by Omar Lizardo, University of Notre Dame
American Sociological Review Co-Editor
Excluding the annual ASA Presidential addresses, it is no secret that traditionally peer-reviewed theory papers are kind of a rare sight at American Sociological Review. “Theory” papers are kept track of as a category just like any other “method” (e.g. ethnography, historical, experimental, and so on) and usually show up in the annual mea culpa (a.k.a. report) written by the editors at the end of the year as one of the perennially “under-represented” categories. In the past, editors have engaged in strategies to boost the number of theory papers in the journal, such as sending special reminders to the theory section listserv that theory submissions are welcome and considered. In their initial proposal, the current editorship noted that even when theory authors are brave enough to actually send them on, theory pieces may have a tougher time than traditional empirical work making it through the review process. This is mainly because they pose unique evaluative challenges for reviewers. To try to address this issue, they developed a set of specialized reviewers guidelines to help readers deal with theory papers on their own merits.
The relative dearth of theory paper publications at ASR presents an interesting puzzle because one does not need a formal citation analysis to observe that conditional on publication, ASR theory pieces tend to have a pretty big impact, sometimes re-orienting entire fields and becoming perennial citation classics (Jacobs, 2005). For instance, by all accounts ASR’s most cited paper is DiMaggio and Powell’s 1983 “Iron Cage Revisited,” a theory piece that is one of the founding documents of institutional analysis and organizational studies in sociology. The most widely cited cultural sociology piece published in the journal (Swidler, 1986) is a theory piece that continues to set the intellectual agenda for debate in that field—and increasingly across a wide number of other fields—thirty years after its publication date. Most recently, Neil Gross’s (2009) theory piece on pragmatism and social mechanisms is one of the most highly-cited papers published in the journal in the last few years. Given this striking record of extreme success, you would think that it would be in the interest of editors to seek out and nurture these types of submissions, yet their appearance remains both rare and sporadic.
Read the full essay in the current issue of Perspectives, the ASA Theory Section newsletter.