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JoSS Article: Volume 2

Theoretical Sociology in the 20th Century

Thomas J. Fararo
University of Pittsburgh

Prepared for a Festschrift in Honor of Linton C. Freeman
Vancouver, B.C., April 16, 2000
  [Revised: April 21, 2000]

ABSTRACT: This chapter discusses theoretical sociology in historical perspective: From the classic tradition to postclassical efforts of synthesis that culminated in multiple paradigms, to the situation today in which theorists are more and more constructing formal models as essential components of their methodology. The classical phase is treated very briefly and the discussion of the postclassical phase is limited to two major theorists, Parsons and Homans, in terms of their common focus on the Durkheimian problem of social integration. The bulk of the chapter deals with developments in recent theoretical sociology. I describe models of structure and of process before defining two types of models that combine a structural focus with process analysis. Finally, I set out a general perspective on theoretical model building and conclude with a discussion of standards in the assessment of such work.


This paper is written in honor of the person who had the greatest influence in shaping my professional career, Linton C. Freeman. It was Lin who hired me as a research assistant back in 1960 at Syracuse University, for a project dealing with community power structure that he and others were about to undertake. I had been a student in an integrated social science program, mainly studying the history of social thought. Earlier and even then, however, I was reading the literature of the philosophy of science and this prepared me to become very enthusiastic about the process of building knowledge. I transferred to the Department of Sociology to pursue a Ph.D. under Lin's direction and to continue to work with him and others on research projects.

Lin's own strong commitment to basic science was communicated in every context of our interaction and further strengthened the more abstract lessons I was learning through my reading. It was he who brought me into every phase of the community power structure project from conceptual discussion to interviewing to data analysis to writing of research reports and an article for publication in ASR. It was socialization to basic science that, even today, few students acquire in such depth.

Among other things, when I became aware of a then recent paper by Rapoport and Horvath (1961) dealing with a new way to analyze large sociograms, I followed Lin's advice and embarked on learning enough about it to apply it to our data as my Ph.D. thesis project.

After earning the doctorate, through Lin's influence, I was appointed to the faculty of the department and assigned to very congenial courses, one or two of which dealt with formalization problems. These courses allowed me to communicate my ideas about the philosophy of science and to teach formal logic and axiomatics as well as finite mathematical model building in sociology (e.g., finite Markov chains). I felt inadequately prepared in classical (non-finite) mathematics and applied for and obtained a three-year postdoctoral fellowship for the study of pure and applied mathematics at Stanford University. Then, in 1967, through Lin's influence I was offered a position at the University of Pittsburgh where Lin and I resumed our contact for several years. I remained there for the remainder of my career, while Lin moved on. Here now, in the twilight of a career that would have been quite different without my connection to him, I am pleased to present some ideas about sociological theory that developed over the years.


This paper discusses theoretical sociology in historical perspective: from the classic tradition to postclassical efforts of synthesis that culminated in multiple paradigms to the situation today in which theorists are more and more constructing formal models as essential components of their methodology.

The tradition of sociological theory as a whole exhibits a mixture of three types of sociological interests that I call theoretical sociology, world-historical sociology and normative-critical sociology. I discuss this mixture in the classical phase and then the remainder of the paper has theoretical sociology as its focus. This focus represents the sort of basic science interest that Lin communicated to me about forty years ago and to which I remained committed over the years.

I limit my treatment of the postclassical phase to two theorists, Parsons and Homans, each discussed in terms of a shift in theory construction strategy as well as in terms of their common focus on the Durkheimian problem of social integration.

In analyzing the recent phase of theoretical sociology, I first discuss the situation of multiple theoretical perspectives and then draw attention to what I call mutations and new combinations. I emphasize that the role of models has become a major part of the tradition of theoretical sociology, describing models of structure and of process before defining two types of models that combine a structural focus with process analysis. Finally, I set out a general perspective on theoretical model building and conclude with a discussion of standards in the assessment of such work.

Phases and Components of Sociological Theory

Three Phases. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a handful of scholars who by and large worked independently, elaborated conceptions of sociology as a science. Probably the most enduring contributions were produced by Weber, Durkheim, and Simmel, and, mainly for his influence on later theorists, Pareto. In addition, Comte and Spencer were important 19th century precursors. Finally, although neither George Herbert Mead nor Karl Marx ever elaborated a conception of sociology, their writings have been incorporated into the tradition. These various writings are commonly referred to as "classical sociological theory" and comprise the first phase of the tradition.

The second phase, which I will call "postclassical," began with integrative efforts directed toward building a common theoretical framework for sociology. Influential writers with this ambition included Talcott Parsons and George Homans, among others. But a unifying framework did not emerge and an era of proliferation of perspectives took hold under the conception of sociology as a multiple-paradigm science.

In the recent third phase of sociological theory, the multiple paradigms or perspectives continue -- with mutations and new combinations -- alongside renewed efforts to consolidate theoretical ideas. Examples of commitments to the growth of scientific theories in sociology compete with postmodernist and other viewpoints that rest upon a repudiation of the entire idea of sociology as a science.

Three Components. In addition to this phase description, it is useful to interpret the corpus of writings over these phases as comprised of three components, reflecting different intellectual interests. In a simplified model, I suggest just three such components pervade the entire tradition of sociological theory. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1.    Three Components of Sociological Theory in the 20th Century

One is the elaboration of ideas relating to the construction of generalized frameworks of sociological thought. I treat this aspect of classical theory as the first phase of theoretical sociology, the first of the three component sets of interests.

A second component relates to an intellectual interest in world-historical social and cultural forces in the creation of the modern world. Today, this type of world-historical interest has shifted from modernization to globalization and postmodernity. One reason for distinguishing this focus from general theoretical sociology is that it enables a distinction between the importance of a general theoretical problem and the importance of the empirical instance studied in terms of that problem. Thus, the evaluation of theoretical model can occur with respect to empirical instances that have little importance outside this scientific context.

