Metatheorizing in Sociology

Shanyang Zhao. Handbook of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer & Barry Smart. 2001. Sage Publication.

Metatheorizing is a common practice in the field of sociology. While sociological theorizing attempts to make sense of the social world, metatheorizing in sociology attempts to make sense of sociological theorizing. Theorizing the practice of theorizing also takes place in other academic fields, but it has been particularly prevalent in sociology. The objective of this chapter is to examine the phenomenon of metatheorizing in sociology. More specifically, the chapter looks at (1) the definition of metatheorizing, (2) the prevalence of metatheorizing and (3) the central issues of metatheorizing. It concludes with a brief discussion on the future prospects of metatheorizing in sociology.

Definition of Metatheorizing

The prefix ‘meta’ connotes ‘after,’ ‘about,’ and ‘beyond,’ which is often used in describing ‘second order’ studies (McMullin, 1970). Let S denote a given subject of study. The study of S constitutes a first order study, S1; and the study of S1 constitutes a second order study, S2. The second order study, or metastudy, is thus the study of the study, which transcends as well as succeeds the first order study. The transcendental nature of metastudy entails a high level of reflexivity embodied in the critical self-examination by those engaged in the first order studies.

Not all studies of studies fall into the category of metastudy. A given Si can be a legitimate subject of such fields as history, literature, logic and philosophy. The historical study of sociology, for example, is not necessarily metasociological, for it may lack the kind of reflexivity or self-monitoring that is required of metastudy. Any first order study consists of at least the following three elements—purpose, process and product. The purpose of Si defines the aim of study or the type of knowledge to be gained through the study; the process of Si refers to the way in which the goal of study is to be reached; and the product of Si includes everything resulting from the study. The reflexivity of metastudy involves the continuous monitoring of the first order study by the practitioners through self-examination and self-direction. Self-examination entails (1) empirical assessment of the accomplishment (products) of the first order study and (2) critical evaluation of the appropriateness of the aim of study (purpose) as well as the effectiveness of the means of study (processes). The outcome of such examinations serves as the basis for self-direction, for example, either to continue the ongoing research activities or to make necessary changes. In sum, metastudy is the reflexive monitoring of the purpose, process and product of the first order study in the form of self-examination and self-direction by the practitioners.

Metastudy thus defined is distinguishable from ‘research reviews,’ that also takes as its subject matter the first order studies. Harris Cooper (1984: 11) divides research reviews into three basic types: (1) the theoretical review that involves the study of extant theories ‘with regard to their breadth, internal consistency, and the nature of their predictions’; (2) the methodological review that involves the study of ‘the research methods and operational definitions that have been applied to a problem area’; and (3) the integrative research review that involves the synthesis of research findings ‘by drawing overall conclusions from many separate studies that are believed to address related or identical hypotheses.’ The crucial difference between research reviews and metastudy lies in the fact that the former lacks an essential element of reflexivity, which is the defining characteristic of the latter. While the objective of research reviews is mainly to summarize by comparison and contrast the research findings on a given subject, metastudy involves critical reflections on the ongoing research in terms of ‘where we have been, where we are, [and] where we seem to be going’ (Fuhrman and Snizek, 1990: 27).

Metatstudy is therefore a normative endeavor aiming to make sense of and give directions to the first order studies. Metasociology is a subtype of metastudy, focusing on research activities in the field of sociology. Paul Furfey (1965: 8) defined metasociology as ‘an auxiliary science whose function is to determine for sociology criteria of scientific quality and criteria of relevance together with their practical application.’ Furfey began his metasociological treatise with an assumption that ‘sociology is a science’ and admitted that this untested postulate would ‘affect all decisions as to the nature of sociology and the methods appropriate for developing it’ (1965: 1). Furfey saw metasociology as composed of two major realms: logic and axiology, with the former furnishing the criteria of scientific quality and the latter providing the criteria of relevance and value judgement. Furfey was well aware that sociologists were not guided exclusively by the logic of science, for ‘extralogical’ factors such as usefulness, practicality and convenience would inevitably affect sociological practice. The purpose of metasociology was to examine those logical and extralogical presuppositions held by the sociologists.

