The Limits of Theoretical Integration

Wagner, David
September 2007
Social Justice Research;Sep2007, Vol. 20 Issue 3, p270
Academic Journal
The integration of theoretical knowledge is often seen as the ultimate goal of research activity in the social sciences. In this article I explore limits in the form and degree to which our knowledge can be integrated, as well as limits in the worth and desirability of some kinds of integration. Most of the analysis depends on drawing two kinds of distinctions in theoretical activity—between theoretical and metatheoretical work and among different types of integration in each kind of work. Using primarily examples from theory and research on justice issues, I articulate three different ways in which work at the theoretical level can be integrated. Each type represents a distinct kind of knowledge development, requires different criteria of evaluation, and involves a varying degree of difficulty to achieve. Nevertheless, each of these types of integration is well worth pursuing. Justice research shows evidence of work involving all three types. Using a somewhat broader range of examples, I also distinguish three different ways in which metatheoretical work might be integrated. Again, each type is quite distinct and should be evaluated in different ways. However, each of these types is significantly more difficult to achieve than any of the types of theoretical integration. Moreover, I suggest that the last metatheoretical type—involving the integration of entire strategies, perspectives or schools of thought—is probably not even a desirable goal. As a consequence of these analyses, I recommend (1) that social scientists in general (and justice researchers in particular) focus most of our attention on one or another of the types of theoretical integration, and (2) that we articulate clearly which type of integration we are pursuing and evaluate our success at the effort using only the appropriate criteria.


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