Finally, a third component of the tradition of sociological theory involves critical normative ideas. It entails evaluation of social phenomena rather than their explanation or historical interpretation. For instance, from Hegel and Marx to Habermas, critical theory emphasizes the task of critique of society and culture in the interests of human emancipation from what it treats as coercive structures of production and consumption. Feminist theory also has a primacy of interest in social critique. Although such theories draw upon general theoretical sociology, as does the world-historical orientation, they foster a primacy of ideology that detracts from the pursuit of an interest in basic scientific knowledge of social life. Nevertheless, the three components tend to be interrelated in the literature of sociological theory. As a result, any body of theory -- or even a single work -- can be regarded as a kind of weighted combination of the three components. I will illustrate this point in my discussion of the classical phase of sociological theory.

The Classical Phase

For brevity, I select just five classical theorists and present a compact and brief listing of some of the key ideas of each of them: Mead, Weber, Simmel, Durkheim and Pareto, organized in terms of the three components. The format serves to illustrate the three types of intellectual interests that permeate the tradition of sociological theory. Each theorist's main foundational contribution to theoretical sociology is also highlighted at the outset of the listing of sample elements of the three components in that theorist's work.

  1. Weber: Social action as a foundation concept
    • Theoretical sociology. For sociological purposes, social life consists of complexes of social action that can be studied by the explicit use of analytic procedures involving idealization.
    • World-historical sociology. The history of the West is one of increasing rationalization trend and its consequences.
    • Normative-critical sociology. Modern rational capitalism is an iron cage.

  2. Mead: Social behavioral foundations of human action systems
    • Theoretical sociology. Mind, self, symbols, and institutions are co-emergent in natural evolution. The starting point for social psychology is the social act as an organized social activity in which actors take each other's attitudes.
    • World-historical sociology. Human history is evolution on a smaller time-scale in which variant institutional solutions arise in relation to common social problems.
    • Normative-critical sociology. The basic problem of human society is how to have orderly change and the best answer to this, so far, is to organize society along democratic lines.

  3. Simmel: Interaction concept as essential for sociology
    • Theoretical sociology. Society is interaction among individuals. The subject matter of formal sociology consists of forms of interaction, a kind of geometry of the social world.
    • World-historical sociology. The history of the West is one of increasing social and cultural complexity.
    • Theoretical Normative-critical sociology. Because culture becomes so complex, the modern individual is in danger of alienation with a subjective self that is not truly cultivated.

  4. Durkheim: Integration as a fundamental problem
    • Theoretical sociology. Neural networks are to psychic facts as social networks are to social facts. The domain of sociology consists of social facts that require a distinctive sociological explanation. Emergent social integration is a key problem of sociology.
    • World-historical sociology. The history of the West is one of increasing social differentiation and its consequences, such as increasing individuation.
    • Normative-critical sociology. Modern societies are not in a healthy state because their moral regulation has not yet caught up with changes in social relationships, especially in the economy.

  5. Pareto: System concept as a key tool for theorizing
    • Theoretical sociology. Scientific theory is analytical, which means abstract and, in basic science, involving the construction of idealized models.
    • World-historical sociology. History is a story of interdependent economic, political and cultural cycles.
    • Normative-critical sociology. Human non-scientific belief systems, whether religious or secular, are all ideologies subject to detached critique (the standards for which are broadly humanistic).

    In what follows, my discussion of the postclassical and recent phases of sociological theory will be limited to theoretical sociology. Figure 2 outlines the phases of theoretical sociology, showing the foci of discussion in this chapter.

Figure 2.    Three Phases of Theoretical Sociology in the 20th Century

Postclassical Theoretical Sociology

Although there are various streams of developments in theoretical sociology that can be traced to the influence of the classical theorists, in this paper I focus on two theorists with a common background and a common aspiration, namely Talcott Parsons and George Homans. Both were at Harvard in the 1930s when the idea of creating a general theoretical sociology was discussed in the famous Pareto seminar. The keynote for Parsons and Homans was the creation of an analytical sociological theory that was based upon the classical phase of sociology and on related empirical research not only in sociology but also in related fields, particularly anthropology. In each instance, we can partition the resulting career of theoretical work into two phases marked by a shift in theory construction strategy.

Parsons: The First Phase. Theoretical sociology was a central but not exclusive concern of Talcott Parsons and his first major work, The Structure of Social Action (1937), played a major role in subsequent developments. He analyzed the writings of the economic theorist Marshall as well as those of Pareto, Durkheim and Weber. His objective was to show that these writers had expanded the scope of analytical social theory beyond the traditions from which they emerged, with their more limited perspectives.

Any analytical theory, Parsons argued, treats only selected aspects of a complex reality, formulating two kinds of conceptual schemes. One such scheme specifies a general structural account of the type of empirical system of interest. It key concepts refer to parts and relations among them. The other type of conceptual scheme presupposes some sort of structural analysis and goes on to specify an analytical system, a set of variables and relationships among them. His convergence argument, he noted, pertained only to structural analysis.

Following Weber and Pareto, Parsons initiates his analysis in terms of an action frame of reference. He treats social entities such as groups as systems of social actions. Hence, structural analysis, at this level, will focus on relations among types of acts so as to describe "the structure of social action" as a prelude to an analytical theory of such social action systems.

Parsons' basic structural concept is the means-end chain. Each such chain represents a series of interconnected actions, a kind of path through an action space. This suggests representing means-end chains by paths in a finite directed graph. An edge, denoted (m, e), corresponds to an action in which certain means m are employed toward some end e. Two such edges, (m1, e1) and (m2, e2) are adjacent when the end point of the first is the means point of the next: e1 = m2. Paths intersect because some means are employed toward the same end and some ends are means in various further actions.

The structure of this system of social action has three sectors. Think of the graph in a vertical orientation, the lines point upward. At the bottom are points with no edges directed to them: they are only means, never ends. They comprise what Parsons calls the ultimate means sector of the structure of social action. Similarly, at the top are points such that no edge is directed from them: they are only ends, never means. They comprise what Parsons calls the ultimate ends sector of the structure. All other points have edges entering and leaving them: they are both means and ends. They comprise what Parsons calls the intermediate sector of the structure. Looking downward, in which ends control the selection of means, we have a hierarchy of normative control from the ultimate end sector to the intermediate sector to the ultimate means sector of the social action system. Moreover, the various ultimate ends (some of which are diffuse values) are not independent. Connections among them constitute the emergent property of value-integration, as in the existence of value systems. When such values are not only connected but are shared among actors, they are said to exhibit the property of common value-integration.

