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A. JAVIER TREVINO: Whether we realize it or not,everything that we sense and experience in everyday life isa matter of giving meaning to, of interpreting. [A.Javier Trevino, Jane Oxford Keiter Professor of Sociology.]And I think that's what social theory does for us.It helps us to interpret our social world.But it does so in a way that we have knowledge.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: And it's informed by knowledge about the social world.So I think that's one of the valuesor the uses of sociological theory.And oftentimes, when my students haveread about a particular theory or a concept, they'll say,I don't read novels or watch movies
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: or have dinner with my parents the same way as I did before.Because I'm constantly analyzing what's going on.And theory provides the opportunityto do that, to do sociological analysis.And by analysis, I think I mean three things basically.So these are, I think, the three thingsthat I find of value in terms of sociological theory.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: And the first one, as I mentioned,it helps us to interpret our social experiences.Gives us a different perspective or a different take on things.And sometimes, we do that by using metaphors or analogiesand certain imagery.So you see things in a way that you hadn't perhaps seen before.That gives you added knowledge or understanding
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: of the social world.And I think the second thing of valuethat we get from social theory is that ithelps us to explain things.Usually, we're looking in science-- all sciences,whether it's the natural sciencesor the social sciences-- we're looking for patternsthat are recurrent.Cause and effect relationships.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: So as x changes, does that bring about a corresponding changein y?And so, I think theory helps us to explain that.To give an account of why we havethese causal relationships.And it also helps us to answer the why questions.Why do we have persistent social inequalities, for instance.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: Why does the crime rate go up?Or, why does it go down?Why do people gossip?Which, by the way, is a universal phenomenon.Why do people stay in communities?So these are the intriguing questions for me.And I think theory helps us to try to explain those.And then, I think the third value or the third purpose
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: of theory is that it helps us to critique social reality.And not just in a sense of criticizing.But looking at the shortcomings, the deficiencies,the contradictions, the anomalies thatmay exist in the social world.And then offering alternatives to those.And I think one of probably the classic social critic that we
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: talk about in social theory is Karl Marx, whocritiqued the economic system of capitalism.Not just, again, for the purposes of saying,I don't like it.But for the purposes of offering an alternativeto the contradictions that capitalism spawned.For instance, capitalism allowed us
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: to progress in terms of technology and industry.So that's a positive thing.On the other hand, capitalism causesa lot of exploitation and inequalitiesin the working population.So accounting for those discrepanciesis something that a critical aspect of social theory does.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: And then concepts.So, aside from theory, we have concepts.Which are ideas about the social world.And these concepts are usually articulated as words.And sometimes as phrases.And, in fact, they're the language of sociology.If you look at an Introduction of Sociology
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: textbook, for instance, in the backthere is a glossary of terms.And those are the concepts.And we have dozens and perhaps even hundreds of conceptsthat we use in very precise ways in sociology.And the purpose of the value of conceptsis that they help us to tag, to label aspects of social realitythat then become important.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: They become salient.So just as an example of some of the more common conceptsin sociology, take, for instance,social structure, social institution social role,social statuses, the social self.Even society itself is a concept.So these are the words, the terminologies that we use
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: in understanding social life.And before we can understand social reality,we first have to talk in terms of using these concepts.So I think that, in short, is the value of social theoryand social concepts.[What first inspired you to start academic workin the field of social theory?]
