Market Square

Why do Theory?

“Why do theory? You have to put so much into it and you get so little out of it.”

Given the increasing drift towards empiricism and clinical studies, and the associated de-emphasising of theoretical research across the disciplines, this becomes an important question to consider (and what follows constitutes only a first attempt to provide some explanation) .

Doubtless the first half of the equation is true. ‘Doing’ theory has always placed considerable burdens on the researcher. What is less often acknowledged, however, is the many additional burdens placed on the contemporary scholar – and not by the complexities inherent in a particular theory, but by the academy.

What do I mean by this? Firstly, of course, any theory capable of describing all or some aspects of the very complex dynamics of modern society demands a great deal of our time and attention. This is perhaps particularly true of the kind of theory I am drawn to; theory that abandons the a priori. It always seems to me that the a priori maps out, prematurely, significant parts of the journey, determining in advance what should be left indeterminate. The a priori becomes the impermissible safety net.

Secondly, and less obviously, much of the responsibility for the present state of affairs, which demands so much more input from scholars today than scholars of previous generations, lies with the academy. Lizardo speaks of the damaging effects of the de-institutionalisation, devaluation and de-structuration of theory by the academy. Taking each in turn:

De-institutionalisation: Even sociology has seen the de-institutionalisation of theory at the graduate level so that the teaching of theory is reduced “to a single ‘omnibus’ course that attempts the impossible task of going from Montesquieu to Judith Butler in one semester”. Moreover, theory is generally no longer taught by theorists but by those whose work is only ‘relatively theoretical’.
Devaluation: within the academy theory has been devalued in favour of empirically ‘applied’ work which produces ‘useful’ research.
Destructuration: there is no longer any sort of ‘hierarchy of modes of doing theory’. We are left with a confusing and ‘rudderless heterodoxy’, and ‘very little agreement as to the “rules” of the theoretical game’(Lizardo). (But see Fuller’s deftly witty four-fold categorisation/hierarchy of theorising in which he rightly locates Luhmann in the fourth category: available here)

All of this adds to the demands on scholars who wish to engage in theoretical research. Accordingly, we can only agree with that the first half of the equation is correct.

The second half of the equation – ‘you get so little out of it’ – must depend in part on the particular ambitions and limits of the theory employed. If a researcher is not getting much out of theory it may be due to a limit inherent in the theory, or an unfortunate limitation in the scholar, or some external factor. But, for present purposes, this way of approaching the problem runs the risk of evading the bigger question. What, after all, is the value of theory? Why are we drawn to abstraction? What does it offer?

It is interesting that scholars so rarely address this topic directly. The great theorists probably considered the value of theory to be self-evident. But today we are enduring a period in which there is a dearth of new theory or theorists. What passes as contemporary theory now is generally 30–50 years old (Lizardo). Following de-institutionalisation, fewer people are doing theory now. Those who are, the few who address themselves reflexively to the topic, are full of warnings about the fate of particular disciplines in the perceived absence of a central role for theory; or warnings about the fate of theory itself in the near future. Before moving to the positive, I want to take a moment to consider the negative. So we have seen a retreat of theory in the social sciences. So what?


Articulations of the Importance of Theory

Here I take the example of two scholars frustrated with the current state of affairs in their discipline, educational studies, at an interesting moment of change in the mid-1990s.

Ball starts from the negative arguing that a de-theorised field like his own leaves the researcher ‘prey to unexamined, unreflexive preconceptions and dangerously naive ontological and epistemological a prioris’ (Ball, p. 265-66). The concern is that without theory one is left with arguments from morality, common-sense ontologies or recourse to authority (e.g. the self-referential system of doctrinal law). Both he and Shilling argue separately that the field of educational studies experienced something of this deficit when the ‘redemptive’ view of education, which held sway from the 1930s to the 1960s, was abandoned. The earlier period was characterised by policies of ‘progressive utopianism’; education policies that revolved around issues of social justice and the emancipatory power of education – policies that promoted education as integral to welfare (Shilling, p.107).

Thereafter, following the pessimism of the 1970s and complications in the 1980s researchers took on new identities as ‘school effectiveness researchers’ and ‘management theorists’. Issues related to system design and social justice were replaced by implementation studies focussed on issues like ‘quality’, ‘evaluation’, ‘leadership’ and ‘accountability’ (Ball, p. 258). It is a familiar story, the legacy of which we are still discussing today. And education studies is not alone in this sort of shift of focus. We can trace the move from progressive ideologies to technocratic problem-solving across a range of disciplines in the same period.

In all cases we are tracing the effects of the retreat of theory, of what Shilling describes as the intellectual stagnation of the late twentieth century, which he argues has three consequences:

  1. Loss of cultural capital: the neglect of significant ideas, concepts and theories.
  2. Dominance of the classics: the ideas of the greatest thinkers overshadow their successors so that little new development occurs. There is an associated failure to build on the advances of previous paradigms.
  3. Technical refinement: specialisation is accompanied by a neglect of the most important questions facing social theory and society. Scholars rush to the particular and thereby ignore those central theoretical problems that have sparked the most creative and important work in the social sciences. (Shilling, p. 106)

I am not sure about the ‘dominance of the classics’ (referring to thinkers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), although I agree that the influence of celebrated thinkers of previous generations continues. Lizardo provides a different explanation, pointing to a golden-age of theory in the post-war decades, which continued (in France at least) until the 1980s. He suggests that structural changes in the academy mean that we should not expect a successor generation any time soon.