Parsons argues that the classical phase of sociological theory converged on the thesis that the emergent property of common value-integration is essential for social order. His "sociologistic theorem" says that a necessary condition for social equilibrium (social order) is the existence of a common value system. He argues that economic and political theories have focused on the intermediate sector in which actions are means to immediate but not ultimate ends. Some such ultimate ends are not even empirical. In such cases, Parsons classifies the corresponding actions as nonrational because there is no scientific way of saying that the means are inappropriate, in intrinsic or causal terms, to the attainment of such ends. The actions may be appropriate in some symbolic sense, as in ritual action. Thus, Parsons' conceptual scheme links the existence of social order to the nonrational aspect of action systems via the sociologistic theorem. Moreover, in defining sociological theory as only one of the analytical sciences of action, Parsons associates it with the emergent common value-integration property and the sociologistic theorem.

Parsons: The Second Phase. In his next major work, The Social System (1951), Parsons elaborates on the psychological foundations for this idea, stating what he calls “the fundamental dynamic theorem of sociology," drawing upon ideas from Freud that support Pareto's focus on nonrational elements in social system dynamics. The theorem states that the stability of social equilibrium requires the institutionalization of a value system that is also sufficiently internalized in the personalities of members.

Between the first and the second books, Parsons had changed his theory construction strategy. In the first work, the entire elaborate discussion of the means-end structure of social action systems was regarded as a preliminary to the task of constructing an analytical theory. With the conception of the scope of theoretical sociology as focussed on the emergent property of common value-integration, the analytical variables that were needed would be value pattern variables -- variables whose combinations could be used to characterize the dynamics of social action. These led to his famous "pattern variable scheme" involving such value polarities as universalism versus particularism and affectivity versus affective neutrality. Combinations of selections from these value alternatives define value patterns that are definitions of the directions of action to be expected in social relationships. For instance, in a doctor-patient relationship, the value pattern that defines the relationship includes universalism and affective neutrality, among other value elements. In dynamic terms, such value patterns would function as "control parameters" that enable and constrain actions in the hierarchy of normative control.

However, at some point, Parsons became convinced that a simplification of the theory task would be required. This took the form of forgoing a true dynamic analysis with derived equilibria in favor of a focus on a social system as a "going concern." For each social relational nexus satisfying this condition, the corresponding value pattern is treated as a pattern tending to be maintained despite disturbances. Thus the problematic feature for theory was to describe the mechanisms that tended to counteract disturbances and thereby to help maintain the pattern. The theory becomes structural-functional with its focus on mechanisms of socialization and social control.

In turn, the elaboration of this structural-functional type of theorizing eventually led to two related classifications, one of social structural parts and one of social functional subsystems. The four types of social structural parts are values, norms, collectivities and roles. For instance, in American society, there is a diffuse value of freedom with its implementation in diverse norms, such as the normative conception of a free press. In turn, this norm is embodied in numerous collectivities, such as news organizations, that disseminate ideas through the specialized activities of people acting in such roles as editor, reporter and the like.

To define and analyze functional systems, Parsons applies a general conceptual scheme for functional analysis. The starting point is that any system of action is said to have four key functional problems: (latent) pattern maintenance (L), integration (I), goal-attainment (G) and adaptation to the environment (A).

As applied to what we might call a societal action system, the four types of functional problems are specified, respectively, in the reverse order, in two steps. In the first step, this action system is modeled as a system with four types of interdependent functional subsystems: cultural systems (L), social systems (I), personality systems (G) and behavioral systems that adapt to the biophysical environment (A). What is normally called "the society" is the most inclusive social system in this analysis of the societal action system, so that its environment consists of cultural systems as well as the personality and behavioral systems of its members. Then the analysis of a society, in this sense, proceeds by four-function analysis once again. In AGIL order, the society as an integrative system of action (I) has four functional problems: economic (collective adaptation to the action and biophysical environments, IA), political (collective goal attainment, IG), social integrative (II), and fiduciary (maintenance of the cultural traditions, IL). Corresponding to these four problems are four interdependent functional subsystems of the societal action system: economy, polity, societal community and fiduciary system.

Linking the two conceptual schemes for structure and function, for instance, yields political values, political norms, political collectivities and political roles as the structural components involved in the polity. These units interpenetrate with the components of all the other systems because the same people who act in political roles (e.g., voter) perform actions in other roles (e.g.. consumer). Thus, functional connectivity characterizes the partial differentiated structures (assuming here a modern differentiated society).

In this conceptual scheme, in principle, each analytical theory of action has a scope that corresponds to one or more functional subsystems. The analytical focus of theoretical sociology, in this four-function perspective, is the integrative subsystem of any social action system. This is a "system of solidarities" to use the nice terminology of Baum (1975). The focus is on the problematic integration of a social system. In the limit, the system may consist of a single collectivity without subcollectivities. In another direction, it may consist of a huge number of intersecting subcollectivities but not itself form a single collectivity. Finally, it may be both "many" and "one," in the sense that it is both a single collectivity and has plural subcollectivities within it. For instance, at the societal level, the term "nation" points to a single solidary system, a collectivity, but the nation will be comprised of intersecting subcollectivities. In short, as in Durkheim, the fundamental theoretical problem of sociology is social integration at any level of social life, the "double I" (II) problem in Parsons's four-function scheme.

In general, Parsons seems to have an image of a tree of analytical theories, each scope-defined:

The analytical view of theoretical sociology as focussed on the problem of social integration or solidarity (II) leads to a specification of a fundamental problem: What holds society together? It has been framed as the problem of order. From Hobbes to Parsons to Dahrendorf (1959) and into recent theory, the problem has a long history in social theory. For instance, Dahrendorf criticized Parsons' approach to the problem, revising Marx's coercion-based approach to make power relations central. Subsequently, Collins (1975) attempted a synthesis of Durkheimian theory with this Dahrendorf-type of conflict theory. Actually, Dahrendorf makes legitimacy a fundamental feature of his treatment of power relations, thereby invoking values and norms and taking the sting out of his critique of Parsons' treatment of the problem.

