Sociology Mind
2014. Vol.4, No.1, 61-73
Published Online January 2014 in SciRes (
Look Ma, We’re Still Theorizing: The Continued Search for
Theoretical Integration
Kathleen Waggoner1, Eric Roark2
1Departments of Sociology and Political Science, Iowa State University, Ames, USA
2Department of Philosophy, Millikin University, Decatur, USA
Received September 18th, 2013; revised November 9 th, 2013; accepted November 28th, 2013
Copyright © 2014 Kathleen Waggoner, Eric Ro ark. This is an open access articl e distributed u nder the Creative
Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium,
provided the original work is properly cited. In accordance of the Creative Commons Attribution License all
Copyrights © 2014 are reserved for SCIRP and the ow ner of the intellectual prop erty Kathleen Waggoner, Eric
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In this paper, we explore the often-fractured attempt at theoretical integration within contemporary socio-
logical thought. Theoretical integration was a goal of the early pioneers of sociology but has since been
discounted by many as unattainable idealistic vision. We challenge this virtually universal assessment.
The belief that theoretical integration is beyond grasp has been owed to a number of debates within con-
temporary sociological thought, including but not limited to, those surrounding human nature and ratio-
nality. We conclude our paper with a proposal for a new direction forward and a hopeful starting place for
a promising integrated sociological perspective.
Keywords: Sociological Theory; Sociological Integration; Max Weber
Charles Perrow recently reported that he was amazed at how
much more social scientists know today, and how much more
sophisticated the field of sociology is, particularly in the areas
which most interest him, including organizations, structure, and
society. This was, he said without further elaboration, his con-
clusion in spite of many criticisms he continues to get hold of
the current direction that the discipline is taking. Perrow has
come a long way since his 1981 comment that theoretically,
Neither social scientists nor people in general are as smart
and rational as we think they are. Social scientists mask this
reality by desperately trying to make sense of many things that
are really quite senseless when examined closely. Yet they con-
vey the impression of lawful, even rational behavior because of
research techniques that are largely self-serving.” (Perrow,
1981: p. 2).
The authors hold that, while some advancement since Per-
row’s 1981 comments has been made, there is little good reason
for a bright-eyed sense of optimism as the current state of soci-
ological theory is concerned. This is because sociological the-
ory has, to a significant degree, failed t he challenge of theoreti-
cal integration. With that said, this article will offer a survey
evaluation and critical treatment of the general state of socio-
logical theory, tracing prominent changes from the 1960s to the
present. The authors offer an identification of issues relevant to
the crisis that has faced the discipline, particularly since Ritz-
ers seminal work on sociology as a multiple paradigm science
was published in 1975.
This paper strives to advocate for the need to incorporate
greater efforts at theoretical integration into sociological theory.
Specifically, we call for a greater integration of both structural
and individualistic accounts of social action as means to better
describe the social world. We reject the view that either an
entirely positivistic or hermeneutic approach can adequately
account for the complexities of social reality. What is needed is
a blended or integrated approach to social theory. We argue in
the second section of the paper that the lack of theoretical inte-
gration within social theory, and sociology generally, has con-
tributed to a sociological crisis in which increasingly less social
knowledge is being produced. Poor theoretical integration
amounts to the poor generation of social knowledge. The de-
velopment of an integrated social theory is a substantial step
toward expanding sociological knowledge and reach. A primary
contribution of this paper is that it chronicles and exposes the
limitations of non-integrated social theory while at the same
time offering a way forward to better describe and understand
the social world through increased theoretical integration.
We continue in the third and fourth sections to explore the
ways in which, for the most part, efforts at theoretical integra-
tion have been unsuccessful and often been unfortunately su b-
ject to attack. The fifth section of the paper chronicles the ways
in which traditional ones, that is to say positivistic approaches
to social theory, have served as barriers to an integrated ap-
proach to social theory. Sections 6 through 9 focus on the role
of values and the notion of value-free social theory and research.
In these sections, we specifically examine the role that the treat-
ment of rationality has played in fostering a nonintegrated ap-
proach to social theory. We propose that the inclusion of ratio-
nality in its means-end form can only typically offer a trivial
benefit to social theory but that rationality in its more robust
form, which endorses a specific end of action, will necessarily
include substantial value judgments. Thus a social theory that
strongly replies upon a notion of rationality will face the dilem-
ma of using a trivial notion of rationality or one steeped in re-
searcher value driven judgment. In Section 10, we incorporate
lessons from the paper as well as Max Weber’s approach to
social action to outline the benefits and tentative approach to an
integrated social theory. In Section 11, we conclude with a few
summarizing thoughts.
Sociological Crisis
Addressing the crisis Ritzer identified, in the 1970s, graduate
students learned, some for the first time that theories are not
right or wrong, but rather that each provides a particular angle
of vision on the social world. They are factual descriptions of
what israther than normative suggestions of what ought to
be.” Sociological theory is a descriptive endeavor.
This makes sociological theory distinct from normative ethi-
cal theory, which has, as its primary charge to uncover the way
the world ought to be. It was quickly realized that some social
theories would offer more accurate predictions of social action
than others because certain social theories offered more accu-
rate descriptions of social action. Regardless of the accuracy of
its domain assumptions, however, no theory will, despite the
empirical rigor of the procedures used to test it, succeed in
permitting the generation of social science laws, axioms that
will hold true under any and all circumstances. The reason for
this is that all social action remains somewhat uncertain, tenta-
tive, i.e., subject to change, and not open to accurate law-like
prediction. Empirical models will never, regardless of their
level of sophistication and/or inclusiveness of relevant variables
yield results that will be accepted as laws. Results offer proba-
bilistic descriptions, not proof, and not predictions that are cer-
tainties, whether they are arguably 70%, 85%, or 99% accurate.
Social models that purport to offer universal laws will, as Per-
row (1981) would remind his readers, be doomed to catastro-
phic failure.
Gadamer, likewise, makes the astute insight that,the world
of human freedom does not manifest the same absence of excep-
tions as natural law” (Gadamer, 1975: p. 8). Gadamer’s contro-
versial and illuminating insight in Truth and Method was that
the human sciences would be doomed to continued failure or
crisis if they kept insisting that their research subject (the hu-
man being) be studied and examined with the same scientific
method applied to the natural object, e.g., billiard balls. The
object of inquiry of the human scientist, the person, is not
knowable in the same fashion as the rock determined to act in
an exception-less way by natural law, and hence the scientific
method applied to the natural object of scientific inquiry, e.g.,
the rock or billiard ball, is inadequate when applied to the per-
son. At the very least, the human (social) scientist must herme-
neutically supple ment a normally applied scientific method when
evaluating the social relations of human beings.
Students of social theory were, consistent with the thoughts
of Perrow and Gadamer, instructed to recognize the inherently
dynamic and dialectical interrelationships between micro and
macro-levels of analysis and among factors on an objective
(e.g., law, bureaucracy, language), subjective (e.g., norms, val-
ues, and ideas) continuum. They were also reminded not to lose
their sense of the importance of sociology’s structural roots.
This would include reading and appreciating the contributions
of both Parsons and Davis. Briefly, Parsons’ concept of volun-
tarism, critical in his early writings on action theory, was con-
sistent with Blumer’s approach to symbolic interactionism and
Davis (1959) reminded sociologists a half-century ago that all
sociological analysis is functional analysis.
Instead of emphasizing the differences and limitations of
each theorist’s approach, there have been ample opportunities
to bridge the gap(s) among theories, and to work toward inte-
gration so as to create and offer better descriptions of the social
world. Nonetheless, to many students, the charge of theoretical
integration seemed contradictory or even hopelessly intracta ble.
It seemed, nonetheless evident that supporting a purely structu-
ralist position would be problematic because a consideration of
social institutions and social structures absent an understanding
of what individuals (and their imaginative and creative powers)
contribute to them would yield an incomplete understanding of
social action and a model with low predictive power. After all,
whether empirical indicators of intra or inter-subjective factors
can be easily identified or measured, they nonetheless remain
significant aspects of the social world (Ritzer, 1981). To ignore
subjective factors is to ignore the imaginative and creative
powers of human consciousness and creative powers which do
little more than create an unnecessary source of unexplained
variance in research (Ibid.). Any comprehensive social theory
that fails to recognize this will, at best, offer a highly limited
and cumbersomely qualified account of social action. It was in-
culcated into students’ understanding of social theory that these
elusive subjective factors were important, however, it seemed
discouraging to begin considering the complex process of map-
ping the seemingly endless combinations and permutations of
possible outcomes inherent in the interaction process.
