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The social aspect of theorizing

This winter, I’m teaching Applied Theory, a doctoral course that’s part of the required coursework for students in our PhD programmes in Peace & Development Studies and Environmental Social Science at the School of Global Studies. Over the years it has evolved from a collective reading course into a course on social science theorizing.

This is the fourth time I teach this course, and as I’ve successively revised it, I’ve been much inspired by the emerging literature on social science theorizing, especially the work of Richard Swedberg and Andrew Abbott, whose books on theorizing and theoretical heuristics now form part of the required reading for my course. ((Abbott AD. 2004. Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Swedberg R. 2015. The Art of Social Theory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.))

A key cue I take from Swedberg and Abbott is to regard theorizing not as a mysterious gift some social scientists just possess (while others don’t), but as a practical skill that can be taught, learned and cultivated. Moreover, since theorizing is a practical skill, we also need to teach it through hands-on, practical exercises, much like we teach social science methods. In the current iteration of the course, I’ve included a set of three exercises in theorizing (two of which I’ve adapted from a course in social science theorizing taught by Bin Xu at Emory University). You can find the full course guide here.

However, the existing literature on theorizing seems chiefly to conceive of theorizing as an individual, almost solitary activity. This is a bit ironic: The leading contributors to the growing body of literature on theorizing are sociologists, yet in their accounts of theorizing, the social interactions through which theorizing occurs seem to play no central role. To be fair, though, I don’t think they intend to give the impression that theorizing is something one does in solitude, in one’s chamber – the lone genius.

Swedberg, for instance, explicitly espouses what he calls a personalist view of theorizing:

“the main point of theorizing, according to this view, is to develop your own ideas and not use other people’s theory.”

Acknowledging that individual scholars and their contributions emerge from society and community, Swedberg still insists that he finds

“references to the powerful impact of the community on the capacity to theorize somewhat frustrating … [because] it is difficult to translate this type of insight into practical directives for the individual.” (p. 228)

Abbott discusses how to proceed, once we have used various theoretical heuristics to come up with new ideas, to distinguish the ideas that are worth pursuing from those that aren’t. And in that stage, he argues, other people play an important role: We can test our ideas on others.

“Once an idea has passed our own preliminary screening, it needs to be tried out on others. Sometimes this exercise will be formal, sometimes informal. “

Abbott also transforms this insight on testing ideas on others into practical advice, for instance, to assume that if others cannot understand your ideas, it’s not because they’re stupid, envious or whatever, but because you haven’t articulated your idea clearly enough; to build up a small group of people who are sympathetic but critical to your work, reciprocating comments on early-stage theorizing; or to explain your idea to a taxi driver, for if you can’t explain it to them so that they can see why it’s interesting, you’re probably not ready to present it.

But what’s the role other people play in generating ideas in the first place? On that question, Abbott seems to have less to say.

Iddo Tavory and Stefan Timmermans similarly discuss Pierce’s idea of a ‘community of inquiry’ as a helpful resource in theorizing qualitative research: The community of inquiry – an open conversation with our peers whose critical scrutiny helps us attain belief – can promote abductive insights in three ways: It helps us determine whether our account fits our observations; whether it is more plausible than alternative accounts; and whether our account has more general relevance. ((Tavory, Iddo, and Stefan Timmermans. Abductive Analysis: Theorizing Qualitative Research. University of Chicago Press, 2014.))

This might give the impression that ‘other people’ and ‘the community of inquiry’ play no important role when we generate ideas – they belong chiefly to the context of justification rather than to the context of discovery (a classical distinction central to Swedberg).

Of course, other people are immensely important when we test, clarify and improve our ideas. But they also play an important role when we generate ideas in the first place. Most of the ideas I have explored in my own research have their origins in conversations with other people. Talking about Nordic attitudes to sex, drugs and rock’n’roll at a Sunday evening pub quiz led to the Nordic Prostitution Policy Reform project. A coffee break discussion on political correctness led to the Consensus Paradox project. Canteen conversations about Nordic self-exemption in human rights policy led to the Nordic Human Rights Paradox project and, subsequently, the Scandinavian Rights Revolution project. And so on. Ideas emerge out of seemingly random interactions and serendipitous conversations with other people.

So could one transform that social aspect of theorizing into practical advice and guidance for students learning how to theorize? There is probably a substantial research literature one could draw on, e.g. on how to foster creativity and innovation in organizations, but having had no time to review it I’m falling back instead on non-academic literature on related issues (you may consider this a blog-post-shaped ‘prestudy’, in Swedberg’s terms, where one observes one’s topic in an non-systematic way unconstrained by the rules of academic research and the findings of previous studies).

One source of inspiration is Steven Johnson’s Where good ideas come from, which argues precisely that ideas emerge out of social interactions that have a random element to them. Good ideas arise when independent hunches combine into a whole that’s more than the sum of its parts. That’s why creativity and innovation profit from environments where people can meet and exchange their ideas – in large networks. Johnson uses a host of examples to illustrate this, such as the 17th century coffee house that provided the network for the Enlightenment ideas to form and spread. Another example is the city, where innovation and creativity increase exponentially with the size of the population.

Moreover, great innovations emerge from environments that are partly contaminated by error. We should allow for error, perhaps even encourage it. And we should encourage people who think in different ways than we do ourselves, rather than try to discipline them to adopt our worldview. The ‘error’ they introduce into our own thinking has the potential to engender new ideas. A final lessons is that collaboration is at least as important a driver of innovation as competition.

Another source of inspiration is Eric S Raymond’s bazaar model of software development, which translates into hands-on advice on how to enhance the chances that one’s ideas can be tested and improved through social networks. Some of these are directly translatable into advice for academic researchers:

  • Treating your users as co-developers is your least-hassle route to rapid code improvement and effective debugging.
  • Release early. Release often. And listen to your customers.
  • Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.
  • If you treat your beta-testers as if they’re your most valuable resource, they will respond by becoming your most valuable resource.

Of course, teaching social science theorizing as a course to a group of students is also a way of implementing the insight that theorizing has this inherently social aspect, and I hope to develop it even further in future iterations of the course.

3 replies on “The social aspect of theorizing”

I’ve obviously heard about this course before, and I am very keen to hear more about it – or take it.

Actually, I remember a course when studying for my doctorate – it may even have been a course in social theory – during which we talked about the work of Swedberg. Specifically, we discussed the difference between writing well about other theorists, and actually producing your own theories. A lot of social theory-interested scholars are primarily doing the former… which is fine, of course.

Does Swedberg elaborate on this distinction – are the former set of scholars inferior to the latter?

Yes, Swedberg’s book and several of his articles are a call to teach social theory in a different way, to complement the focus on teaching theories with teaching theorizing, which requires different approaches and is more similar to teaching research methods, as it is a hands-on skill to be be developed through practical exercises rather than just through reading. He also speculates on the reasons why theorizing has been neglected, connecting it to the rapid development of social science methods since the mid-20th century.

The distinction between applying and generating theory, though, need not imply that scholars who merely ‘apply’ pre-fab theories are inferior to those who produce theories of their own. And applying the theories of others may also entail productive theorizing. Abbott, for one, includes this as a perfectly valid heuristic in theorizing.

I should also add that the title of my course – Applied Theory – is slightly misleading; it’s not about applying off-the-shelf theories to one’s own dissertation topic; it’s rather aiming to be ‘applied’ in the sense of doing theorizing in practice, rather than just consuming theory in, ahem, theory.

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