Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

The Order of Things

Just wanted to post a few quick thoughts about my reactions to the Governments and Communities in Partnership conference thus far. The conference is divided between refereed academic papers and practitioner presentations (often combined in the same panel, but still distinct presentation types) and, because I’m using the conference to learn about regional issues that reflect trends at my own field site, I’m generally choosing workshop sessions that tilt heavily toward the practitioner side. I have therefore managed to miss many academic papers that would have interested me – but that I can also easily track down post-conference, when the papers are published… I may comment on some of these papers at a later point…

Still, I’m finding myself reacting to the academic dimensions in the practitioner presentations (which isn’t completely surprising, since many of the practitioners also have a substantial academic background, or are working in tandem with research academics). One striking thing, to me, is how many papers view “theory” as a synonym for a sort of classificatory device – so your “theory” is something that allows you make definitions that then make it possible to draw grids, or sketch points along continua, in order to classify and organise various empirical observations. So, for example, a presentation might offer definitions of a “network” and of a “bureaucracy”, and then report back on which dimensions of particular organisations fit into the “network” box, and which fit into the “bureaucracy” box…

When I say that this is striking, I don’t mean that it’s surprising – theory-as-classification-system is, I suspect, a far more common understanding of sociological theory than, say, the kind of theory that I do. I find it striking, I think, because I often find myself personally confused about what these gridlike classifications systems illuminate, that thick description wouldn’t illuminate more effectively… I have a very similar reaction to social scientific work that takes what are essentially everyday observations and writes them in an “algebraic” style, when there is no actual math taking place: I’m happy for people to use equations to model human behaviour, but I’m not sold on the value of taking something that could just as easily be described in ordinary language, and translating that language into something that “looks mathematical”, but can’t actually be manipulated mathematically. To me, this has all the disadvantages of mathematical modelling (that someone has to learn your specific symbolic system to understand what you’re talking about), with none of the power…

And yet, gridlike classification systems (and, to some audiences at least, “mathlike” renderings of essentially non-mathematical observational data) do have a visible power when they’re presented: people do empirically – you can watch the effect cascade through the room – seem to find it clarifying to be told that government agency x falls closer to the “network” side of the continuum, while private company y falls more toward the “bureaucratic” side… I suspect the power has something to do with the “collective effervescence” of the experience – with the shock of recognition that something that you might have noticed about your own organisation, or other organisations, but had regarded as an essentially private and idiosyncratic interpretation, in actuality connects up with experiences that resonate far more broadly.

This recognition of shared experiences is valuable – although, by itself, I’m not sure it helps us orient ourselves better, so that we can choose better actions… Among other things, I’m concerned that the widespread recognition that, e.g., lots of people are thinking about networks – lots of people share an aesthetic that experiences networks as energetic and flexible and creative and marvelous in all dimensions – without an analysis that helps us understand why this experience is so common now, can contribute to the juggernaut of unreflexive transformation… But, of course, I would think that… ;-P

I am genuinely curious, though, about the “cash value” of this classificatory approach to social science research – which I acknowledge is far more common than the kind of theory I like to do. (I also recognise, of course, that refining definitions and abstraction from thick description is also important for the kind of theory that I do – I’m not trying to claim that my approach to theoretical work shares nothing with more conventional approaches.) I understand the value from a corporate or management perspective: once you’ve decided, for example, that you want to decentralise decision-making, it can be handy to know where decision-making remains highly centralised. But from an academic analytical perspective – from the perspective of grasping a phenomenon, understanding it, making sense of it: are we actually any closer to achieving these goals, when we’ve decided how we want to classify a phenomenon?

But this question is probably asked from a fairly idiosyncratic viewpoint – it could equally be asked whether we’ve really understood something when, as in the kind of theory I prefer, we’ve understood its contingency: how it came into being, and how it is currently being sustained. To me, of course, a knowledge of historical contingency provides a means of orienting ourselves to action – a means of knowing something about the possibilities and constraints open to us at a particular point in time. On the field of historical action, however, grids and definitions – as articulations that help to ossify interpretations of our historical moment – have dramatic practical effect by channeling perceptions of the current moment into deeper and more precisely defined grooves… So maybe the question is more what the “cash value” is of a form of theory that constantly tries to swim upstream against this kind of historical current…

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