There is no universal agreement about what the proper objectives of theory should be. Perhaps for that reason commentators can often be seen to criticise theories or theorists in ways that seem unfair. To assess a theory adequately it is necessary to consider what it is actually trying to achieve. With that in mind, Baert and Carreira da Silva have identified four common mistakes critics make when registering their dissatisfaction with a theory:
1. Explanatory Reductionism: the explanatory reductionist assumes that all theories are about explaining, or predicting social phenomena. That may be a common goal but it is not ubiquitous. Some theories aim to provide understanding rather than explanation. The authors talk about some theories designed to develop self-understanding: ‘they allow us to consider some of our presuppositions and to re-describe and assess our present societal constellation’.
2. Perspectivism: here the critic focuses on the perspective of the theory, that slice of social life it aims to describe (power, agency, values). The critic often implicitly suggests that there is no independent measure by which to judge these differences. The authors argue that although few critics are explicit about this, many practice it and perspectivists are best identified by the way in which they focus on the differences between theories. But there is more to social theories than the differences of subject matter between them. And they can legitimately be judged and compared by reference to a variety of measures including intellectual depth, analytical clarity, originality, explanatory power and internal consistency.
3. Externalism: this must be the most common pitfall, criticising a theory for failing to do something it never set out to do in the first place. Even though it is almost always better to evaluate theories for internal consistency, the authors identify two expectations. External criticisms can be useful as (i) a stepping stone to internal critique and (ii) as a medium for developing one’s own social theory. Beyond this, however, criticising a theory for ignoring something is not going to be very helpful.
4. Political Effect: here the theory is criticised for the actual or potential effect it might have on politics or society generally. The authors argue that this sort of consequential reasoning should not normally be allowed to interfere with the intellectual appreciation of a theory.
So there you have it, the four most common mistakes commentators make when critiquing social theory. Look out for them…
Baert, P. and F. Carreira da Silva Social Theory in the Twentieth Century and Beyond (2nd edn) (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010) pp. 8-11