Andrew Perrin, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
In my last letter, I explored the different ways we do “theory” in sociology. I suggested that that diversity—not just of theoretical approaches, but of the very roles of theory itself—is a kind of productive dissonance, rather than chaos, at the core. The fact that these disparate projects come together under the theory umbrella—and that, therefore, the same people often read and engage with all of them—results in intellectual cross-fertilization that would not have happened with a more organized core. This mirrors my view of our discipline in general: if our weakness is the fact that we have no stable core of topics, methods, or theories, it is also our strength. The relatively free—maybe even chaotic—interplay of ideas fosters creativity.
To pursue this idea further, I decided to ask some colleagues who do “theory” in other disciplines what “theory” meant to them and to their disciplines.
She noted that even the quark—the smallest particle yet discovered—might be divisible in the same way, even though it can't be viewed. In other words, even a quark might have a substrate: the underlying stuff from which it is made. String theory is a way of conceptualizing that substrate, even though it can't be seen (the smallest we can measure, apparently, is 10-17 centimeter, while the quark's substrate is likely more like 10-33 centimeter.
"Theorists prize internal consistency and mathematical elegance because these imply a 'deeper understanding' of the questions."
She described an interplay between theory and experiment, but also noted that theorists have preferences even prior to data confirming or denying the theory. Theorists prize internal consistency and mathematical elegance because these imply a “deeper understanding” of the questions. In order to gain and maintain prestige, departments need a mix of experimentalists and theorists; a department cannot be considered strong, be ranked highly, or recruit good graduate students without a distinguished theory operation.
Communication Studies/Cultural Studies
This is particularly true in cultural studies, where theoretical debates are the coin of the realm. “Theory is our method,” he told me, and theories are deployed pragmatically: “What is the problem you want to understand? What pays off?” Like physics, elegance is a value in itself; theories that appear applicable to many questions, or that illuminate old questions in new ways, are valuable. But unlike physics, there is little interest in data as confirmation or refutation of existing theory; here, theory's job is to explain data that are observed by providing a framework for understanding those observations.
"Theory is a logical and mathematical approach in which theorists begin with axioms and reason from those to predict behavior and outcomes."
Some theorists question the axioms, but this is rare; those questioning the axioms tend to be experimental and behavioral economists, such as those seeking to determine experimentally whether preferences are actually transitive. There are times, though, when the axioms change. Conway used the example of static utility maximization, which didn't “work” to explain the observed world, so dynamic maximization was a necessary “tweak.”
Within the discipline, Conway explained that theorists are the highest status scholars. They tend to come from the highest-status graduate programs, which in turn achieve and maintain that status through producing high-profile theory and theorists. Lower-status programs tend to be more empirical, testing and applying theory produced at higher-status institutions.
In general, political theory is carried out by theorists and in conversation with other theorists, though periodically empirical political scientists “believe that political theorists are saying something that can be tested.” I asked whether those times were good or bad for theorists. “I think it's fine,” said Dr. Bickford, but their mode of theorizing doesn't generally produce hypotheses so it's not the goal. Theorists are more likely to read empirical political science than vice versa, in large part because empirical political science is much higher status in the discipline and within departments. All three of my interviewees described this low status; departments have to have a political theory section in order to be ranked highly, but often political theory is “tolerated more than welcomed,” said one.
Interestingly, Dore identified her entry into theory as “backwards,” but described a path that was similar to the physics and economics examples above. She was working on research on music in literature, and in particular on ballads posited against technology. “Better read some Heidegger,” she was told, to understand the relationship. Theory, in this case, provided a similar abstraction beyond the object of study to that in much more scientistic fields. Literary theory remains a central focus in the field, but Dore suggested that the boundary between theory within literature and theory outside (such as philosophy and social theory) was porous, and that most current scholars writing in theory do so with a strong connection to specific works of literature as well.
“Am I a theorist? I don't know anymore.”