A new generation of sociologists appeared to be ready to
tackle the challenge of theoretical integration that Sorokin had
issued in 1965, i.e., that the discipline should and would be
working towards theoretical integration. Nonetheless, by the
late 1970s and into the 1980s, crass empiricism and positivistic
approaches continued to thrive and remain the dominant ap-
proach. Entire courses (and the bulk of graduate departments)
were devoted to the development of uni-directional causal path
analytic models (some three-dimensional), and increasingly so-
phisticated statistical packages such as LISREL, which was us-
ed to fit models to the data. This particular program allowed
social science researchers to empirically assess their theories,
controlling for and alleviating measurement error. In addition,
the sophistication of statistical software including SAS and
SPSS which, in addition to getting rid of those infernal punch
cards, helped to bring the organizational and institutional rigidi-
ties of the profession to the surface. The result was an apprecia-
tion of the technical flaws in research methods, i.e., the tools of
research designs (Baldus, 1990: p. 152).
The focus on unidirectional causality remained an obstacle
and made Sorokin’s criticisms of the discipline increasingly
clear. He had observed that while sociology had adequately
provided at least some knowledge of a few specks and dimen-
sions of the social world, it had not significantly increased its
understanding of the total socio-cultural reality (Sorokin, 1965).
Considered a radical by many conservatives within the discip-
line, Sorokin nonetheless shed light on some of the deficiencies
in sociological theory, leading researchers and theorists alike to
ask whether in addition to the adequacy of their research de-
signs, it was equally as important that their theories offered ac-
curate approximations of the course and content of social ac-
Understanding decision-making requires an emphasis on the
dynamic processes which produce behavior. Any research de-
sign, qualitative or quantitative must include more than the tra-
ditional “What would you do if…?” and “What do you
think…?” questions routinely asked in survey driven research.
Techniques traditionally used in evaluation surveys often asked
respondents to project themselves into future time periods that
had not yet been incorporated into experience. When this oc-
curs, available options are considered absent the knowledge
and a consideration of the actual consequences of decisions
(Waggoner, 1983: p. 15). Whether models are built to achieve
an understanding of an observed causal processes or recursive
relationships, the assumptions and functional relations should
be as complex yet as realistic as possible, making it clear that
theory, method, and methodology are inextricably interrelated
(Zeitlin, 1973; Ritzer, 1975, 1981; Bailey, 1982; Waggoner,
1983). The result has been, and in some instances remains, the
obviously meager and limited level of knowledge which has
been generated (Sorokin, 1965; Baldus, 1990).
Over the next three decades, adherence to the thought-pro-
voking theoretical and paradigmatic image(s) of the discipline
led many sociologists, albeit cautiously, to question whether
Sorokin’s analysis of the direction the discipline would likely
take, could be realized. His concern that research designs were
far too preoccupied with scientific techniques, narrow concrete
problems, and analytical theorizing(Sorokin, 1965: p. 833)
was directly on point. Because of an almost exclusive emphasis
on micro-sociological problems to the exclusion of the broader
socio-cultural universe, the discipline was entering a crisis
brought on by a lack of theoretical integration, a point which, to
reiterate, by 1975 Ritzer would confirm.
Unrealized Optomism
By the 1990s, using Sorokin’s sense of optimism, Ritzer had
become something of an optimist as well, suggesting the theo-
retical and paradigmatic integration he called for in 1975 was
closer to becoming a reality. With all due respect to Ritzer, as
the authors continue to evaluate the theoretical literature, it is
suggested he has perhaps become too optimistic. In illustration,
Blalock has concluded that sociology is not a high-quality dis-
cipline. By the 1990s, he wrote that sociology was more deeply
divided than ever, in part because of a lack of theoretical accu-
mulation. Gans, in his 1988 presidential address to the Ameri-
can Sociological Association, broadly agreed, stating that prob-
lems with the discipline included deficiencies in sociological
theory, the organizational and institutional rigidities of the pro-
fession, and the technical flaws inherent in research methods
(Gans, 1989: p. 10).
Baldus (1990), for example, wrote that the promise of posi-
tivism had not been realized. As a result, the search for univer-
sal social laws has been unsuccessful. Other than the vulgar and
trivial simplicity of the axiomatic assumptions that some do
and “some don’t,the authors would agree. Some would no
doubt argue the answer lies in more sophisticated statistical
procedures. In 1983 Waggoner was informed the statistics
needed to adequately evaluate data collected from her simula-
tion research did not yet exist, i.e., there were no statistical pro-
cedures available to analyze models in motion (interestingly the
same inadequacy could be given to Waggoner in 2013). In 1990,
Baldus reminded the discipline that mathematical modeling had
not yet resulted in a better understanding of social action. To
suggest that future advancements in statistical analysis will
make the need for theoretical integration moot or obsolete is a
hope of many within the discipline. The authors suggest this is
perhaps little more than the most desperate and unrealistic of
hopes. Statistical analysis has an important place within con-
temporary sociology, but it simply cannot replace the need for
theoretical integration.
The authors maintain that Sorokin’s predictions, however
realistic, optimistic, and feasible they may have been some 40
years ago, were perhaps overly hopeful forecasts, many of
which have not been realized. But then, who reads Sorokin
anymore? His work is, quite unfortunately, rarely to never re-
ferenced. By the late 20th century, sociologists had begun to
engage in an expanding post-modernist (and the authors would
add for clarification, deconstructionist) dialogue that has, as
Collins has noted virtually made it unfashionable to inquire into
the scientific prospects of the discipline (1994: p. 155). The l o-
ser is the discipline itself as it has been pointed out over the
years by numerous theorists, including Wrong (1961), Turk
(1965), Mayhew (1980, 1981), Perrow (1981), Goffman (1982),
Turner (1988), Baldus (1990) and Davis (1994), the latter of
whom noted that sociology as a discipline, because it is not
united and lacks theoretical relevance, is incoherent (Davis,
1994: p. 184).
The Crisis Gets Po litical and Entrentched
In spite of his sometimes severe criticisms of the discipline,
Sorokin remained confident that sociology would ultimately opt
for creative growth, and move through the crisis stage, into a
revolution that would result in a new era of great theoretical
and methodological synthesis. Neither Sorokin, nor Gouldner,
however, counted on the depth or the breadth of the crisis. They
did not adequately recognize just how entrenched crass empi-
ricism and positivism have become within the discipline. Even
though there were increasing numbers of anomalies that in
some areas of research were unparalleled, e.g., in attitude-be-
havior research (Waggoner, 1983, 1993), many social scientists
would continue to subscribe to business as usual, primarily
because they had been educated under and were highly com-
mitted to ways of thinking which were now being threatened.
Neither they nor their reputations would easily withstand criti-
cism, particularly since it meant some would not fit into a new
era of social science which would be dominated by an unfami-
liar way of thinking (Ritzer, 1975; Waggoner, 1983).
As the (meta ) theoretical evolution of sociology continued, it
appeared evident that those who remained interested in theory
would invariably become involved in self-appraisal as well as
the appraisal of those they viewed as their theoretical competi-
tors. A step which could have resulted in significant advances
within the discipline degenerated at times into the tendency for
colleagues to unleash politically motivated attacks on those
whose theoretical predispositions differed from their own. This
has been evident in the ongoing and often nasty debate between
George Homans and Robert Blain (1961) as well as that be-
tween Eckberg and Hill and Ritzer (1979).
