Building Bridges Between Theory and Research

By | December 13, 2017

If there is a theme running through my sociological writings (published stuff) and ramblings (blogged stuff), it is probably the attempt to build bridges between two discourses that I have long insisted have been too discrete, or non-dialectical, namely, social and sociological theory and empirical research. This was certainly an explicit intention behind the edited collection Sociological Theory and Medical Sociology published in 1987 (sort of updated in Contemporary Theorists for Medical Sociology, published in 2012). Predictably enough, I have on occasions found myself uncomfortably positioned, considered either insufficiently theoretical or insufficiently empirical. I have been able to live with this, not least because I condemn neither the one end of the spectrum nor the other, merely insist on the importance of sociology – as it were, as a community of scholarship and engagement – also meeting to shake hands mid-spectrum.  

Locating oneself mid-spectrum has a number of implications, apart from being regarded as a lightweight by hard-core theoreticians and no less unforgivinging empiricists. Hence this blog. First, it involves privileging coherent thinking, or theory formation, over fidelity to particular theorists. I have happened to profit most from Habermas and Bhaskar (and latterly Archer), but I feel under no obligation, beyond now and then defending them against misinterpretation, to practice, let alone demonstrate, textual loyalty. Indeed, I think Habermas distanced himself from Marx too early and too far, and Bhaskar allowed himself to drift off into the stratosphere without anticipating the need one day to return to relay his experiences to us mere earthlings. What counts in good professional sociology – discerning, describing and explaining social phenomena – can easily be sacrificed by misplaced loyalty. 

Second, a linked observation, over-allegiance to theorists or theories can lead to a neglect of the very considerable overlaps between them. A single example will have to suffice. Archer has been critical of, and distanced herself from, Bourdieu on agency. This is the legitimate stuff of ‘theoretical’ debate. However, there is no reason in my view why a sociologist engaged in substantive research should not learn both from Archer (say, on reflexivity) and Bourdieu (say, on habitus). The finer philosophical-cum-theoretical differences and disputes are not so much unimportant as superfluous ‘dead-ends’, that is, unless they have a direct bearing on the substantive business of discerning, describing and explaining. (My Ph.D supervisor, George Brown, tried to teach me this, but, coming to sociology with a philosophical bent, I was a reluctant and slow learner!)   

This neglect of overlap is encouraged by what in another blog I called the ‘compression of the past’. It is as if, a few classic texts notwithstanding, it is now only acceptable to cite very recent published work in either theory or research, the consequence being that we continually re-invent wheels that remain perfectly serviceable, just out of sight and half forgotten. 

Third, I want to pick up on the message of another prior blog, this time on ‘meta-reflection’. Sociology is replete with severely under-used resources, contemporary as well as past. Time-outs to review, think and rethink their lessons and continuing potential are a vital component of good professional practice. They are scarcer than they used to be due to the pressurised, metrical or McDonaldised (see Ritzer on ‘the irrationality of the rational’) field (Bourdieu again) of the neoliberal university. I have tried after this fashion to ‘reflect’ (it’s easier when you retire); and I have summoned up a handful of extant (Mertonian) middle-range theories from general sociology to help account for the impact of financial capitalism’s ‘class/command dynamic’ on deepening health inequalities in my Sociology, Health and the Fractured Society, to be published on 1 March 2018. 

Fourth, the issue of theoretical cross-fertilisation should in my view be emphasised. Habermas and Bhaskar have significant differences, but each could be mined for my purposes, whether my target was stigma or health inequalities, the former contributing substantively via his system/lifeworld dichotomy, the latter more philosophically via his explication of ‘really existing’ generative mechanisms. (Theoretical synthesis is an honourable project, jackdaw-like eclecticism a more suspect one.) And of course not just Habermas and Bhaskar (and Archer). Few major theorists do not get a positive mention in my forthcoming book! 

There is another aspect to cross-fertilisation, one taking us well beyond sociology, and one therefore calling for more imagination. Off the top of my head, consider this odd mix: 

  • Strawson on ‘individuals’ and the literature on personhood as prior to mind ‘versus’ body; 
  • Sartre on being ‘in-itself’, being ‘for-itself, and ‘becoming preceding being’; 
  • Merleau-Ponty on the phenomenology of the body; 
  • Bury on the ‘biographical disruption’ occasioned by (statistically) abnormal bodies; 
  • Post-structuralists on the implosion of ‘grand narratives’ with their tap roots in the European Enlightenment;  
  • Feminist and post-colonial theorists on the dominant ‘logics’ of patriarchy and racialism/tribalism; 
  • Disability theorists on impairment and social oppression and exploitation. 

And I could go on: my point being that only time-outs, wide-ranging reading and reflection can promise an optimal return from the scholarship that sits awaiting us in our libraries and, increasingly, electronically. These six items each have something to offer, and, between them, carry potential enough to challenge many a sociological orthodoxy. But what else lies there waiting, not least among the (still invisible and unpublished) non-fictional and fictional writings of women and people of colour? 

I close with a final note on the tension of halting mid-river, perching precariously on a newly constructed bridge (of sorts) between theory on one the bank and empirical research on the other. Surprisingly often colleagues on each bank seem predisposed to hack away the bridge’s anchorage (in fairness, careers can be at stake). Theory divorced from relevance and impact collects dust; empirical research devoid of thoughts about pertinent societal formations and change invites kicking into the long grass. What I have elsewhere (and doubtless a touch laboriously) called foresight sociology (orientated to alternative futures) and action sociology (oriented to an effective engagement for change) is surely dependent on the insistent, imaginative professional sociological task of discerning, describing and explaining core social phenomena. And that demands theory-based research in practice and not just rhetorically. 



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