However, criticism of Parsons' theory came not only from those who favored a conflict theory perspective but also from theorists adopting other perspectives. Prominent among these was George Homans. His early work initiated another mode of generalized synthesis in theoretical sociology that led to a second phase that itself drew considerable critical reaction.

Homans: the First Phase. In the first of his two major theoretical works, The Human Group (1950), Homans argued that the creation of theoretical sociology should begin with a scope restriction to small groups, defined as those in which each member could interact with every other during the time the group meets. In framing a general theoretical problem, Homans asked: What makes customs customary? In other words, how do we account for order? The problem is framed at the elementary level of interaction and pertains to the emergence, maintenance or change of systems of social relationships among persons. Order in the form of social integration is explained through an emergent "internal system," given external conditions. Social bonds among members and shared norms are generated by mechanisms that are described in terms of specific hypothesized linkages among analytical elements pertaining to activities, sentiments, and interaction. For instance, the more frequently people interact with each other, the more similar their sentiments, normative ideas and activities become. Far more clearly than in Parsons' work, a system of variables and their relationships is specified so as to undertake the verbal equivalent of the sorts of steps that are taken in the mathematical analysis of a dynamical system model.

Moreover, Homans synthesizes classical ideas within his theoretical framework. For example, in treating social control, the Durkheimian idea of the ritual effects of punishment is embedded in the discussion of the stability analysis of equilibrium states. In addition, he delimits the scope of two seemingly opposing theories of ritual -- those of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown, respectively -- before reconciling them, i.e., integrating them. In short, Homans' social system theory is in the Durkheimian tradition, although critical of functionalist arguments that do not specify mechanisms that account for the emergence and stability of equilibrium states.

If Homans' analytical hypotheses or laws describe group dynamics and the build-up (or dissolution) of a group, what explains the laws? In searching for this more fundamental level of theorizing, Homans invoked a conceptual scheme from behavioral psychology in the next phase of his theoretical work (Homans 1961, 1974). Interaction is an exchange involving material and non-material goods, and social approval is a fundamental category of social reward.

Homans: the Second Phase. Just as Parsons had changed theory construction strategy between his first and second major works, so did Homans. From a theory as modeled on a system of differential equations, he moved to theory as a system of propositions forming a deductive system. The behavioral principles have the function of covering laws in logical arguments that explain regularities in social life, including the results of experimental social psychology as well as field studies of the sort analyzed in the earlier work.

We can interpret the basic logic of this approach as reduction in the sense of explanation of social life from a non-social foundation. This is somewhat analogous to the explanation of molecular levels of existence from a purely atomic basis. Critics might ask: What if atoms only could have the postulated properties they have if these properties emerge out of molecular relations? Then this sort of organic relationship makes reduction nonsense. Similarly, if individuals are socialized beings, how can their interaction explain social order? You are simply presupposing what is supposed to be explained.

But there is a response to this criticism. In Homans' behavioral theory, the fundamental unit is not the person but the behavioral act. The person as a complex socialized entity is not the subject matter of interest to Homans, although such a system -- corresponding to Parsons' personality system -- is within the scope of the behavioral theory. In other words, Homans has a tree of theory with a basic behavioral or action theory at its root and with a number of branches. Given his commitment to analytical theory, he pursues just one branch, namely the one that deals with the problem of the integration of the actions of plural persons to form a dynamic social system with emergent patterns of order.

In this interpretation, Homans can agree with the classical sociological theorist Charles Cooley who argued that individual and society are "twin-born," in that the person is socially constructed in social interaction and that a society is a system of interaction. In practice, then, Homans took mind, self and symbols -- three important elements from the Cooley-Mead standpoint -- as givens in the pursuit of a pure theoretical sociology that would formulate and explain group processes.

In taking this approach, Homans accompanied his work with a polemical argument. He took aim at Durkheim, who had argued that what explanation means for sociological theory is a causal account that remains at the level of social facts. For instance, to explain varying rates of deviance in groups, Durkheimian theory would point to varying levels of solidarity: the greater the solidarity of the group, the lower the rate of deviance from its norms. (See Figure 3.)

Figure 3.    Durkheimian Social Generativity via Homans and Coleman

What Homans argued was that such a proposition, if it is true, could be derived logically from a behavioral foundation. For instance, in a highly solidary group, members experience or can anticipate high costs in lost social approval for deviation from group norms, while in a less solidary group, such costs are lower. Solidarity or cohesion is "micro-translated," to use Collins' (1981) term, in such an explanation. Then the behavioral mechanisms are able to explain why varying rates of solidarity lead to varying rates of deviance. In this way, Durkheimian explanation is cause-effect explanation while behavioral explanation can be seen as providing the mechanism that, logically speaking, is invoked through covering laws drawn from behavioral psychology. Combining the two, we have what I have called "Durkheimian social generativity" (Fararo 1989a: Ch. 2).

The Recent Phase of Theoretical Sociology

I will treat the recent phase of theoretical sociology in two steps. In the first, preliminary step, I discuss the current state of the field in terms of the existence of multiple theoretical perspectives inherited from the postclassical phase but undergoing a process that I describe as producing mutations and new combinations. In the second, more extensive step, I turn to the growing use of formal models in theoretical sociology.

Theoretical Perspectives. During the postclassical phase of theoretical sociology and amidst its proliferation of perspectives, a book appeared that shaped the way many sociologists reflected upon theory in their discipline. Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions ([1962], 1970) argued that a normal science is characterized by a shared paradigm but that there are also revolutionary episodes in the history of science involving paradigm shifts.

In application of the paradigm concept to sociology, commentators characterized the field as one with multiple paradigms, usually called theoretical perspectives. By the late 1970s, most texts reflected this consensus, featuring separate chapters on functionalism (Parsons), conflict theory (both critical theory and the Dahrendorf tradition), exchange theory (Homans), symbolic interactionism (Blumer), structuralism (French and American versions), and phenomenology (social constructionism and ethnomethodology).

To make the picture even more diverse, two other developments occurred. Feminists launched a wide-ranging critique of sociological theory and helped to make the study of gender a key research topic. Postmodernist sociologists attacked the project of sociological theory as a continuation of the Enlightenment’s grand narrative with scientific pretensions that could not succeed. Critics respond by attacking the cognitive relativism of this approach.