Sociological metatheory is a subdomain of metasociology that examines research activities in theorizing within sociology. George Ritzer (1988: 188) defines metatheory as ‘the study of the underlying structure of sociological theory.’ Quoting Gouldner (1970: 46), Ritzer points out that metatheory is interested in getting at the ‘subtheoretical level of the “infrastructure” of theory.’ However, unlike Furfey, Ritzer opposes the metatheoretical attempt to lay down the prerequisites for doing theory. Ritzer argues that metatheorizing should concentrate on reflexive analysis of extant sociological theory rather than formulating a priori rules for theoretical practice. Ritzer (1990b) divides sociological metatheory into three types according to differences in the aim of metatheorizing. The first type of metatheory is a means of attaining a deeper understanding of theory (Mu) which involves the effort to uncover the underlying structure of extant sociological theory. The second type of metatheory is a prelude to theory development (Mp) which involves the study of sociological theory in order to produce new sociological theory. The third type of metatheory is a source of overarching perspective (Ma) in which the study of theory is oriented to the goal of producing a perspective that overarches some part or all of sociological theory. All these three types of metatheory take extant sociological theories as their subject matter and examine them reflexively.

Reflexivity is also an important component of Bourdieu’s conception of metatheory. Bourdieu believes that reflexive self-monitoring is required of all scientific enquiry, because ‘the scientific project and the very progress of science presuppose a reflective return to the foundation of science and the making explicit of the hypotheses and operations which make it possible’ (Bourdieu, 1971: 181). For Bourdieu, metatheory is a form of socioanalysis where the sociologist is to the social unconscious of society as the psychoanalyst is to the patient’s unconscious (Swartz, 1997). A reflexive return upon the practice of theorizing is a necessary means for freeing sociologists from the constraints of symbolic struggle in the domain of social science.

The term ‘metatheory’ has sometimes been equated with overarching theoretical perspectives or ‘frames of reference’ (Parsons, 1979/80). Metatheory in this sense becomes philosophical presuppositions about the social world rather than reflexive monitoring of the practice of theorizing about the social world. To avoid this terminological confusion, metatheory is used here to mean reflexive understanding of theorizing only, with metatheorizing referring to the activity of such reflections. The following section looks at the prevalence of metatheorizing in the field of sociology.

Prevalence of Metatheorizing

The practice of metatheorizing has encountered several sharp criticisms in sociology. A major objection to metatheorizing is that metatheory makes no substantive contributions to the understanding of the real world because it mostly ‘consists of commentaries on works of the past rather than constructions that are creative in their own right’ (Collins, 1986: 1343). Another critique is that metatheoretical reflections are often too philosophical or normative, which ‘embroils theorists in inherently unresolvable and always debatable controversies’ (Turner, 1991: 9). A third criticism is that metatheoretical analysis, conducted at the empirical level, usually involves nothing but stuffing the work of other sociologists into grossly oversimplified ‘pigeonholes’ (Skocpol, 1986). Metatheorizing has therefore been seen by some as a non-productive or even counter-productive intellectual exercise. Although the aforementioned charges are not entirely unfounded, they are not fair criticisms of metatheorizing as a whole. As is true of any other field of academic research, there are good as well as bad practices in metatheorizing. It is to be argued here that good practices of metatheorizing are not only possible but also indispensable in sociology.

