The Meaning of ‘Theory’*


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    Direct correspondence to: Gabriel Abend, Department of Sociology, Northwestern University, 1810 Chicago Ave., Evanston, IL 60208 ( The origins of this paper lie in an invitation to reflect on the present and future of sociological theory. I am thankful to the organizers of the Junior Theorists Symposium 2005—Mathieu Deflem, Marion Fourcade, and Neil Gross—for this invitation, and to my discussant, Charles Camic. I also benefited from conversations with fellow “junior theorists” Pierre Kremp, Simone Polillo, Isaac Reed, Erika Summers-Effler, Jonathan VanAntwerpen, and Robb Willer. I presented a slightly different version of the argument at the 2005 Annual Retreat of the Society for Comparative Research, hosted by Central European University. At this conference I received useful suggestions from my discussant, Jack Goldstone, as well as from Carsten Schneider and Robin Stryker. Finally, I am indebted to Sareeta Amrute, Charles Camic, Mathieu Deflem, Marion Fourcade, Neil Gross, Carol Heimer, Adam Kissel, Donald Levine, Richard Morales, Michael Sauder, Arthur Stinchcombe, Devin B. Terhune, and the Sociological Theory editors and reviewers for their comments and criticisms on earlier drafts of this paper.


‘Theory’ is one of the most important words in the lexicon of contemporary sociology. Yet, their ubiquity notwithstanding, it is quite unclear what sociologists mean by the words ‘theory,’‘theoretical,’ and ‘theorize.’ I argue that confusions about the meaning of ‘theory’ have brought about undesirable consequences, including conceptual muddles and even downright miscommunication. In this paper I tackle two questions: (a) what does ‘theory’ mean in the sociological language?; and (b) what ought ‘theory’ to mean in the sociological language? I proceed in five stages. First, I explain why one should ask a semantic question about ‘theory.’ Second, I lexicographically identify seven different senses of the word, which I distinguish by means of subscripts. Third, I show some difficulties that the current lack of semantic clarity has led sociology to. Fourth, I articulate the question, ‘what ought “theory” to mean?,’ which I dub the ‘semantic predicament’ (SP), and I consider what one can learn about it from the theory literature. Fifth, I recommend a ‘semantic therapy’ for sociology, and advance two arguments about SP: (a) the principle of practical reason—SP is to a large extent a political issue, which should be addressed with the help of political mechanisms; and (b) the principle of ontological and epistemological pluralism—the solution to SP should not be too ontologically and epistemologically demanding.