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: We know a lot about social phenomenon and sociology.I mean, sociologists have been doingresearch and different kinds of studies for a long time.Over 100 years.So we don't lack facts or knowledge of social phenomenon.We have the data.And I think, of course, we need to continue
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: doing that kind of research.That's very important, very valuable.But I think raw data is hard to digest.I think we need to analyze it, to put itwithin a conceptual framework to be able to make sense of it.And that's what I mean by analysis.And that's what theory does.So theory provides this framework around which
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: we can put our facts.And then give meaning to those facts in a sociologicallyinformed way.So that's really what attracts me to theory.And I want my students to be excited about theoryand to know that it's not just something that's abstract,although it is.But it's also something that can be of use to themin their everyday lives.They can actually use theory as they're on a weekend
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: or going to a party and watching people interact.And be involved in what sociologistscalled social engagements.And they can then try to understandwhat's going on in that particular setting that way.And so, it can be fun.But it can also be a very serious endeavor,because we can apply theory to persistent social problems.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: It's one thing to take action to try to remedy problemsin troublesome situations that people confrontin their everyday lives.But I think that unlike, say, charity or philanthropy,where we try to do good.I think having a sociologist with this knowledge of theory,I think we're uniquely situated to give a different outlook
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: on how we can be productive in solving social problems.Or ameliorating troublesome situations.So I think theory is very important in that regard.But I think it's something that students need to learn about.It's not self-evident.And if you have a problem with ambiguity,
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: I think that theory is, by nature, abstract.Ambiguous.But the idea is to manipulate the theory.It's not gospel.These theorists of the past have certainlyarticulated certain statements.But they're not necessarily intended to be taken literally.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: So I encourage my students to be innovative,to go out on a limb, to take chances,to manipulate the theory in a waythat it makes more sense to them in terms of applying it.[Which key thinkers have most inspired you?]I think we all have our favorites in social theory.People that we've looked to as inspiration
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: and that have inspired us to go on and do work.I think the two figures that I would sayhave been important to me, in termsof that I find their work fascinating--And these are figures that are long gone.One of them is Talcott Parsons, whowas a leading sociological theorist at in the middle
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: of the 20th century.So shortly after the Second World War.Very popular theoretical framework that he gave us.He took it big.In other words, he gave us an overarching frameworkfor how to study the social world.And I think what I find intriguing about thatis that if there is a theory of everything in sociology,
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: that's it.It gives us a bird's eye view of the social world.I think on the positive side.On the negative side, when you're casting your net wide,you're going to miss certain particulars.So that's inevitable.So the fine grained aspects of everyday lifemight be missing in the approach that Parsons gave us.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: But no theory can do everything.And I think that it's important for studentsto know that theories are limited,but what they do is of value.And I think the second personage,the second sociological thinker that I've kept going back to--in terms of reading his works and his ideas--is C. Wright Mills.Now honestly, typically, people don't
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: talk about Talcott Parsons and C. Wright Millsin the same breath, because they wereseen as antagonists in the 1950s whenthey were doing their writing.But I don't see that.I've never, quite honestly, met a theorist that I didn't like.I think they all have something to offer.And what Mills offered was also in terms of taking it big.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: And I'm using his phrase, borrowing from Mills directly.Is looking at issues of larger significance to us, as moderns.So he was interested in issues of power and bureaucracy.He was interested in critiquing postwar societyas a mass society.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: He felt that especially US societywas becoming very complacent, too conservative at the time.And he felt that intellectuals had a responsibilityto be agents of social change.So unlike Parsons who was studyingsocial reality with a net cast wide,Mills was looking at social realityfor the purposes of changing it.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: [What periods of history in the development of social theoryfascinate you the most and why?]There are three periods in the history of social theorythat I find most intriguing.And I think the first period-- whichwe can call the classical era or the classical period--started in the early days of the discipline.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: So I'm talking about the Victorian era in Europe.Roughly from the 1860s until the first decades, the firstor the second decade of the 20th century.And here we have what are known as the canonical statements.These are the classical statementsproposed by these early thinkers that we are still