According to the structuration theory, refiexivity is a defining character of human actors. Reflexivity involves the constant monitoring of the ongoing flow of social action that is essential to the continuity of social life. ‘To be a human being is to be a purposive agent, who both has reasons for his or her activities and is able, if asked, to elaborate discursively upon those reasons (including lying about them)’ (Giddens, 1984: 3). The knowledge ability of human agents takes the forms of both discursive and practical consciousness. Under the normal condition of theory construction, the continuous monitoring of theorizing is largely maintained at the practical consciousness level. Although not engaged in direct metatheoretical discourse, most theorists are able, if asked, to articulate what they are doing, how they are doing it, and why they do what they are doing. Any theorist in this sense is potentially a metatheorist. The reflexive monitoring, however, takes a discursive turn when the taken-for-granted routine of theory construction becomes problematic, in which case intense episodes of explicit metatheoretical discourse inevitably ‘erupt’ (Weinstein and Weinstein, 1992).

While it is true that metatheoretical discourses also take place in other fields (Connolly, 1973; Fiske and Schweder, 1986; Noblit and Hare, 1988; Radnitzky, 1973), it has been particularly common and frequent in sociology. The prevalence of sociological metatheorizing has been attributed, among other things, to the lack of a unified disciplinary matrix (Wallace, 1988), weak institutional control (Turner and Turner, 1990), and the proliferation of specialties and sub-fields (Collins, 1986). Amain argument to be advanced in this chapter is that the fundamental cause of the prevalence of metatheorizing in the field of sociology lies in the ontology of the social world rather than in the epistemology of sociological research.

First of all, sociologists are dealing with a subject matter that is culturally diverse and historically specific (Calhoun, 1992). The human world consists of a multitude of meaningful contexts in which social reality is being defined and redefined by individuals located within different segments of a given social structure. The existence of multiple and contradictory meanings, values and interests both within and across cultural boundaries invalidates many universal truth claims. Furthermore, the meaning context of a given social structure is not invariant. Each generation, or each cohort within a generation, reconstructs the manifold sociocultural world as its members interact with one another and with the changing historical contingencies in which they all find themselves. The mutability of meaning contexts and social practices makes the laws of society inconstant. The persistent failure to discover universal truth and invariant laws in the social world has awakened the metatheoretical consciousness of many sociological theorists.

Secondly, in the realm of sociology, the knower and the known are intricately interconnected. Sociologists are an integral part of the social reality they attempt to theorize. Being encapsulated in a unique cultural tradition, located within a given sociopolitical structure, and affected by various personal interests in the lifeworld, no sociologists are able to escape the grip of certain types of prejudice and bias that come with their situatedness. As a result, theoretical stances taken in sociological discourse are invariably bound up with practical options in life. The clashes of multiple paradigms and grand narratives competing for authenticity and symbolic power in the realm of sociological theorizing create a perfect condition for the emergence of metatheoretical discourse. ‘The ground for the possibility of metatheory is the multiplicity of theorization in sociology, which permits a second-level theorization about the process of constituting and the form of the theoretical object’ (Weinstein and Weinstein, 1992: 140).

Finally, in sociology not only is the knower related to the known but also is theory integrated with practice. As the knowledge of a situation affects the decision of an actor, social theory constitutes an essential part of the condition of social action. Social theories do more than explain social reality; they define situations for the members of a society and orient them in action. Thus, ‘discourse about society reflects and engenders discourse within society’ (Brown, 1992: 237), and ‘accepting a theory can itself transform what that theory bears on’ (Taylor, 1985: 101). This constitutive power of theory obliges many sociologists to engage in metatheorizing, where ‘it continually turns back onto itself the scientific weapons it produces. It is fundamentally reflexive in that it uses the knowledge it gains of the social determinations that may bear upon it… in an attempt to master and neutralize their effects’ (Bourdieu, in Wacquant, 1996: 226-7).

To a large extent, the ontological conditions for active self-examination outlined above exist in most other social sciences, and it is perhaps the primary reason why metatheoretical debates have taken place in virtually all branches of social enquiry. Sociology, however, stands out as a field where metatheorizing has been particularly prevalent. It can be argued even that the founding of sociology itself was a product of metatheorizing. Auguste Comte ([1830-1842] 1974) pronounced the birth of sociology through reflecting on the trajectory of the progress of human knowledge. According to Comte, the development of science is incomplete until it covers the domain of human society. Sociology, or ‘social physics’ as he first called it, is to be the culmination of the advancement of positive science. Comte’s metatheoretical prophecy inspired generations of sociologists in search of a scientific theory of human society which is comparable to the theory of the physical world. However, the failure to construct such a theory after persistent efforts made by many generations of devoted theorists has resulted in a growing sense of disciplinary crisis leading to waves of intense metatheoretical confrontations.