Instead of identifying and building on the strengths of each
mode of thought (by finding a theoretical approach that proper-
ly integrated), the focus zeroed in on the theoretical limitations
or what some would refer to as weaknesses. In some instances
the result was brutal public attack. Ritzer illustrated this in his
reference to Lewis Coser’s 1975 Presidential Address to the
American Sociological Association where the latter launched
an attack on ethnomethodology, labeling it trivial,a massive
copout,” a self -indulgent enterprise,and an orgy of subjec-
tivism(Ritzer, 1981: p. 12). In 2001, the mud slinging contin-
ued when, Risman in her review of Udry’s work on gender
concluded that value free scienceis not only an impossible
goal, it is an inappropriate one that distorts the research and
publication practices of sociology (Risman, 2001: p. 606). Udry,
no doubt, submitted his article for publication at least suspect-
ing he might be criticized for it. It was, however, probably sur-
prising for him to learn Risman concluded the review process
had failed because his work was published (Risman, 2001).
Udry graciously wrote he considered it an honor to have in-
spired such heated attacks on his work, particularly from dis-
tinguished critics (Udry, 2001). At the same time, however, he
pointed out one critical insight that should be acknowledged.
That is, any sociologist’s views as to the current consensus
about discredited theoriesas opposed to those theories that
must be included in an analysis are distorted by our own posi-
tions within the field,i.e., each of us sees sociology through
our own set of distorting lenses(Udry, 2001: p. 617). If Ris-
man’s resounding criticisms of Udry’s work had been isolated,
this would be the end of the story. They were, however, not
isolated which is one of the reasons the authors offer an evalua-
tion of the evolution of theoretical discourse within sociology -
discourse that as optimists they truly believe will likely lead to
the theoretical integration that is critical for sociology.
Sometimes, Ritzer has said, it is not possible to avoid con-
tentious and self-defeating competition for theoretical and pa-
radigmatic hegemony, particularly when the inevitability of the
territorial imperative enters into the equation. What seems ob-
vious to the authors, however, is these games of one upmanship
are counterproductive and detract from the issues that must be
addressed if sociology as a discipline is going to move beyond
the problems Wrong identified in 1961 when he wrote “forget-
fulness of the questions that are the starting point of inquiry
leads us to ignore the substantive assumptions ‘buried’ in our
concepts and commit s us to a one-sided view of reality(Wrong,
1961: p. 183). There was also the status which Perrow, in 1981,
attached to the discipline, i.e., the disintegrating social sciences;
what Turner meant when he titled his Presidential Address to
the Pacific Sociological Association in 1988, The Disintegra-
tion Of American Sociology; or when Baldus concluded, After
three decades of positivist sociology, its vital signs are not good
(Baldus, 1990: p. 150).
What would seem to be an important mark of a good theory
is the degree to which it can be subjected to falsification, i.e.,
stand up to rigorous testing. When a person tests or evaluates
her theory she should be trying her best to falsify the results and
not “prove” her theory true. The first step could perhaps be to
examine the theoretical and ideological gap between structural-
ists and individualists, i.e., those who argue the “organization
of a human society is the framework inside of which social
action takes place and is not the determinant of that action
(Ritzer, 1975: p. 89) and those who adhere to its antithesis, that
human society is simply the framework within which social
action occurs and not the determinant of that action (Ibid.).
Somehow, as many theorists have recommended, there
should be an effort to integrate these two domain assumptions.
One essential reason for this needed integration is straightfor-
ward: they are two sides of the same phenomenon. It is recog-
nized this is not as simple as it first appears. Perhaps the start-
ing point of a properly integrated social theory is not only to
pay attention to the individual as an agent of self-control but
rather as Turk suggests to consider the importance of interna-
lized social standards in making the individual an agent in the
social control of self as well as others” (Turk, 1964: p. 519). As
he points out, the application of internalized norms to others
may well be the principal source of order in society” (Ibid.).
Groups as well as individuals are, that is, not simply sources of
social approval; they (i.e., groups qua groups) have the capaci-
ty to bestow or withhold a broad variety of needs, e.g., self-
worth and self-esteem (Ibid.) as well as expectations of others,
each of which requires one’s cognitive ability to engage in a
reciprocity of perspectives, i.e., take the role of the other. Sim-
plistic as this may appear at first glance, an integrated social
theory must take into account the delicate balance between
internal and external social factors, which once again introduc-
es the pesky notion of consciousness, intra and inter-subjectiv-
ity, coupled with externally defined social factors that have a
tendency to influence individual thought and action. Or perhaps
it is not so pesky, because after all whether referring to the bi-
ological entity, the individual, the actor, the reactor, or the per-
son, human beings are creatures of habit, of routine. This is the
important insight that Aristotle exploited to build his virtue
ethics approach to ethical normative theory. That people must
habitually practice the virtues in order to become virtuous. It is
axiomatic that patterns of behavior will emerge. Consider just
how difficult it would be able to imagine a human actor with no
discernable patterns of behavior (surely this “human” actor
would not survive for long). This again, however, is not the end
of the story. The next step is to determine the direction those
pattern s will be likely to take. This nece ssarily inter jects the in-
herent instability of individuals per se, making it necessary to
distinguish between individuals and the roles, statuses, and po-
sitions they assume.
Turner has aptly taken repeated note that deliberations over
the micro-macro link continue t o be a long-standing issue (1988).
At the social structural level, Colignon (1994) asks whether
there is a need to break the cycle of reification. Blau recognizes
it is not possible to analyze processes of social interaction apart
from the social structures surrounding them, and Baldus has
picked up on the fact that the discipline is deeply divided polit-
ically because of the concentration on the statistical analyses
of hypotheses derived using a minimum of theoretical conjec-
ture” (Baldus, 1990: p. 151).
Having identified some of the problem areas, it is curious to
see that in the top-tier sociology journals, well published au-
thors seem to concur it is necessary to use only a minimal con-
ceptualization of the individual, since, as Markovsky has said,
macro-level structures frame the proposed encounters in which
individuals relate to one another(Markovsky, 1993: p. 270).
Kanazawa (1988) for example, argues that theoretical assump-
tions are and ought to be unrealistic, in large part because after
all, it is not theories but rather empirical propositions which are
tested. Therefore, the more unrealistic the assumptions of one’s
theory the better. He argues that theories should not be judged
by the properties of their assumptions because such tinkering is
not a productive exercise. The authors beg to differ with Kana-
zawa on this score. Sociological theory must include assump-
tions which are as realistic as possible; theory is after all little
more than a descriptive representation of the world.
Resurrecting Parsons early work would address some of the
general theoretical factors Sorokin recognized, i.e., that,
Each theory offers knowledge of an element, a relationship,
of the elements of the totality. This ignores the unknown, the
indeterminate, unpredictable nature of emergent properties. We
need knowledge of the specks as well as of the whole.” (Parsons,
1965: p. 836).
Sorokin’s conception of social theory seems to be consistent
with Ritzer’s in that for both, the study of levels of social reali-
ty and their interrelationships is critical. This means the focus
should not just be on the emergence of higher levels, but on
the dynamic relationship among all levels(Ritzer, 1981: p.
208). Sociologists need to be attuned to the reciprocal and by
extension, dynamic relationship between large-scale social
structures and institutions and the micro-level relationships and
groups from which they emerge. Individuals, that is, are not
simply controlled by macro-level social structures that have
been internalized, institutionalized, and reified. Broadhead uti-
lizes this thought as an opportunity to reject functional analysis
as he notes, It reduces man to a single motivational drive of
continually striving for social acceptance and conformity to so-
cial norms, instead or properly recognizing the multi-diversity
of motives in man” (Broadhead, 1972: p. 35). In illustration, as
relationships are formed, it is reasonable to presume that at
least some meanings re apprehended by the individual in a
priori fashion. When this occurs, it is sometimes concluded that
self and others accept meanings as axiomatic. They are then
perceived to be objectively real so that the situation is no longer
subject to (social) negotiation. At this point the danger of reifi-
cation has occurred (Waggoner, 1983). This is important be-
cause reification implies that individuals are capable of forget-
ting their own authorship of the world. Acknowledging this
sometimes leads researchers to view externally defined social
factors as if they contain a somehow timelessly valid quality
which implies they must be adjusted to rather than altered (Rit-
zer, 1981). This may lead the social scientist to neglect a con-
sideration of the interpretive process. It may also result in ig-
noring the idea that when assigned meanings, for any set of rea-
sons do not serve the functions intended, they may be changed,
deleted, or expanded. Individuals are not merely acted upon by
objective, clearly defined and institutionalized social factors;
rather they are constantly shaping and creating their own sense
of the definition of the situation (in W. I. Thomas’ interactionist
sense of the term). As Berger and Luckmann (1966) recognized,
actors play an active role in the construction of macro-level
structures both historically and contemporaneously. This recog-
nition set forth nearly fifty years ago presented the possibilities
for a significant step toward theoretical integration.
