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Sociological theory has a long history of taking stock of itself. It lies among those distinctive academic specialties where a general review of the existing literature is not an occasional undertaking but part of the routine activity of many members of the area, a feature of every required survey course on theory, and a necessary component of every work purporting to be an original contribution to the field.
Under these circumstances there exists no shortage of recent articles, monographs, textbooks, and edited collections analyzing contemporary developments in the theory field, a subject also addressed in previous volumes of the Annual Review of Sociology. Among these various contributions, Giddens & J Turner (1987), Ritzer (1988c, 1990b), B Turner (1996b), J Turner (1991), and R Wallace & Wolf (1995) all discuss trends in the theory area; the theorists, texts, and intellectual currents making up these trends; and the substantive arguments and conceptual frameworks associated with these developments.
This chapter does not substitute for these detailed reviews. Its primary aim is not to resume the conceptual schemes and substantive arguments found in contemporary theories but to identify and briefly overview some of the major intellectual projects currently under way in the theory area. In research on earlier historical periods, we have shown that attention to a theorist's intellectual objectives and purposes increases understanding of the conceptual tools and empirical claims he or she articulated (e.g. Camic 1989, Gross 1997). In speaking in this chapter of "projects," we make a preliminary effort to extend this approach to the contemporary period by focusing on some principal tasks that those in the theory area are now seeking to accomplish, on the organizing programs or agenda that contributors to the field are developing their concepts and arguments in order to advance, and on the descriptive and evaluative assessments of the present state of the theory area that frequently accompany these programs.
We begin by identifying eight such projects and conclude with a discussion of their organizational conditions of possibility. All eight projects are contemporary, found in the theory literature in the period on which we concentrate, the mid- 1980s to the present. Analysis of other periods would necessarily produce a different set of programs, whose degree of overlap with the following listing would be an empirical question. Throughout, we deal primarily with American developments, generally incorporating works by European theorists only insofar as these have appeared in English since the mid-1980s and have since then figured consequentially into American discussions. Even taking into account these restrictions, this survey of the literature is selective, and the eight projects do not provide an exhaustive charting of lines of current theoretical activity.
Furthermore, it should be recognized that these eight projects are not, as a rule, mutually exclusive of one another. There are theorists who have pursued more than one, both simultaneously and in different career stages, as we occasionally note, though it is not possible here to devote sufficient attention to particular individuals fully to characterize their projects over time or even in single works. We also emphasize that our eight project categories are internally heterogeneous and that they bring together theorists who differ in other respects while separating those often grouped as similar in other scholarly classifications. But this simply testifies to the value of multiple classification schemes: to the fact that thinkers with a common agenda for sociological theory may differ in the concepts and arguments they use to advance this agenda, just as theorists who converge in argument and concept may use these means to advance very different projects within the theory area.
In discussing contemporary sociological theory, we consider an area with notoriously fuzzy boundaries. In identifying what works fall within these boundaries, we borrow Wittgenstein's notion of "family resemblances." Wittgenstein (1953:31-33) analyzes groups of elements that "have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all" elements; just as there are "various resemblances between members of a family, build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc.," so there are "family resemblances" among the elements of these other groups, i.e. "a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail." It is such family resemblances that constitute the contemporary theory field: criss-crossing similarities in terms of analytical issues and problems, intellectual ancestory and points of departure, vocabulary and style of argument, self-identification (calling one's own work "theory"), institutional membership (belonging to theory sections of sociological associations), group adoption (having one's contribution embraced by theorists), and more. No fixed cluster of these traits defines a family member nor makes it possible to track down all the stepchildren, distant cousins, and black sheep. Nonetheless, after one has spent some time among family members, it is not difficult to recognize the different branches of the family tree.
EIGHT PROJECTS FOR CONTEMPORARY SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY
Project I: Construction of General Tools for Use in Empirical Analysis
For one group of contemporary theorists, the principal task of sociological theory is to build analytical tools - concepts, explanatory propositions, interpretive guidelines, etc - directly applicable in the study of empirical problems. This project, according to many of its recent proponents, is increasingly threatened by abstract, self-referential theorizing that distances itself from the substantive issues that arise in areas of empirical social research.
This is the position of Chafetz: "[S]ociological theory is integrally related to research" (1988:2) and "ghettoizes" itself when it retreats into "abstract epistemological and ontological [discussion of issues such as] agency/micro and structure/macro" (1993:60-62). Opposing this retreat, Chafetz sets for theory the task of developing a "diverse set of practical tools" - general explanatory statements and the concepts they contain - "from which one can select those most helpful in solving any given [empirical] problem." She carries this agenda forward by articulating a multivariable, "eclectic structural theory" of the causes of gender stratification (1988:1, 51-54).