Incessant metatheoretical discourse is, therefore, a reflection of prolonged disciplinary crises. The crisis of sociological theorizing has resulted from the unresolved controversies over the purpose, process and product of theorizing. The practice of theorization is regarded as normal or routine if the majority of the practitioners are satisfied with the outcome of theorizing. Problems occur, however, when significant numbers of the practitioners become dissatisfied with what they end up with and start to question either the appropriateness of the purpose, or the effectiveness of the process, of their theorization. An even graver situation emerges when the practitioners begin to question both the purpose and the process of theorizing. And this is precisely what has happened in the realm of sociological theorizing.

The coming of age of metatheorizing in American sociology, for example, can be traced to the collapse of the dominant sociological paradigm during the 1960s. The social facts paradigm, especially its theoretical component, Parsonian functionalism, had dominated American sociology for more than two decades before it was seriously challenged by two rival paradigms: the social definition paradigm and the social behavior paradigm (Ritzer, 1975). The emergence of a multiparadigmatic structure in sociology in the late 1960s destroyed the unity of the discipline and fragmented sociological research. There was a widespread feeling that a general crisis of sociology was on the horizon (Gouldner, 1970). It was this sense of imminent disciplinary crisis that aroused interest in metastudy. ‘Thus, only as the discipline discovered its consolidated paradigm—system—in grave difficulty was it tempted to open the Pandora’s box that was the sociology of sociology’ (Friedrichs, 1970: 31).

A major eruption of discipline-wide metatheorizing in sociology began with an outburst of interest in the methodology of theory construction (Blalock, 1969; Dubin, 1969; Gibbs, 1972; Hage, 1972; Mullins, 1971; Reynolds, 1971; Stinchcombe, 1968; Wilier, 1967; Zetterberg, 1954/1963/1965). The inability to discover scientific laws of society had been initially attributed to the deficiencies in the methodology of theory construction. Only when the allegedly improved techniques again failed to produce the desired theory, did sociologists begin to look beyond methodology for an explanation. This new effort resulted in what has since been known as the sociology of sociology, which links the disciplinary problems of sociology to changes in the larger society (Friedrichs, 1970; Gouldner, 1970). The findings of metatheorizing damaged the cherished image of sociology as a science, which, along with the influence of Kuhn’s ([1962] 1970) popular work on paradigms in the natural sciences, led to vigorous debates over the paradigmatic status of sociology (Eckberg and Hill, 1979; Effrat, 1972; Friedrichs, 1970; Ritzer, 1975). These debates eventually developed into a full-scale metaanalytic examination of the discipline that covered not only theory but also methods and data analysis (Brewer and Hunter, 1989; Fiske and Schweder, 1986; Hunter and Schmidt, 1989; Osterberg, 1988; Ritzer, 1988; Wolf, 1986).

Metatheorizing was formalized as a sub-field within sociology in the early 1990s. Toward the end of the 1980s, Ritzer (1988) published an influential article in Sociological Theory, delineating for the first time the parameters of metatheory as a sub-field in sociology. In the subsequent years, Ritzer edited two high-profile journal symposia (1990, 1991a) and published a series of articles and books (1991b, 1992), all devoted to the topic of metatheorizing in sociology. These publications, along with the ensuing commentaries, ushered in the coming of age of sociological metatheorizing, which finally came out of the closet of sociology and became a legitimate field of intellectual enquiry in social research.

