Jeff Goodwin_How to Become a Dominant American Social Scientist: The Case of Theda Skocpol

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10 Most Influential Books of the Past 25 Years (Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 25, No. 3, May, 1996)

Text of Jeff Goodwin_How to Become a Dominant American Social Scientist: The Case of Theda Skocpol

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    Review: How to Become a Dominant American Social Scientist: The Case of Theda Skocpol Author(s): Jeff Goodwin Review by: Jeff Goodwin Source: Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 25, No. 3 (May, 1996), pp. 293-295Published by: American Sociological AssociationStable URL: 20-05-2015 21:10 UTC

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  • Featured Essays II

    How to Become a Dominant American Social Scientist: The Case of Theda Skocpol

    Original review, CS 9:3 (May 1980), by Walter L. Goldfrank:

    States and Social Revolutions marks a leap forward for scholarship in histori- cally oriented macrosociology, and thus promises to raise the collective stature of the discipline as a whole ... It brilliantly dissects a set of sufficiently similar structures, processes, and outcomes ... Its major drawback in my view is its tendency toward positivist ahistoricity.

    Let me begin by suggesting some purely the- oretical conjectures that might help to explain how States and Social Revolutions propelled Theda Skocpol into the front ranks of Ameri- can social scientists. Hypothesis number one: For any book to become widely cited today, let alone to influence how people actually think, it must be reducible to a few general and easily grasped formulations. Many texts are "formu- lated," furthermore, not by their authors, but by more or less officially designated readers (call them DRs), including reviewers for aca- demic journals. Books that cannot be formula- ically summarized by DRs, accurately or oth- erwise, are unlikely to generate much discussion, let alone to change minds.

    The process of "formulation" typically results in simplifications, half-truths, and outright errors, particularly when DRs are ill-disposed toward a particular text. The more complex the text, moreover, the more simplification is essential if the "formulation" that is a prerequisite of broad influence is to occur at all. Ensuing "discussions" and "debates" about a particular text often build upon these simplifications, half-truths, and errors. Before long, scholars can be "influ- enced" by these "debates," or even partici-

    JEFF GOODWIN New York University

    States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China, by Theda Skocpol. New York: Cambridge Univer- sity Press, 1979. 407 pp. $18.95 paper. ISBN: 0-521-40088-0.

    pate in them, without actually having read the text supposedly at issue; one need simply familiarize oneself with the formulaic "sum- maries" and "discussions" of it that DRs have produced. Hypothesis number two: No book can claim to be "influential" today until large numbers of people who have not read it (or have not read beyond its introduction) have strong opinions about it. In fact, some of the most frequently cited books are, paradoxi- cally, not very widely (or closely) read at all. Hypothesis number three: A text that actually had to be carefully read by large numbers of people in order to be "understood" would never become "influential."

    Whether these hypotheses actually shed much light on the intellectual impact of Skocpol's States and Social Revolutions (hereafter, States) is a matter best left to sociologists of knowledge. But it seems certain that a good part of Skocpol's fame is due to the wide diffusion of several misfor- mulations of some key ideas in States. (Walter Goldfrank's review of States in these pages, I hasten to add, was unusually careful and insightful.) Mind you, as a protege and collaborator of Skocpol's, I would be de- lighted to attribute the broad impact of States to the fact that it really is a well-researched, brilliantly argued, carefully crafted, and clearly written book on an important subject. Unfortunately, it would be simplistic to attribute the vast influence of States, or of


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    Skocpol, entirely to the many merits of that book. (I have no desire, let me add, to play Skocpol's Wacquant. In any event, she re- quires no such services-as anyone who has crossed intellectual paths with her can attest!)

