' 'We have seen instead that …' 'Further investigation is necessary to …'.

Stop and Think: Why might it be analytically wise not to "leave the interesting to the 'inspired'." (312) ?

This makes the classic mistake of "reifying unexplained variance" or "collapsing the dependent and independent variable." To wit: what is the explanation for "interesting"? The author is inspired. How do you know someone is inspired? They produce theories that are interesting. To explain an interesting theory by saying the theorist is inspired (or brilliant) is to say nothing at all. This same logic appears in Daniel Chambliss' excellent piece "The Munandity of Excellence" where he argues that the concept of "talent" is not a useful explanation for athletic excellence.

4. Procedure

Davis' "method" is to look at a sample of theories widely considered to be "interesting."

5. The common element of all interesting propositions

  • Davis introduces two important theoretical concepts: phenomenology and ontology.
  • From the Greek (phainos and ontos), these words basically mean "how things appear or are taken to be" and "how things really are."
  • Interesting propositions assert that an accepted ontological claim is mere phenomenology — what seems to be X is actually non-X.

6. The species of interesting propositions

  • Davis identifies 12 categories of interesting based on logical characterization of a single thing or relationship among multiple things. (313)



(i) Organization

  • A recipe for being interesting is to claim that what everyone thinks is organized or structured is in fact not, or vice versa.
  • Another example. Classic organization theory treats formal organizations as rationally organized. Some interesting contemporary theories of organization claim they are, in fact, chaotic — one is even called the "garbage can model of organizations" (Cohen, March & Olson, 1972).


(ii) Composition

  • Things that we take to be basically the same are in fact of several subtypes. OR, distinctions we conventionally make overlook fundamental sameness.
  • Important ideas in the "comments" section: reduction and subduction (Lazarsfeld)

(iii) Abstraction

  • What is taken to be individual is actually social or vice versa.
  • Durkheim, suicide; Freud, war
  • "Sociologizing" and "Psychologizing"

(iv) Generalization

  • Something that seems local to one social location is actually ubiquitous or vice versa.
  • Social location could be geographic, temporal, a social class or stratum, a group, etc.

(v) Stabilization

  • Something we think is unchanging is actually changing or something conventionally believed to have changed is really just the same as ever.

(vi) Function

  • Something that appears to do what it is supposed to do, in fact does not. OR, something thought to be ineffective at producing an effect, does in fact produce it.

(vii) Evaluation

  • What everyone thinks is good is really bad, or vice versa.

R. D. Laing's assertion in The Politics of Experience that schizophrenia

B — The Relations Among Multiple Phenomena

(viii) Co-relation

  • Things we think are unrelated, are in fact related (correlated), or vice versa.

(ix) Co-existence

  • Things we believe can exist together, in fact cannot; OR things we believe are incompatible can, in fact, exist together.

(x) Co-variation

  • What we believe is a positive correlation is in fact negative, or vice versa.

(xi) Opposition

  • What we think are opposites are really the same, or things we think are the same, are really opposite.

(xii) Causation

  • What we think of as the cause, is actually the effect.
  • Or, another variation is that neither is strictly cause/effect — there is a back and forth interaction effect.

Part III: Discussion

1. Non-interesting propositions

  • Denial of known/accepted truth as criterion for "interesting"
  • THEREFORE: criteria for "non-interesting" will be does not denial an assumption. Three ways to do this:
    • "What you always thought is, in fact, true." ==> "That's obvious!" (Phenomenology is Ontology.)
    • Instead of denying assumption, it can fail to speak to any assumption we have. ==> "That's irrelevant!" (Phenomenology is unrelated to Ontology)
    • Don't deny an assumption, deny all assumptions. ==> "That's absurd!" (Phenomenology is completely contrary to Ontology.)
      • "Why would anyone bother to assert a non-interesting proposition? Non-interesting social theories are often asserted on purpose by those who think that the business of social scientists is merely to assert any theory that can be derived and confirmed according to the textbook rules of theory construction and verification. Actually, the mediocre in the social sciences (and probably the natural sciences too) can be defined as those who take the textbook rules of scientific procedures too literally and too exclusively. It should be clear from the above discussion that those who lack what is called 'the creative spark' are in fact those who fail to take into account the assumption-grounds of their audiences" (328.1)
    • Even smart theorists can enunciate theories that audience finds uninteresting NOT because they screwed up but because the proposition is being pitched to the wrong audience. The audience may not know why it's interesting, the speaker may not realize how to recast to make it interesting. DJR: Very common result of fractured intellectual world and intellectual ethnocentrism.

