Ted Schatzki’s differentiation between ‘modest grand’ and ‘grandiose’ theories certainly has some appeal, however, for my taste, his opening statement lays on the grandiosity a bit too thick.
Social theorists, especially those hailing from social philosophy, are like fish in water when speaking on matters of ontology. However, is it really helpful to deliberate and decide of what sociality ‘ultimately’ consists? The answer ‘of practices’ may be equally as fitting as ‘of communication’ (Luhmann), ‘of cognition’ (Brubaker/Cooper), etc. Sociality depends on many such ‘essential’ ingredients. And, thus, it seems to me that one of the most fecund impulses stemming from both Foucault and Latour is their insistence on ontological heterogeneity.
In my perspective as a sociologist, two issues appear of greater import than their ontological brethren: 1. the practical research question: as what can social processes be studied? 2. the question of theoretical wording: how they can be spoken about?
ad 1) Micro vs. macro is (for Collins or Giddens) not only a matter of sheer numbers and geographical expansion, but rather a matter of temporal duration. Moreover, the methods which seem best suited to studying practices, ethnography and interaction analysis, are necessarily presentistic, i.e., require supplementation regarding phenomena of a longer duration. All that remains for them is to placate with the hypothetical, ‘it would be better if,’ e.g., one ‘had recordings’ or, even better, a ‘time machine.’ Barring the availability of the latter and, thus, being required to utilise methods which do not have the appropriate resolution for studying practices, one will, like it or not, have to take the analytical entities seriously which come in tow.
ad 2) Of course, all kinds of macro entities are a reification from a practice theoretical perspective. However, if, on the one hand, one is not able to study phenomena micro-logically (again, for research pragmatic reasons), or, on the other hand, one wishes to make claims venturing into the realm of a theory of society, then these reifications become quite useful abbreviations: ‘glosses’ as Garfinkel would say. Therefore, I find it more prudent not to overload practice theoretical vocabulary with social philosophy. Rather, the approach should focus on the social theoretical debate with theories of action, especially the so well-situated rational choice theory; and, with regards to theories of society, more effort should be made to search for ‘allies,’ e.g., in historical discourse analysis or differentiation theory of society. Sociology has already lived through a number of theoretical monisms (for instance, propagated by Parsons or Coleman). There is nothing wrong with some lively theoretical competition, but there is also something to be said for a healthy portion of plurality via a division of labour.
Professor for Sociological Theory and Gender Studies at Mainz University