Theory and Practice

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This workshop will use the tension between theory and practice in academic research as an opportunity to talk about a range of issues, such as:

  • Division of labour in academic research.
  • The role of the university in relation to the state and corporations.
  • Structures of knowledge networks.
  • Ideas around objectivity - how far is this attainable and should we be trying for it anyway?
  • Relationship between academia and activist groups.
  • Hierarchical versus network based patterns of thought and language.

I'm thinking of doing a workshop on these themes at the fourth knowledgelab, and rather than just turn up and talk, I thought I would try writing up some rough notes here first, which anyone else is welcome to add to, criticise, etc. I've put my sig after every paragraph so people can comment without losing track of who's saying what. --AndyBaxter 00:12, 7 November 2006 (GMT)

Personal note

Some years ago, I was studying for a PhD in the sociology of science, which I have not completed. Before that, I studied natural science; mainly physics. During and after the time I was working on the PhD, I was involved in various (mainly environmental) activist groups. I remember that at the time, being in these two different worlds at once created a lot of tensions for me, which made me question why I was doing what I was. I also had various frustrations with the subject, which I was unable to formulate and express clearly at the time, in that some of the ideas I was trying to work with didn't fit, I felt, with my experience of studying natural science. So part of my motivation in writing this is to understand better for myself what was happening during this period of my life, and bring out some of the answers I was starting to formulate to the crisis I found myself in when I had to give up on the academic work I was doing, to see if they make any sense to other people. I should say that the things I'm talking about here are (obviously) influenced by the people I was reading while studying for the PhD (mainly constructivist sociologists of science, the actor-network theorists, and also some other writers.) So I'm not claiming that the things I'm talking about are all that new or original. However, I've decided to write this as far as possible in plain english without referring explicitly to the theoretical terms used by these writers or quoting them extensively. Partly because it matters to me to write in a way that is consistent with what I'm trying to say, and partly as a way of finding my own voice to talk about these ideas. --AndyBaxter 01:23, 7 November 2006 (GMT)

Theory and Practice - a division of labour

I'm taking this as a starting point to look at a web of loosely related (and admittedly somewhat half-formed) ideas that I would like the opportunity to discuss. One traditional approach to academic research goes something like this - somebody writes a Great Book. People read this book, try to understand what the person meant, and then go about applying their ideas to whatever particular situation they might be interested in. This corresponds to a division of labour in the academic community - a typical way of formulating a research proposal is to take the ideas of some famous writer and see how they might be applied to some specific situation they haven't been applied to before, or that is of interest for some other reason. Other people may be more interested in looking at how this writer's work relates to another's. So some people are more theoretically inclined, and others are more interested in the irreducible complexities of actual living situations. So far, so good. --AndyBaxter 01:22, 7 November 2006 (GMT)

One question is what happens when, as a researcher, you find that the ideas you are trying to work with don't fit the situations you encounter? Do you try harder to understand the words of the Great Writer? Do you reinterpret them and give them your own meaning? Do you pick and choose among what you see to fit it into the analytical categories you have available (consciously or unconsciously)? Do you challenge the validity of these ideas, in this case or more generally? Answering questions like this is part of the living work of writing good social research. One way to look for answers to questions of this kind is to say that it is about the accuracy or relevance of theoretical categories to practical situations, or about the degree to which there are good channels of communication between theoreticians and 'field researchers'. However, while worthwhile in itself, this kind of answer misses the point I'm trying to get to, which is about the structure of knowledge networks, and how people locate themselves within these networks. --AndyBaxter 01:22, 7 November 2006 (GMT)

Going out and coming back - a patterning of culture

The reason these answers miss the point is that they fail to examine what it is that is putting people into the position where these are the questions they have to answer. What I am talking about here is a pattern of culture whereby people and ideas are in a back-and-forth movement between the centre and the periphery of the academic institution. You go to the library, read some books or papers, maybe take notes, then carry the thoughts that this activity has brought to you out 'into the world' where you meet other people, and you see if those thoughts help you make any sense of what you find there. Then you return, maybe write some more notes, maybe publish a paper. Simplistically, I'm talking about a picture where you have a circle with arrows going out from it and back again in all directions. Within this structure, the questions above are relevant, and you would hope that on the whole people answer them in such a way that 'theoreticians' listen to what 'researchers' have to say, and 'researchers' are honest in their attempts to make sense of what they find. What I want to say is that even if this is so, there are still political, ethical, and philosophical issues that you can't deal with within this framework. --AndyBaxter 04:16, 7 November 2006 (GMT)

