(More theoretical drivel . . . )
The AGIL model today
From the the 1930s to the 1970s, Talcott Parsons set forth a theory of sociological intelligence by (a) interpreting Max Weber for US sociology, and (b) defining the analytical fields of “social action” as economic, political, legal, and cultural (the AGIL model). Today US sociology, as a whole, does not really challenge Parsons’ overall theoretical breakdown. Instead, US sociology attempts to cover the entirety of the model, breaking into specializations and sub-specializations within it. Even Parsons’ critics — say, sociologists of gender — critique Parsons from within his model, as specialists of “cultural sociology.”
There are social theorists today, but no armies of grand theorists. Today, most sociologists are empirical, and highly focused.
Consider, for example, the case of Alexander. As far as I can tell: (a) he is probably the closest thing to a “grand theorist” that contemporary American social theory has; and (b) even he is best thought of as an empirical analyst, based on the recent things I’ve read from him — for example, his books on Obama and Egypt. And also for his methodological statement on media ethnography, a version of which is available on the web here. The program at Yale on “strong culture,” which I actually know little about, appears, again as far as I can tell, to be best thought of as empirical sociology, in which they practice the systematic collection and analysis of symbolic data (mostly textual data).
My argument is not that sociology today needs less empiricism and more Parsons. I am pleased with the relentlessly empirical nature of US sociology, including and especially the work Alexander provides and oversees.
I want to suggest instead the possibility of a theoretical condition: that Parsons’ AGIL method laid the analytical framework making possible today’s empiricism. From highly skilled quantoids at major research universities to the usually less-well funded but no less relentlessly empirical qualitative researchers, perhaps one reason US sociology gets to be so relentlessly empirical is the grand analytical picture of US society Parsons lent to the post-WWII world.
Regardless, the theory of sociological intelligence does not stop with Parsons. We are speaking of a state of understanding in which the fundamentals of Parsons’ grand model, while quite robust, have been improved upon in two important ways.
Two ways Parsons’ AGIL model has been improved upon:
1. For one, today the best understanding is that the legal simply must be thought of as political. The case for the legal as political was pounded home by Posner, in this Harvard Law Review article, with which I find it hard to argue. It places Bush v. Gore at the center of the analysis, an example of the indisputably political character of US constitutional law. Also, having to do with politics and law, there is the case of the exceptional rise in the US prison population since the middle of the 1970s, a tenet of US society that can be thought of neither empirically nor morally, outside a political framework. In sum: The law is a branch of politics from the point of view of basically every conceivable social actor.
So in contemporary contexts Parsons four-dimensional theory drops to three, as the legal merges with the political.
2. In turn, contemporary “grand” social theory collectively introduced a fourth dimension of human behavior: the social-psychological. Alexander’s “structural hermeneutics,” Bourdieu’s “habitus,” Habermas’s “lifeworld,” and Giddens’ “structuration” theory represent the advancement of a sociology of knowledge perspective into macro, systemic, or structural thinking. This degree of sociology of knowledge is not evident in Parsons (or Weber).
Which is why Alexander’s methodological intervention on behalf of media ethnography (linked to above) represents an important empirical statement with a solid theoretical basis. Which is: In the social world, the empirical state of a given object or reality is partly defined by the subjective understandings that surround the object or reality.
Knowledge and socially-situated psychology becomes the fourth dimension of a contemporary AGIL model, updated to fit the theoretical analyses of advanced capitalism produced by Bourdieu, Alexander, Habermas, and Giddens.