Some commentators argue that there is no possibility of placing these paradigms under a common intellectual framework, thereby seeing the discipline as permanently fractured and at war with itself. Others regard the situation as a positive one, emphasizing the importance of diverse viewpoints that could be brought to bear on any particular feature of social life. Still others recognize the diversity but argue for integrative theorizing, as we shall see below.

The most prominent mid-century efforts in theoretical sociology that aimed toward generality and synthesis -- the ideas of Parsons and Homans described earlier and a strong integrative effort by Blau (1964) - have failed on the criterion of acceptance as the paradigm of general theoretical sociology. Yet the spirit of what they tried to accomplish is not gone. We can call it "the spirit of unification," meaning a value-commitment to generalizing synthesis efforts in episodes of consolidating components of distinct theoretical systems (Fararo 1989b). Robert Merton emphasized this idea in his often-cited paper "On Sociological Theories of the Middle Range" (included in ([1949] 1968). A middle range theory employs a general conceptual scheme with analytical elements, but it is scope-restricted to some abstractly specified class of empirical systems, e.g., thermodynamic systems. It explains intuitively very different empirical systems using the same analytical elements and laws that do not exhaust the content of the empirical system. In short, a middle-range theory is an analytical theory. Its scope is limited in the sense of dealing only with certain analytical elements, not in the sense of dealing only with a class of concrete entities as classified in folk culture.

Recent Developments. A value-commitment to the construction of limited-scope but abstract theories coupled with a recursive process of integration of such theories may well be a plausible path for the advance of theoretical sociology. At present, this approach is most strongly institutionalized in the field of research known as group processes, in which theorists elaborate and integrate their theories over time in connection with the construction of experimental situations that provide opportunities for testing the implications of theories. Long-term theoretical research programs, spanning decades, have characterized some of this work. For instance, expectation states theory and exchange network theory are two such programs among others (see Berger and Zelditch 1993). These programs are a kind of mutation out of the earlier small group research of the 1950s and early 1960s, many of them influenced by the work of Homans.

Other recent developments indicate other mutations in the paradigms and the emergence of new paradigms. Three such developments may be noted: neofunctionalism, social network analysis, and rational choice theory.

Neofunctionalism is a mutation of Parsons' theory. It departs from his four-function paradigm in a number of ways that reflect the influence of external critiques. For instance, Alexander (1985) tries to incorporate ideas from various perspectives, including conflict theory and symbolic interactionism. Much of neofunctionalist writing is focussed on historical and normative interests. The revised functionalist framework is employed to interpret historical situations, e.g., in terms of a baseline social differentiation trend (Alexander and Colomy 1990).

One of the new paradigms is social network analysis. Although social system theorists such as Parsons and Homans employed the network concept as a metaphor, they did not employ formal tools. By contrast, the social network paradigm incorporates a strong mathematical and statistical foundation in a program of cumulative research on the properties of social networks. In the following section of this paper, when I discuss structural models, I will pick up on this discussion of social network analysis.

Rational choice theory has departed from the behavioral psychological foundation that Homans advocated, often favoring a more mathematically tractable rational choice approach. Coleman (1990) presented his foundations of social theory as directed to resolving the micro-macro transition problem that Blau's (1964) earlier effort had defined. On the one hand, he endorsed Parsons' action framework with its concept of purposive action and repudiated the transition to structural-functional analysis. On the other hand, he endorsed Homans' methodological individualism and repudiated the transition to reduction in terms of behavioral principles.

In Coleman's theory, macro-level systemic givens constrain and enable micro-level situations of actors. Making rational choices based on their internal preferences and the situational constraints, actors then collectively shape macro-level outcomes. This is not equivalent to Homans' reduction program. Among other things, it is a trade-off of behavioral realism for the deductive fertility that optimization arguments enable. Homans is much more attuned to the task of the scientific theorist: to explain empirical findings. Coleman's theory, in part, is more in the classical tradition of sociological theory as a whole in that it blends general theoretical, world-historical and normative interests.

A key contribution of sociological rational choice theorists has been their sharp theoretical focus on variants of the basic problem of order or integration, treating solidarity, coordination, cooperation, and trust. At the same time, the synthesis of the Durkheimian theory of solidarity with conflict theory undertaken by Collins provides a different middle-range perspective on the problem of social integration. I have pointed out the centrality of this problem in the tradition of theoretical sociology. Now, with such explicit theories treating it, the problem may well constitute an important locus of episodes involving theoretical unification. In addition, some of this work illustrates the use of mathematical models in relation to sociological theory (Doreian and Fararo 1998). Model building can fulfill a variety of goals, including the clarification of concepts, the representation of processes, and the specification of theoretical constructs that explain a variety of phenomena (Berger et al 1962). Such formal model-building developments are of growing importance in recent theoretical sociology, a topic to which I turn at this point.

Formal Models in Theoretical Sociology

A model is an abstract entity that functions as a representation of some system in the world that is of sociological interest. My aim now is to discuss a variety of types of models that theoretical sociologists have employed in the analysis of social structures and social processes. Thereafter I will treat the philosophy and methodology of model building in more general terms. It should be noted that the term "model" is used in sociology in diverse ways. Very often it refers to statistical models employed in the analysis of data. This usage is excluded from this discussion, which is focused on models and model building in relation to sociological concepts and theories. Also excluded is the diffuse idea of a general model of society as a kind of social organism.

In the present context, a model is a formal object functioning as a representation of some structure or process of sociological interest. A type of model is constructed, generally, as an implementation of a representation principle (Fararo 1989a: Ch. 1), a claim that a certain category of phenomena can be modeled in some specified way. In what follows, some important representation principles associated with the concept of social structure are described, and then the discussion turns to models of social processes.

Models of Social Structure

Sociologists have employed at least four different types of models in the analysis of structure in social life. We may regard these as four representation principles under the headings: structure as network; structure as distribution; structure as grammar, and structure as game. One aspect of recent theoretical sociology is the use of combinations of these models in developing theories. Thus, the four types of models form a set of interrelated conceptual elements (see Figure 4).