2. Complicating social factors

Stop and Think: At 329.1 Davis says "we have been aware that any division within the social base of theoretical assumption-ground may cause a division within the theoretical assumption-ground itself." What does this mean?

A big idea is buried here: social position determines how we think. One of Marx's really revolutionary ideas is that social position (in particular where you stand in the economy) has a big effect on what you take to be true. And he doesn't just mean that we are disingenuous and make believe we think something just to promote our own interests.

  • Because assumptions vary, hard to be interesting to all. POINT: hard to say what the assumptions you want to counter are.
  • Most important social division is between "layperson" and "expert"
  • Layperson's assumptions vary by things like demographics. Experts vary by field or discipline.
  • Generational variation in what is assumed. Hence, the assumption of the young as "Vanguard assumption."
  • A science starts by denying commonsense assumptions. But then the assumptions that need to be denied are expert assumptions.
  • To find a proposition that's interesting to both laymen and experts one needs to deal with this double dialectic.

Stop and Think: At 330.9 Davis starts talking about a "dialectic." What does this mean here?

The basic dynamic he describes is "old assumption" doing battle with "new denial of old assumption." If successfully argued, the new denial becomes the new assumption. Dialectic refers to this tussle between two ideas. Especially where when a new one attacks an old one and then is itself transformed when it wins.

  • And so, if it interests the experts it denies their assumption. But their assumption denies the assumption of the layperson. And so the interesting idea is obvious to the layperson.

3. Uncomplicating social factors

  • Looks impossible, but some people do generate interesting propositions.
  • Abstraction to higher level brings more audience assumptions under an umbrella and so you can reach level of a 2-state audience: X or not X.
  • Consensus creation is managing to convince an audience that they have only one, common assumption (332.9)
    1. Articulate lack of consensus as simple As think X, Bs think not-X.
    2. Claim the groups actually say Y at a higher level.
    3. Then say, but they are both wrong. In fact, not Y.
      • If step 2 fails, you have a "straw man" fallacy.
  • Above technique can be used with the "traditional," "contemporary," or "vanguard" assumption.
  • Then, pick a few "representative" thinkers and portray as "the tradition," etc.
  • Assumptions of layperson and expert can get back into phase because the former change more slowly.
  • Another problem with being interesting to the layperson is they may have NO assumptions. But you can make them feel like they should and then work with that.

4. Further research into the implications of interesting propositions

  • Lots more could be done.
  • Be more empirical.
  • Try to be exhaustive and expand index into subtypes.
  • Study the rhetorical practices.
  • Study the neuropsychology of the interesting.
  • Learn more about the structure of the commonsense world since that's the thing you have to deny.

5. Implications of interesting propositions for further research

  • How not to be dull.
  • We should consciously think in terms of the interesting.
  • Think about your audience.
  • DJR: just because YOU want to find out more about something (and hence you find it interesting) does not make it interesting. It is interesting to you because it is new or because if denies things you were told to believe. But not of this makes it necessarily interesting to anyone else.

6. The interesting and the academic

7. The systematization of the interesting?

8. Conclusion


In this exercise we will come up with some "interesting" theories, simply based on Davis' index of the interesting. You can proceed in one of two ways. First, pick some area of social life that is of some interest to you or about which you know something. Then, come up with the ingredients for a synthetic a posteriori proposition. Try to frame your proposition so that it expresses common sense or conventional wisdom. Now scour the index for a way that you might challenge conventional wisdom and make the proposition into a theoretically interesting one.

Alternatively, start with one of the recipes and then go scouting for some empirical phenomenon.

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