Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998

Theory and Progress in Social Science

James B. Rule
Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
0 521 57494 3 (pb); 0 521 57365 3 (hb)
£14.95 (pb); £40.00 (hb)
xiv + 258 pp.

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In this elegantly written, clearly argued, book James Rule makes a distinction between formal and substantive progress that provides the key to the issues that matter most to him. Formal progress is the sort of progress that is made from within a particular theoretical framework, by insiders immersed in a particular theoretical world- view. It involves the gradual development of standards and strategies of accomplishment, success being measured by the theoretical outlook 'strictly in its own terms'. Insiders often possess a powerful sense of allegiance, a passion, for their theory. They translate all that they see into its shapes, texture, vocabulary. When this happens the theory can be said to fulfil expressive needs and these should be distinguished from a theory's ability to help us solve problems, to 'cope' practically with the social world. People who attach themselves to theoretical perspectives usually do so for a combination of expressive and coping reasons. Quite often, Rule argues, a theory becomes fashionable, in spite of rather dubious prospects of ever being of much help with practical questions, precisely because it fulfils expressive needs. He clearly feels that this is unfortunate for it is the practical questions that are ultimately the point of the social science exercise. This is the cue for the concept of Substantive progress. And it is substantive progress that Rule cares about, not least because this is what ultimately matters to outsiders, to the wider public. Substantive progress is achieved when the formal progress achieved from within a theoretical perspective bears such fruit that people who do not share that perspective, outsiders, have no option but to acknowledge the insights and advances that have been made. Rule labels this quality of substantive progress the "or-else clause" - you had better take notice 'or-else' you will be the loser - and the clause acts as a recurrent motif throughout the book.

The history of the social sciences is littered with the bodies of once fashionable theories whose programs have faded and died after the initial cachet of expressive allure has fallen prey to the dull familiarity of routine acquaintance. Often nothing of any lasting value has remained. It is not only the conceptual paraphernalia of the theoretical perspective that seems now to be quaintly out of date but often also the very questions that it had addressed now seem to be surprisingly irrelevant or eccentric. The Emperor is seen (or thought now?) to have had no clothes all along. Rule argues that there are certain questions which never meet this fate because they are very closely tied to substantive progress. These are what he calls 'first-order questions' (second-order questions are those of concern only to subscribers to the language and conceptual vocabulary of a particular perspective), a core of historically enduring preoccupations that have a special place in the theoretical life of the social sciences because they address certain endemic tensions of social life itself. Such questions include: the causes of deviance; the social influences on personality development; the conditions for economic growth or for international peace; the causes of conflict; the limits to changes in family organisation; the social functions and limits of social stratification; the roots and the institutional conditions for civic violence and its curtailment. Such questions are said to be recurrent analytical and practical themes that stretch over generations. It is the answers to these questions that can provide the enduring standards against which we can judge whether there has been any progress in social science. This seems to me to be an interesting and challenging claim, but in need of more sustained discussion. For example, I would have liked to have seen a more extended discussion of the claim (ch.1) of how precisely to distinguish these questions are to be distinguished from the more avowedly partisan questions addressed by radical sociologists such as C.Wright Mills and Barrington Moore.

Whilst I am very sympathetic to Rule's project - it is extremely thought provoking and it is indeed important to be able to point non-social scientists to palpable advances in knowledge afforded by social science - and to the theoretical pluralism that is part and parcel of it, I do think that there are a number of problems with some significant aspects of the solutions he proposes. These problems, it seems to me, are linked to those kinds of ambivalences and confusions in the text that often arise as one tries to develop an original thesis: not everything can be resolved at once, especially as innovations are apt to throw up their own unexpected conundrums. The problems are clearest in the middle section, Part II, of the book in which Rule devotes a chapter each to four different theoretical perspectives - rational choice theory; Jeffrey Alexander's reworking of Parson's 'general theory'; network analysis; and feminist analysis in social science - with the aim of bringing out the balance between their expressive appeal, on the one hand, and their potential for coping with social problems (for substantive progress), on the other. In my view, the underlying problem with Rule's account here lies in his decision to treat theories as self-contained wholes whilst partly wanting to say that it is elements in the theories, or certain aspects, insights, of the theories, that should survive, that provide us with substantive progress. A less equivocal choice of the latter path would have to involve more consideration of how elements in theories can be detached in some way from the theory as a whole, leaving the less adequate aspects of the theory behind. And to do this - whilst sustaining the post-empiricist world-view that he subscribes to (facts do not speak for themselves, cut off from any theoretical presuppositions) - he would also have to show how the lifted elements can be articulated into a new, pluralistically formed, theoretical perspective on the particular social problem at issue. I suspect that if he did this then he also may begin to be able to see more clearly the virtues of theories with which he has no affinity when he treats them as whole theories to be compared in toto with other theories. Perhaps the way forward is to look at elements of theories in order to see if they are an advance on similar elements (sometimes absent) in other theories. Seen in this light, the lack, for example, of an obvious and immediate empirical pay-off would not necessarily make one as unsympathetic as Rule is to Alexander's plea for a relative autonomy of disaggregated theoretical elements, or to Nancy Chodorow's nuanced discussion of object-relations theory, or to Stanley and Wise's emphasis on the experiences of the researcher as entering into what the researcher sees (and not only into what she chooses to look at) as she produces knowledge. There are many points in the book where one can see the possibilities of this more flexible type of thinking jostling uneasily with the alternative view that a theory will stand or fall as a whole. To take just one from many possible examples, Rule clearly doesn't think much of ethnomethodology as a whole (much less than I do) but still acknowledges that 'indexicality' is now a concept that it is difficult to do without for theorists addressing certain questions (chapter 2, p. 67). It seems to me that it is the flexible, disaggregating and synthetic view of theory that emerges most powerfully from the prism into which Rule projects his finely honed questions, and it is this ray that should be trained on subsequent attempts to pursue the substantive progress upon which he rightly places so much importance.

Rob Stones
University of Essex

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998