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: discussing today.We're still reflecting on them, arguing them.These are the statements that are the foundationof social theory today.We elaborate them.We extend them.We argue against them.But I think that we have to have that knowledge.So it's like the masters of classical music.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: I mean, it's good to know about Brahmsand Beethoven and Mozart.So these social thinkers-- just to name some of them--were, for instance, the British sociologist Herbert Spencer,who talked about the evolution of society.It was something very important to the Victorians at that time.I mentioned Karl Marx before, whowas critical of the capitalist system.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: He felt that there was an economic evolution going onand we needed to go beyond the capitalist form of economy.I think one of the major thinkers in sociologyis the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who really did a lotto make sociology respectable as an academic discipline.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: In fact, he's known as the first professor of sociology.And I think another one, certainlypart of the canon here, is the German sociologist Max Weber.And what they all have in common, I think,is that they are analyzing modern society, whichis what we're looking at.Modernity in the late 19th, early 20th century.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: So I'm very much intrigued by the classical statements.I think a second period that's fascinating,in terms of the development of social theory,is, again, this postwar period.In this case, in the US, for the most part.And I've mentioned Talcott Parsons,who took theory very seriously.And he felt that we could do a social theory that
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: encompassed a variety of aspects of social reality.Not just the social, but also the cultural, for instance.C. Wright Mills I mentioned as being a critic of society.But there's also the Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman,who-- unlike Parsons and Mills-- hewas looking at the micro aspects of everyday life.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: Face to face interaction.He's looking at how it is that we present ourselvesin everyday life.So dealing with issues of the social self.And I think that's very fascinating.And that's spawned different traditions in microsociology.Meaning that we're looking at how people interact
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: with each other, how people communicatewith each other, and social exchanges.And then, I think most recently the third periodthat's exciting and stimulating-- wherewe've had a lot of theory-- is since, I would say,the mid-1980s.And what's happened since then isthat sociology has allowed more diversity, in terms
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: of who's in the discipline.So more women since the 1980s.More people of color.More people from a variety of different backgrounds.So that reflects, then, the kinds of theoretical statementsand concepts that are going to be formulated and created.So since about the 1980s until-- I would say-- today,I think we have an interest in issues of identity.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: Whether identity based on gender or social class or ethnicity,religious background, sexualities.And so, I think that kind of theorizingis really what's happening today.And also very exciting, very interesting.Because we haven't really done it.Or done it as much in the past.So I think those are the three periods in historythat I think are especially intriguing and fascinating,
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: in terms of the development of social theory.[What new research directions do you find most exciting,and where would you like to take your own research?]The research directions that I thinkare most exciting in theory are, in fact, just that.That there is an increasing marriageof theory and research, of the abstract and the practical.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: And that's what I've been trying to do in my own work,is looking at not just theory in termsof understanding social reality, but also havingit be a tool that's useful for doing research.And informing us, in terms of what we cando, to solve social problems in a very practical way.Now, this isn't new.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: It's just that I think we need to take this task moreseriously.And do it more earnestly than we have before.So I find that exciting, as to formulate theorythat has practical value.And not just value for the sake of intellectual stimulation.Which is fine by itself.But I think we need to be able to ground
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: these abstract statements in such a waythat we can take action that is informedby sociological analysis.And so, what I've done in the past few yearsis I've been looking at somethingthat I'm calling service sociology, or the sociologyof service.And here I'm very much interestedin how theory can be applied in a practical way
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: for solving social problems for people in community.And while certainly activists areinvolved in that, politicians, policymakersare involved in rectifying troublesome situations.I think sociologists-- because of their theoretical knowledge,their conceptual knowledge-- have somethingto contribute to that.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: [What are the kinds of issues that are unique to socialtheory?]The kinds of issues that are unique to social theory--as compared to other areas of sociology, for instance--I think have to do with issues of philosophy.And what I mean by that is that social theory allows us to ask
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: questions of epistemology and ontology that more practicalendeavors don't.So questions like, how do we know what we know?How can we better understand social reality?And that takes us to a different level of theory,something called meta theory.So we can actually theorize about theory.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: And I find that exciting.Now, that, of course, is very conceptual and very abstract.But I think it's also necessary in the formulation of theory.So asking questions that are more rootedin philosophical questions of how we know what we know.And I think that's unique to social theory.[What are the major academic debates in the fields in which
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: you work?]I think the major debates in social theory are persistent.I think that they have been pretty much the same onesthat we've had for a long time.And perhaps because we haven't quite resolved them.One of them, for instance, would be,