Central Issues of Metatheorizing

Metatheoretical discourse in sociology has touched on a wide range of issues that are central to sociological theorizing. This section is devoted to the examination of three such issues. The first is related to the purpose of sociological theorizing, namely, the question of what sociological theory is and what it is for. The second issue deals with the process of sociological theorizing, focusing on the methodology of theory construction and verification. The third issue involves the evaluation of the product or the outcome of sociological theorizing. None of these issues has been satisfactorily resolved, but reflections on them have increased our understanding of the nature of sociological theorizing.

Purpose of Sociological Theorizing

The field of sociology since the collapse of the Parsonian paradigm has been marked with an impressive boom in empirical research but an increasing fragmentation in theorizing. Up to this point, sociologists have been unable to reach a consensus on such fundamental issues as what constitutes sociological theory and what sociological theorizing is supposed to accomplish. Based on answers to these questions, three major metatheoretical positions can be identified, which are labeled here nomological, interpretive and normative, respectively.

Those who hold the nomological position argue that the goal of sociological theorizing is to discover universal laws of the social, and theory is nothing but a concise summary of such laws. The following quotations from Zetterberg ([1954] 1963/1965) best represent this perspective:

I want to pursue sociological theory in the sense of systematically organized law-like propositions about society and social life. As a reminder that this is a different breed of animal, I shall speak of it as ‘theoretical sociology’ rather than ‘social theory,’ (p. 5)

The assumption here is that sociology will eventually discover a small number of propositions that are valid in several diverse contexts … This approach represents what we see as the main task of the sociological theorist—that is, the discovery of general propositions, (pp. 8-9)

For nomological theorists, therefore, the goal of theorizing is to discover general laws of human society and to put them together systematically in the form of sociological theory which is distinguishable from discursive social theory.

In recent years a mechanism-based approach to theorizing has emerged as an alternative to the search for general laws of society. This approach ‘seeks to explicate the social mechanisms that generate and explain observed associations between events’ (Hedstrom and Swedberg, 1998: 1). Theories of social mechanisms are distinguished from variable-based statistical analysis on the one hand and narrative accounts for unique events on the other. The objective of this approach is to discover causal mechanisms capable of explaining a wide range of social situations. Mechanisms are a special type of causal laws that operate in systems like biology, machines and human society (Luhmann, 1995). A mechanism generates a predictable outcome in a given environment. In the sense that like mechanisms produce like outcomes in like environments, theories of social mechanisms are nomological in nature.

The nomological approach to theorizing has been criticized by the interpretive sociologists who argue that the aim of sociological theorizing is not to uncover laws of society but to interpret the meaning of human action and to understand the lifeworld in which human actors live. As Taylor (1985: 91) put it:

There is a constant temptation to take natural science theory as a model for social theory: that is, to see theory as offering an account of underlying processes and mechanisms of society, and as providing the basis of a more effective planning of social life. But for all the superficial analogies, social theory can never really occupy this role.

Social theory is … concerned with finding a more satisfactory fundamental description of what is happening. The basic question of all social theory is in a sense: what is really going on?

Sociological theories are therefore narrative tales about human society and tradition. Levine (1995), for example, subsumes extant sociological theories under six ‘narrative types’: positivist, pluralist, synthetic, humanistic, contextualist and dialogical. The dialogical narrative is regarded as most appropriate for sociology because it is able to ‘make respectful contact with each of the other narratives and to bring them into fruitful conversation with one another’ (Levine, 1995: 327).

Normative theorists, however, differentiate themselves from both nomological and interpretative sociologists in seeing sociological theorizing as a form of social practice. Most Marxian sociologists and critical theorists belong to this camp. For them, sociological theory does not answer the question of ‘What is?’ but rather ‘What ought to be?’ The purpose of sociological theorizing is to articulate and advocate positions for social action. Steven Seidman (1991: 132) describes this metatheoretical position in the following way:

I’d like to posit a distinction between social theory and sociological theory. Social theories typically take the form of broad social narratives. They relate stories of origin and development, tales of crisis, decline, or progress. Social theories are typically closely connected to contemporary social conflicts and public debates. These narratives aim not only to clarify an event or a social configuration but also to shape its outcome—perhaps by legitimating one outcome or imbuing certain actors, actions, and institutions with historical importance while attributing to other social forces malicious, demonic qualities. Social theory relates moral tales that have practical significance; they embody the will to shape history.

