Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

On Branching Out

Kerim from Savage Minds has made an interesting post on the need to preserve a space within the academy for “large questions in their entirety”. Among other points, Kerim draws attention to the common advice given to graduate students to focus on narrow specialisations until they are well-established in their academic careers, at which point they can “branch out”. I’ve posted at greater length over at Savage Minds, but I thought I would reproduce part of the exchange here, since I’ve been meaning to mention some of these same issues on this blog. Within my initial response, I commented:

Weber’s view is fairly commonly expressed in advice to graduate students, in my experience – often accompanied with a kind of historical just-so story about how it used to be possible to theorise large issues, but the world has now sadly become too complex… I’ve always felt it contradictory, at best, for academics to say things like this, while continuing to assign classic theory to graduate students: if the world is now too complex for us to develop our own grand theories, surely the ones from the 19th century should now appear hopelessly naive…

I’ve also personally always questioned the notion that students should be apprenticed to narrow specialisation in the theory that, at some later point, they can “branch out”: surely it is more common for us to develop into deeper and more refined versions of what we actually practice, so that an exclusive focus on narrow specialisation will predictably generate experienced and practiced specialists – not big picture theorists… If the “big questions” aren’t somehow there from the beginning, I’m not sure how a lifetime of attention to small questions is supposed to generate them…

Kerim picks up on this, and comments critically on the tendency to teach graduates brief critiques of the principal “big picture” theoretical traditions, a position I second:

What I always think when I hear one of those one-line critiques is something along the lines of “false consciousness is also true”: the really interesting aspect of any critique is precisely that it casts into clear relief how very strange it is, that we have managed to make sense of the world through the theories we create, in spite of their (occasionally large) empirical weaknesses. Critique should be the beginning of the puzzle, not the end – the real trick is to uncover why the theories were plausible, not just to tick off why they are wrong.


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