The Status Quo or Moving Forward
Theoretical integration and an increase in sociological know-
ledge would seem most likely to occur after sociologists have
identified a common ground that would serve to direct the
scope of the debate. This means reinventing (as opposed to eli-
minating or relying solely upon) sociology’s structural roots. It
also means, as Marx noted, human nature cannot be studied in
isolation from the society in which it is found; it is shaped by
the social environment(In Ritzer, 1981: p. 212). On one side
there are Marxist positivists (sometimes labeled conservatives
or misguided empiricists) (Baldus, 1990: p. 150). On the other
side there are hermeneutic critics who argue human behavior is
in a constant state of conflict and alienation not consensus, co-
operation, and loyalty (Broadhead, 1974: p. 37). At the same
time, there are the ever present and unpredictable emergent pro-
perties that even Durkheim would have concluded are impor-
tant, particularly since he said sociologist should be careful not
to reify social factors, but rather only to treat them as if they are
things. One worries that sociology is becoming increasingly
fractured along the fault line, endorsing either a crass positiv-
ism or a crass hermeneutics. The authors offer that such a frac-
turing will succeed only in offering two inadequate approaches
to the discipline and that the solution (as difficult as it might be
to realize) is to strive toward integration.
Cole, whose ideas seem to be consistent with those of both
Baldus and Blalock, contends that, “problems with fields like
sociology is that they have virtually no core knowledge” (Cole,
1994: pp. 133-134) and therefore no cooperative consensus as
to the subject matter of the discipline. This premise led Cole to
conclude, “There seems to be no sociological work that the
great majority of the community will regard as… important”
(Ibid). He was quick to note that this lack of core knowledge
would not likely be remedied by increasing levels of positivism.
Even natural scientists do not do science the way the positivist
philosophers say they should because such prescriptions do not
work in the natural sciences either(Cole, 1994: p. 138). He
then took his argument a step further, concluding sociologists
cannot and will not be able to establish a core or base of know-
ledge in the same sense that the physicists does. While, as Wal-
lace noted, objections can no doubt be raised to these points,
they appear to offer qualified reasons to conclude sociology
could not be like the physical sciences “even if it wanted to
(Walla ce , 1995: pp. 313-318). The central tenet of positivism is,
as Stinchcombe somewhat sardonically noted that,
Researchers are forbidden to think between the time they
posit their hypotheses and the time they accept or reject the
hypotheses after calculating a bit and transforming something
they want to know into something they do not want to know (the
null hypothesis). A true positivist will only accept or reject the
null hypothesis, never leaving the sacred precinct to think about
what the real world is like. The extreme of positivism is to
agree to avoid talking about which theories have been rejected
by the facts.” (Stinchcombe, 1978: pp. 3-4).
Sociology is not a mathematical discipline; neither can it be
predicated on the laws of physics. It cannot, therefore, subsist
on wholly empirical fare. As Bierstedt commented, the conse-
quence is that busy work will yield a rampant empiricism that
determines the direction that research will take, while at the
same time it emphasizes the importance of some kinds of re-
search at the expense of others (Bierstedt, 1974: p. 146). These
arguments are consistent with those of Psathas (1972) who
wrote more than 40 years ago that the distinction between the
natural sciences and the social sciences, is that individuals are
not simply objects to be observed. Psathas continued, in creat-
ing this world, individuals interpret their own activities. If so-
cial scientists create artificial distinctions that are too far re-
moved from actual individuals, they may never discover the
meanings which actions have for the actor’s themselves.
Aside from the assumption that positivism better represents
the objective ethos of “good science” other important consider-
ations have contributed to the lack of theoretical integration. As
Collins has written, increasingly, sociology has,
Split, more than ever before, into separate cocoons that
scarcely occupy the same intellectual universe. Recent statis-
tical sociology makes no concession of intelligibility toward
outsiders and shows almost no interest in linking up with larger
theoretical concerns. On the other side, anti-positivists, once a
somewhat embarrassed minority, militantly advocate their own
program of interpretive, historical, Marxist, structuralist, or
ethnomethodological sociology and condemn their positivist
opponents in absentia.” (Collins, 1984: p. 330).
Modern sociology can scarcely be called “a discipline,”
largely because the gulf between those who rely on numbers
and those who rely on aspects of social reality which cannot be
properly quantified is sometimes so great that different aca-
demic conferences and professional journals cater to their pre-
dispositions and intellectual biases, i.e., the quantitative socio-
scientist and the qualitative socio-humanist. It is often forgotten
that sociologists are at their best when their work incorporates
both qualitative and qualitative content, i.e., when they show a
concern for both the syntax and the semantics of social action.
This would seem to make Sorokin’s comments more of an on-
going alert for the discipline, not merely a speculative topic for
intellectual or meta-theoretical debate.
The arguments set forth by Psathas, Cole, and Wallace stand
parallel to the contention that creating or endorsing a continued
positivistic approach to sociological inquiry would do little to
allevi at e extant obstacles. Many sociologists no longer believe
social processes follow the same orderly, linear, and observable
causality that governs the natural world (Baldus, 1990: p. 151).
Positivists no longer have the luxury of turning a blind eye to
their own problems. They need to come to terms with the fact
that the subject matter of sociology must include an emphasis
on the effects of social structure on individual thought and ac-
tion. They must also address the inherent indeterminacy of the
dynamics of interaction at both the micro and macro levels
(Baldus, 1990). Perhaps this means neither positivist theories
nor their accompanying methodologies are suitable for the ana-
lysis of the subject matter of sociology whether it is social
structures, social definitions, or social behavior. The production
of increasing numbers of studies whose strengths lie in the so-
phistication of the statistical procedures used are, to a degree,
theoretically impoverished and seem to be of little to no benefit
to anyone except those more able to convince like-minded col-
leagues of their value (Baldus, 1990: p. 160).
The Role of the Value Judgment
In an attempt to foster a positivistic approach to sociological
theory many social theorists have embraced the need for a val-
ue-free approach. Gouldner offered a recommendation to those
who adhere to the conclusion that sociologists can remain or
exist as value free, that somehow they can remove themselves
from the biases inherent in the application of their theories.
Gouldner reminded them that in the early 1970s, sociologists
from Parsons to Lundberg freely entered into an implicit agree-
ment binding them to the dogmatic assumption that sociologists
must not commit a value judgment (1962). Gouldner offered a
pointed evaluation of the myth of a value fre e soc io lo gy, a myt h
which was and continues to be often accepted as axiomatic, i.e.,
sociologists shall not commit a critical or negative value judg-
ment. The sociologist’s overall objective is to understand, ex-
plain, and predict social action, not to criticize or to control it.
For Gouldner, this meant:
The legacy of the intellectual is the fear of reprisals if one
criticizesthat is a very old and a very human concern. Since
they do not fe el fre e to cri tici ze societ y, for that requires a mea-
sure of courage, they turn to the cannibalistic criticism of soci-
ology itself and, begin to eat themselves up with theoretical and
methodological criticisms.” (Gouldner, 1962: p. 209).
Skidmore would write in tacit agreement with Gouldner that
objectivity may be the desirable route to take. After all, at least
in principal, objective things can be measured, counted, obser-
ved and correlated(Skidmore, 1979: p. 25). This would, of
course, offer an advantage to the social scientist who wants to
make the strongest possible empirically supported argument in
support of his theories and to use observable or measurable
facts to do so (Ibid.). Skidmore further noted that some would
even argue there is a formidable argument that there is no al-
ternative to an objective and therefore, value free approach
The safest place to reside becomes a zone of unattainable
objectivity encircled by the norm of rationality, i.e., the norm of
science. A value free (objective) science then goes hand in hand
with rationality. If, however, rationality were based on values
or schema thereof, it would be nearly impossible to impose the
often assumed—but usually elusive link between value free
research and rationality. To value rationality and all that it is
presumed to entail is to abandon the pretense of engaging in a
value-free exercise. The authors are not necessarily opposed to
the idea that values (and researchers with values) must accom-
pany social theory, what they do oppose is the idea that one can
embrace the values that accompany rationality and all that is
presumed to entail and at the same time propose to be engaging
in a value-free endeavor.