(Having written the above paragraph, I'm thinking that maybe I'm painting too simplistic a picture, but then it's only meant as a caricature for the sake of making a point.) --AndyBaxter 04:16, 7 November 2006 (GMT)

For example, say that someone is writing a sociological study of an local environmental campaign group. The process above can work as perfectly as you like and still fail to answer questions like:

  • How is the work they are doing going to benefit the members of this group, and if isn't isn't why should they talk to them?
  • How does what they see there depend on their position in the academic knowledge-network?
  • What audience are they writing for, and what social position does it have in relation to the people being studied?

--AndyBaxter 04:16, 7 November 2006 (GMT)

In relation to questions like this, questions around objectivity and accuracy of representation can be a red herring. I'm not saying that trying for objectivity is a worthless activity, just that making this the sole question misses the point, which is about how people locate themselves in relation to different social networks, and about the way that academic culture is patterned. --AndyBaxter 04:16, 7 November 2006 (GMT)

Where I'm going with this is that, having first drawn attention to what I see as a cultural pattern through which academic knowledge about the world is created, I want to firstly draw out some consequences of this, in relation to the role of academia in society and the style of knowledge / way of knowing that is peculiar to academia. And secondly raise the possibility that there may be other equally valid ways of knowing which go along with different cultural patterns. Please note that this isn't meant to be an anti-intellectual argument - I can see good things as well about the traditional idea of the university as a place where people can develop ideas about the world in a way that is relatively free from the influence of particular social interests; what I am trying to say is that academia favours certain ways of knowing and styles of thought over others, partly as a result of the way it is constituted as a social institution, and that these ways of knowing may not be appropriate to some situations or for some purposes. --AndyBaxter 15:19, 8 November 2006 (GMT)

Objectivity and observation - 'are you looking at me?'

Here I'm talking about the ideal of objectivity and impartiality in social research, and asking how far it is attainable and desireable. There are two points I want to make here:

Firstly, although there is an ideal of 'the dispassionate observer' which people may try to hold to in doing research, this ideal is itself a social role or attitude that someone can take in relation to a group of people. If you payday loan adopt this attitude, people will relate differently to you than they would otherwise, so the things you see and experience are going to be different from how they would be if you were not trying for this. --payday loan 17:28, 8 November 2006 (GMT)

Secondly, universities do not exist in some kind of parallel realm to the rest of society, so by doing social research you are participating in the reproduction of a social network in the same way as the people you are studying. Although people may try to do this in a way which is not influenced by particular interests outside the university, acheiving this impartiality is itself a political activity, especially at a time when governments are talking more and more of 'how universities can contribute to industry'. --AndyBaxter 17:28, 8 November 2006 (GMT)

I think the answer to this is firstly to understand 'objectivity' and 'impartiality' not as a method which will magically transport you to the realm of pure ideas, but as an attitude and role someone tries to take within and in relation to the rest of society for purposes they consider valuable. Secondly, rather than trying to free yourself of all external influences, it may be better to acknowledge what these influences are, and decide what kind of stance you want to take in relation to them. --AndyBaxter 17:28, 8 November 2006 (GMT)