Figure 4.    Four Interrelated Representations of Structure in Social Life

Structure as Network. The metaphor of a social system as a network, widely employed informally in sociology, was transformed into a mode of model building and analysis through a convergence of ideas and techniques from several traditions. One such source was sociometry (Moreno 1934), involving the analysis of network diagrams indicating relationships among people in a small population. A second source was balance theory, which deals with configurations of positive and negative sentiments. The theory was absorbed into social network analysis via the formalization of the configurations of sentiments in terms of signed graph theory (Harary, Cartwright an Norman 1965). A third source was the analysis of structures of kinship, especially after the publication of an influential monograph by White (1963). Sociometric models, balance-theoretic models, models of kinship structure, as well as numerous other model-building efforts -- such as those treating social diffusion and small worlds -- converged by the late 1970s and the term "social network paradigm" was used to describe this whole area of model building (Leinhardt 1977). Over time, it became common for measured properties of networks -- for instance, centrality (Freeman 1977, 1979) -- to be employed in the formulation and testing of empirical hypotheses about the behavior of actors. By the end of the 20th century, social network analysis had become a mode of structural analysis with an extensive battery of formal techniques at its disposal (Scott 1991; Wasserman and Faust, 1994). The close connection between formal representation, concept formation, and application makes it a domain of social science that strongly exhibits what Freeman (1984) has described as "turning a profit from mathematics."

Structure as Distribution. However, social network analysis has been regarded by most macrosociologists as not the sort of model required for the description of macrostructure. Sociologists often speak, in the latter context, of such entities as "occupational structure" or "income structure." These terms refer to distributions. Blau (1977) proposed a systematic theory in which the key analytical properties of such distributions, in relation to rates of intergroup relations, provide one type of answer to the Durkheimian problem of the nature of the integration of a large complex social system. Blau employed the concepts of heterogeneity, inequality, and consolidation as such key parameters and formulated theorems relating them to the extent of intergroup relations, e.g., rates of intermarriage.

A definite model that would represent such a macrostructure was not a part of this theory, but subsequently Skvoretz and myself formulated a mathematical treatment (see especially Skvoretz 1983). It drew upon developments in the application of the theory of random and biased nets (Rapoport and Horvath 1963; Fararo and Sunshine 1964). Thus, structure as distribution is linked to structure as network. All the key parameters of Blau’s theory are formally linked to key parameters of the biased net model - in particular, the contact density, the connectivity of the network and, in a later development, the strength of weak ties. (A summary of the formalization is presented in Fararo (1989a: Ch. 4).) This development, which we call formal macrostructural theory, was undertaken in "the spirit of unification" in theoretical sociology (Fararo 1989b).

Structure as Grammar. A third type of model of structure emerges out of the language analogy or metaphor employed in one wing of structuralist thought based upon the work of Saussure (1966 [1915]) and Chomsky (1957). This form of structuralism has been a perspective based on the idea that in some sense, that social and cultural systems should be treated with a language-like model (Levi-Strauss 1963 [1958]). One implication of this idea is abstraction from time: the system exists as an infinite totality to be analyzed by algebraic or other formal tools.

Another strand of such work has been more process oriented, employing the idea that a set of finite recursively applied rules generates a system of symbolically mediated interactions comprising a domain of institutionalized social action (Fararo and Skvoretz 1984). The formalism is drawn from cognitive psychology (Newell and Simon 1972). The resulting model can be studied from two points of view. On the one hand, the finite rule basis and the institution stand to each as grammar and language: the analysis is in the spirit of structuralism (Skvoretz and Fararo 1980). On the other hand, the finite rule basis can be used to analyze a system of symbolic interaction as it is generated locally and in real time (Skvoretz and Fararo 1996b). This type of model is one among a variety of those that draw upon techniques from artificial intelligence and cognitive science (Bainbridge et al 1994).

I pointed out earlier how structure as distribution was integrated with structure as network in formal macrostructural theory. A similar effort, not discussed here (see Fararo and Skvoretz 1986), links structure as grammar with structure as network, drawing upon an abstract algebra of interpenetration framed in network terms to formally represent hierarchical levels of institutional structure (Fararo and Doreian 1984).

Structure as Game. A fourth representation of structure employs game theory. A play of a game is analogous to an utterance in a language, wherein the rules of the game play the role of the grammar. Given such rules, a tree of possible sequential plays of the game is implied, called the game in extensive form. However, as distinct from grammatical analysis, the focus in game-theoretic analysis is on strategic interaction, so that a model of rational choice usually supplements the game model. The aim of the game-theoretic model-builder is to derive the consequences of rational choices on the part of each player, often with a view of showing how outcomes involve "perverse effects" (Boudon 1982). Thus, the game model is an alternative to the grammatical model that emphasizes emergent order at the level of the tacit or implicit rules governing institutionalized social action. The game model, by contrast, emphasizes the way in which the structure, as represented by the game, produces predictable but often-paradoxical effects from the conjunction of rational choices.

It turns out that structure as game has been linked to structure as network. A good example is the use of game-theoretic ideas to arrive at theoretical predictions of outcomes of network exchange experiments (Bienenstock and Bonacich 1992). This type of theory actually combines structure as game and structure as network with structure as distribution because the outcome of any exchange process in a network is a distribution of resources among the players. The theory shows how and why this distribution depends upon the shape of the network. Another example of the linkage of game and network representations occurs in some of the work of Peter Abell (1989).

Process Models

The postclassical theoretical sociologists Parsons and Homans (among others) were committed to the project of bringing dynamic analysis into sociological theory. No clearer example of this exists than in Homans’ treatment of the social system in The Human Group (1992 [1950]). So clearly did Homans try to model his discursive analysis of group phenomena on the set-up and analysis of a system of differential equations that shortly after this book appeared it was formalized as such by Herbert Simon (1952), including an early treatment of nonlinear dynamics with multiple equilibria.

Coleman (1964), responsive to the needs of survey research with its discrete data summarized as proportions, developed a family of dynamic models that are stochastic processes in continuous-time. Each individual makes transitions from one discrete state to another - for instance, shifting candidates during an election campaign - and the group makes transitions among states representing the number of individuals in each of the discrete individual states (e.g., the number of people favoring a particular candidate at a particular time.) This Coleman methodology extends to the social network context in which each individual’s transition is influenced by a composite flow of influence from other individuals to whom the person is connected in some social relationship.

