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Metatheory in sociology is a relatively new specialty that aims to describe existing sociological theory systematically, and also, to some degree, to prescribe what future sociological theories ought to be like. It leaves to other specialties—most notably the sociology and history of sociology and the logic of theory construction—the problems of explaining and predicting how such theories have been, and can be, formulated.

There are two broad varieties of metatheory. One variety, synthetic, classifies whole theories according to some overarching typology; the other variety, analytic, first dissects theories into their underlying constituents and then classifies these constituents into types.

Some typologies encountered in synthetic metatheory refer to the time periods when the theories were originated, for example, forerunner, classical, and contemporary (Timasheff and Theodorson 1976 and Eisenstadt 1976 provide examples). Some refer to the places where the theories were originated, for example, France, Germany, Italy, and the United States (Bottomore and Nisbet 1978 and Gurvitch and Moore 1945 provide examples). Some refer to the substantive themes of the theories, for example, structural-functional, evolutionist, conflict, and symbolic interactionist (Turner 1986 and Collins 1988 provide examples). Some refer to the ideologies supported by the theories, for example, pro-establishment and anti-establishment (Martindale 1979 provides an example). Some refer to various combinations of all the above differences (Wiley 1979 and Ritzer 1983 provide examples).

Analytic metatheory is divisible into two broad classes: one in which the constituents of theories are required to have empirical referents, either directly or indirectly, and another in which these constituents are required or permitted to have nonempirical referents. Thus, one sociologist claims our theory should be brought "closer to nonempirical standards of objectivity" (Alexander 1982), while another claims "sense-based inter-subjective verification is indispensable [to sociology]" (Wallace 1983). (This difference in kind of analytic metatheory reflects an applicability of the synthetic-analytic distinction to metamethod in sociology: In the synthetic variety of metamethod, whole methods are characterized as empirical or nonempirical, positivistic or hermeneutical, experimental or participant-observational, and so on. In the analytic variety, such methods are dissected into their underlying constituents, which are then classified as measurement, interpretation, speculation, comparison, test, generalization, specification, deduction, induction, and so on.)

Some types of underlying constituents encountered in empirical analytic metatheory are "control" (Gibbs 1989); "individual actors," "corporate actors," "interests," and "rights" (Coleman 1990); "rational action," "nonrational action," "individualist order," and "collectivist order" (Alexander 1982); "social and cultural structures," "spatial and temporal regularities," "instinct," "enculture," "physiology," "nurture," "demography," "psychical contagion," "ecology," and "artifacts" (Wallace 1983, 1988); and general causal images like "convergence," "amplification," "fusion," "fission," "tension," "cross-pressure," "dialectic," and "cybernetic" (Wallace 1983, 1988). Some types of underlying constituents encountered in nonempirical analytic metatheory have been called (so far, without further explication or specification), "moral implication," "moral commitments," and "moral preferences" (Alexander 1982).

Metatheory in general has been sweepingly condemned as a dead end leading only to the study of "the grounds of other people's arguments rather than substantive problems" (Skocpol 1987), and as holding "little prospect for further developments and new insights" (Collins 1986). Against such characterizations, however, certain unique and indispensable contributions of both synthetic and analytic metatheory to sociology should not be overlooked.

Synthetic metatheory plays obviously central roles in descriptive classifications of sociological theory (e.g., textbooks and course outlines), but they are no less central to the sociology and history of sociology, where efforts to account for the rise and fall of schools, or perspectives, in sociological analysis require systematic conceptualization of such groupings. The contributions of nonempirical analytic metatheory remain unclear (as mentioned, the kinds of ideological commitment and moral foundation to which it refers, and their consequences for sociological theory, have yet to be specified) and, therefore, will not be examined here. The contributions of empirical analytic metatheory will occupy the rest of this article.


Empirical analytic metatheory can aid (1) systematic cumulation of the end product of sociological investigation (namely, collectively validated empirical knowledge about social phenomena); (2) systematic construction of new versions of the principal means employed in generating that end product (namely, collectively shared theory and method); and (3) a sense of discipline-wide solidarity among sociologists of all theoretical traditions, all specializations and, eventually one hopes, among all social scientists.

Cumulation of Sociological Knowledge Knowledge can only cumulate when new knowledge of a given phenomenon is added to old knowledge of that same phenomenon (or, rather, insofar as no phenomenon is ever repeated exactly, that same type of phenomenon). The key to holding such objects of investigation constant is, of course, communication. That is to say, only the communication to investigator B of the identity of the exact phenomenon investigator A has examined, together with the exact results of that examination, can enable investigator B systematically to add new knowledge to A's knowledge.

Disciplinary Communication Now it may be imagined that we already possess such communication in sociology, but we do not. Consider the terms social structure and culture. One can hardly doubt that, by denoting the substantive heart of our discipline, they indicate what the entire sociological enterprise is about. By virtually all accounts, however, each term signifies very different kinds of phenomena to different sociologists.

