Joining the Conversation: Why Study Theory?
If you are a student of sociology, one of the first things you learn is about theory. You are probably also required to take an entire course in sociological theory, which is not always students’ favorite course in the major. In our program, many students try and put it off, are told by others that it is “hard” or don’t see why they need it anyway.
When you become a student of sociology—or any other discipline, for that matter—you are joining a conversation already in progress. In the case of sociology, a conversation that has been taking place for more than a century and a half. In order to understand the conversation, and hopefully add to it yourself, it is important to know what everyone has been talking about.
Maybe you have something to add that no one has talked about yet, and need to convince the others why your idea matters. In order to do so, it would be helpful to point out how important it is in light of the conversation that has taken place. This is why when we have new ideas, it is vital to show how it is linked with or a departure from previous theories, to provide context to the conversation that has been taking place.
It’s also important to know who started the conversation and why. In sociology, there are a few people whose ideas we regularly study. Émile Durkheim is one of the key founders of the discipline. Not only did he theorize about the ways in which societies operated, noting distinctions between industrial and pre-industrial societies, he detailed how sociology should operate in The Rules of Sociological Method. In this text, he argued that social facts are separate entities from people and should be studied as such.
Of course, not everyone in the conversation has to agree with Durkheim—this is what makes the conversation interesting. Many scholars, such as Max Weber would argue that social facts can never be separated from people, and that how people make sense of such phenomena is what matters most.
The debates and even arguments that erupt over time give life to any discipline; as students of a discipline we don’t have to choose sides, but instead we should know that these debates have been about. We are certainly not limited to participating in the same debates, and might have some new ideas that borrow from different perspectives. But we first have to know what these perspectives are about.
Let's go back to the room analogy. What if you burst into a room of people talking about solving a particular problem; in your excitement, you share your solution. But how much do you really know about the nature of the problem the others were trying to solve? Whether your solution had been tried already, and if so, what the results had been? This is why we need to listen first and learn about the conversation in order to understand how our ideas fit it.
This doesn’t mean the conversation has remained the same since Durkheim first published his work in the nineteenth century. There have been moments where someone “interrupts” and suggests that we think about things differently. In the mid-twentieth century, C. Wright Mills argued that sociologists needed to broaden the discussion to include the general public and make sociology more accessible.
Mills also offered critiques of the dominant perspective of American sociology at the time, and insisted that sociologists better connect individuals’ experiences with the larger social structure. He was very aware of the previous conversation and debates, as he and co-author Hans Gerth translated Weber’s wok into English, and his book The Marxists looks critically at the application of Karl Marx’s ideas about capitalism within sociology.
You don’t have to become a social theorist to understand the importance of the conversation that has been taking place. Yes, the conversation can sometimes be philosophical and abstract, but understanding its roots will give you a foundation in sociological thought.