Contrary to Zetterberg, who sought to replace discursive social theory with formalistic sociological theory about half a century ago, Seidman is now seeking to replace sociological theory with social theory. Instead of looking for objective laws of society that are universally valid, Seidman argues for morally charged narratives that are locally based. Sociological theory has thus come full circle, ending where it started.

Disagreements among sociologists on the purpose of theorizing reflect fundamental differences in the understanding of the ontology of human society and the nature of sociological knowledge. Resolution of such disagreements requires a new conceptualization of a manifold social world that calls for the application of a variety of theoretical approaches, including nomological, interpretive and normative perspectives. It is essential as a first step to delineate at the analytical level the conditions under which the application of a given perspective is valid. The responsibility of a theorist is to recognize the given conditions of practice and to determine the appropriateness of the use of a given theoretical approach. The issue is then not which approach is ultimately right for sociological theorizing, but rather which approach is appropriate under the given conditions of social practice.

Process of Sociological Theorizing

Sociological theorists disagree among themselves not only on the end (purpose) but also the means (process) of theorizing. Those holding the nomological position believe that universal laws of society can be discovered if the correct methodology of theorizing is employed. The reason that so few, if any, universal laws of society have been found is mainly because of sociologists’ ‘ignorance about what scientific knowledge should look like and how it is created’ (Reynolds, 1971: 163). This belief in scientific methodology led to the launching of a theory construction movement in sociology in the 1950s (Zhao, 1996). The objective of this movement was to codify the procedures of sociological theorizing by imposing on the discipline a verificational approach to theory construction (Merton, 1949/1957/1968). Theories were to be verified by testing the hypotheses derived from them against empirical facts. Although the movement was later declared a failure (Hage, 1994), efforts to look for the right methodology of discovering the laws of the social have continued (Freese, 1980; Turner, 1989).

The interpretive position on sociological theorizing, however, has given rise to an entirely different methodological approach to theoretical development. The inability to understand the lifeworld of others is primarily attributed to the lack of intuitions and to the differences in the way of living. As Taylor (1985) pointed out, hermeneutical understanding requires a certain measure of insight that is inherently ‘unformalizable,’ for the gap in intuitions is a result of ‘divergent options in politics and life.’ In order to understand others, one needs to sharpen one’s intuitions; but to sharpen one’s intuitions, one has to change one’s way of life, or to live in a way that allows for greater comprehension of others. ‘Thus, in the science of man insofar as they are hermeneutical there can be a valid response to “I don’t understand” which takes the form, not only “develop your intuitions”, but more radically “change yourself” (Taylor, 1985: 54). Sociological theorizing is, in this sense, an effort to foster the ‘fusion of horizons’ in social life (Gadamer, 1975).

The normative approach to theorizing differs from both nomological and interpretive positions in that it sees the processes of theorizing as ‘entering] constitutively into the world they describe’ (Giddens, 1987: 20). By advocating ‘what ought to be there,’ instead of uncovering ‘what is out there,’ sociological theorizing becomes ‘a mode of altering reality, not by the direct application of energy to objects, but by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action’ (Bitzer, 1968). As the aim of theorizing is no longer to make social theory correspond to the social world but to make the social world ‘conform to’ social theory, the success of theorizing is marked by the actualization of what is advocated rather than by the verification of what is uncovered. Sociological theorizing thus becomes a form of social practice, where the emphasis is on the advocacy of reality rather than the discovery of reality, on the actualization of ideas rather than the verification of ideas, on manipulation rather than confirmation.

