Social Science and Difficulties With Theory

It is difficult for those not following the field to get the importance given to theory in social research; researchers are continually asked to be theoretical and to align themselves with a position of some sort or another. To be theoretical is to lift your research to a ‘higher plane’; to deal with the world not just as it presents itself but to step back and offer an explanation as to how and why things happen as they do. Theory allows us to move from observations (for example we might see that young people are more likely to vote for anti-establishment parties) towards an explanation (for example we might propose a theory of behaviour that says that those with less of a stake in a system are more likely to want to change it; a theory of maturation that says part of growing up is to experience a sense of exuberance and an enhanced sense of agency; a theory of association that says young people are adept at creating counter cultural ‘spaces’ and so on). It is theory which moves social science into a wider narrative about the way the world works; for doctoral students it is always a damning put down if told ‘yes your thesis is very good but where is the theory?’.

But are we over rating ‘theory’? Here it is worth remembering that in everyday conversation someone described as ‘theoretical’ may lead of us think of someone who is obsessed by abstraction, someone who follows what the theory says and ignores what is in front of them. There is a further put down of theory: it often dresses up in complicated ways something that is quite easy to understand. Probably apocryphal, but there is a anecdote about an earnest young intellectual in the 1930’s who is excitedly explaining to an unemployed shipyard worker that Marx had written a book with a theory to explain that the capitalist system was structurally designed to impoverish the worker. The response was ‘you mean someone wrote a whole book about that?’.

At this point I should say that I like reading and writing about theories and much more than I ever did in the past. I still however feel that there is something unbearably smug about some ‘theoreticians’ as shown in the disdain expressed for the ‘merely descriptive social research’. I remember how my horizons expanded through reading the classics of participant observation (for example communities studies associated with the Chicago School [1]) and I can imagine how they would be put down by some theorists today. I remember too a tutor who had pinned up on his door a piece from Goethe along the lines that ‘description was the richest form of explanation’ [2], this I found oddly inspiring and led me into an interest in phenomenology. A descriptive account of a phenomenon (natural or social) is explanatory [3].

So why have my feeling about theory changed? In part it is the realisation that in looking at a theory you don’t have to buy into the whole package, it is tempting to do so but you do not need to. Indeed there is rarely a whole package to buy into. If you look at any of the key thinkers you can find differences of emphasis in their work depending on what they were trying to address at the time, and in any case you can only read them with a contemporary purpose in mind, very often a purpose theorists could not have envisaged when they were first putting their ideas forward. When all is said is and done a theory is ‘simply’ a lens on something, it illuminates what is happening and, in so doing, it necessarily closes off other perspectives on the problem. The pleasure of using theory is in describing the view.

My thoughts about theory were prompted recently by reading a paper by Sue Timmis on cultural historical activity theory or CHAT [4] For those interested CHAT was a theory which grew out of social constructivist theory of Vygotsky and particularly developed by Engerström, Cole and others [5]. Vygotsky (1978) can be understood as someone who helped expand our focus on learning from what was happening ‘in the head of the individual learner’ to the wider world of tools, artefacts and people that surround the learner and with which they can and do engage. This perspective was further extended into a wider Activity System covering not only subject (the person doing), the object (the purpose of what the person was doing), outcomes (what happens), tools and artefacts (which include both physical and cultural tools such as language and signs) but also the context in which the activity is taking place, the rules, community and division of labour by and within which people work and share their work. This Activity System or CHAT has often been presented as a set of triangles within triangles – these have been endlessly reproduced but see for example go to Wikipedia to see examples

The paper by Timmis is very good and takes you through the different ‘waves’ of CHAT. She highlights the problems of over interpreting ‘the triangles’ and argues that the point of CHAT is not simply to show that while we are all constrained by what is culturally and physical available to us we should notice the tensions and contradictions within a system and the opportunities for change.

I thoroughly enjoyed the paper but did not end up convinced by CHAT and I wondered why not? In part I cannot get out of my head all those wretched triangles – it is all very well for flexible interpreters of CHAT to point out that the triangles were only introduced to draw your attention to key issues but, once lodged in your mind, they rigidly frame the way you look at a case. This dominance is reinforced as the framework is so all encompassing it is practically impossible to think of a situation in which it could not be applied – in other words if you look for an Activity System you will find it. The second problem, a related one, is that the holistic picture that CHAT provides might not be as valuable as it appears. It seems to me that theories work best by offering distinctive perspectives on one thing or another, rather than trying to get to grips with the whole picture. The pleasure in social science is flipping between perspectives, for example switching between an account of the small scale and local to one which deals with the large scale and structural. In my, albeit limited, experience those using CHAT are trying to capture both the small and the large picture at the same time and end up not saying as much as they could either about the wider structural issues which constrain us or about our exercise of agency. Anyway make your own mind up, and particularly if interested in educational technology, I recommend the Timmis paper.

[1] I am thinking of classics such as Louis Wirth (1928) The Ghetto (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1928) and William Whyte (1943) Street Corner Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] For example see From Goethe’s Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature, David Seamon & Arthur Zajonc, editors. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998] – I was able to access this online.

[3] In respect to social research, see for example notes on ‘thick description’ in Geertz, C. (1972) Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight, Daedalus, 101, 1, Myth, Symbol, and Culture – again I was able to access this online.

[4] Timmis, S. (2014). The dialectical potential of Cultural Historical Activity Theory for researching sustainable CSCL practices. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 9(1), 7-32.

[5] Cole, M., & Engerström, Y. (1993). A cultural-historic approach to distributed cognition. In G. Salomon (Ed.), Distributed Cognitions: Psychological and educational considerations. Cambridge: University of Cambridge.

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