The most general way of thinking about processes is in terms of the concept of a behavior manifold (see Figure 5, upper part). This consists of a parameter space together with a state space, both multidimensional. Given a time domain and a generator, the parameterized process is the tracing out of trajectory in state space. For any given value of the parameter, apart from transient states, there may be various types of attractors (generalized forms of equilibrium) as well as repellors (unstable equilibria). For instance, the nonlinear Simon-Homans model, under some conditions yields a configuration of two attractor states separated by a repellor. Thus, when an initial state is close to the repellor it departs from it toward one or the other attractor. The whole subject of nonlinear systems is framed in terms of such generated configurations in state space that vary with parametric conditions. Special cases of the general dynamical system include topics catastrophes and chaos as well as classical linear system dynamics where equilibrium, if it exists, is unique. For an extended discussion, see Fararo (1989a: Ch.2).

Figure 5.    Process and Social Structure

Models Combining Structure and Process

Of particular interest in sociology are two types of process models that relate to the concept of social structure. (See Figure 5, lower part.) In one type, a network or some other model object represents the structure, and other phenomena, say X, are taken as defining the state space. The aim is to show how the outcome of a postulated process with respect to X varies with parameters descriptive of the social structure. In the other type of model, the structure is treated as emergent. An interaction process model involving "E-states" may serve to illustrate (Skvoretz and Fararo 1996). The process involves the over-time construction of stable relationships among pairs of actors until equilibrium, when the postulated rules lead to social reproduction of the relational pattern. The process is the trip through a state space of possible forms of the emergent local social structure. Which trip is taken, in terms of which network states are visited, depends upon the initial state, the parameters, and the specific realization of the stochastic process representation of the generator.

General Considerations

I conclude this paper with a presentation of a conception of how to think about models in relationship to the knowledge process as involving theories, data and the relationship between them. The following discussion relates to Figure 6.

Figure 6.    Theoretical Model Building

Framework, Problem and Model. Sociologists, like other social scientists, use the term "theory" to cover both general frameworks and more specific formulations that address particular problems. This double usage can be articulated to the model concept. Namely, we think of a scientific theory as having two levels, a framework level and a model level. The two are linked by theoretical problems that are addressed by constructing a model within the framework.

Suppose that T is a general theoretical framework, comprised of general concepts and principles. Often a formal theoretical framework will contain what I will call a "template," meaning a general form of a model that needs to be "filled-in" with more definite terms. For instance, the Newtonian framework contains the famous F = ma formula that provides a template for mechanical models.

Associated with the T-framework will be various problems, for instance, phenomena calling for an explanation, a "T-problem." The theorist will invoke the T-framework to address a T-problem in terms of theoretical methods to generate a theoretical model appropriate to the problem, call it a T-model.

In addition, investigators will employ empirical methods to generate data appropriate to the problem. In particular cases, this is followed by such procedures as parameter estimation and calculations of empirical predictions. The comparison of the latter with properties of the body of data may show discrepancies that, in turn, may lead to revisions of the theoretical model, to questioning the quality or relevance of the data, to a reformulation of the problem, or a revision of the general framework itself. Even the worldview is not immune from rethinking, although this would be a last resort to resolve some intolerable inconsistencies not only between data and models but also between different frameworks within a research tradition.

In the event of a favorable assessment of the theoretical model, a natural step would be extension of the scope of the theoretical model through removal of analytical restrictions that were introduced to facilitate a first theoretical approach to the problem.

This sketch works best when the framework entails formal model building. Let me illustrate with a sociological example. In the recent phase of theoretical sociology, Coleman (1990) constructed a framework with both a metatheoretical template and a theory template. The former consists of an already famous "boat" diagram in which -- in one interpretation -- a given macro initial condition M0 produces an outcome macro-state M1 via three linkages. First, there is a linkage from macro M0 to micro m0, interpretable as an actor with socially induced preferences in a situation with opportunities and constraints. Second, there is a link from m0 to m1, an act by that actor, postulated, as a first approximation, to be a rational choice. Then, third, some mechanism combines the acts of the various actors to generate the macro outcome to be explained, a link from m1 to M1. This metatheoretical template serves to orient theorists to construct models that explain macrosociological causal relations by postulation of theoretical models that incorporate the three types of links.

Coleman's theory template is a generalization of the logical structure of general equilibrium theory in economics, compactly represented in two matrices. First, there is a matrix in which there is a distribution of rights of control of a set of resources among a set of actors. Second, there is a matrix of the distribution of each actor's interests over the same resources, where the interests are parameters in a Cobb-Douglas utility function. The template then invokes an exchange process to carry the state of the control matrix from its initial state to an equilibrium state. In this process, each actor's utility function is maximized subject to constraints. Thus, to create a theoretical model based on this framework means to specify the actors, the resources, and the initial control relations and interests. Thus, in Coleman's structure of theory, the exchange theory template satisfies the metatheory template and in turn exchange models created within the framework are designed to satisfy the theory template. For instance, one theoretical problem that Coleman poses is: How do norms emerge? The theoretical model he proposes employs the theory template to address this problem. Coleman includes conditions necessary for "the demand for a norm" to arise and also conditions necessary for effective enforcement of the emergent norm.

A somewhat different and briefer example may be given in terms of the use of the construct "E-state," mentioned earlier. E-state structuralism is a theoretical method, functioning as the basis for model of network dynamics in which actors hold evolving expectation states with respect to each other, as in a small group discussion setting (Skvoretz and Fararo 1996). In this instance, the framework is the core of expectation states theory itself with its principle that relational expectation states arise out of social behavior and then come to form stable bases for the control of such behavior as indicated by differential rates of participation in group discussion. Given the problem of describing such an interactive process in detail, the E-state structuralist method, as combined with several other ideas, yields a model that makes detailed predictions. Preliminary tests of the model were undertaken but it was clear that far more detailed interaction data were required. In turn, this led to further empirical inquiry to generate this more appropriate body of data to permit more refined tests of the predictions yielded by the dynamic model. This example, then, illustrates some of the dynamic aspects of the interplay of two modes of implementation of a theoretical framework, one involving theoretical methods that aid in the construction of theoretical models and the other involving empirical methods that aid in the collection of appropriate data.