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: should we have as our level of analysis a macrosocial reality?Looking at issues of historical social structure.So issues having to do with institutions, for instance.So this is more of a broad-based approach on the one hand.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: And on the other hand, there are issues of microsociology.Social processes, which we talked about already.How it is that people go about creating their social worldson a daily basis.So we're talking about issues of social interaction,communication, social exchange, reciprocity.And it's very hard to do both at the same time.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: And so, how do you reconcile both the macroand the micro social structure and social process?Now, inevitably, professional social theoristswill have a preference for one or the other.And that's fine.I think it's good.It's fine to spend your whole career doing a macro approachor a micro approach.We've tried to do a synthesis of them
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: and it's been very difficult. It's nota major issue of contention.But there is a split in terms of whatis most important, in terms of the level of social analysis--macro and micro.I think another controversy-- and this may be a deepercontroversy than the first-- is, should sociology
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: be a value-free science much like the natural sciences?Do we do sociology for the purposes of finding out moreabout the social world?Gathering data.Having facts.Is it a matter of just studying the social world?Or does it have more of a political or activist
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: orientation?Are we then charged with changing the social worldfor the better?And so, there's that activist component to sociology,as well as the more traditional, more positivistic wayof looking at it as more along the lines of a natural science.And I think that it doesn't have to be one or the other.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: I think both can work fine.But we sometimes have these tensionsbetween those two traditions.[What are the key challenges of a course in this fieldfor a student?]So I think some of the key challenges for students takinga course in social theory is-- I thinknumber one is that they have to feel comfortablewith ambiguity and abstraction.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: There is know how-to manual on how to do social theoryor how to apply it.So I think that if they feel comfortable with ambiguity,they can do well.And I think that's one of my jobs as the instructor,is to have them to realize that these are toolsthat they can use.And they can use very effectivelyfor understanding the social world.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: But just like a carpenter needs a certain toolfor a certain job, you have to knowwhich tool to use in terms of theories and concepts.So I think that's one thing.I think another thing is that studentsfind it challenging to write social theory.Students can be very good writers normally.But when it comes to needing to explain things theoretically,
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: or analyze things theoretically, Ithink sometimes the writing can be a little challenging.And sometimes, students may want to sound like the theoristthat they're reading.And I would say don't try to do that.Because these people were writing a long time ago.Or they're writing a very formal style.And you can certainly take their ideas and modify them.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: Not to the extent that they no longer resemble the ideasthat they had originally, but they'retools to be used in a very practical way.So I think those are the two challenges for studentsis ambiguity and communicating theory through writing.[What strategies would you advise to counter thosechallenges?]
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: Getting over the hump of ambiguityis just being straightforward with themand saying, if you feel that this is too abstract-- toomuch pie in the sky, we're up in the clouds-- that'swhat you should be feeling.Because that's what it is.But I will give you examples.We will talk about illustrations thatwill ground those ideas in empirical reality.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: So I think, again, it's my job as the instructorto continuously anchor those abstract ideas in somethingthey can sink their teeth into.So that they can understand how those ideas apply.So I think that, again, that's the challenge.And they can do that.And then, in terms of applying theory,
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: I think it's practice, practice, practice.The more you do it, the better you get at it.And so, I have a series of exercises where studentstake scenarios from everyday lifeand then they apply the concepts and the theoriesthat they're learning in class.And initially, they're not very good at it.But that's OK, that's to be expected.But as they continue to practice and to do this,
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: then they get better and better.And I think they realize that.They see that in their own effortsas they continue to go along and practice.[What are the key challenges in this field for researchers?]I think some challenges that researchersface in terms of using theory is that research itself
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: is a specialized field.And sometimes, researchers get caught upin the methodology, the strategiesthat they need to implement to collect data and information.And when you're bogged down in doing that-- and that'ssomething that's very important, very valuable,and should be done, of course-- sometimes westray away from the conceptualization.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: And so, when we talk about analysis of the data,oftentimes what that means is letme just tell you what I found, in terms of the facts.But it doesn't have a broader orientation to it.And I think theory is what allows us to do that.So I think one of the pitfalls of empirical researchis that it sometimes gets us too far from theory.And I think what we need to do and be aware of be mindful of,
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: is that theory and research are always connected.And we may have to remind ourselves of that.But that's the case.And that's what I tell my students.Theory and research are always connected.For instance, I mentioned the great sociologist--the German sociologist-- Max Weber,who lived at the turn of the 20th century.He would not have understood that we
