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Abend - The Meaning of the Theory

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The Meaning of ‘Theory’ G ABRIEL A BEND Northwestern University ‘Theory’ is one of the most important words in the lexicon of contemporary so- ciology. Yet, their ubiquity notwithstanding, it is quite unclear what sociologists mean by the words ‘theory,’ ‘theoretical,’ and ‘theorize.’ I argue that confusions about the meaning of ‘theory’ have brought about undesirable consequences, in- cluding conceptual muddles and even downright miscommunication. In this paper I tackle two questions: (a) what does ‘theory’ mean in the sociological language?; and (b) what ought ‘theory’ to mean in the sociological language? I proceed in five stages. First, I explain why one should ask a semantic question about ‘theory.’ Second, I lexicographically identify seven different senses of the word, which I dis- tinguish by means of subscripts. Third, I show some difficulties that the current lack of semantic clarity has led sociology to. Fourth, I articulate the question, ‘what ought “theory” to mean?,’ which I dub the ‘semantic predicament’ (SP), and I consider what one can learn about it from the theory literature. Fifth, I recommend a ‘semantic therapy’ for sociology, and advance two arguments about SP: (a) the principle of practical reason—SP is to a large extent a political issue, which should be addressed with the help of political mechanisms; and (b) the principle of ontological and epistemological pluralism—the solution to SP should not be too ontologically and epistemologically demanding. 1. INTRODUCTION ‘Theory’ is one of the most important words in the lexicon of contemporary sociol- ogy. I am not referring only—in fact, not principally—to the subfield of sociological theory. The words ‘theory,’ ‘theoretical,’ and ‘theorize’ are constantly and consequen- tially used by all sociologists. For instance, one way of describing what sociologists of social movements do is to say that they develop ‘theories’ about social movements. What sociologists of the family do is to develop ‘theories’ about the family. And so on. Moreover, it is a widespread belief that empirical sociological research should be driven or informed by ‘theory.’ Thus, sociology journals tend to reject ‘atheoret- ical’ and ‘undertheorized’ papers, as well as papers that fail to make a ‘theoretical Direct correspondence to: Gabriel Abend, Department of Sociology, Northwestern University, 1810 Chicago Ave., Evanston, IL 60208 ([email protected]). The origins of this paper lie in an in- vitation to reflect on the present and future of sociological theory. I am thankful to the organizers of the Junior Theorists Symposium 2005—Mathieu Deflem, Marion Fourcade, and Neil Gross—for this in- vitation, and to my discussant, Charles Camic. I also benefited from conversations with fellow “junior
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