Idealisation and abstraction - the escalation of meaning

I am currently reading 'the Scientific Revolution' by Steven Shapin. This is a book of some 200 pages, whereas the cultural movement he is writing about was the thoughts, words, actions of many people spread over maybe a hundred years of history. He starts the book by saying 'there was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it', thereby drawing attention to the problem I want to talk about here - how can a collection of words on paper properly describe a reality which is far more complex than can be conveyed like this? One way of looking at this is that writers inevitably have to pick and choose which aspects of their subject material they consider relevant to the points they are trying to make, in order to draw out from the complexity of real life more idealised concepts and categories which they consider useful in understanding the thing they are talking about. You can see this as a problem with language in general. Say you ask someone to borrow their cigarette lighter. How can the syllables 'cee ga rett ly ter' possibly describe an object that is made up of billions of atoms that can be arranged in countless ways and still be called the same thing? Yet people every day manage to borrow lighters and give them back without this being a problem. Fortunately for smokers everywhere, language doesn't work that way - words are social acts which are made in relation to commonsense understandings and ways of recognising things which are both inherited from our evolutionary history and reproduced through our participation in a living human culture. --AndyBaxter 19:20, 8 November 2006 (GMT)

This process sometimes breaks down, and people misunderstand each other. When this happens, people usually attempt to repair the breakdown by elaborating on what they meant. Through these everyday attempts at understanding, words manage to acquire and keep a stable enough meaning that people are able to talk to each other. In academic writing, words are often given quite precise and specialised meanings, and here I want to point to the lived work (play?) through which these meanings are maintained - people try to prevent the possibility of breakdown by elaborating in great detail about how they are using a particular word. I want to talk about this as a kind of 'escalation of meaning' away from the everyday world where people only have to understand each other well-enough to be understood in a particular situation, and into a realm where the conceptual terms that are used are supposed to relate to a great many such situations. Yet this realm is not a separate platonic realm of pure ideas, but instead the product and acheivement of the same kind of everyday sense-making that makes up normal speech. --AndyBaxter 20:10, 8 November 2006 (GMT)

(What about nonsense - sometimes it makes sense to make no sense. People don't always want to be understood. Breakdowns in communication can be funny.) --AndyBaxter 03:44, 9 November 2006 (GMT)

Models and categorical hierarchies

Here I just want to say that there is a tendency in classical academic thought at least to write in a way that is always trying for the most general category or model that will describe a situation. Having done this, there is then the danger that you will start to see the model as what is real, with all the particular situations it is supposed to describe being merely examples of the essential concept. So in economics, people try to subsume all social life under the concept of 'the rational self-maximiser'. When you look at real human life, this idea of what people are seems to me to be wrong - people don't always act like this. In the face of this, theorists then invent things like 'social capital' as a way to explain why this is, but this is just a way of trying to preserve the central concept in the face of a reality that it doesn't properly describe. Another point here is that this model probably does work to a point when you are talking about the behaviour of investors on the stock market. But this is a very particular situation in which the world that people are living in has deliberately abstracted away any connection to the real human lives behind the share values. So trying to apply this model to other areas of social life is really about trying to spread the world in which this kind of behaviour holds sway into other areas which have traditionally not been like this. --AndyBaxter 22:31, 8 November 2006 (GMT)

You could say a similar thing about the idea of class. I'm not trying to deny that social class is a reality in our society - it obviously is. But it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking about classes as fixed entities with definite properties and behaviour, when the reality is more complex than that. One way of looking at this could be to say that whenever you try to draw a line between groups of people in this way, the only way to draw it properly is to make it fractal and indefinitely complex. This isn't quite right either, as the drawing of lines is also a social act, not just a way of describing things. And class isn't just about objectively existing things like how much money someone earns and their place in a social hierarchy - it's also to do with the way that people think and speak about themselves, and how they choose to identify with others or not in the way they live their life. --AndyBaxter 22:31, 8 November 2006 (GMT)

Having said that, I'm not trying to ban conceptual thought - it's obviously useful to a degree. Just pointing to problems that can arise when this kind of thinking is pushed to its extreme. --AndyBaxter 22:31, 8 November 2006 (GMT)

Peer-to-peer knowledge

What does this have to do with anarchism and academia? To me, this 'escalation of meaning' in academia is partly a product of the same cultural pattern and division of labour I talked about in the first two sections. Metaphorically, I'm talking about the university as a kind of 'knowledge factory' where 'theoreticians' produce idealised concepts which 'researchers' then go about trying to apply to real life situations. And I'm suggesting that the style of thought which is particular to academia is in some way a product of this. However, this is not the only cultural pattern you could imagine for producing worthwhile knowledge, and that style of thought is only one among many. Roughly speaking, I'm thinking that instead of the 'circle with arrows going out and in' picture I used above, we could start thinking about patterns of knowledge creation that are more like the distributed networks used for file-sharing on the internet. I.e. peer-to-peer knowledge instead of client-server knowledge. This is only a metaphor, but I think it's worth making just to see where it goes. --AndyBaxter 20:54, 8 November 2006 (GMT)

