What Is Field Theory of John Levi Martin?

Topics: Sociology, Social sciences, Theory Pages: 62 (23147 words) Published: January 12, 2013
What Is Field Theory?1
John Levi Martin University of Wisconsin, Madison

Field theory is a more or less coherent approach in the social sciences whose essence is the explanation of regularities in individual action by recourse to position vis-a-vis others. Position in the field indicates ` the potential for a force exerted on the person, but a force that impinges “from the inside” as opposed to external compulsion. Motivation is accordingly considered to be the paramount example of social structure in action, as opposed to a residue of chance or freedom. While field theory is often castigated for its necessarily tautological definition, this may be far more of an advantage than a defect. Field theory offers social scientists a combination of analytical insight and attention to the concrete; further, the implicit definition of “explanation” that it brings is one that, unlike conventional sociological definitions, is internally consistent and in accord with everyday usage.


Surveying the state of Western sociology at the dawn of the new millennium, what is most striking and perhaps troubling is the absence of theoretical crisis: even the most sour doomsayer cannot in good conscience point to any signs that there is a deep theoretical rupture or confusion in academic sociology as it currently stands, nor is there reason to suspect crisis looming in the near future. What has happened to the “perpetual youth” supposedly granted the social sciences (Weber [1904] 1949, p. 104)

1 I have profited from the rancorous discussions of the Highland Park Colloquium on Theory, Methods, and Beer. I would also like to thank Neil Fligstein, Matt George, Ann Mische, and the reviewers for their probing criticisms that greatly increased the coherence of the argument, though all called for a more complete theoretical specification than I was able to provide. Finally, one can only acknowledge the loss of Pierre Bourdieu—it seems impossible to adequately describe how great a loss this is for the social sciences. Direct correspondence to John Levi Martin, Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin, 1180 Observatory Drive, Madison, Wisconsin 53706. JLMartin@ssc.wisc.edu

2003 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0002-9602/2003/10901-0001$10.00

AJS Volume 109 Number 1 (July 2003): 1–49


American Journal of Sociology that would forbid them from settling down into a consensual holding pattern? It is not that the fundamental problems in social analysis have been resolved, namely (1) the absence of a clear criterion as to what constitutes good theory (some frequently heard, but frequently incompatible, standards are prediction of future states, parsimony, explanation of variance, reproducible intervention, intuitive accessibility, and the ability to sponsor generative research); (2) uncertainty as to the ontological status of key theoretical elements, not the least of which is society; and (3) frequent translation of social and political disagreements into seemingly scientific disputes regarding matters of fact. And yet all is quiet on the theoretical front. I argue that this quiet has resulted from two seemingly welcome, but deeply pernicious, trends: (1) widespread agreement to compromise on both false and true dualisms alike and (2) theoretical inflation. Regarding the first, it has been common for recent discussions of practically any conventional opposition (the list includes but is not limited to macro/micro, social/individual, nature/nurture, static/dynamic, structure/agency, quantitative/qualitative) to conclude with a resounding verdict of “both.” Both the individual and the social are important determinants of X, Y, and Z. Without belittling the wisdom of such statements, such facile solutions (which Goldstone [1991, p. 49] terms “wishy-washy”) seem to allow the instantaneous dissolving of what for centuries have been understood as profound antinomies; perhaps more than...
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