In my last post I wrote, only half joking, that Karl Marx is the greatest social theorist there is but that that isn’t saying much. Any social theorist who didn’t hate the first half of that sentence probably hated the second half. But I write from a love of social theory and a desire to see it accomplish wonders. It’s a funny kind of love, to love such an abstract and incohate endeavour, but we don’t always choose whom or what we love.
So now I’m going to go a step further towards alienating absolutely everybody and say that most of what passes for social or cultural theory, that I’ve ever read, isn’t what I’d call theory at all, in the full sense of the term, but only analytics. I’m stealing this term from Foucault, who once said in an interview that he “in no way” constructs a theory of power, but only “at most” constructs an analytics of power. I think this is a worthwhile distinction, one that I wish people would remember and take seriously when they overstate Foucault’s merits or castigate his supposed failings, but that’s another story.
An analytics gives us sensitizing concepts, orienting questions, framing assumptions, as a basis for a detailed idiographic empirical study of some problem. An analytics takes a bewilderingly complex domain of phenomena and enables us to parse it into something we can understand. An analytics enables us to find connections we couldn’t otherwise perceive. It allows us to turn our dispersed practical experience into a more consolidated knowledge so that we can think strategically and act more effectively. And it allows us to pool our knowledge so as to think and act collectively.
So an analytics does a lot. Most of what passes for ‘theory’ in the social sciences and in the arts, that I have read, is really just analytics. (Maybe this says more about what I haven’t read than about what’s out there. Please feel free to leave angry comments in the comments section below telling me whom I should read! Do it now – don’t even read the rest of this post!)
I say this not to denigrate those works, but only to indicate that there is something more that could potentially be done. An analytics cannot really go beyond our empirical knowledge. It can only help us understand what we already have experienced and give us some ideas – only ideas – for what to try next.
So here are my four criteria for what a theory should have or do:
- A theory needs to have moving parts.
- A theory needs to be able to tell us things which we don’t already know.
- A theory needs to to tell us how to do things that we otherwise don’t know how to do.
- The things that the theory tells us how to do must contribute to human emancipation and equality.
Let me explain.
1. A theory needs to have moving parts.
This is what separates a theory in the full sense of the term from an analytics.
An analytics takes a complex situation and makes it easier to understand by simplifying it into categories. The discrete local particular events, each unique unto themselves, become instances of one or another type of activity or process or relation or what have you. This enables us to say things like “sexuality is produced through power/knowledge relations”. Despite the phrase “is produced” there is no generative mechanism being proposed; the sentence is only a simplified description of complex processes. It’s very useful, but there are no moving parts.
A theory takes the added step of proposing generative mechanisms which operate in the same way across differing contexts. To say “capitalists dehumanize and impoverish workers to produce profit” is merely analytic; to say that “capitalists exploit workers” is theoretical. The difference is the concept of exploitation, which is not just a simplified description but a generative mechanism. Exploitation make things happen; it produces phenomena. And, importantly, it does not need to be part of the conscious intentionality of any of the involved actors in order to do its work.
Only by proposing generative mechanisms with this non-subjective, non-intentional efficacy can our theories go beyond merely re-articulating what is already implicit in the subjective meanings attached to social practice.
2. A theory needs to be able to tell us things which we don’t already know.
An analytics directs our attention to questions which, upon further investigation, show us phenomena which we hadn’t previously observed. A theory tells us not only where to look but what we will find there.
An analytics helps us walk into an unfamiliar situation and, more quickly than otherwise, interpret and make sense of the events we experience. A theory enables us to walk into a situation of which we have incomplete knowledge, observe part of it, guess what is going on in the parts of the situation that we can’t directly observe, and be right.
Both types of theoretical thinking help us learn from experience and avoid having to reinvent the wheel or learn by trial and error; a theory just does so more powerfully.
3. A theory needs to to tell us how to do things that we otherwise don’t know how to do.
This is where the rubber meets the road. A theory finds its validation in practice.
(Incidentally this is the reason for points #1 and #2.)
By “we”, here, I mean the human species collectively. Someone might read a piece of analysis, or even just a good piece of thick description, and discover that it’s possible to do something which they had not thought possible, or which really wasn’t possible for them before because they had lacked crucial information. This is important and exciting, but it’s not what I mean.
A good theory will tell us how to do something that no human beings have ever done before.
I’m willing to say, perhaps contentiously, that there is in fact no such thing as a social theory, so far, which meets this standard. There have been theories of this type in the natural sciences, but not in the social sciences or the humanities. If anyone would like to show me that I’m wrong, please do! I would be super excited to find examples of this happening.
I realize this is an incredibly tendentious and polemic way of conceptualizing theory. And, again, I don’t wish to denigrate or exclude work that doesn’t meet this standard. But I do wish to express my own perception. I find myself dissatisfied with literally every work of social theory that I have ever read, and this is why.
4. The things that the theory tells us how to do must contribute to human emancipation and equality.
If theory finds its validation in practice, we must ask: what kind of practice? Patently, there is no such thing as a value-neutral practice. Drinking water is not a value-neutral activity, much less the instantiation of a revolutionary social theory.
Developing a theory that lets us do human-universally new things just for the sake of doing so, with no regard for what it is that is being done – this is the path to technocracy and totalitarianism.
Of course theory cannot do this in isolation from the practice of egalitarian struggle. By the very nature of its goal it must be usable not only by elite specialists but by so-called laypersons. The theory itself must prefigure the end towards which it aims.
There is much more to be said but this is enough for the moment. I’ve defined in the most general terms what I think the aims of social theory could be and what they are for me personally in the work that I do. Obviously I haven’t said anything specific about how to achieve those goals. But the goals themselves are distinctive and not shared by everyone.
Nothing I’ve ever read has convinced me that this is impossible, only that it hasn’t been done yet. I don’t expect to do this myself. But if I could contribute to the doing of this, that could be enough.