Friday, February 10, 2012

Standard Issue Theory

There is arguably nothing more standard in a social science paper than the theory section. Most journals will demand not only a theory but some "theoretical contribution". Like PhD dissertations, however, papers are sometimes written with a theory separately in mind. The author will announce two objectives: first, to make that contribution to theory development, normally by producing a "literature review", and, second, to make an empirical contribution, i.e., to present a set of results. While such papers do sometimes get published too, I don't recommend this approach. Your empirical results ought to have theoretical implications. You should not "develop" your theory independently or in advance of your results.

As Pierre Bourdieu said, a theory is a "program of perception". In your theory section you are telling the reader how you see the world. In the social sciences, this means announcing which of the available theories of a particular, say, social practice you are letting inform your vision of that practice. It is how you are construing (or even outright constructing) your object. It is very important that, as a program of perception, you let your theory assign a series of descriptive tasks, marked by your concepts. Your theory tells you how you have to describe the world in your analysis (or "results" section). And for this reason it is important make an inventory of the concepts (the theoretical terms) you will use in your paper. While your analysis will use these concepts, your theory section will account for them.

A theory is built out of concepts. Concepts inform our vision; they make us see a set of facts, actions or events as something, i.e., as being of a particular kind. When we see something as, say, a "technology of self" or a "sensemaking process" or an "abstract machine" we have subsumed some part of the social world under a concept. Indeed, there will usually be more concrete objects and therefore more particular concepts: conduct, action, affects. This is why some people also call concepts "categories of observation". They simply make it possible to see particular things. More precisely, they make us construe the flux of experience as made up of empirical objects of a particular kinds. And objects in turn are simply limits on the possible. An object's "properties", i.e., the specific truths you can state about an object, are ultimately limits on the way they can be combined with other objects (defined by the theory).

These possibilities are precisely what you want to remind the reader of. They are the expectations that your results will artfully disappoint. A good research paper in the social sciences shows that the objects that constitute the social world are capable of being combined in ways we did not expect. And it was our theory that conditioned us to hold those expectations in the first place.

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