    The fact is that Skocpol is frequently-and largely ritualistically-cited as a preeminent spokesperson for one or more ideas that a careful reading of States would quickly dispel. Partly for this reason, a vast number and remarkably wide assortment of books, articles, and unpublished screeds in the areas of political sociology, comparative politics, social movements, and sociological theory and methods are littered with those familiar parentheticals "see Skocpol 1979," "see, e.g., Skocpol 1979," and the like. Citations of particular chapters or pages of States, by contrast, are relatively few and far between (see hypothesis number three, above).

    Let us examine some of the formulations that are allegedly found in "Skocpol 1979":

    1. Only state institutions matter in ex- plaining how or why revolutions (or politi- cal changes generally) occur. According to this common interpretation of Skocpol's "state-centered" approach, which is taken nearly verbatim from a recent review in this journal (Hochschild 1996, p. 43), States propounds a sort of "state determinism." (One scholar has even accused Skocpol of "statolatry"!) Yet the principle argument of States is rather more complex and interesting than this: Skocpol argues that the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions were the result of a conjuncture of "(1) state organi- zations susceptible to administrative and military collapse when subjected to intensi- fied pressures from more developed coun- tries abroad and (2) agrarian sociopolitical structures that facilitated widespread peasant revolts against landlords" (1979, p. 154). Skocpol's extensive explanation of peasant revolts in chapter 3 of States may be criticized on any number of grounds, includ- ing its neglect of local peasant cultures; what cannot be fairly claimed, however, is that only state institutions figure in Skocpol's explanation of these revolts-or that they themselves are some sort of "statist" variable. (Dogged by the state-determinist reading of States, Skocpol has abandoned the "state- centered" label, describing her more recent work as "historical institutionalist.")

    The section of States in which Skocpol introduces her perspective on states, it should also be noted, is entitled "The Potential Autonomy of the State." And yet the idea persists that Skocpol's "state- centered" approach portrays states as invari- ably powerful and autonomous organizations floating above society (see, e.g., Migdal, Kohli, and Shue 1994, Introduction, ch. 1). This is especially ironic insofar as Skocpol's account of the prerevolutionary French and Chinese states, in particular, emphasizes how dominant classes penetrated and effectively weakened those states in a context of intensified geopolitical conflict.

    2. Ideas and beliefs don't matter in revo- lutions (or in politics generally). This formu- lation is a widespread misunderstanding of Skocpol's self-proclaimed "structuralist" ap- proach-the actual point of which is that com- plex processes like revolutions cannot be viewed as the self-conscious ideological or po- litical project of any single group of actors (as some scholars, incidentally, continue to ar- gue). As Skocpol has written elsewhere, "non- intentionalist at the macroscopic level" might have been a more accurate (if rather cumber- some!) label for this claim (1994, p. 199). Noth- ing in States, in any event, suggests that ideas don't matter to people or that Skocpol rejects a priori the potential usefulness of cultural vari- ables in explanations of revolutions or other political processes.

    Chapter 4 of States, in fact, discusses a number of ways in which political ideologies mattered in the revolutionary conflicts traced out in the second half of that book: as forces for cohesion among particular political lead- erships; as universalistic creeds that have facilitated joint action by socially diverse actors; as programs for proselytizing and mobilizing specific groups of people; and as justifications for acting ruthlessly against political opponents. This list is undoubtedly incomplete, and States has been fairly criti- cized for neglecting what Skocpol later termed the "cultural idioms" of social groups (1994, ch. 8). Still, the undoubtedly greater empirical emphasis on culture, public opin- ion, and discourse in Skocpol's more recent work indicates just that: a greater emphasis, not the sort of epistemological break with her earlier work that some have perceived.

    3. A general theory that explains social revolutions (or any other social or political

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    process) can be inductively derived through comparisons. For every scholar who draws inspiration from or bemoans (as the case may be) Skocpol's "state-centered" perspective, there seems to be another who claims that she has no theoretical perspective at all. According to the latter view, States is an exemplary piece of positivistic induction.