Along similar lines, Rule (1997) objects that the theory field is now a "cacophony" of discordant approaches (rational choice, network analysis, etc), each of limited range, and has lost sight of the discipline's "perennial issues" - its substantive questions about deviance, economic growth, civil violence, etc. For Rule, "the development of analytical tools" that address such questions is the principal task for contemporary theory, a task he himself takes up by formulating general propositions about the sources of civil violence (1997:1, 5, 19, 261-17; see also Rule 1988, Skocpol 1986). Calhoun, too, calls for "more studies that seek to advance theory in the cause of contemporary sociological research and understanding, as distinct from those which aim mainly at clarifying what [theorists] have already said" (1997:2). His preference, however, is for theory to supply not a set of general propositions and concepts but culturally sensitive "guidelines" or "frameworks for interpretation" of changing social practices (Calhoun 1996b:86, 92; see also Calhoun 1995, 1996a).
Pierre Bourdieu's writings (1988, 1990a, 1990b, 1993a, 1993b, Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992) offer perhaps the most elaborate case for this project. Rejecting "empty theoreticism" - general "programmatic discourse that is its own end," focused on other abstract theories and unwilling "to sully [its] hands in empirical research" - Bourdieu's agenda is to develop a "set of conceptual tools and procedures for constructing objects and for transferring knowledge [from] one area of inquiry into another" (Bourdieu 1988:774, 777, Bourdieu 1993b:45, Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992:5). Unlike other advocates of this program, however, Bourdieu does not envision these tools as a broad, eclectic assemblage suited to piecemeal appropriation. He concentrates instead on a limited set of concepts: most famously, "habitus," the "ensemble of dispositions" toward action and perception that operates from within social agents; and "field," the configuration of relations between social positions, or the structured space where social struggles unfold (Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992: 16-19). Insisting on the "two-way relationship between habitus and field," Bourdieu seeks to transcend the hoary intellectual antihorny between objectivism and subjectivism by "integrating into a single model the analysis of the experience of social agents and the analysis of the objective structures that make this experience possible" (1988:782-84) and by then deploying this model in empirical studies of spheres ranging from art and science to the economy and law. But he does not propose this model as a general "systematization" or a universal "discourse on the social world"; it is a temporary "machine for research" that "accomplishes and abolishes itself in the scientific work it has helped produce" (1993b:29; Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992:159-61; for discussion, see Calhoun et al 1993, Swartz 1997).
In contrast, W Wallace believes it is at last time for the theorist to codify a general "meta-language," "a single conceptual matrix" - consisting of eight basic descriptive and twelve explanatory variables - for use throughout sociology, the basis for a "discipline-wide consensus" (1988:60). With this program, he veers toward Project II, though Wallace makes no claims for a theoretical synthesis. He regards his matrix as furnishing only a general "nomenclature" for empirically oriented work, i.e. for the creation of "many kinds of descriptions and explanations" (1988:60, 1983:9).
Project II: Synthesis of Multiple Theoretical Approaches
The analysis of existing social theories that is often criticized by proponents of Project I actually animates a second contemporary project. This project rests on the conviction that it is now possible to achieve a comprehensive synthesis of previously divergent theoretical perspectives. According to some theorists, such a synthesis is well under way; for others, it is a vital opportunity now to be seized.
A decade ago, Ritzer (1988a, 1990a) forecast a coming era of theoretical synthesis, and today efforts toward synthesis can be found in various quarters: in Scheft's program to "assimilate [contending] theoretical proposals in the human sciences...within a much larger matrix" by use of a "micro-linguistic analysis of discourse" situated in "the context of larger wholes" (1997:7-10, see also 1990); in Runciman's macro-historical "theory of social relations, social structure, and social evolution," offered as a "general synthesis" aiming to "do for the study of societies what Darwin [did] for the study of species" (1989b:60, 449; 1989a: 13; see also 1983); and in Emirbayer's recent "manifesto for a relational sociology" that tries to rework "micro" and "macro" and to forge a "unitary frame of reference" upon which diverse social thinkers are said to be "fast converging" (1997:311-12; Emirbayer & Goodwin 1994).
The project of theoretical synthesis has also been embraced by some of the most widely discussed figures in contemporary theory. Included here are those broadly sympathetic with the research focus of Project I. J Turner, for example, has urged that steps be taken to break down the barriers that divide theorists and to advance toward a "theoretical synthesis" at the macro, mesa, and micro levels - …