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Sociological Practice: Linking Theory and Social Research

D Layder
Sage Publications: London
1998
0761954309 (pb); 0761954295 (hb)
14.99 (pb); 40.00 (hb)
vii+208

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In Sociological Practice Derek Layder takes on the project of linking theory with empirical research. This attempt is a natural progression from his previous work which has dealt separately with the present state of theory and methods/methodology (Modern Social Theory 1997 and New Strategies in Social Research 1993). He believes that a gap has developed between those who specialise in social theory and those who are expert in data collection and empirical research. To bridge the gulf he proposes 'adaptive theory' which "focuses on generating social theory in conjunction with ongoing empirical research" (viii) and goes on to offer a new set of rules of sociological method.

The first chapter outlines the case for the continuing importance of theory in the social research project and then summarises a number of broad styles of present theorising along with their problems. Four further chapters assess aspects of theory-research links; the research process, coding, the concept-indicator problem, and orienting concepts. The penultimate chapter explicitly argues for 'adaptive theory' as a solution with the final chapter attempting a synthesis of the argument advanced so far into a set of 'rules'.

'Adaptive theory' is adaptive in two senses. It is theory which is sensitive to empirical phenomena and which recognises that some relevant theory exists before the collection of research data. Two themes emerge particularly strongly from the book. The first is that social science should hold onto the concepts of objectivity , 'truth' and explanation. This means a rejection of a postmodernist concentration on description and 'local narratives' though without a return to a basic positivist position. Instead the recognition of increasing complexity in the social world should prompt us to seek more sophisticated strategies in order "to produce ever more adequate knowledge" (9). Secondly, there is a strong critique of grounded theory as an appropriate approach with which to integrate data and theory. It is argued that because grounded theory privileges data and abandons the notion of prior conceptual schemes it loses the advantage of building on previous social theory and wastes formerly achieved knowledge. Additionally Layder argues that by focussing on behavioural aspects, grounded theory (though it is not alone in this failing) largely ignores the systemic aspects of the social world.

As befits its stance towards integrating theory and empirical research, the book is aimed at both social theorists and social researchers. It is of interest to anyone within the social sciences as an espousal of post-positivist sociology and an approach to research. However, on a practical level it appears to be more directed to those involved in empirical research to "ensure that possibilities and opportunities for theorizing are never overlooked" (26). Throughout the book Layder uses the example of his own work on the careers of actors to illustrate the process of developing theory. I would suggest that the 'adaptive theory' which he advocates seems plausible as a formalised version of what many social researchers are actually doing at present. Having this position made clear is valuable and means that those researchers who are struggling with the task of how to use and generate theory in their research will benefit most from reading this book.

Esther Dermott
University of Essex

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