    In the preface to States, Skocpol does celebrate the fact that her initial research into revolutions was not influenced by a close familiarity with (let alone a dogmatic commitment to) any particular theory of revolutions; and she has been downright disdainful of "metatheory" (i.e., theorizing about theory). But it hardly follows that Skocpol is a pure inductivist who imagines that her research is unburdened by any theoretical baggage. On the contrary, Skocpol clearly compares cases of revolution in States (including several cases where revolutions did not occur) in order to develop and test theoretically informed hypotheses-includ- ing but not limited to state-centered ideas- about revolutionary processes. Her method, in other words, is as deductive as it is inductive. (Although it is not deductive enough, clearly, for certain Marxist and rational-choice theorists.)

    States, furthermore, does not in any way attempt to derive the "covering laws" or to formulate a "general theory" of social revolu- tions, as many seem to think. Skocpol draws her cases from an analytically delimited universe of "proto-bureaucratic" agrarian autocracies that had not been colonially subjugated (p. 41); and she explicitly warns that her conjunctural explanation for social revolutions in this particular context cannot be mechanically extended to others (p. 288). This has not prevented a small army of scholars, however, from pointing to this or that case of revolution as supposedly "refut- ing," or requiring the "respecification" of, Skocpol's "model." When Skocpol herself published an account of the Iranian Revolu- tion that differed in several respects from her analysis in States (see Skocpol 1982; 1994, Ch. 10), some even interpreted this as an

    unwitting refutation of her own book. This interpretation, however, rests upon an assump- tion that Skocpol has never made, namely, that all revolutions have exactly the same causes and can be explained, therefore, by the same general theory.

    The preceding misformulations served to transmogrify Skocpol's pragmatically con- structed state-centered, structuralist, and comparative perspective on the specific problem of social revolutions into a dogmatic state-determinist, anticultural, and inductivist Weltanschauung. By so simplifying Skocpol's ideas, however, these misformulations un- doubtedly facilitated the diffusion of "her" thought to more scholars than would other- wise have been the case. Skocpol's "influ- ence" was thereby multiplied: Following the publication of States, there have been, to be sure, many interesting discussions and de- bates about Skocpol's analysis; but there have been even more numerous "discussions" and "debates" about "Skocpol's" analysis. (And, to add to the confusion, the line between the two has often been blurred and indistinct.)

    Thus, the case of Theda Skocpol-or, more accurately, of "Theda Skocpol"-suggests that at least one path by which one becomes a dominant American social scientist (see Lamont 1987) leads through a bog of misunderstanding. One must wonder, in fact, if this is not the only path to academic fame.

    References Hochschild, Jennifer L. 1996. Review of Social Policy

    in the United States: Future Possibilities in Historical Perspective, by Theda Skocpol (Prince- ton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995). Contem- porary Sociology 25:42-44.

    Lamont, Michele. 1987. "How to Become a Dominant French Philosopher: The Case of Jacques Derrida." American Journal of Sociology 93:584-623.

    Migdal, Joel S., Atul Kohli, and Vivienne Shue, eds. 1994. State Power and Social Forces: Domination and Transformation in the Third World. Cam- bridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Skocpol, Theda. 1994. Social Revolutions in the Modern World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    1982. "Rentier State and Shi'a Islam in the Iranian Revolution." Theory and Society 11:265- 283.

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    Article Contentsp. 293p. 294p. 295

    Issue Table of ContentsContemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews, Vol. 25, No. 3 (May, 1996) pp. i-ix+293-440Front Matter [pp. ]Erratum: Featured Essays [pp. vii]Erratum: Book Review [pp. vii]From the Editor's Desk [pp. ix]Featured EssaysTen Most Influential Books of the Past 25 YearsHow to Become a Dominant American Social Scientist: The Case of Theda Skocpol [pp. 293-295]A Classic of Its Time [pp. 296-299]Geertz's Ambiguous Legacy [pp. 299-302]A Different Poststructuralism [pp. 302-305]The Gendering of Social Theory: Sociology and Its Discontents [pp. 305-309]What's Race Got To Do With It? [pp. 309-313]Empire and Knowledge: More Troubles, New Opportunities for Sociology [pp. 313-316]Discipline and Punish: The Birth of a Middle-Range Research Strategy [pp. 316-319]Prometheus Rebounds [pp. 319-322]Women's Bodies and Feminist Subversions [pp. 322-325]