Weber and the Problem of Rationality
In their efforts to establish sociology as a “science of society”
or, e.g., Comte’s suggestion of “social physics,” many sociolo-
gists have become entangled in the micro analysis of over-
rationalized conceptions of social action, which have re s ul t e d in
a distorted image of Weber’s objective or scientific under-
standing of social action. Weber identified an important distinc-
tion between formal and substantive rationality. The latter is
concerned with “uncountable/unquantifiable” phenomena, in-
cluding factors such as values and religious reward; the former
is concerned with an objective rationality that can be directed
toward a largely agreed upon end goal such as material posses-
sion. Along these lines Weber explains that Western culture,
with its emphasis on capitalism in particular, gained influence
because of a shift from the substantive to the formal.
Weber’s distinction can be clarified and expanded upon by
noting two different conceptions of rationality, 1) instrumental
rationality and 2) ends-rationality. Instrumental rationality sug-
gests that an act (as means) is rational if it is the most effective
or efficient way to realize a predetermined end. For example,
when capitalistic gain is the predetermined end, then rational
action can be assessed with respect to this end by determining
whether agents (or a community of agents) take the most effec-
tive or efficient means to realize capitalistic gain. This notion of
instrumental rationality is similar to Weber’s formal rationality.
Rationality, viewed in an instrumental light, is a procedure for
evaluating whether a person is behaving rationally in pursuit of
a predetermined end, but notice importantly that this conception
of formal or instrumental rationality tells nothing about eva-
luating the ends qua ends of social action. It only offers a deci-
sion making strategy for examining whether a particular end
was indeed rationally pursued.
One might wonder, however, whether another more robust
sense of rationality can be developed, a sense that evaluates an
end of action qua end as opposed to merely evaluating an
agent’s means of realizing a pre-determined end—we could call
this ends-rationality. After all, it is this notion of ends-rational-
ity, as opposed to instrumental rationality, that social theorists
typically employ, either implicitly or explicitly, in their theo-
retical models yet one must inquire into the realistic prospects
for developing a non-question begging and substantive account
of ends-rationality. Philosophers and theorists for more than
two millennia, including Aristotle, Locke and Kant, have tried
to develop grand systems of rationality that depend upon the
notion of ends-rationality as opposed to the more formal or in-
strumental sense of rationality. The authors contend their ef-
forts on this score have been highly problematic at best. The ef-
forts seem to reduce to begging the question or essentially
“hand-waving” assertions such as, “that end is just obviously
irrational.” To understand what is at stake consider whether we
can conclude that the ends of Hitler in respect to his final solu-
tion were irrational? No doubt, it is true that his ends were ne-
farious, monstrous, morally horrible, unjust, and perhaps psy-
chotic (and the authors would vigorously argue that Hitler’s
ends were all of these), but none of these adjectives will help us
conclude that his ends were nonrational or irrational. The
concepts of rationality (and irrationality or non-rationality) are
bantered around as if their meaning is clear and impressive, but
in a substantive ends formulation, the concept might be little
more than just another term used for normative assessment.
That is, we call something irrational in many cases when we
have a negative moral or normative judgment about it. In fact,
if one were able to give an account of ends-rationality, it would
likely rely heavily upon some other (likely normative) value,
but this is exactly the problem. When social theorists (or any-
one for that matter) suggest that “end X” is irrational what they
are most often really suggesting is that end X is objectionable,
silly, misguided, disgusting, immoral, or something else. Fur-
ther, one wonders exactly how this more substantive account of
rationality could be made consistent with an account of “value-
free” research.
There is a dilemma for the social theorist who relies upon ra-
tionality or assumptions thereof. Either those theorists must
admit they are operating under the formal or instrumental no-
tion of rationality (a limited notion which would not provide
the work that many theorists assign to rationality), or they must
admit they are operating under a notion of ends-rationality and
explain just how their conception of rationality cannot be re-
duced to yet another (normative) value. Invoking the notion of
rationality often provides an erroneous air of objectivity, but if
the above analysis is accurate this air of objectivity when prop-
erly understood is reduced to little more than a whiff of reliance
upon the acceptance of other (normative) values. In either event,
when rationality is properly understand, in both its formal or
substantive senses, it can be seen that social theorists must be
careful when they apply the concept, and indeed most applica-
tions will either be highly limited (in an instrumental sense) or
reliant upon other values in a more substantive robust sense. As
such social theorists who invoke rationality in their theoretical
models might have to choose between offering a theory that
incorporates a sense of instrumental rational that says very little
and adds little knowledge about the social world or offering a
theory that incorporates a sense of ends-rationality that offers
much more potential to increase social knowledge but cannot
accurately be described as value-free.
Assumptions of Rationality
Models which have been developed from micro-level theo-
ries have largely been a reflection of positivist/objectivist mod-
es of thought. Assumptions that reflect this approach continue
to be used, and generally speaking, embrace the following con-
1) Social action is intrinsically rational (Perrow, 1981); some-
times they do not ask—rationality from whose point of view
the researcher’s or the subject’s?
2) Rationality is or must be the norm of science (Turner,
1976); but again, from whose point of view?
3) Reality exists external to individuals so that once they
come into interaction, social structures are formed which con-
strains subsequent interactions (ibid.); but, once created, has it
also been unalterably reified?
4) Individuals consciously choose between alternative cours-
es of action by evaluating their experiences with each in terms
of a preference ranking and then select the bestand therefore
the most rational alternative (Homans, 1960); which assumes
adequate information that may not always be acce ssible or pro -
5) In the development of an abstract theory, social action can
be understood (Turner, 1976); this recognizes the need for dis-
tinguishing between individuals and the roles that play. How
far is too far when the sociologist is establishing those artificial
distinctions; and finally
6) In trying to understand the social world, the biased influ-
ence of human values can be suspended by using a positivist
methodology (Kinloch, 1981); the authors would argue this is
not possible.
These assumptions are not surprising when it is considered
that, in their efforts to understand the social world, contempo-
rary sociologists have been encouraged and rewarded for adop-
ting what are taken to be objective and rational assumptions.
Weirich, a respected authority in decision and game theory, in
his Realistic Decision Theory: Rules for Non-Ideal Agents in
Non-Ideal Circumstances, addresses the problem of using over-
ly idealized hyper-rational agents in decision and game theory
(Weirich, 2004). In this work he describes how traditional the-
oretical approaches often utilize an over-idealized conception
of rationality and as such often may not offer adequate insights
into real (social) actors. He then offers solutions, using bounded
rationality, to deal with the oversights of traditional approaches.
Weirich’s approach to incorporate a notion of bounded non-
idealized rationality offers a promising approach that social
theorists can gain from.
Emphases on rationality and objectivity have created the be-
lief that it is possible to observe, count, enter data into the
computer, have them analyzed statistically, and in this way gain
valuable knowledge about human beings” (Morris, 1977: p. 4).
This perspective encourages the reduction of social action to
evermore rationally consistent, orderly, and generalized forms
of understanding and artificially creates a classification of de-
viants, i.e. , those who do not fit within the narrowly defined pa-
rameters of the model (Perrow, 1981). The primary requirement
is that the social scientist must act as a disinterested and detach-
ed observer having, no vital or practical interest in the situa-
tion he observes, only a cognitive or theoretical one(Zeitlin,
1973: p. 179). It is anticipated this point of view will not only
permit, but encourage social scientists to believe they can not
only observe interactions from the outside, as uninvolved bys-
tanders, uninterested in the hopes and fears of their participants.
