How to… use and not ‘apply’ theory

How to… use and not just ‘apply’ theory

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2017) ‘How to use and not ‘apply’ theory’ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. Under the sign of theory

1.1 Many people in the social sciences and humanities have a rather odd relationship with theory, either eschewing it as though the product of the ‘Evil Empire’, or treating it as a magical ‘ism’, a kind of edifice rather like Mount Everest and to be climbed and conquered but not to be re-sculpted or flattened by the conquering hero. And insofar as theory is an ‘ism’, an edifice, then those who conquer it are ‘ists’ and work under its sign. There is little need to mention Freudianism, Marxism, Poststructuralism, Foucauldianism, and these days also Feminism, to push home the argument here.

1.2 But effort is needed to bring under the sign of theory the research that is often done in its name. Of course many Freudians, Marxists and Foucauldians carry out empirical research, but doing this under the sign of theory can result in simply finding instances of things as specified by particular aspects of the body of theoretical work. ‘Finding’, then, can be of a particular kind, one that is driven by the theory, which is used to direct the research gaze in order to find instances of what the theory specifies, rather than engaging with the details of some aspect of social life so as to interrogate and change the theory to better fit these practical circumstances.

2. Thinking it through

2.1 Rather than starting with theory and a body of theoretical work that is found engaging, it is helpful to think in a more dialogical way about interesting research topics and interesting theoretical ideas and possible relationships between them. What kind of a research project is being contemplated, what is ‘it’ when thought about in terms of the details? Relatedly, what kinds of methods of investigation and kinds of information or data would best help understand this? And also relatedly, what kinds of ideas or theories might be relevant to thinking through all these matters, and taking into account here both big kinds of theory (which includes the ‘isms’ referred to above) and also the small theory that is the product of grounded investigations.

2.2 These three nodes of ‘thinking it through’ are all as important as each other, and also both the content and the inter-relationship of each of them will change over the time-period of a research project. They can helpfully be sketched out on a large sheet of paper with their sub-divisions listed beneath each, then revisiting this at regular intervals to think about which is prime at any moment, what lines of mutual connection exist, and whether these have changed over time.

2.3 But, the question might be asked, why go to such trouble? Why not instead simply plump for a particular theory or approach and go for it, go for applying it in the particular research context that is being investigated? There are at least two good reasons why not. The first and simplest is that if this is done then ‘investigation’ in any meaningful sense is removed, because it is already clear what will be ‘found’, which is what a theory or approach tells its adherents. The second is a longer-winded version of the first, and is that social circumstances differ, and a theoretical idea or body of theory that shapes up well in abstract or in, say, researching accounts of mysticism among nuns in mediaeval Belgium, may not be so hot in getting an interpretive purchase on, for example, what young boys in 2017 Illinois, USA, say about HIV/AIDS. The differences aren’t just important, they’re definitional.

2.4 Of course theories can be expressed very abstractly and generally so they can apply to all circumstances, but this usually brings them to the level of being vacuous or self-evident. And anyway, most theoreticians position the projects they are engaged in in terms of ‘thinking with’, rather than providing fixed ideas that bring an end to thinking and its replacement by just applying. One of the points of carrying out research – of course by no means the only one – should be to engage with and change theoretical ideas by putting them to work and thinking with them, but also thinking against them using the particular features of the grounded and empirical context that is the focus of an enquiry in order to do so.

3. How to…

3.1 The $1 million question is how to do this, for after all it goes against the grain of how theory is taught and valorised and is no easy matter. It may be helpful to discuss it via an example, which concerns the relationship of the work of the sociologist Norbert Elias to the Whites Writing Whiteness project. This also has the additional benefit for readers that there is quite a lot of information about this elsewhere on the WWW website. There are actually not that many social scientists or humanities scholars whose work is centrally concerned with matters of social change, the core topic of the WWW project. In the main, those who do this fall into one of two camps, those who look at social transitions and transformations in grounded circumstances in an empirical way, and those who do so theoretically and and generally in fairly abstract terms.

3.2 The work of just a handful straddles this divide and is attractive because of it. Elias is particularly attractive in WWW terms because throughout his long career his work stresses the importance of always attending to specific circumstances, including the time, the place, the people, the events. It therefore insists that what particular societies – his eye was on Germany, France and Britain – deem to be ‘civilising’ will differ accordingly.

3.3 This lends a particular utility to the work of Elias for a jobbing historical sociology project interested in social change with regard to the racial order in South Africa over the period starting with the arrival of white settlers. This is because in effect he invites other researchers to use or rework or abandon the conceptual categories associated with his work. Such things as figurations, established and outsider groups, ratios of power and so forth are interesting as a package, and at the same time they may or may not work in of the times and other places involving other people and other events.

3.4 To take just one of these conceptual categories, that of the figuration, there are well-known difficulties in actually pending down beginnings and ends and boundaries to figurational entities ‘in life’. Taking that as read, is figuration helpful or unhelpful in thinking about the many connections that exist between the letter-writers and their addressees whose writings are included within the WWW research frame? Might perhaps the different theoretical ideas of histoire crossee, for example, give more purchase on this matter? Or, given that Elias’ figuration concept is embedded within a much more extensive theoretical apparatus, might it be possible to use these ideas within a broadly Eliasian framework?

3.5 This is to think with, as well as across, and also at points to think against, some attractive theoretical ideas. And the result? It all depends… Sometimes the idea of the figuration works well (the inner circle around Cecil Rhodes, and also the interconnections between the southern African LMS missionaries), while at other times the connections that exist seem too nebulous or transitory for it to be helpful, or else to be better explained by, for instance, family and kinship links, or happenstance meetings and events.

3.6 And this of course is the point here, that one size does not fit all, and that without losing coherence it is important to recognise and respond to difference and complexity. An entirely ‘pick and mix’ approach, grabbing a little snippet of a idea here, another snippet from somewhere else, and a bit more from yet another source, would be superficial and unsatisfactory. What has happened in the case of WWW is that the ideas of Norbert Elias concerning how to think about the processes of social change and their occurrence over time at very grounded levels form a broad backcloth. Some of his ideas become more foreground at some points and recede at others, but with none of them forming a kind of iron grid which is ‘applied to’ the research. This is combined with ideas drawn from Chicago School sociology and particularly the work of Thomas and Znaniecki on letters and other kinds of life documents as forming a proxy for getting a purchase on the precise dynamics of change. Also, and in a more light-touch and suggestive way, the insights of the histoire crossee are combined with both of the above to think about the interconnections that exist over time between members of different groupings or figurations. And in addition, Dorothy Smith’s ideas about ‘texts in action’ have informed the WWW approach to analysing texts of different kinds and in particular letters, as well as underpinning the methodological discussions in these ‘How to…’ essays.

3.7 The work of Elias is present, then, and has importance in the WWW pantheon of ideas. It is used in a flexible and informative way and it is not ‘applied’, and this is alongside the work of some other important producers of ideas and with the proviso that it might be revised, reworked or abandoned where sensible.

Last updated: 27 May 2021