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: have a distinction between researchmethods and social theory.He would have seen it as being all partof the same effort, the same endeavor that sociologistsare doing.[If a student could read one book in this field to inspireand motivate them, what would it be and why?]A piece written by C. Wright Mills in 1959.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: And in fact, it's part of his book The SociologicalImagination.But this is the last chapter, the appendix of it.And it's called "On Intellectual Craftsmanship".And I have my students read that.And what Mills does in that particular piece--the appendix to The Sociological Imagination-- is,he says, once you learn to think sociologically-- Thatis to say, once you situate your own life
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: conditions in the larger historical social structures,and you can see that connection, thenyou need to continue thinking in that manner.And I think that the exercises, the mental experiments that hegives in that particular chapter on intellectual craftsmanshipallows us to stimulate that sociological imagination.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: So it's not just mental exercisesthat he offers, but also habits of work that he suggests.These are the things that the sociologists, the studentof sociology may want to do in termsof stimulating the sociological imaginationand continuing with work.So, for instance, he says, keep a file.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: Well, he would say index cards.We can certainly do it on the computer today.But keep sort of log or diary of thoughtsthat you have on an everyday basis,about a variety of things.And I think that's an important thing to consider.Think about contradictions.Think about what a village of a million people would look like.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: Well that almost sounds like a paradox, a contradiction.But stimulate your mind to be thinking in these ways.And I think that particular piececan be very helpful in getting studentsto think theoretically.I guess if there is a movie that Ithink that could inspire students in that direction,
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: it's a movie that is not very well-knownbut that I like to show in my classes.It was George Lucas's first film.Came out in the early '70s.And the title is THX 1138.And it's about a fictitious futuristic society.It's a subterranean society.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: And the reason I like this film isbecause it's a society that the viewers--in this case, my students-- are completely unfamiliar with.So every scene is something novel about the society.So they're on their toes as they're watching.And the actors are largely unknown,or at least they were at the time.There is very little action.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: The main character of that movie is, in fact, the society.And not necessarily any particular protagonist.So I think it gets them to think about issues of structure,of institutions, of culture.And all these other important conceptsthat I want them to know about.[How do you think about the public impact of your ownresearch, and how do you assess the contribution of socialtheory research to society?]
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: Well, getting back to this marriageof theory and practice.I think we need to use sociological knowledgein a way that helps us to resolvethese troublesome situations that we encounteron an everyday basis.So I think that really is the directionthat I want to move my work in.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: I want to continue developing the sociology of service thatdoes both theoretically inform knowledge,for the purposes of serving humanity in community.So I think that that's what I see as exciting.In the larger field of sociology-- and this will alsoinfluence theory, or theory will influence
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: sociology in this direction-- is more of a focuson transnational issues.We live in a global village and have for a long time.So globalization is something that, more and more, we'regoing to have to be looking at.We can't just focus on our own societiesor look only at Western society, but other regions
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: around the world.The so-called Global South, meaning developing countriesin Latin America and Asia.The Far East, the Middle East, and Africa.I'm excited about the potential of sociological theory comingfrom those areas.We still have to wait.But I think so far theory has been dominated
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: by Western influences.But inevitably, as we become a more global,I think there'll be theoretical statements comingfrom those areas.And any theoretical statements that we develop in the futurehave to be comparative, in terms of lookingat different cultures and different societies.I see that as a very exciting direction.And we're already headed in that direction.It's just that I think it's very promising at this point.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: [Why do you think there has not been much improvement fromthe Global South?]Well, I think that they're more interested in morepragmatic issues than we are.We have the luxury of sitting in our chairsand thinking thoughts, whereas they'reinterested in building their societies.So in a more pragmatic sense.And I think you need to have the luxury of time
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: to be able to theorize.Karl Marx spent his days at the British Museumsitting there and reading.And most of us as professors, we getpaid for reading and thinking.And I think in the Global South, because they're poor nations,I think they're more interested in doingmore pragmatic matters.
A. JAVIER TREVINO [continued]: But then theory can develop that way.Inductively, right?Instead of creating the ideas that you thenapply deductively, you can create ideasfrom your own experiences.
A. Javier Trevino Discusses Social Theory
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Professor A. Javier Trevino explains social theory as a way of interpreting the world around us. He discusses key thinkers, historical research, and academic debates in the field. He also advises students on challenges they will face as students of sociology.
Professor A. Javier Trevino explains social theory as a way of interpreting the world around us. He discusses key thinkers, historical research, and academic debates in the field. He also advises students on challenges they will face as students of sociology.