The assumption that social action is shaped primarily by in-
ternalized and commonly accepted norms severely restricts the
range of social actions of relevance to social science research,
making it inevitable that the dynamic and ever-changing nature
of social action may be downplayed or largely ignored (Wrong,
1961; Waggoner, 1983, 1993). The most pronounced treatment
of this can be seen in the way in which the sociological concept
of the “norm” has become synonymous with rationality and
objectivity. Actors are presumed to be acting rationally if their
behavior is manifested in a manner that corresponds appro-
priately with the externally defined social environment. The
norm, however, becomes rational not because it is objective,
but because it presumes consistency which, when abstracted
from the real world allows for identification of indicators of
abstract concepts as well as easier development of empirical
models. The norm is thus presumed to be rational because it has
been justified and legitimated in the name of a level of consis-
tency which may or may not exist with respect to real social
actors. For many sociologists, the rational must also be the
measurable. From there it is not is difficult to criticize or even
to neglect that which does not fit into a neatly constructed
model as simply an outlier or an example of irrationality.
Social scientists should neither downplay nor ignore the
anomalies that defeat the tradition of sociological inquiry. De-
spite the deconstructionist’s insistence to the contrary, concerns
need to shift to testing whether mainstream theories offer valid
representations, i.e., realistic approximations of social reality.
Doing so will necessitate moving beyond asking whether the
empiric al model a ccurately reflects the theo ry sociologists have
chosen to use, to whether the theory itself accurately reflects
the reality they are trying to understand. As Sorokin was quick
to recognize, until a re-examination of the ory become s a rea lity ,
there will be an overabundant supply of statistical samples and
collections of objective facts, many of which will be rendered
meaningless or non-applicable to a treatment of social reality. If
the discipline makes a choice to stay in that state for too long a
time, it will have condemned itself to a sterile state of knowing
more and more about less and less—and the authors would
suggest, by extension—until it knows everything about almost
nothing at all. After all, when the theoretical question is asked,
Why are these objective things the way they are and not oth-
erwise, objectivity falls by the wayside and sociologists are
forced to come face to face with human motives, which do not
respond well to purely rational, objective research” (Skidmore,
1979: p. 25).
The Role of Ratioality Challenged
A half century ago, March and Simon commented that to as-
sume individuals possess both the cognitive and intellectual
tools needed to c onsciously determine t he best alternative course
of action requires a significant leap of faith, primarily because,
Individuals cannot process large amounts of information
but only limited bits and pieces, and these only slowly. Infor-
mation is distorted as it is processed. Individuals cannot gather
information very well even if they could process it; they do not
always know what is relevant information, in as much as they
do not always understand how things work. Above all, they
cannot even be sure what their preferences are. They also have
contradictory preferences, of contradictory goals, and are una-
ble to fulfill them all at once. As a consequence, they do not
always look for optimal solutions; they settled for the first ac-
ceptable solution to come along.” (March & Simon, 1956: p.
Since that time, social theorists have re-examined the rules of
objectivity and rationality in social science research. Kinloch,
for example, indicated that one of the major problems faced by
social scientists in their efforts to remain detached and objec-
tive is the inevitability of,
An imposition of rationality upon individuals (as an inter-
pretive device) rather than appreciating their construction a
reality as methods in their own right. Social scientists in par-
ticularattempt toremedytheir behavior through empirical
and theoretical devices, and continue their search for thein
variantandcalculablein their research.” (Kinloch, 1981: p.
As Perrow indicated, such an image will ultimately result in
a models of limited use developed in an effort to:
1) Mask the limited capacity for cognition possessed by all
individuals who filter information in the minding process;
2) Fulfill a need to make sense of things, to find in order, to
acknowledge a r at io nality;
3) Eliminate disorder with rational designs; and
4) Generally, to simplify explanations of all types of social
action (Perrow, 1981).
In their search for order, some social scientists have created
artificial social beings who have no real biographical situation
in the social world(Ritzer, 1981: p. 211). It is not the individ-
uals under study, but rather social scientists who are defining
situations for them (Ibid.). This one-sided image of social ac-
tion does not account for the fact that actions can be understood
only if cultural definitions and their meanings, along with a
consideration of the context within which social action occurs,
are taken into account. A vast majority of social scientists fall
short of providing much, if any, insight into this apparently
subjective dimension of social action, primarily because of their
commitment to a narrow sense of science (Ritzer, 1981: p. 211).
Essentially, the position is that subjective dimensions of social
action cannot be studied scientifically, and as such, are not a
legitimate part of sociological inquiry (Ibid.). To reiterate, the
problem with this narrow scientific orientation is that,
Whether subjectivity can be studied scientifically or not, it is
a significant aspect of the social world. Thus to ignore it for
scientific or other reasons is to ignore an important component
of social reality. In ignoring it, sociologists simply create a
source of unexplained variance in their work.” (Ritzer, 1981: p.
Social scientists often, despite these astute criticisms, persist
in their efforts to maintain a relatively narrow scientific attitude.
In the process, they have developed, for imposition on the so-
cial world, a standardization of presupposed common under-
standings. This view leads to a conception of social action as
anticipated compliance and presumed alternatives that t he com-
mon culture and extant social structure provides. The construc-
tion of a hierarchy of needs coupled with continued references
to standardized expectancies have, however, led social scien-
tists to underestimate the individual’s interpretive complexity.
By manipulating the research environment in this way, it has
become difficult for researchers to consider the multidimensio-
nal nature of social action that a more integrated approach to
social theory would allow for.
The authors recognize it would be easy to become critics for
criticism sake. Thus, in all fairness, it is acknowledged that if
social action were genuinely nonrational, a science of social
and cultural phenomena would be impossible, since there could
be no meaningful correspondence between the order of ideas
and the order of things. There would be no way of drawing ge-
neralized inferences and therefore no possibility of scientific
explanation or prediction (Kokelmans, 1979). In fact, most of
the time social action is rational; individuals allege to have
good reasons for what they do” (Kokelmans, 1979: p. 86).
From the proverbial gods eye view of objective observers,
however, the result of those actions may well have been con-
trary to what rational individuals should do. It is therefore as-
sumed, consistent with Skidmore’s (1979) thought that all
forms of social action are oriented toward some goal, regardless
of the motives or reasons given. When an action is said to be
nonrational what this often means is that the goal of the actor in
question was ill-informed, i. e. , t he actor was not able to consid-
er either possible constraints or the possibility that the decision
involving rationality was subjectively judged absent some de-
gree of relevant information.
It is no surprise that sociologists generally agree on a broad
definition of rationality, even as it is applied to themselves. To
be a respected academic, for example, one must possess cert ain
traits, including an appreciation of a long-term outlook toward
gratification and success. Rationality is, after all, focused pri-
marily on the lon g-term maximization of goals. Social scientists
who live by this principle write about rationality (as a norm
centered around the goal or end of long-term prospect maximi-
zation), yet how different the concept would be treated if the
gambler, the drug addict, or the waitress who is a single parent,
put pen to paper to discuss their assumptions of rationality
assumptions which are also bound by conceptions of risk ad-
versity and temporal outlook—both highly subjective measures.
Perhaps then the social science debate over the continuum of
rational and nonrational actions could be appropriately referred
to as superfluous or at least subject to one’s assigning a partic-
ular value to the end under discussion.
Working toward a New Direction
The authors would suggest a careful re-examination of posi-
tivism and the ensuing methodological, theoretical, and practic-
al reasons to strive toward theoretical integration. A re-evalua-
tion seems especially important in light of the obvious need to
understand how and in what ways the subjective states of indi-
viduals are created, re-created, and maintained over time. It is
noted in particular that the ability of an individual to respond at
least some of the time innovatively and creatively does not
mean there are no patterns to that creativity. Rather it means
that social action must be considered in its totality, not merely
with reference to extant coercive structural elements which,
downplay or largely ignore the ability of individual self appra-
isal and self judgment. Individuals, and their inherently subjec-
tive states, must not, as Ritzer notes, be reduced to dependent
variable status (Ritzer, 1981: p. 211). To do so would mean
researchers would have created reactors who add little to an
understanding of the “real” social world. Social theorists should
accept that, on occasion, individual judgment will weaken their
predictions, yet at the same time hold hope that it is precisely
the stage at which their theory went wrong that might yield the
most interesting resultsresults that could pave the way for fu-
ture research. It is in this way that the limits of rationality and
theoretical modeling might be stretched to account for a greater
and more representative account of sociological knowledge.
