thinking about theory

Has your supervisor told you that you must ‘do theory’ in your thesis ? Nothing like this kind of comment to bring about a real case of the jitters. Thesis Whisperer recently posted about just this situation and you might want to check out her post Theory Anxiety.

I’m writing this post at the same time as I’m beginning a book about bringing theory – in this case Bourdieu – to a particular area – I’m writing about leadership and management. My challenge, to start with, is to think about what I mean by theory – what it is, where and how it is used. I need to be able to say why it’s a good idea… so at present I share some of the same concerns as the theory-challenged thesis writer.

My focus is on social and cultural theory. So that’s people like Foucault and Bourdieu and Dewey, who offer a pretty comprehensive framework to analyse a social problem, practice, puzzle, circumstance, experience, happening.

Raewyn Connell, in her book Southern Theory (2007), suggests that a general social or cultural theory is one which develops a broad vision of the social, and offers concepts that apply beyond a particular society, place or time. Such texts make propositions or hypotheses that are relevant everywhere, or propose methods of analysis that will work under all conditions (p. 28)

A general social theory can be found in a text or set of texts in which someone’s made a pretty serious attempt to make some sense of the world. Yes the world, or at least a good chunk of it, not just a little piece.

A general social theory has ambition and sweep. It works to tidy up ideas, bring them into line, codify and categorize them, establish causalities and connections. It generalizes. It offers constructs for seeing a range of phenomena and for generating sum and substance. It offers a logical and clear narrative thread which draws a rational border around that which is to be explained, eliminating mess and ill-fitting pieces.(1)

Connell identifies a number of problems with this kind of theory:
(1) General social theories make claims to apply everywhere and at all times and in all places – in other words, there is a bid for universality.
(2) However they mostly read the world from the centre – in most cases from Europe and its histories of intellectual thought. In the general social theories most in use in English speaking universities, significant theoretical traditions from ‘the periphery’ of the European world are ignored.
(3) General social theories assume that the questions addressed and the methods used will be the same everywhere. Things which appear to be local, idiosyncratic and particular are excluded, although these may actually be indicative of the non-sense being made.

Does this set of problems ring true to you? They do to me. But is the answer to these problems to abandon theory altogether? Well, no. I think it means that we need to handle theories with caution, be careful about what we ask of and do with them. And we need to learn about other traditions of sense-making.

Connell makes some pretty interesting points about why we should bother to continue to ‘do theory’, to keep trying to make sense of the world and the ways in which it works variously in different places. She suggests that, in current ‘globalising’ times (globalisation is another one of those general theories to be used but with suspicion), social science – and I would add arts and humanities and I’m pretty sure she’ d agree with this – cannot afford to vacate the public space of meaning-making and leave it to politicians, market researchers, techno-rationalist economists and media. Rather, she suggests, there is a role for scholarship which:

(1) generates compassion for those who are bearing the brunt of global social, economic, political and cultural changes
(2) interrogates the ideas and practices which perpetuate global and local injustices
(3) produces knowledges that are helpful to those who are attempting to change unjust practices and relations and which work to generate better, new, alternative and fairer ways to do things.

OK, so it sounds a bit utopian. And maybe it sounds a bit too activist for some. We all have to make up our own minds about where we stand in our research (Griffiths, 1998).

But it certainly sounds to me like a better reason to do theory than ‘it’s what your examiners expect’. ( Well I know you have to do that, but I’m suggesting that you can do both.) And it absolutely sounds like a good set of reasons for thinking that theory might be really necessary in a field like leadership and management which is often complicit in practices that reproduce the status quo. (So there’s my position).

So for my book writing, this means thinking about theory in a way that not only recognizes its partiality and contingency, but also thinking hard about in whose interests it works. And this is the position I’m now trying to work through, of which more in another post.

Connell, R 2007 Southern Theory Cambridge: Polity
Griffiths, M 1998 Educational research for social justice: Getting off the fence. Buckingham: Open University Press

(1) I think that this list probably owes a debt to Thomas (2007) but I can’t find the page; it’s a helpful book if you’re interested in theory in social science, even though it says it’s about education – and the title has a great strap line.
Thomas, G 2007 Education and theory. Strangers in paradigms. Maidenhead: Open University Press

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in contingency, Europe, local, theory, universalism and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to thinking about theory

  1. Pingback: Starting the PhD | Ameya Warde

  2. Pingback: Theory and concepts in PG research - Enhancing Postgraduate Environments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s