ABEND (2006).pdf

Description Sociological Theory The online version of this article can be found at:   DOI: 10.1111/j.0735-2751.2006.00262.x 2006 24: 1 Sociological Theory Gabriel Abend U.S. Quests for Truth* Styles of Sociological Thought: Sociologies, Epistemologies, and the Mexican and     Published by: On behalf of:     American Sociological Association can be found at: Sociological Theory Additional services and inf
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Transcript  Sociological Theory online version of this article can be found at: DOI: 10.1111/j.0735-2751.2006.00262.x 2006 24: 1 Sociological Theory  Gabriel Abend U.S. Quests for Truth*Styles of Sociological Thought: Sociologies, Epistemologies, and the Mexican and  Published by: On behalf of:  American Sociological Association  can be found at: Sociological Theory  Additional services and information for Email Alerts: Subscriptions: Reprints: Permissions: Citations:  What is This? - Mar 1, 2006Version of Record >>  at COLEF BIBLIOTECA on August 27, 2014stx.sagepub.comDownloaded from at COLEF BIBLIOTECA on August 27, 2014stx.sagepub.comDownloaded from   Styles of Sociological Thought: Sociologies, Epistemologies, and theMexican and U.S. Quests for Truth* G ABRIEL  A BEND Northwestern University Both U.S. and Mexican sociologies allege that they are in the business of making truescientific knowledge claims about the social world. Conventional conceptions of science notwithstanding, I demonstrate that their claims to truth and scientificityare based on alternative epistemological grounds. Drawing a random sample of nonquantitative articles from four leading journals, I show that, first, they assign adifferent role to theories, and indeed they have dissimilar understandings of what atheory should consist of. Second, whereas U.S. sociology actively struggles againstsubjectivity, Mexican sociology maximizes the potentials of subjective viewpoints.Third, U.S. sociologists tend to regard highly and Mexican sociologists to eagerlydisregard the principle of ethical neutrality. These consistent and systematic differ-ences raise two theoretical issues. First, I argue that Mexican and U.S. sociologiesare epistemologically, semantically, and perceptually incommensurable. I contend that this problem is crucial for sociology’s interest in the social conditioning of scientific knowledge’s content. Second, I suggest four lines of thought that can helpus explain the epistemological differences I find. Finally, I argue that sociologistswould greatly profit from studying epistemologies in the same fashion they havestudied other kinds of scientific and nonscientific beliefs. The phrase ‘‘Uruguayan physics’’ might refer to physics departments located inMontevideo or to physicists who possess Uruguayan citizenship. But insofar as itrefers to theories and laws, the traditional conception of science would consider‘‘Uruguayan physics’’ to be an oxymoronic phrase. Maxwell’s equations are notScottish, nor is Lavoisier’s refutation of the phlogiston theory of combustionFrench. In fact, the oxymoron can be made even starker: ‘‘Scottish attitude towardvalue judgments’’ and ‘‘French conception of objectivity’’ seem to be, from the pointof view of science, unintelligible expressions. Unlike mores, political cultures, andaesthetic judgments, science, this argument goes, is universal.In Mannheim’s ([1929] 1966:265) words, ‘‘the sociology of knowledge has set itself the task of solving the problem of the social conditioning of knowledge.’’ Taking *Address correspondence to: Gabriel Abend, Department of Sociology, Northwestern University, 1810Chicago Ave., Evanston, IL 60208. E-mail: My research in Mexico wassupported by the Center for International and Comparative Studies at Northwestern University and aFulbright Alumni Initiative Award. I gratefully acknowledge the hospitality of the Centro de EstudiosSociolo ´gicos at El Colegio de Me ´xico, the Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales at UNAM, and the Centrode Investigacio ´n y Docencia Econo ´micas. I have benefited from comments and suggestions from SarahBabb, Charles Camic, Paula England, Marion Fourcade-Gourinchas, Andreas Glaeser, Rebeca de Gortari,Natividad Gutie ´rrez, Carol Heimer, Jerry Jacobs, Miche `le Lamont, Jeff Manza, Ann Orloff, Juan ManuelOrtega, Devah Pager, Olivier Roueff, Michael Sauder, Ben Ross Schneider, George Steinmetz, JessicaThurk, Francisco