A resolution to the problems of a nonintegrated approach
will necessitate uncovering one of the fallacies in social science
researcha fallacy of simple predictable rationality in social
action. An adequate inquiry should begin with silence and in-
volve an effort to understand and evaluate the meaning of
events and interactions to ordinary people in ordinary situations.
Researchers must not presume to know what things mean to the
people they are studying. In an ex-post facto review of c riminal
or dangerous activity, for example, the respondent frequently
states , “it seemed li ke a good idea at the t ime.” It migh t well be
prudent to expand on this retrospective description of behavior
and the degree to which it involved risk adversity and temporal
outlook both of which fuel actions that are far too readily la-
beled and dismissed as nonrational. Again, it is worth stressing
that those acting deviantly might well have been, given their
ends or desires, acting instrumentally rational. Thus, if sociol-
ogists insist that such conduct was nonrational they must strug-
gle with providing a coherent account of ends-rationality, a
very difficult task discussed earlier in the article. There should
be an avoidance of presuppositions and axiomatic assumptions
about the ways in which individuals should” behave. As Per-
row points out,
Social scientists do not attest to the fact that most human
actors are less than brilliant, or that they have not developed
adequate commented skills, or that there are failures informa-
tion processing. ‘Aberrationsthey say are due to such things
as inadequate internalization ofnorms,’ or ‘values,’ orcul-
ture,’ ortradition,’ orunrealized consequences.’” (Perrow,
1981: p. 7).
It would appear untenable to hold on so tenaciously to a
theoretical need for unvarying, orderly, and rational explana-
tions of social action when, within real world settings, individ-
uals clearly have a conscious capacity to create, re-create, and
socially negotiate the situations they experience. An adequate
theory of social action should emphasize a multiplicity of fac-
tors, which work together to produce individual behavior and
social action. Such a theory would be general enough to con-
sider the scope of diverse and often conflicting perceptions held
by individuals, yet specific enough to generate adequate expla-
nations and predictions of social action. A re-introduction of
Webers contributions to the development of a scientific under-
standing of social action may well provide the foundation for
such a theory. Many would attest to the merits of Weber’s ap-
proach to social action, yet more continue to debate the inter-
pretations of his work. Nonetheless, his goal of developing an
objective/scientific understanding of social action has contri-
buted immeasurably to sociological theory. The uniqueness of
his contribution lies in the fact that he did not distinguish social
structures and institutions from the diverse actions of the indi-
viduals who both construct them and provide them with mean-
As he developed his interpretive scheme for understanding,
there is little argument that Weber recognized the complexities
of the social world. He acknowledged social reality is a phe-
nomenon unknowable in its totality, reasoning there will always
be at least one other way of looking at any situation. Because of
the unknowable qualities of social reality, Weber insisted that
the social sciences not copy the natural sciences by searching
for general laws of behavior (Weber, 1949: p. 80). Recently,
work in hermeneutics, specifically Gadamer’s efforts in his
Truth and Method, have carried forth this Weberian insight, i.e.,
Gadamer, like Weber, would agree if the social sciences were
to copy the natural sciences not much useful knowledge would
be produced. His reasoning was that any social science,
Oriented toward the development of timelessly valid laws
would, of necessity, emphasize those patterns of action that are
nomothetic (common from one society to another), with the re-
sult that idiographic (individualized) event s wo uld ult ima tel y be
omitted from consideration.” (In Turner & Beeghley, 1981: p.
Weber did, however, realize the danger inherent in over em-
phasizing subjective meaning, concluding that to focus wholly
on the intuitive understanding of each individual’s inner nature
(verstehen) would preclude the development of an objective
social science. He took the position that while a concern for
individual meaning was critical, an unevenly weighted concep-
tualization would limit the realm of knowable phenomena to
some sort of mystical and intuitive re-experiencing of the other
(In Hughes, 1958: p. 309).
With some degree of success, Weber reconciled the objectiv-
ity-subjectivity debate by constructing a way of emphasizing
the significance of verstehen that would permit an integration
of individual meaning and general patterns of action. In defense
of his orientation, Weber (1949) defended the view that, in
order to achieve an adequate causal explanation of its course
and effects, sociology should concern itself with the interpre-
tive understanding of social action. Social action, he noted, is
that which takes account of the behavior of others and is ori-
ented by this concern. Weber was careful to point out that so-
cial action can only be understood when considered within an
intelligible and inclusive context of meaning.
In acknowledging the importance of adopting a dynamic
conceptualization in the analytical process, Weber sought to
integrate nomothetic (generalizing) and idiographic (individua-
lized) levels of analysis. He did so by pointing out that individ-
ual factors or events may at times be the more salient in under-
standing social action. To ignore them in favor of an emphasis
on general patterns of action would result in the reduction of
reality to a set of meaningless static laws(Ritzer, 1981: p.
208). Weber also noted however, that individuals, societies, and
events, are not wholly unique, but are representative of one or
another general category. Each therefore can be understood by
reference to those categories, i.e., a sharing of similar characte-
ristics. Wherever people converge, it is possible to develop a
schematic description of behavior that can be interpreted as a
“pattern into which ideas may be placed for convenience and
clarity(Skidmore, 1979: p. 119). Implicit in this assumption is
the realization that the social scientist must be attuned to the
reciprocal and dynamic relationship which exists between indi-
viduals and their social environment(s). It was Weber’s consid-
eration for the inherently dynamic nature of social action that
led him to conclude the key to its understanding lay in the de-
velopment of ideal types, which he described as
Conceptual models or mental construct used in the analysis
of social phenomena. They are constructed from observations
of the characteristics of subjects under study, but they are not
intended to correspond exactly to any single case. Rather, they
are used to describe and test hypotheses about empirical reali-
ty.” (Encyclopedia of Sociology, 1981: p. 131).
Ideal types, i.e., conceptual models, approximate social fac-
tors within real world settings. They permit the classification of
the numerous, diverse dimensions of social action, making pos-
sible the uncovering of norms characteristic of these dimen-
sions. By stablishing ideal types, Weber put forward a powerful
and helpful notion. He made it possible to see where it was that
inevitable deviations are likely to take place. Ritzers approach
to theory parallels Weber’s on ideal types, particularly his em-
phasis on the construction of the artificial distinctions between
individuals and the roles they play. Ritzer, commented as fo-
lows, arguing these distinctions are needed in order to under-
stand so cial reality:
We should not mirror the social world in our conceptual
systems. If we do, we are simply replicating the confusion of the
world in our paradigmatic systems. Instead, what we should be
doing is developing systems of ideas that help us to better un-
derstand the confusing reality of the social world. In short, a
confusing or confused paradigm is of little utility in helping to
understand a confusing social world. It is a paradox, but artifi-
cial distinctions are needed in order to deal with the real
world.” (Ritzer, 1981: p. 208).
Ritzer concluded, as did Weber, that artificial, abstract, and
fictitious models are indispensable in thinking about real people
and their actions. The objective approach that is used to devel-
op models and theories that reflect the real world is not in-
tended to do so isomorphically, but rather by using realistic ap-
proximations. As long as the model and the theory are logically
consistent, and each references the subjective meanings of the
actors involved, adequately approximating social action in the
real world, accurate descriptions and explanations are feasible.
It was in this manner that Weber concluded, it would be possi-
ble to understand social action while at the same time realisti-
cally evaluating events in the social world in an objective and
scientific manner. Of equal importance, Weber noted this me-
thod of inquiry would encourage social scientists to recognize
that the dyn amic quality of social action is inse parable from its
inherently historical orientation. Therefore, instead of stressing
reified, ahistorical slicesof the social world, he offered a dy-
namic and historical theory of social action.
