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grand and not so grand theory

If there are different ideas of theory there are also different ideas of grand theory. Grand theory at its most basic is associated with the idea of offering a general framework or way of looking at the world which may hold true over different social cultural contexts and indeed over different periods of time. Historically Talcott Parsons's work on structural functionalism was identified as an example of grand theory. Parsons was particularly popular in USA and beyond in the 1950's and if you want a very simplified account of his key ideas then go to

If you want a lengthier introduction then try:

And if you want an example of his approach in practice then try

Parsons, T. (1959) The school class as a social system: some of its functions in American Society, Harvard Educational Review, 29, 297-318.

This is available online in the normal way or as a digital reading offered by Stanford (though be warned the text is not very cleanly reproduced).

In preparing this resource we found very few people able to talk about Parsons or structural functionalism so unfashionable has he and it become. Indeed Parsons's work is routinely dismissed as having a conservative bias and making unsubstantiated claims to overarching theory (Wright Mills, 1959, was a particularly important critic). If we want theory it must take account of the circumstances in which it was generated - what sociologists describe as the ‘local and contingent’. At most we tend to look for 'middle range theory' - again a disputed context but often seen as theory which starts life through observation of a particular context and grows into more abstract general statements about society. The point here is that middle range theory has a closer relationship to empirical data than grand theory and should be applied cautiously / creatively in new cirucmstances. At a further level of critique we can see ‘post modernist’ arguments against any kind of theorising, general or middle range, as all social science gives us are accounts of processes which are at the end of day reflections of power.

So much then for grand theory but before we dismiss the idea completely, here is the contradiction. We often seek justification of our ideas in grand theories as historically set out, for example many authors name check Marx on class conflict, or Max Weber's ideal types of power and authority. We welcome academic work that steps back and offers a grand sweep of events, for example Hobsbawm (1962); Keynes (1936); Barrington Moore (1993) to offer a diverse range of examples. Wright Mills (1959) is often as offered as critic of grand theory but one suspects he was more a critic of Parsons for he also warned against research offering a set of ‘unrelated facts’ and evoked the classic sociological thinkers too in his work.

Two readings that may help you discuss grand theory. In the first Quinton Skinner writing in 1985 discusses the return of grand theory. What do you still find as relevant in this account?

In the second Michael Saward (who we interview within the resource) writes in praise of Small Theory. He see theory as slow in different ways:"first, that it is done slowly; second, that its conclusions recommend slow action or implementation; and third, that it makes explicit its own implied arguments about speed as they bear on the reach or breadth of its applicability". This is a different take on grand theory of course but an interesting detour.


Hobsbawm, E. (1962) The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848, London: Abacus (UK):

Keynes, John Maynard (1936) The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. London: Macmillan (reprinted 2007).

Mills, C.W. (1959) The Sociological Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moore, Barrington (1993) Social Origins Of Dictatorship And Democracy: Lord And Peasant In The Making Of The Modern World, Boston: Beacon Press.

Saward, M. (2011) Slow theory: taking time over transnational democratic representation, Ethics & Global Politics, 4,. 1, 2011, 1 -18.

Skinner, Q. (1985) The return of grand theory in the Human Sciences, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. pp1-20.