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New Swedberg book urges creative theorizing

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Syl Kacapyr
Richard Swedberg

A new book, “The Art of Social Theory,” written by Richard Swedberg, professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences, offers practical tips and exercises to encourage creative theorizing that could lead to better and bolder theories.

Swedberg recommends adding a new phase at the beginning of a project before the research design is drawn – what he calls the pre-study, a time when early theorizing occurs by observing a topic intensely and discovering something interesting or surprising to develop and explain.

Instead of rushing to use “scientific methods to try to prove their points,” social scientists ought to spend more time exploring empirical data and developing creative research ideas, Swedberg said.

“There’s no reason to say methods aren’t important, but methods with big data are exploding. What’s missing is theory. Theory in general has been underplayed. There really should be a 50/50 balance,” he said.

During the pre-study, Swedberg advocates devoting significant time to observation and social data collection – that is, looking at what happens between people who live in groups, communities and societies. While observing the phenomena, it’s critical to gather information in a free-ranging, unorthodox manner from a variety of sources, such as newspapers, autobiographies, poems, even dreams, revealing something interesting about the topic being explored. During this phase, Swedberg recommends heeding to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s advice: “Don’t think, but look.”

book cover

Swedberg writes: “It is important, in other words, not to pick your final topic until you have been surprised. If you follow this rule, you will study something that might lead to new knowledge.”

His book includes practical advice for undergraduate and graduate students to follow once the social observation stage concludes that help to give structure to the theory, such as naming and using metaphors and analogy to explain a testable hypothesis.

“When you have a name, suddenly you can hold onto something so that it doesn’t fall through your fingers. With a name, you lock in the novelty and save it for the next scholar to study,” he said.

Once the pre-study concludes, the research design is drawn, executed and the results are written. The end result of theorizing is theory. Swedberg draws inspiration from the American philosopher and father of pragmatism, Charles S. Peirce (pronounced “purse”). Comparing Peirce to Aristotle in terms of breadth of knowledge, Swedberg’s book explains how he shares much, but not all, of Peirce’s view of how the research process should unfold.

Another book edited by Swedberg and published this year, “Theorizing in Social Science,” features chapters from top social scientists, including Swedberg, in the fields of sociology, economics and management that shed light on what makes theories creative and how to theorize in a creative way.

Swedberg specializes in social theory and economic sociology. He has co-edited eight books and written another eight, including biographies about Joseph Schumpeter and Max Weber.

“I think people are interesting, much more interesting than other things,” he said.

Swedberg is a member of the Institute for the Social Sciences’ current theme project – Creativity, Innovation, Entrepreneurship (CIE). He and another CIE theme project member, Trevor Pinch, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Science and Technology Studies, are organizing a workshop – Creativity, Art & Social Science – in New York City on April 18, 2015.

Swedberg received a small grant from the Institute for the Social Sciences to support his research.

Lori Sonken is a staff writer with the Institute for the Social Sciences.

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