At this point I have an admission to make, which is that my outlook on life is hopelessly intellectual, and I am probably guilty of writing this piece in much the same way as I am criticising. (It occurred to me that I should maybe join a twelve-step recovery program for intellectuals - 'I have no power over my intellectuality, I believe that a discourse broader than myself can restore me to sanity, etc.etc.' But then I like thinking also, so I haven't signed up just yet.) What I am trying to do I guess is get to grips with why it is that, while I like intellectual / academic thought, there is something about it that bugs me at the same time, and open up for myself at least different ways of thinking that aren't like this. --AndyBaxter 20:54, 8 November 2006 (GMT)

Theory as practice - the social location of the university

The point here is that universities, as I've said, don't exist in a parallel realm to the rest of society. One traditional role of the university has been to provide the state with reliable knowledge about the world. Recently this is being extended to include business and corporations, and academics who are trying to work in a way which doesn't serve one of these two are getting a hard time and being pushed to the margins. The language that is used to justify this is often put in terms of 'universities serving society', but it's really about the neoliberals claiming the right to say what serves society and what doesn't. I think this is wrong, and should be resisted, but I am doubtful that reasserting the traditional academic values of objectivity, impartiality, and pure knowledge will be enough here, for all the reasons I've said above. It's not just about what you say (i.e. how accurately your words describe the world), it's also (given that all knowledge is partial to a degree) about who you are writing for, and to. Inside the university, this is about opening up and defending spaces where ideas critical of establishment thought can be expressed and developed. Outside the university, it's about creating alternative knowledge networks that may be patterned quite differently and use language in a different way to formal academic institutions. --AndyBaxter 23:01, 8 November 2006 (GMT)

Practical Theory - commonsense understandings of the world

What I want to say here is that as human beings and through our birth into whatever culture we belong to, we all have developed a variety of commonsense ways of making sense (or nonsense) of the worlds we find ourselves in. So the question is where does academic theorising stand in relation to this? If it is trying to replace it, it is probably doomed. Understood as a way of speaking that exists within a particular social institution and which has developed over time for the (changing?) purposes of that institution (or people within that institution), there is probably some point to it. What I am criticising here is a conception of theory where people are supposed to throw away these commonsense understandings and ways of speaking in favour of superior (rationally developed) ones. And where all meaning refers back to the central concepts of whatever theory people are working with. You could say that this is simply postmodernism restated, but then it is maybe too easy to do 'postmodern research' without really questioning what the insights of postmodernism have to say about the social institutions within which university researchers are working? I'm not trying to privilege 'commonsense' above other ways of talking either - you could say that it is common sense to see the Earth as flat, whereas in Physics, the field I have come from, it clearly makes more sense to say it is round (ish). Where I'm trying to get to with this is that firstly, academics can't expect 'laymen' to throw away their own ways of making sense of things without good reason, and secondly that if in becoming an academic and adopting that way of speaking for your own you decide to throw away or ban ordinary ways of thinking and speaking then you are in effect performing a kind of psychic amputation on yourself which is unlikely to help you in doing good research. --AndyBaxter 01:23, 28 November 2006 (GMT)

Language and power

My final point is that if we want to create alternative networks like this, it's important to use language in a way that doesn't reproduce the hierarchical forms of traditional academic writing. This, I think, involves things like:

  • holding back from excessive generalisation and idealisation.
  • thinking about who you're writing for and to, and how the language you use helps or hinders this.
  • acknowledging your own situatedness.
  • being wary of the ideal of the dispassionate observer.--AndyBaxter 23:01, 8 November 2006 (GMT)

I want to leave it there for the time being. I'm hoping to carry on and write more, but for now I want to stop and let someone else speak. Any comments welcome. --AndyBaxter 23:01, 8 November 2006 (GMT)