Although these ideas about theoretical frameworks, theoretical problems and theoretical models were devised with formal theories in mind, they also enable us to interpret the logical structure of theoretical work that is not formal. For instance, let T be a structural-functionalist theoretical framework. One T-problem is to explain the universality of stratification, which is understood within the T-framework to refer to rewards, especially prestige, assigned to positions in a social system. The famous Davis-Moore theory of stratification can be interpreted as a T-model proposing a theoretical solution of this problem. Employing some ideas about motivation, what the authors do is equivalent to proving a theorem about the T-model: If a social system, a system of interrelated positions, is stable, then that system is stratified. Hence, stratification is a necessary condition for social order.

To derive empirically testable claims that can be compared with appropriate data, a formalized functional approach would be helpful. For instance, Stinchcombe (1968) represents functional arguments in terms of a negative feedback or homeostatic system. The problem of appropriate data for the empirical assessment of such functional models is addressed by Faia (1986).

Representation, Idealization and Approximation. The connection between sociological frameworks and formal model-building will become much closer as theoretical sociologists become more explicitly oriented to three basic aspects of theoretical model-building, namely representation, idealization and approximation (Fararo 1989a: Ch.1). Representation is the core idea of model building and, therefore, in the context of constructing effective theoretical frameworks in sociology an essential aspect of theory development. Berger et al (1962) set out an important statement of the linkage between theoretical goals and model building. In their terms, there are three basic goals that motivate the construction of a model: to explicate a concept of a theory, to represent a recurrent process, or to formalize a theory in terms of some theoretical construct.

The role of idealization in sociology was recognized by the classical sociologist Max Weber, who used the term "ideal type" for "model." A model is based upon an act of abstraction. Only selected aspects of a concrete reality are represented. Even key features of reality may be omitted in this process in order to study a "pure" case. For instance, economic theorists define and study general equilibrium models of perfectly competitive economies. As of the late 20th century, however, this important role of idealization has not yet found its way into most theoretical work in sociology. An exception occurred in the work of Coleman (1990) in his adoption of the economic approach, formulating the concept of a "perfect social system" and employing a general equilibrium theory.

The role of approximation is closely related to the logical derivation of properties of a theoretical model. For instance, a complex mathematical expression may be approximated by a simpler one that enables deductions that would not otherwise be obtained.

Standards in Theoretical Model Building. Implied in this entire discussion of formal models in theoretical sociology is some conception of cognitive standards for the construction and assessment of models. Lave and March (1975: Ch. 3) have produced a lucid discussion of such standards. Two groups of standards they explicate under the headings of truth and beauty, respectively.

I will discuss one of the standards of truth. There is general agreement among philosophers of science that a model is not really a theoretical model unless it can be shown to be wrong in relation to the world. This is what Lave and March call "the importance of being wrong." The comparison operation mentioned earlier bears upon this aspect of model building. The standard may be called "truth," but idealization and approximation have to be taken into account. The more precise the prediction made by a model the more likely it is to be untrue in the strict sense. The real point is that the development of our collective grasp of the world in respect to the problems we pose is under empirical control as well as informed by conceptual schemes and theories. Another important point is that the generality of a framework enables alternative models to be constructed. In addition, it may be that a given problem can be re-framed so as to enable a quite different framework to be employed in the construction of an alternative model. In principle, this could lead to critical experiments to compare and judge two models.

Beauty is the other evaluative category. Fertility and surprise are two of the standards of beauty in model building. A poor model, in respect to fertility, is one that has no logical consequences we consider worthy of noting. A good model is fertile in the deductive sense and it is an even better model if some of the consequences are surprising, not at all obvious in the setting-up of the model.

A second aspect of beauty is simplicity. Complexity in models is to be sought at the level of derived consequences, not at the level of postulates. In a process model, a few simple rules of transition can lead to enormous complexity in the concatenation of these rules over time and in regard to distinct actors in a system. Model builders usually urge that their readers wait and see what the results are before abandoning a model because a specific assumption seems too idealized or even "wrong," as if it were an empirical generalization.

Let me add two ideas about standards in model building. Both relate to what seems to be required to have an explanatory model. On the one hand, from a formal point of view what seems essential is some kind of mechanism or rule-set that generates the phenomenon to be explained. A postulated process literally shows how the phenomenon arises, deducing it from premises or computing it in a simulation of the postulated process. On the other hand, and this is perhaps more controversial, from an interpretive point of view what seems important is that this generativity should be based upon premises that refer to understandable human action. Simplicity of postulates about the actions of agents, with complexity of generated systemic outcomes: that is the standard that sums up these two ideas.

Realization of this standard is now in progress in theory-driven simulation studies, often grouped under the rubric of computational sociology (Hummon and Fararo 1995). Simulation methods enable process models to be constructed that are based on nonlinear parallel processing by a diverse set of actors in a dynamic network. The consequences of the process rules are generated in "runs" of the computational model rather than logically derived. However, there is still a place for the analytically simpler types of models that enable the derivation of crisp theorems. Theoretical sociologists are among those on the frontier of these new computational developments even as older formal methods continue to be important.


The tradition of sociological theory exhibits a mixture of three types of intellectual interests that I have called theoretical sociology, world-historical sociology and normative-critical sociology. This was illustrated in the classical phase of the tradition, where we see the beginnings of theoretical sociology as well as a focus on world-historical trends and their normative assessment. I discussed the postclassical phase of theoretical sociology by reference to the common aim of generalized synthesis found in the successive works of Parsons and Homans. Between their earlier and later phases of theorizing, each shifted theory construction strategy while maintaining continuity of sociological ideas, Parsons to his four-function paradigm and Homans to his program of behavioral reduction.

In the most recent phase of theoretical sociology, I have emphasized that formal models have become a major part of the tradition. I have tried to highlight major developments in terms of models of structure and of process. I also discussed two types of models that combine a structural focus with process analysis. Finally, in the context of treating a number of general considerations about formal models in sociology, I described a general perspective on theoretical model building in relation to theoretical frameworks.

In sum, this paper has provided an historical perspective on theoretical sociology from the classic tradition to postclassical efforts of synthesis that culminated in multiple paradigms to the situation today in which new developments -- that are productive -- more and more rely upon formal models as essential components of their methodology.


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