Getting Started


What is it?
If you look up theory in the dictionary, here's what you get:

This is, to be honest, not that helpful. What about wikipedia?

Theories are analytical tools for understanding, explaining, and making predictions about a given subject matter.

We'd hold that this is true, but this is still a statement of a set of properties that theories have, not really what they are. So let me try this:
A theory is an abstraction from particulars.

A statement that describes the common structure of different empirical particulars — as mental constructs we call concepts — and the relations among two or more of these — relations such as cause/effect, co-variation, succession, etc.

"Real" Theory and Everyday Theory

  1. Theory is how we make sense of the world — if you do anything more than immediately respond to stimuli, then you are a social theorist.
  2. That said, there is a more interesting level of "everyday theory" that one might study — how do people construct a "working model" of the world? What goes into such models? How do they change? How useful are they? How does social location affect their contents? Such questions come up in a "sociology of everyday life."
  3. One might also study everyday theory in conjunction with that sometime opposite or partner of theory: practice. We can ask how do the theories people hold relate to their practices as political actors.
  4. But, for our purposes here, we want to study "real" theories — not because they are more correct, more true, or more better, but because we are trying to learn "the history of sociological thought"

The Origins of SOCIAL Theory

  1. Classical Origins, perhaps
    1. Plato
    2. Aristotle
    3. Machiavelli
    4. Aquinas
    5. For a great education in this, take "political theory" or read Bierstedt's The Making of Society
  2. Motivating Events in European History
    1. Enlightenment
      1. Rationality, observation, analysis — things the mind can do — replace revelation and authority as source of knowledge (a paradigm shift in epistemology)
      2. Effects EVERYTHING — religion, education, commerce, production, government, law, diet, family
      3. In physics, Newton (1643-1727) "invents" an equation from which the future position of the planets can be calculated. God, in a sense, is no longer in charge.
      4. In the following century or two all manner of beliefs about how the world works were called into question. This was the advent of a whole new style of thinking: that which everyone formerly took to simply be the case can be revealed by a process that has its authority "outside" established channels to be otherwise
      5. Stop and think about that notion of outside: rationality is fundamentally social and democratic — no one can simply "say otherwise" but it also had the promise of being a new universal — independent of interests.
    2. More Proximate Motivators
      1. The revolutions.
        1. Printing press (1400s)
        2. Protestant Reformation (1500s)
        3. English civil war (1642–1651)
        4. Scientific Revolution (~1550-~1750)
          1. Heliocentric Theory (1543) Telescope. Microscope. Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) scientific method.
        5. American & French Revolution (1776, 1789)
        6. Industrial Revolution (~1700-1900)
      2. Paradigm Shifts — sharp changes in basic assumptions (in contrast to gradual adjustment of how we think based on new ideas and evidence)
      3. [Modernity typically refers to a post-traditional, post-medieval historical period, in particular, one marked by the move from feudalism (or agrarianism) toward capitalism, industrialisation, secularization, rationalization, the nation-state and its constituent institutions and forms of surveillance (Barker 2005, 444). MODERNITY]
        1. "Modernity typically refers to a post-traditional, post-medieval historical period, in particular, one marked by the move from feudalism (or agrarianism) toward capitalism, industrialization, secularization, rationalization, the nation-state and its constituent institutions …." —
        2. tradition -> post tradition
        3. feudalism -> capitalism
        4. craft -> industry
        5. religious authority -> secularization
        6. mysticism, tradition, custom -> rationalization
        7. monarchy -> nation-state
        8. rural, village -> urban, city
    3. Modern social theory as applied, reflexive enlightenment
      1. man (sic) and social organization as object of study
    4. Comte and the dream of a social physics
    5. August Comte
    6. (1798–1857)
    7. Childhood in post-revolutionary, Napoleonic France.
    8. 1814-15 Congress of Vienna cleans up the world after Napoleonic wars, fall of the Holy Roman Empire. Consolidation of Europe into the pieces that will later in the century to make Europe into a structure of nation-states. The hyper-rationalism of the French Revolution and the codification of law in the Napoleonic Code are behind us at this point.
    9. Influenced by the early socialist Henri Saint-Simon, Comte is a social reformer, a progressive thinker who wants to purge society of irrationality and injustice and negative conditions by basing it on science.
    10. His main work is "The Positive Philosophy"
      1. wants to put sociology in sequence of the sciences (math .. physics .. chemistry .. biology .. etc.)
      2. Positivism is an epistemological position that says scientific method — observation, experience, verification — is only basis for real knowledge
      3. Known also for ideas on social evolution. The "three stage theory":
        1. Theological Stage
          1. Fetishism
          2. Polytheism
          3. Monotheism
        2. Metaphysical or Abstract Stage
        3. Positive Stage
    11. In order to appreciate and locate Comte and positivism in our picture of theory, we need to

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