on theory fetishism: a conversation with andrew perrin
I wish I had come up with this diagram…
Last week, I got into a Facebook discussion with my friends Jeff Guhin* and Andrew Perrin** about the value of theory. Long time readers know I have very ambivalent feelings. Sometimes, I feel as if a lot of “theory” is simply bloated talk. At other times, I find writers in the “wordy” theory tradition to be extremely valuable … sometimes. As we were discussing these issues, which stemmed from Jeff’s desire to include some Habermas in his syllabus, Andrew suggested that we have a public discussion.
So last week, Andrew posted a few comments at the Scatterplot blog. Roughly speaking, Andrew offers the following two statements: First, challenging theories are often worthwhile to read. Second, there is value in this genre of theory beyond history of thought and it actually has a real pay-off to empirical sociology.
Response 1: If you read my comments, and my prior blogging, I never say that the difficulty of a reading *by itself* is reason to dismiss it. Rather, I have a clearly stated criterion for judging *any* reading. Translate what the author is trying to say into more direct language. If it is still important and insightful, then good! If not, ignore it. You will notice that this criterion requires that you occasionally read challenging materials.
I should also note that my criterion applies to all forms of obfuscation. Andrew, for example, writes out an equation and uses it to support his view that sometimes it is valuable to wade through challenging things. I think Andrew is onto something important but he misses the mark. Fancy “theory talk” and math can be valuable but only if each can be clearly explained in simple parts. They can also be used to dress up poor ideas.
Let’s take Andrew’s example. At first, you might think, “bleh!!” However, you can apply my clarity test.
This equation has the following components, which can be easily explained and each has a very precise definition:
- Conditional probability (for any time T bigger than a cut-off t, the probability that T will be between t and a close by number t + delta_t)
- a limit – as the difference between t and delta_t gets small, you get a sequence of numbers – the ratio of the conditional probability and the little numbder delta_t – that converges (a term that has a precise technical definition) to some number h(t)
But we’re not done! Just because some math has a precise definition, it does not mean that it is worth our time. Additionally, we have to ask about the application and whether we judge it to be important. Then finally, we have to ask if we have the appropriate data with which to see if this model describes the real world.
The lesson I am trying to impart here is that we don’t judge the value of scholarly work on how hard it is to read or how intimidating it sounds. We do messy work and figure out. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. My judgment is that a lot of “theory” fails this test.
Response 2: A few years ago, my position on history of thought was a bit closer to Andrew’s. I too believed that making people read a lot of history of thought was important. Then, I noticed a few things. First, very few people actually thought about theory once they were done with their graduate course. Second, people got the wrong message about “theory.” Since instructors were teaching old books and books that did not use clear language, a lot of students just come away thinking that theory is a game for “theory specialists.”
And who can blame them? The message that people get from a lot of theory instructors is “to be theory, it must be old and hard to read.” Furthermore, a lot of what is included in theory courses has a stunning lack of connection to concrete sociology.
Let’s take Habermas, for example. Some Habermas is extremely grounded in empirical work. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere is an exemplary text that makes a concrete historical argument and then actually gives you lots of evidence to back up the case. Then you have works like Theory of Communicative Action, which seems to have multiple, overlapping goals, ranging from an explanation of a just/free society to arguments with other social theorists about individualism/holism in social explanation. You can forgive students if they have a tough time processing all of this, especially since it is sparse on application.
Bottom line: I am not against hard readings, but there needs to be a pay off eventually. Also, history of thought is a misleading way to teach theory. Just teach theory!
* Only a real friend would sit with me and watch a dude in pink spandex play a single note for an hour on an accordion. #minimalism #jeffranaway
** I am not sure if Andrew counts as a friend, but surely my desire to spare him the agony of reading the latest Zizek is a sign that I value his personal safety.