Webers approach was part of an overall blueprint for ans-
wering what he concluded was the most important methodo-
logical question confronting the social sciences. It involves the
sense that there are objectively valid axioms in those disciplines
concerned with social and cultural phenomena. Weber’s pri-
mary goal was to demonstrate the manner in which objective
scientific inquiry is rationally plausible in a discipline where
the subject matter includes the objectively meaningful actions
of individuals. He assumed his goal would be realized when so-
cial science data were distinctly conceptualized and systemati-
cally analyzed (Weber, 1949).
Weber further commented on the need to use a rational me-
thod in which the research process would be systematic in the
sense that the researcher cou ld assum e:
1) It is possible to categorize empirical data in terms of clear-
ly formulated concepts which would
2) Permit the use a proper rules of evidence, and
3) Permit the researcher to draw logical inferences about the
phenomena under study (Weber, 1949).
It is evident from his criticisms of functional analysis that
Weber did not consider his approach to be without problems.
For example, he commented that
Sociological analysis must ultimately refer to human action
rather than to collective social phenomena because such enti-
ties as a state do not think or act; only people act. In functional
analysis, concepts tend to become reified overtime such that the
needs of the social system become the focus of attention rather
than individual action. As a result, functional analysis is in-
evitably oriented for the development of general theories simi-
lar to those in the natural sciences, and emphasis that can nev-
er result in understanding of the subjective meanings individu-
als attached to behavior.” (In Davis, 1959: p. 757).
Contemporary sociologists have come to view Weber’s the-
oretical and methodological contributions in a somewhat dis-
torted manner. His belief in the development of a dynamic yet
objective science of society has been transformed into a soci-
ology concerned with establishing causal linkages among con-
cepts, often without a consideration of the meanings attached to
social phenomena (Ritzer, 1981). Weber’s conviction of the in-
creasingly well-organized nature of social life suggests he fo-
resaw the propensity for and emphasis on generalized laws
when he stated:
Social life was becoming increasingly rationalized in the
sense that people tend to lead relatively methodical lives. Soci-
ology participates in this process of rationalization to the extent
that it produces objective knowledge about social phenomena
with a result of sociology can help people make decisions by
providing them with accurate information.” (In Turner &
Beeghley, 1981: p. 214).
The importance of the contemporary preoccupation with ra-
tionality is that it has become inextricably intertwined with ge-
neralized theories of social action. As a consequence, in the
same way that Durkheim’s concept of the social fact has been
reified, Weber’s ideas have also been reified, leading to the pot-
ential for distortion and manipulation of his conceptual and
methodological systems. This is in part because sociological
theory needs to redirect itself back to its stated mission—pro-
viding adequate answers to questions asked of social reality.
Wrong, writing in agreement, using words that seem prophetic
on a continuing basis, stated that,
Social theory must be seen primarily as a set of answers to
questions we asked of social reality. If the initiating questions
are forgotten, we readily misconstrue the task of theory and the
answers previous thinkers have given become narrowly confin-
ing prisons, degenerating into little more than a special profes-
sional vocabulary applied to situations and events that can be
described with equal or greater precision in ordinary language.
Forgetfulness of the questions the starting points of inquiry
lead us to ignore the substantive assumptions buried in our
concepts and commit us to a one-sided view of reality.” (Wrong,
1961: p. 104).
The distortion and manipulation of Weberian objectivity in
the social sciences has been further aggravated by the continued
use of positivist models of social action, which invariably
create methodological problems in social science research .
Whether researchers develop observational or cross sectional
representations of social action or computer-generated simula-
tions viewed as models in motion,they address two critical
issues. The first is that their models will be imperfect represen-
tations of social reality. The second is that because of these
imperfections, their models will not be isomorphic with that of
reality. As Watkins and Meador pointed out:
Social scientistspredi ctions of human behavior are only as
reliable as the stability and accuracy of their models. The intro-
duction of human variables causes models to become imperfect
representations; and dangers appear when they and the hu-
mans involved are treated as perfect replicas of reality.” (Wat-
kins & Meador, 1979: p. 199).
Any social scientists that acknowledge the imperfections of
their models must further acknowledge that the value of the
results of the methodology adopted depends entirely upon the
quality of the components included in the model and on the
degree to which the dynamics of the interrelationships among
their components approximate the real world. Needed is the de-
velopment of a dynamic methodology which encourages social
scientists to utilize assumptions and functional relations among
components of models which are as complex yet as realistic as
possible. The resulting models will take on the capability of
producing that output which most closely resembles that ob-
served within ontological reality.
Ritzer (1975 & 1981) points out that the theoretical orienta-
tion selected to explain the phenomenon under study deter-
mines the method of data collection a social scientist will adopt.
This raises the specter that traditionally defined survey research
techniques may lead to imposed or predefined methods. Con-
cern for this has been set forth by Kinloch who said:
Professional sociologists continue to grasp the invariant in
their studies, manageresearch situations, focus onassumed
correspondence between observed appearances and intended
events, and attempt to bring each situation into conformity with
an anticipated state, that is, the goal , the solved problem. These
methods mean that little, if any, insight into individual rational-
ity is gained, since the unavailability of formal structures is as-
sured by the practices of constructive analysis.” (Kinloch, 1981:
p. 141).
Perrow, has commented, through their insistence that insights
can be gained through the study of objective phenomena, re-
searchers fail to realize that many of the events they seek to
explain are the result of happenstance, accidents, misunders-
tandings, and even random, unmotivated behavior” (Perrow,
1981: p. 3). He further commented:
Social scientists write goals with simple, elegant, and inclu-
sive hypotheses of what the world should look like. Models are
generated intestate with questionnaires that create the world
they want to prove exists. Each step contains some elements of
self-deception.” (Perrow, 1981: p. 3).
The implication seems clear. The primary stumbling blocks
to the development of an adequate understanding of social ac-
tion remains as they were when Wrong generated his theoreti-
cal polemic on the Hobbesian question in 1961, that too many
mainstream sociologists continue to:
1) Deny the reality and meaningfulness of the Hobbesian
question (by presuming they already know the answer to the
2) Apply theoretically imposed rationality, represented in
models of individuals as overly constrained by social structure;
3) Use re search methods which may largely ignore the inter-
pretive processes individuals use in constructing their own so-
cial structures;
4) Use research methods which utilize standardized con-
structs, placing only a minimal emphasis on the dynamically
constructed nature of social reality.
Needed is a theory that focuses on how and in what ways the
subjective states of actors are created, re-created, and main-
tained, and altered, as well as an ensuing methodology which
encourages a sensitization to consciousness and to the dynamic
social processes which work together to produce social action.
The authors maintain that this need is best satisfied with an in-
tegrated approach to social theory. As Crow and Knowles
pointed out nearly a half century ago,
A less pre cise method m ay be preferable because it produc-
es information more quickly and/or at less cost. Moreover, the
information is more likely to be used if the method by which it
was obtained is familiar and acceptable to the respondentan
important consideration to those who must produce it. If the
purpose is, e.g., to generate new and unexpected contingencies
as an aid to planning a hypothetical situation, then a loose me-
thod might be more valid than a precise one.” (Crow & Knowl-
es, 1965: p. 356).
Crow and Knowles thoughts about loose methods are con-
sistent with Weick’s (1976) suggestion that society is a loosely
coupled system.
Factors to be included in the development of an accurate mo-
del of social action must reflect the realization that an imposed
formalized methodological structure plainly contrasts with the
commonsense actions made by individuals in the course of their
everyday life. Therefore, if researchers rationalize or recon-
struct the individual’s intentions, the very processes used in the
dynamics of reality construction, they are effectively prohibited
from gaining insights into those processes. An integrated social
theory must not only break down the barriers between structu-
ralism and individualism but also must impose rigid and im-
aginative notions of rationality to social action that rarely de-
scribes real world actors. It must be taken into account that
individuals play an active role in the construction of the social
forces which so directly affect them, both historically and con-
temporaneously, and as a result, an emphasis on the subjective
and socially constructive nature of reality is of overwhelming
significance to anyone concerned with the development of mo-
dels which accurately represent the social world (Ritzer, 1981).
This task of theoretical integration (with a concerned and inter-
ested eye toward the subjective features of social action) is no
easy charge, but it must be one that contemporary sociologists
adopt if they wish for their discipline to progress and prosper
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