Monday, January 16, 2006

Where are Theories?

It's been long a time since I've posted to this blog and I want to get back into the swing of things now. This will probably mean shorter, more frequent remarks--details from my experiences as an editor of academic texts.

Here's something that occured to me recently. People often mistake the opinions of theorists for aspects of theories. They seem to think that a theory is located in the mind (not always a living brain) of the theorist who invented it. It is a misconception most often found in the social sciences and humanities, and can be very debilitating to writers. It makes the task of mastering a theory in all its intracies essentially insurmountable.

The alternative is to think of theories as a social phenomenon, a consensus among a great many major and minor researchers about how to look at the world. Learning a theory will accordingly be a matter of reading current research articles, not great books. It will come from the experience of applying the theory to real world situations and reporting the results. It will come especially from registering the reactions of one's peers.

The intellectual concerns of any one theorist do not in and of themselves constitute "theoretical" concerns. Issues become matters of theory in so far as a particular community of researchers take an interest in them. You find out what the essential parts of theory are by seeing how your fellow researchers use them, not by reading the works of the major figures who inspire them.

1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

One way to tell if a field is really "scientific" is to consider what its current practitioners do on an everyday basis: are they developing their field further on the basis of its current state, or are they referring back to the founder of the field? If the latter, then science ain't happening. See anyone who talks about a "return to Freud". In contrast, evolutionary biologists are only interested in Darwin insofar as a few of the points he addressed have not yet been resolved.