Posted by: aboutalbion | October 15, 2012

Social science concepts across distance and time

Rodney Stark uses sociological concepts to discuss the rise of Christianity.  He recalls that he was challenged over his use of social network theory.

The critique was that Stark was assuming that social networks were the same from society to society, and across the whole period of recorded time.  It was pointed out that ancient households were different to modern ones, ancient cities were different to modern ones, and the division between public and private spheres of life varied accordingly.  Hence, Stark’s use of the Mormons as a ‘test bed’ for explaining the rise of Christianity was undermined.

Stark’s reply is that his challenger is describing how the details of social networks change across distance and time, whereas the definitions of the sociological concepts of social network theory are abstract.  “The definition of network is not locked to time and space, nor is the conversion proposition.” (p22)

Stark wishes to highlight the distinction between concepts and instances.  His definition of a social network uses the concept of “a structure of direct and intimate interpersonal attachments”. (p20)

“[This concept] exists only in our minds.  All that we can see are specific instances … networks involving some set of individuals … the shapes and sizes of social networks may differ greatly across time and space, and the processes by which networks form may vary …  But these variations in details never … turn social networks into collections of strangers.” (p22)

Stark concludes that the social science enterprise exists because of its “use of abstract concepts, linked by abstract propositions”, and that it is this abstract generality which “makes it possible for social science to contribute [some]thing to our understanding of history … [and just possibly] justify efforts to reconstruct history from social scientific theories”. (p22f)

[Stark, Rodney (1997) The Rise of Christianity.  New York: HarperOne.]

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