‘Embracing Complexity’ – Poppycock

My thanks to Sam Watson for pointing out this excellent article that was presented at the Theory Section Paper Session on the “Promise and Pitfalls of Nuance in Sociological Theory”, American Sociological Association Meeting 2015. Read the article by Kieran Healy online here.

The call to embrace complexity “is like a free-floating request that something must be added. When faced with a problem that is hard to solve, or a line of thinking that requires us to commit to some defensible claim, or a logical dilemma we must bite the bullet on, the nuance-promoting theorist says … “Isn’t it really both/and?”; or … “How does your theory deal with Structure, or Culture, or Temporality, or Power, or [some other abstract noun]?”.

“Demands for more nuance actively inhibit the process of abstraction that good theory depends on.”

“Abstraction means throwing away detail, getting rid of particulars. You start with a variety of different things… – and by ignoring how they differ you produce some abstract concept, like… “honour killing,” or “social-democratic welfare state”.
Yet, “It is difficult to participate in seminars or attend professional meetings in contemporary Sociology and not hear an audience member say to a speaker that their theory or research is missing something, or has ignored some dimension, or neglected to adequately address some feature of social reality.”

I agree with the conclusion that “By calling for a theory to be more comprehensive, or for an explanation to include additional dimensions, or a concept to become more flexible and multifaceted, we paradoxically end up with less clarity. We lose information by adding detail.” Verily, “it is easier to embrace complexity than cut through it.”

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director


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