Why is Social Theory So Boring?

David Hume and Adam Smith
So they’re old, dead and white. But before David Hume and Adam Smith were locked into stone, they were vibrant thinkers willing to take risks in parlous times.

One nice thing about the role of a consulting sociologist is being able to step outside the tunnel vision of one department in one university. As a discipline we are surprisingly poor at doing this, given that our USP is supposed to be our skill in thinking about systems as a whole. A comment from one department is an anecdote: comments from half a dozen suggest that there might be a problem worth discussing. In this case, it seems that theory modules are being squeezed out of UK sociology degrees because students find them boring. They give these modules low scores on course evaluations and Deans ask why they are still being taught. Theory does not seem to be quite as unpopular as quantitative methods but it is harder to market as an employability skill.

For an older generation, it is, of course, almost unimaginable that a sociology degree should lack a substantial spine of theory modules. There were some experiments in the late 1960s and early 1970s with alternative models. When I was a PhD student in Aberdeen, the department had just abandoned an attempt to teach theory exclusively through courses on substantive topics. There was no question of dropping theory so much as working from a matrix that mapped theory and topic onto each other. The department still intended to secure coverage of the classic canon by these means – but found that it did not give students a coherent experience and gave up the experiment within a couple of years. Today, the issue seems to be whether theory can survive at all.

Is part of the problem to do with how we teach theory? Many of the courses and texts that I have come across in recent years seem to separate the work, the context and the author in ways that seem calculated to bore students. Theory has drifted off into some kind of sub-specialty that has lost contact with its purpose of making it possible to transfer empirical knowledge from one context to another. Abstraction and generalization allow us to study the new out of our experience with the old. They bring out connections that would otherwise be invisible. In this sense, theory can actually make a profound contribution to the employability agenda, if that is a concern.

Of course, as professional sociologists, we do tend to decouple texts from their authors. We are more concerned with what is said than who said it. But this does not necessarily make sense to our students when we are passing the discipline on. It comes with a cost. Do we do enough to communicate the way in which sociological theories arise from historical circumstances? Authors are looking out of their windows, observing changes in the world and trying to make sense of them.

Theory is not an abstract exercise but an attempt to deal with real and urgent problems. It is also dangerous. The trite narrative of ‘dead white men’ misses the risks that they took to challenge accepted ways of thinking and the social order that they sustained. These men often put their lives and liberty on the line. They were not the comfortable and entitled figures that we sometimes see today. It is easy to be a critical theorist from a tenured chair at an R1 university. In the 17th century, criticism might well mean exile, a prison sentence or public mutilation, if not execution.

Do we tell good stories about our theorists? Think of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, trying to think about what happened when you executed a king and needed to reconstruct the political order? Both spent time in exile for their work. Hobbes eventually left London for the country to lower his profile and escape inquiries into his (lack of) religious beliefs. David Hume was investigated for heresy in Scotland, only a generation or so after an Edinburgh student had been executed for professing atheism. His great friend, Adam Smith, was more opaque and managed to fly under the radar of the Presbyterian Church. As student, both had been part of the ramshackle militia assembled to guard Edinburgh as the 1745 Jacobite rebellion rolled through.

Take a later generation. Do we think enough about Durkheim as a man of Jewish descent trying to make an academic career at a period of acute anti-Semitism in France? Being a secular Jew was no protection against the prejudices that permeated the country in which he lived. We have an image of Max Weber as an austere German professor, carefully cultivated by his widow’s biography. This glosses over the non-consummation of their marriage and his relationships with various mistresses and visits to a community of free-loving vegetarians at Ascona. Among his lovers was Else von Richthofen, a cousin of the Red Baron, the World War I flying ace, and sister to Frieda, who left her English professor husband for his student, DH Lawrence. Although Max features only through his brother Alfred Weber, the social and erotic world of Munich on the eve of the First World War is vividly captured by Annabel Abbs’s recent novel, Frieda. There are many equally colorful stories in the margins of American sociology from the same period, although these are less well documented.

We can be terribly prudish about our discipline. There is some good reason for this if we are trying to establish a reputation for scholarship and rigor in the face of a popular image of sociology as a refuge for ‘nuts, sluts and perverts’ as we have often been represented. If we carry this too far, though, perhaps we are missing something that might be important in attracting and engaging the attention of our students. The great canon of sociological theory was not created by boring old men leading dull and uninteresting lives. Why do we so often make it sound as though it was?

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Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall is a professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University. He also serves as a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

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Sawadogo Nate

Ithanks Prof Dingwall for this provocative post. you’ve really made the point. In the natural sciences, so often, the detached character of theories goes with association with authors. There theory is less boring e.g Mendelian theory ; Pythagoras theorem etc. The quest for scientific identity may have driven us too far beyond even the model discipline

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