Thus, social structure has been authoritatively said, at various times for over two decades, to be "so fundamental to social science as to render its uncontested definition virtually impossible" (Udy 1968); to attract "little agreement on its empirical referents" (Warriner 1981); and to possess a meaning that "remains unclear" (Turner 1986). "Few words," it has been said, "do sociologists use more often than 'structure,' especially in the phrase 'social structure.' Yet we seldom ask what we mean by the word" (Homans 1975). In a more detailed statement, one analyst asserts that

The concept of social structure is used widely in sociology, often broadly, and with a variety of meanings. It may refer to social differentiation, relations of production, forms of association, value integration, functional interdependence, statuses and roles, institutions, or combinations of these and other factors. (Blau 1975)

Indeed, we can still read that "sociologists use the term ['social structure'] in diverse ways, each of which is either so vague as to preclude empirical application or so broad as to include virtually all collective features of human behavior" (Gibbs 1989). As recent evidence of this diversity, it is noteworthy that, where one sociologist claims that "for sociologists, the units of social structure are conceived of . . . as relational characteristics" (Smelser 1988), another refers, without explanation, to a type of "social structure" in which the participants "have no relations" (Coleman 1990).

The situation is no different with the term culture. Some years ago it was said that "by now just about everything has been thrown into 'culture' but the kitchen sink," and the author of this remark then reflected that "The kitchen sink has been thrown in too" as part of "material culture" (Schneider 1973). Years later, it has again been pointed out that "Theorists of culture remain sorely divided on how best to define culture" (Wuthnow et al. 1984) and "values, orientations, customs, language, norms, [and religion]" have been referred to as though they were all somehow different from "culture" (Coleman 1990). No wonder at least one sociologist has simply given up: "[A]ny definition" of culture, he claims, "will be (1) inclusive to the point of being meaningless, (2) arbitrary in the extreme, or (3) so vague as to promise only negligible empirical applicability" (Gibbs 1990).

More recently still, Gilmore affirms that "there is no current, widely accepted, composite resolution of the definition of culture," and claims that as a result "the contemporary concept of culture in sociology does not exclude any particular forms of [collective] activity." This difficulty notwithstanding, there has arisen, Gilmore says, "a new appreciation of the salience of culture as an explanatory perspective in contemporary sociological research" (1992). To the extent that these judgments are true, one can only wonder what contribution an explanatory perspective that lacks even a rudimentary and tentative definition of its own central variable (and which expresses a kitchen-sink inclusiveness that "does not exclude any particular empirical forms of activity") can possibly make to social science.

Regarding social structure, Rytina asserts his conviction that "Social structure is a general term for any collective social circumstance that is unalterable and given for the individual" and that such social structure "is the same for all and is beyond the capacity for alteration by any individual will" (1992). Apart from noticing, again, the kitchen-sink inclusiveness of this claim ("any collective social circumstance"), one wonders what good can come of conceptualizing social structure in a way that rules out the possibility of variable individual power (i.e., "the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will" [Weber 1978]). See, however, Sewell (1992) for explicit inclusion of "power" in structure"—although Sewell lumps "resources" and "schemas" (i.e., what others would distinguish as components of social structure and culture, respectively) together into a single undifferentiated "structure" concept.

Some other discussions of the ongoing social structure versus culture problem may be found in Emirbayer and Goodwin (1994), Hays (1994), Holmwood and Stewart (1994), Wallace (1986), and Whitmeyer (1994). It will also be noticed that in addition to "social structure" and "culture" the concept "agency" appears in some of these discussions, and a brief comment on it may be useful. Human "agency" is said, by Sewell, to refer to "the efficacy of human action," and to arise from the actor's "ability to apply [known schemas] to new contexts" and to act "creatively" (1992, pp. 2, 20). It is not easy to understand, however, why a special anthropocentric term is needed for such a phenomenon inasmuch as all action, by whatever agent, is (by any physical definition of "action") efficacious, and all "applications," by definition, occur in "new" contexts and are thus "creative."

In response to such expressions of disciplinary decline (and acknowledging their strong evidential basis), empirical analytic metatheory falls back on Durkheim's argument that insofar as "Every scientific investigation concerns a specific group of phenomena which are subsumed under the same definition," it follows that "[the] sociologist's first step must . . . be to define the things he treats so that we may know—he as well—exactly what his subject matter is. This is the prime and absolutely indispensable condition of any proof or verification" (1982).

Empirical analytic metatheory, then, seeks a common disciplinary language for sociologists everywhere, regardless of their specializations. Its proponents believe that only with the adoption of some such language can our discipline begin solving its central problems, namely, systematic knowledge cumulation, theory innovation, and solidarity enhancement.

(see also: Epistemology; Scientific Explanation)


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Walter L. Wallace