The Most Important Academic Buzzword: Theory

June 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

If you ever hang out with academics in the humanities and the qualitative social sciences (ie: anthropology and qualitative sociology and some sorts of political science) and listen to them talk about their work, you’ll probably hear them use the word “theory” to talk about some aspect of their thinking.  You’ll rarely see “theory” in  humanities/SS academic books and articles without a modifier (it becomes “Marxist theory,” “Critical theory,” “feminist theory,” “postcolonial theory,” “queer theory,” “Foucauldian theory,” “psychoanalytic theory,” etc, etc), but in day-to-day life, academics talk about theory as a single intellectual category, and other academics know what they’re talking about.


Theory’s meaning in humanities/qualitative SS academese differs pretty significantly from its meanings in physical science academese  and ordinary English.  It also covers a pretty broad range of different activities.  So, it’s not easy to explain.  But it also is one of the most important aspects of the way that humanities/SS academics think about the world, and it’s one of the intellectual tool-kits which they use to produce distinctive, interesting, and worthwhile knowledge.  So, I’m going to devote a whole “academese” post to theory.  I’ll offer a broad definition and talk about some of the ways that theory works, with examples.


Definition: Theory is reconceptualizing how human thinking, social organization, and language work in ways that go beyond or against common sense.  I’ll try to substantiate this by talking about some different ways that theorists have constructed new ways of thinking.


Categorization: We have lots and lots of everyday ways of classifying things in the world that we come in contact with.  But sometimes, things in the world have structural similarities that cut across our everyday categories, or only align with them in some places.


For a classic concrete example, I’ll turn to the way that Karl Marx defined social classes.  In Marx’s time, most Europeans believed that people were divided into different social classes.  They believed that people belonged to those classes by virtue of  birth, or education, or membership in particular institutions or professions.  Marx argued that social groups were marked by common-sense status distinctions, but were actually created and structured by people’s relationships with the goods and services which they produced.


So, he argued that fundamentally, peasants were people who made their living farming land, aristocrats were people who made their living by owning farmland, proletarians worked in shops and factories for the benefit of others, artisans engaged in small-scale industry for themselves, and the bourgeoisie made their money by owning factories and shops, moving and trading goods produced by others, managing production, and selling knowledge.  Marx’s argument that the social hierarchy had a material basis let him and other thinkers make lots and lots of new types of arguments about how their societies worked.


Extension: Some theories emerge when thinkers apply ways that we think about one social or linguistic category to another.  The French sociologist Pierre Bordieu did exactly this when he expanded the concept of “capital.”  In classical economics, capital is a good which allows its owner to produce more goods.  A restaurant’s oven, a construction worker’s hammer, a lawyer’s education, and a lender’s money are all forms of capital.


Bourdieu extended capital to things which allow their bearer to accumulate things other than economic goods.  For example, friendships and interpersonal connections are forms of social capital, which allow their owner to build more bonds with others.  Bourdieu also notes that forms of capital are, to some extent, interchangeable.  Money, a form of economic capital, might help somebody get into an exclusive social club, and thus gain more social capital.  By the same token, a well-connected person (ie: one with a lot of social capital) will have an easier time finding friends to back his business venture.  So, Bourdieu’s expansion of the definition of capital gave him both a way of talking about tools people have for different kinds of accumulation and also helped him to broaden the classic economic category of capital as well.


Addition: Sometimes, theorists posit that something totally beyond our commonsense understanding of reality structures our experience.  One classic example of this sort of theorizing is Sigmund Freud’s development of psychoanalysis.  Before Freud, educated Europeans believed that we could access all of our thoughts, memories, and emotions.  Freud argued that there was actually a subconscious mind, and that subconscious thoughts, memories, and feelings influenced our relationships with the external world.  This assumption made modern psychology possible.


Negation: Theorists also create new ways of knowing by suggesting that we can discard some aspect of our commonsense worldview and by discarding it, find new questions to explore.  As I mentioned in an earlier post,  Judith Butler argued that there is no consistent physical reality undergirding our notion of biological sex.  If we accept Butler’s argument, we can make biological sex a subject of history and sociology.  For example, we can look at the ways that doctors and scientists have determined the biological sex of people who are actually impossible to classify with the definitions of biological sex that the doctors/scientists are using, and examine the factors beyond the scheme which led the doctors and scientists to make the judgments and they did.


Priority Change: Our common-sense understandings of the world tend to privilege some people’s histories, perspectives and assumptions over those of others.  Theorists often argue that we need to bring different people to the forefront.  In the 1980s, a group of Indian historians and theorists called the Subaltern Studies collective came together to accomplish just that.  They focused their attentions on poor people, colonized people, peasants, and women.  One of the group’s leaders, Ranjit Guha, even suggested a way to accomplish this sort of re-prioritization even when we read documents written by members of dominant groups.  Guha suggested that we read these documents without assuming their perspectives, and focus on their gaps and silences, which sometimes tell us more than their content itself does.  This technique– which he called “reading against the grain”– opened up lots and lots of ways for historians to use their sources.


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