    Sociological Visions and RevisionsReview: untitled [pp. 325-328]Review: untitled [pp. 328-331]Review: untitled [pp. 331-333]

    ReviewsSocial HierarchiesReview: untitled [pp. 334-335]Review: untitled [pp. 335-336]Review: untitled [pp. 336-337]Review: untitled [pp. 337-339]Review: untitled [pp. 339-340]Review: untitled [pp. 340-341]Review: untitled [pp. 341-342]Review: untitled [pp. 342-344]Review: untitled [pp. 344-345]

    Political Processes and InstitutionsReview: untitled [pp. 345-347]Review: untitled [pp. 347-348]Review: untitled [pp. 349-350]Review: untitled [pp. 350-351]Review: untitled [pp. 351-352]Review: untitled [pp. 352-353]Review: untitled [pp. 353-354]Review: untitled [pp. 354-356]Review: untitled [pp. 356-357]Review: untitled [pp. 357-358]

    MacrosociologiesReview: untitled [pp. 358-359]Review: untitled [pp. 359-360]Review: untitled [pp. 361-362]Review: untitled [pp. 362-365]Review: untitled [pp. 365-368]Review: untitled [pp. 368-370]Review: untitled [pp. 370-371]Review: untitled [pp. 371-372]

    Urban Sociology and Community StudiesReview: untitled [pp. 372-374]Review: untitled [pp. 374-375]Review: untitled [pp. 375-376]

    Life Course: Stages and InstitutionsReview: untitled [pp. 376-378]Review: untitled [pp. 378-380]Review: untitled [pp. 380-381]Review: untitled [pp. 381-382]Review: untitled [pp. 382-383]

    Criminology, Deviance, LawReview: untitled [pp. 384-385]Review: untitled [pp. 385]Review: untitled [pp. 385-386]Review: untitled [pp. 386-388]Review: untitled [pp. 388-389]Review: untitled [pp. 389-390]Review: untitled [pp. 390]

    Organizations, Occupations, and MarketsReview: untitled [pp. 391-392]Review: untitled [pp. 392-394]Review: untitled [pp. 394-395]Review: untitled [pp. 395-396]Review: untitled [pp. 396-397]Review: untitled [pp. 397-398]

    MicrosociologiesReview: untitled [pp. 398-400]Review: untitled [pp. 400-401]Review: untitled [pp. 401-402]Review: untitled [pp. 402-403]

    Sociology of CultureReview: untitled [pp. 403-406]Review: untitled [pp. 406-407]Review: untitled [pp. 408-409]Review: untitled [pp. 409-410]Review: untitled [pp. 410-411]Review: untitled [pp. 411-412]Review: untitled [pp. 412-413]Review: untitled [pp. 413-414]Review: untitled [pp. 414-415]Review: untitled [pp. 415-416]

    Medical SociologyReview: untitled [pp. 416-418]Review: untitled [pp. 418-419]Review: untitled [pp. 419-420]Review: untitled [pp. 420-421]Review: untitled [pp. 421-422]Review: untitled [pp. 422-423]

    Theory and MethodsReview: untitled [pp. 423-424]Review: untitled [pp. 425-427]Review: untitled [pp. 427-428]Review: untitled [pp. 428-430]Review: untitled [pp. 430-431]

    Teaching, Research, and Reference MaterialsReview: untitled [pp. 431-432]

    Commentary [pp. 433-434]Publications Received [pp. 435-439]Back Matter [pp. ]