CONTEMPORARY SOCIOLOGICAL THEORIES. Harper's social science series. New York: Harper, 1928. Xxiii, 785p.
Contemporary Sociological Theories -- broadened the horizons of American sociology. The book originated from Sorokin's desire for a basic text summarizing the previous sixty or so years of developments in theory. No such work existed, and he needed one to use in his graduate theory course. He further realized that the recent growth of theory had isolated both sociological specialists and novices. Criminologists, demographers, and statisticians rarely had the time to read the hundreds of sources addressing theoretical issues. The novice had the more complicated problem of discriminating between existing theories and sorting the valid from the false. Unless these problems were addressed, students and researcher would waste valuable time going down theoretical dead ends or reinventing the wheel. Thus a carefully done, critical analysis of contemporary theory would be "a real service to the science of sociology."
The book focused on schools of sociological theory. A school is a system of sociological ideas with a common definition of reality that stresses the same variables in the explanation of social phenomena. The school may include a variety of perspectives that share a common set of domain assumptions. On these criteria Sorokin defined nine major schools and discussed the principal works that defined each. The schools' important generalizations and principles were evaluated with a critical eye toward how well they accounted for the facts they purported to explain. In this way Sorokin provided readers with a sense of each theory's validity.
Critics could take issue not only with the analysis but with the evaluations and the accuracy or objectivity of the classification scheme. Sorokin acknowledged that all contained subjective elements. Readers should not take the classification as a dogmatic statement of the structure of theory and quibble over its precision and completeness. Instead, they should see it as a technical device for presentation of material. As to analysis and evaluation, he had focused mainly on those theories that addressed facts and, he believed, assessed them accurately. If others found his analysis too critical, they should recall that science lives and grows through criticism; his and theirs in tandem would move sociology toward a better understanding of the social world.
In fourteen chapters Sorokin takes a panoramic walk through what he described as the forest of sociological theory. As in any forest, one finds sterile flowers, weeds, strong trees, healthy plants, and beautiful flowers. The wily sociologist should seek and use the beautiful, healthy, and strong forms while avoiding their barren or uncultivated counterparts. Sterile flowers are theories that exhaust themselves on questions such as these: What is sociology? What should it be? What is progress? What is the relationship between society and the individual? What are the differences between cultural, social, and psychological phenomena? Many scholars spend entire careers in these "antechambers of sociology" and mistake them for the whole building. They pile words upon words without producing any genuine understanding of the social world. In Sorokin's mind these theorists were partly responsible for the anti-sociological sentiments of many intellectuals. Critics of sociology rightfully said, "Instead of a long and tedious reasoning of what sociology is, show it in fact. Instead of a discussion of how sociology ought to be built, build it. Instead of 'flapping' around the introductory problems of a science . . . give us a single real analysis of the phenomena." To counter this unfortunate tendency, Sorokin offered an operational approach to the discipline. He argued that what sociologists are doing clearly reveals the subject matter of the discipline.
Sociology is a study, first, of the relationship and correlations between various classes of social phenomena, (correlations between economic and religious; family and moral; juridical and economic; mobility and political phenomena and so on); second, that between the social and the nonsocial (geographic, biological, etc.,) phenomena; third, the study of the general characteristics common to all classes of social phenomena.
All of the general schools concern themselves with different aspects of this definition. Whether sociologists like it or not, such seems to be the real subject matter of their discipline.
The sociological forest also abounds with weeds. The most troublesome and damaging among them is the "sociological preacher," who is concerned with what is good or bad, how to save the world from evil, and how humans should best progress in the modern age. Practitioners of this style have pretended to be omniscient doctors who know how the world is to be saved and give their "prescriptions" about war eradication, birth-control, labor organization . . . and so forth. In this way, all kinds of nonsense have been styled, published, circulated and taught as "sociology." Every idler has pretended to be a sociologist. Shall we wonder that this again has discredited sociology greatly.
Other weeds in the forest are those who overgeneralize from their findings, insufficiently study existing facts, are ignorant of past knowledge, and use sloppy logic combined with carelessness in testing and verifying hypotheses. These practices and the scholars who use them create major problems for the acceptance of sociology by serious scientists. Such underbrush must be cleared away so the strong plants and beautiful flowers of scientific sociology can bloom and replace the forest with a well-tended garden.