Zapata, several anonymous referees, and the editors of   Sociological Theory . I owe specialthanks to Bruce Carruthers, Elif Kale-Lostuvali, and Arthur Stinchcombe, who read more drafts of thispaper than I care to remember. Sociological Theory 24:1 March 2006 # AmericanSociologicalAssociation.1307NewYorkAvenueNW,Washington,DC20005-4701  at COLEF BIBLIOTECA on August 27, 2014stx.sagepub.comDownloaded from   science as a special case of knowledge, one would readily acknowledge that the factthat two communities of sociologists might be interested in different topics orprivilege different methods can be accounted for by ‘‘the existential basis of mentalproductions’’ (Merton [1949] 1968:514). This argument is consistent with ‘‘the imageof science by which we are [generally] possessed’’ (Kuhn [1962] 1970:1), according towhich science is objective, rational, and universal. For it can be argued that theselection of a research interest or a methodological tool is just a matter of tasteunrelated to the context of justification. By contrast, it would  not  be consistent withthe traditional conception of science if two communities of sociologists differed insomething  more fundamental  : the criteria through which they discriminate betweentrue and false claims, their definition of what constitutes knowledge, their under-standing of what an acceptable theory should look like—that is, their epistemologicalassumptions. While there are theoretical and empirical grounds to expect variation in,for example, foci of attention and rates of advance, it may be an unexpected andunsettling empirical finding that sociology’s very foundations are in some way ‘‘sociallyconstructed’’ (on these scare quotes, see Hacking 1999).This is precisely the question that this article addresses—its main argument is that the discourses of Mexican and U.S. sociologies are consistently underlain by signifi-cantly different epistemological assumptions . In fact, these two  Denkgemeinschaften (Fleck [1935] 1979) are notably dissimilar in at least four clusters of variables (see, e.g.,Andrade Carren ˜o 1998; Brachet-Marquez 1997; Leal y Ferna ´ndez et al. 1995; Girolaand Olvera 1994; Davis 1992; Girola and Zabludovsky 1991; Paoli Bolio 1990; GarzaToledo 1989; Sefchovich 1989; Benı ´tez Zenteno 1987): their thematic, theoretical, andmethodological preferences; their historical development and intellectual influences;the society, culture, and institutions in which they are embedded; and the languagethey normally use. It is reasonable to expect that if variation in epistemologicalassumptions can be found at all, it would be more likely when there is variation inthese clusters of variables as well. Then, the comparison of Mexican and U.S. socio-logies is a promising one to tackle the issue of that ‘‘more fundamental’’ difference.Both U.S. and Mexican sociologies allege that they are in the business of makingtrue scientific knowledge claims about the social world. Conventional conceptions of science notwithstanding, I show that their claims to truth and scientificity are basedon alternative epistemological grounds. My argument is organized as follows. Afterexpounding my data and methods, I present my findings in three substantivesections, each of which addresses a different epistemological dimension. The first of them explores the nature and role of theories and the dialogue between theory andevidence. The second looks at whether and how epistemic objectivity is sought after.Finally, the third substantive section examines to what extent the ideal of a value-freescience is pursued and realized.In turn, my empirical findings raise two theoretical problems, which I discuss in theconclusion. The first is how to explain the difference I describe. The development of atheory that could explain the exceptionally complex process through which U.S. andMexican sociologies have come to hold their distinctive epistemological commitmentswould require a profound historical study, which is beyond the scope of this article.Nonetheless, I shall suggest four lines of thought from which this theory might profit.The second theoretical problem is in what sense variation in epistemologies can besaid to be more fundamental than variation in, for example, methods or topics. Thiswill lead us to the subject of commensurability or translatability, that is, whether thetranslation between theoretical claims rendered in these languages is at all possible (orwhether