Siri J. Colom, Connecticut College
What is theory for? There are nearly as many answers to this question as there are sociologists. Stinchcombe (1982) says one goal of teaching is to demonstrate models of great sociological research. Even if the classics are not perfect models of great research, they still offer students a sense of what sociology can be. By contrast, Michael Burawoy (2013) uses the metaphor of theory as maps—some better than others—for looking at particular areas of social life. He suggests that teaching theory is as much about teaching a way of thinking and looking at the world, as it is a series of ideas. Using the metaphor of a mountain range, he critiques survey courses where "students are taught to survey the mountain range from below, rather than attempting to climb one or more mountains and see things from their summits." From still another perspective, R.W. Connell (1997), in a classic critical look at social theory, notes that our celebration of "founding fathers," particularly in our courses and textbooks, is more a reflection of the preexisting institutions (of domination) that exist in the social world.
I would like to propose that we take seriously the idea of play as both theoretical and pedagogical tool. Play leaves space for the imagination, for wonder, and for creativity. At the same time, play is not just a pedagogical tool. It also parallels the craft of theoretical thinking: no decent theory has come about with a certain amount of playing with ideas. Play opens the possibility of learning from mistakes, something we often do not leave room for in our classrooms.
Play can also be a great equalizer. Many of our students are excellent at memorization, but teaching theory through play asks them to do more than memorize. Because of the type of thinking it requires, theory is one of the courses that can privilege the student with an elite educational background. By asking students to play, however, one often sees that it is the strongest students who have the most difficult time simplifying and explaining. For example, at times I hand out colorful markers or crayons and ask my students to draw a theoretical argument in pictorial form. Drawing is one of the oldest forms of abstract play and has its own internal logic: it forces us to think in a different register. Inviting students to construct and play with arguments in a variety of registers (or multiple “literacies”) allows them to practice translating ideas into another medium, and thus gives them another opportunity to own the material.
Play can also become a means to “fair play.” Students who might not normally think of themselves as being strong at working through an argument may find they have much to add when they are asked to creatively move from the abstract to the concrete. Even when students struggle, often seeing the multiple ways in which other students play and draw the concepts helps them to understand.
Increasingly, our institutions are asking that we incorporate more "active learning" into our classrooms. This can be difficult to do when you are reading dense and difficult texts from more than a century ago, but play is perhaps the most active form of learning. And the process of play and theoretical thinking are actually quite similar. Both theories and play are a kind of conversation. Both build upon a set of assumptions and require a framework, and thus both are a way to interpret the world. Theories and play can be problematic too: Because we enact the social world as we play, it can be difficult to make play and theory our object if we are actively involved. But the best play, like our best theories, pushes us to be reflexive.
As an extended example, I will share a game I designed to teach Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. I called the game "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism!" (Everything was in the punctuation.) I designed it as a board game, which combined elements of Chutes and Ladders and Candyland—high culture meets low.
As a form of play, there are a couple of things the game achieves. First, the content and framework for the game mimic the outline of Weber's text, such that the game is not about memorization of the text, but instead a means of helping students visualize the theoretical and historical trajectory of his argument. The temporality of the story becomes the basis for the game's movement. Players can get hung up in places on the board that parallel the tension in the book between traditional and modern world views, such as getting stuck in the “Quicksands of Disenchantment” or in the “Curve of Unprecedented inner loneliness.” Second, the game requires a deep understanding of the text. This is a benefit for both the student and the teacher. For students, the game becomes wittier the more they understand the text. For the teacher, I, too, have to have a complex understanding of the work in order to synthesize the text into a game and have that synthesis be coherent.
One final important benefit of adopting a playful approach to theory is that the fear of failure becomes a less potent force. Some have compared sociology to a martial art. While this metaphor is useful when suggesting that sociology has a role in politics (a la Bourdieu), I think it does more harm than good when it encourages us to approach theory or sociology as a contest and fight rather than a conversation. It supports the loud voice rather than the quieter questioner, the winner rather than the loser. Shifting metaphors from fighting to playing enables us to reclaim failure, transforming our understanding of it away from mere loss and toward a broader perspective that sees failure as something that must occur. Because it is through the cascading series of gentle failures during play that lead to profound learning. Cultural theorist Judith Halberstam suggests that failure is the alternative to a capitalist narrative of success, and in this sense play provides a similar counterpoint to the fight. Play is the space of the child, when there is the greatest possibility for transgressive and alternate ways of understanding the world. Play offers hope. Maybe through play we can also suggest that the “iron cage” is not the only possibility.
Burawoy, Michael. 2013. “Living Theory.” Contemporary Sociology. 42(6): 779-786.
Connell, R. W. 1997. “Why Is Classical Theory Classical?” American Journal of Sociology 106(6):1511–57.
Halberstam, Judith. 2011. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Stinchcombe, Arthur. 1982. “Should Sociologists Forget Their Mothers and Fathers.” The American Sociologist. 17(1):2-11