Product of Sociological Theorizing

Metatheoretical discourse in this realm involves the evaluation of the outcome of sociological theorizing. People from the nomological camp tend to evaluate theoretical progress in terms of the accumulation of empirically tested theories. Theoretical accumulation is taken ‘to mean that certain fundamental and crucial problems in theory have been resolved or superseded in such a way as to permit more general, sophisticated and systematic theory to develop as the framework for research activity within the sociology community’ (Turner, 1989: 131). David Wagner (1984) broadens the criteria of theory assessment to include the following five dimensions of theoretical development: elaboration, variation, proliferation, integration and competition. Using these criteria, Wagner was able to show that cumulative theoretical growth is not only possible but also occurs frequently in contemporary sociology.

The criteria used by interpretive sociologists for theory evaluation is not the establishment and accumulation of factual interpretation of human action, but the enlightenment the interpretation brings to the audience and the new light the theory sheds upon the understanding of self and society. As understanding is an effort to place oneself ‘within a process of tradition, in which past and present are constantly fused’ (Gadamer, 1975: 258), knowing is inherently a historical process. Truth is not the imposition of theorists’ interpretation on society, nor is it the removal of theorists’ subjective bias in order to let social facts ‘speak for themselves.’ Truth is rather defined by the value the interpretation has for the comprehension of the knower’s own being in the world (Hoy, 1978). Good sociological theories should then provide people with a type of knowledge that enables them to see a new horizon of life and to advance beyond their current understanding of themselves and their relationships with others.

To the normative theorists, however, the criterion for theory evaluation is neither factual representation nor enlightening interpretation, but the power a theory possesses to change reality. The integration of knowing and action in the practice of sociological theorizing renders the nomological mode of theory verification inapplicable. The emphasis on changing the object of theorizing rather than on enlightening the knowing subjects also makes the interpretive criterion inadequate, for theory as practice can only be validated by the impact the theory produces on practice. ‘To test the theory in practice means here not to see how well the theory describes the practices as a range of independent entities; but rather to judge how practices fare when informed by the theory’ (Taylor, 1985: 113). Although social theory alone cannot bring about the success of social practice, social practice cannot succeed without social theory. To test the validity of a social theory is thus to examine the contribution that the theory made to the outcome of a given social practice.

Although Wagner has been able to show some evidence for a cumulative progress in nomological theorizing, others are less impressed with the limited accomplishment. They point to the paucity of general sociological laws and argue that nomological theoretical formulations in sociology are at best local knowledge limited in its scope of application. James Rule’s, for example, describes contemporary sociological theory as ‘a succession of short-lived visions, each satisfying a specific and ephemeral theoretical taste’ (1994: 244). In cases where the validity of a theory appears to be universal and invariant, the content of such theory is invariably banal and commonsensical. The evaluation of interpretive theory yields a different kind of problem. The shift of focus from factual representation to subjective interpretation removes the foundation upon which the truth claims of a theory can be objectively validated (Antonio, 1991). The same critique can be made of normative theory which in essence defines truth in terms of the outcome of action. These unresolved yet important metatheoretical issues reveal the grave complexity of sociological theorizing which necessitates a heightened level of critical reflection by sociological theorists.


Metatheorizing is a constant condition of theorizing in sociology. Metatheorizing involves the reflexive monitoring of the practice of theorizing, the awareness of the intricate connectedness of sociologists with the social world they study, and the concern about the moral responsibilities that sociologists hold for the theories they advocate. Metatheorizing never dies: it comes and goes, erupts and subsides, responding to the changing situations in ‘first-order’ theorizing. If sociological theorizing is an arduous journey to an unfamiliar territory, then metatheorizing represents frequent pauses for rest, consulting maps, revising travel plans, or even having second thoughts about the final destination. The more difficult the journey is, the more pauses there will be. It is therefore the problematic condition of theorizing that leads to the prevalence of metatheorizing, not the prevalence of metatheorizing that causes the problematic condition of theorizing. As many of the problems associated with sociological theorizing are ontological in nature, metatheorizing will always be a part of sociology.