there is a meta-language into which both could be translated). I shall argue 2 SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY  at COLEF BIBLIOTECA on August 27, 2014stx.sagepub.comDownloaded from   that this problem is crucial for the sociology of knowledge in general, and for what Icall the ‘‘sociology of epistemologies’’ in particular.Obvious as it by now may seem, I would like nevertheless to underscore that this isnot an epistemological treatise but an exercise in the sociology of knowledge. Hence,in accordance with Bloor’s ([1976] 1991:7) tenets of impartiality and symmetry, I donot grant any epistemic privilege to the Mexican or U.S. ways of going about studyingthe social world. I do not know nor do I care about how true and false beliefs aredistributed. 1 My approach is not theoretical, normative, or philosophical—it isempirical and sociological. As I argue in the conclusion, sociologists would greatlyprofit from studying epistemologies in the same fashion they have studied other kindsof scientific and nonscientific beliefs.DATA AND METHODSMy inquiry into the epistemological presuppositions that underlie the discourse of U.S. and Mexican sociologies is based on a content analysis of a sample of journalarticles. The sample is drawn from two Mexican and two U.S. journals of sociology: American Journal of Sociology  ( AJS  ),  American Sociological Review  ( ASR ),  EstudiosSociolo´  gicos  ( ES  ), and  Revista Mexicana de Sociologı´ a  ( RMS  ). These journals are themost cited and most prestigious ones in each of the communities. 2 The followingvolumes are considered:  AJS   Volumes 101–106 (1995–2001),  ASR  Volumes 61–66(1996–2001),  ES   Volumes XIV–XVIII (1996–2000), and  RMS   Volumes LVIII–LXII(1996–2000). Throughout these periods, three different editors served on  AJS  , twoeditors and one editorial team on  ASR , three  directores  on  ES  , and two  directores  on RMS  . 3 These variations provide some small degree of control over the effect of thevariable ‘‘editor.’’The population of articles from which I draw my sample does not consist of all thepieces published in the volumes of the journals mentioned above. First, it excludes:editorials, book reviews and review essays, comments and replies, addresses, transla-tions, and any other nonrefereed piece (as far as it can be told). Nor does it includetheoretical, methodological, and exegetical articles, for my chief interests include thedialogue between theory and data and the pursuit of objective representations of reality.There is still another group of articles not included in my population. For a naı ¨ve‘‘anthropologist of sociologies,’’ the most striking difference between  ASR  and  AJS  ,on the one hand, and  ES   and  RMS  , on the other hand, would be the ubiquity versusvirtual absence of statistical and formal models. This is most important because thevariable ‘‘method’’ accounts for much of the variation of the epistemological dimen-sions under scrutiny. Specifically, the modal U.S. article, centered on a statisticalmodel and employing highly standardized argumentative and rhetorical practices, 1 As I discuss at some length in the conclusion, there is a sense in which this claim is reflexivelyproblematic. On reflexivity in the sociology of scientific knowledge, see Ashmore (1989) and Woolgar(1988a). 2 For example,  ASR  and  AJS   have regularly led the rankings of ‘‘total cites’’ and ‘‘impact factor’’ thatappear in the Institute for Scientific Information’s  Journal Citation Reports , as well as Allen’s (1990, 2003)‘‘core influence’’ scores. While there are no comparable rankings in Mexico,  RMS   and  ES   are widelyregarded as the most prestigious Mexican journals of sociology. Along with the theory journal Sociolo´  gica , they consistently figure at the top of sociologists’ assessments of prestige (e.g., Cruz andGutie ´rrez 2001:112). Likewise, when the National Council for Science and Technology (CONACyT)established its register of journals ‘‘of excellence’’ in 1994,  ES   and  RMS   were the only two empirical journals of sociology included (Andrade Carren ˜o 1995:201). 3 However, Andrew Abbott’s tenure at  AJS   began only in the fourth number of Volume 106 and Jose ´ LuisReyna’s in  ES   in the third number of Volume XVIII. STYLES OF SOCIOLOGICAL THOUGHT 3  at COLEF BIBLIOTECA on August 27, 2014stx.sagepub.comDownloaded from 
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