With so much that is negative, is there anything positive to consider?


Benefits of Theory

Finally we return to the substantive question, what is the point of theory? With so many burdens, why bother doing theory at all? I agree with the overall thrust of Ball’s view of the creative potential of theory, and as he states the case so lyrically I quote him at length:

“Theory is a vehicle for ‘thinking otherwise’; it is a platform for ‘outrageous hypotheses’ and for ‘unleashing criticism’. Theory is destructive, disruptive and violent. It offers a language for challenge, and modes of thought, other than those articulated for us by dominant others. It provides a language of rigour and irony rather than contingency. The purpose of such theory is to de-familiarise present practices and categories, to make them seem less self-evident and necessary, and to open up spaces for the invention of new forms of experience. […]

The point about theory is not that it is simply critical. In order to go beyond the accidents and contingencies which enfold us, it is necessary to start from another position and begin from what is normally excluded. Theory provides this possibility, the possibility of disidentification – the effect of working ‘on and against’ prevailing practices of ideological subjection. The point of theory and of intellectual endeavour in the social sciences should be, in Foucault’s words, ‘to sap power’, to engage in struggle, to reveal and undermine what is most invisible and insidious in prevailing practices. Theories offer another language, a language of distance, of irony, of imagination.” (Ball, pp. 266-68)

When Ball goes on to talk about social transformation he becomes less convincing. Knowledge becomes powerful either through technical or social applications, but the complex relationship between knowledge and social action is not self evident (but this should form the subject of a separate post) (Grundmann and Stehr). There are different modes of theorising. The quoted passage gives a flavour of the mode of theorising I find satisfying. In a time of encroaching normativity, of juridification and ‘genetification’, when too much that should be dynamic in the realm cognition is consigned to the inertia of ontology, we need theory. We need its rigorous language of distance, defamiliarisation, and consciousness-raising tools of reflexivity.

That theory provides a language of imagination corresponds well, in my view, to Luhmann’s practice. Luhmann described his theorising as empirical – using the term in a quite particular way. It denoted his rejection of Kantian idealism, a priorism, and notions of transcendentalism. Absent all this, the theorist has only contemporary standards of knowledge, logic and his own ability to rely on. Hence the imaginative approach to theory building. As a reader – particularly of his footnotes – one sees the thief at work, lifting ideas from a multiplicity of different disciplines – neurophysiology, evolutionary biology, information theory, contemporary calculus, cybernetics etc. – translating them into the language of social theory and somehow making it work. What would be a liability in the hands of another serves as reinforcement here.

Richard Swedberg is reviving the imaginative approach to theory in a somewhat similar manner. Swedberg emphasises the notion of theorizing as a process and as an acquired skill; theorizing as a creative activity and a skill to be developed (see his LSE lecture here).

In this vein, Luhmann’s theory is markedly enabling. His empiricism is inclusive. His theory provides not an ideology but a methodology, one which sits within an overarching but flexible framework of shared understanding. How to begin? Draw a distinction. Want to understand a field of inquiry, observe the observers operating there. What distinctions do they use? How do those distinctions structure their inquiries? If every distinction issues from the blindspot, what are the blindspots that they reveal?

Anne Enright advises would-be writers to ‘find a place to stand’. She is addressing writers of fiction, but her advice must apply forcibly to academic researchers who are expected to issue explanations of the world around them and even, at times, prescriptions for the resolution of complex problems.

No one has read the entire canon. Some are drawn to theory, and to particular types of theory. There is always an element of subjectivity and intuition. Pure objectivity is a fiction. It seems to me that finding a theory that you can work with, that you find plausible and insightful, that is geared to the production of new knowledge, is a way of finding your place to stand. And when it comes to the quid pro quo, to getting something out of theory, this is not inconsiderable.



Ball, S. ‘Intellectuals or Technicians? The Urgent Role of Theory in Educational Studies’, 43(3) British Journal of Educational Studies (1995) 255.
Fuller, S. ‘Steve Fuller’s Guide to Reading Social Theory’, (Jan. 2016) available here.
Grundmann, R. and N. Stehr The Power of Scientific Knowledge: From Research to Public Policy (Cambridge: CUP, 2012).
Lizardo, O. ‘The End of Theorists: The Relevance, Opportunities, and Pitfalls of Theorizing in Sociology Today’, pamphlet based on the Lewis Coser Memorial Lecture, delivered at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in San Francisco; available here.
Mullally, S. ‘Theories of Rights’, (Oct. 2014) available here.
Shilling, C. ‘The Demise of Sociology of Education in Britain?’, 14(1) British Journal of Sociology of Education (1993) 105.
Swedberg, R. ‘Before Theory Comes Theorizing: Or How to Make Social Science More Interesting’, Annual British Journal of Sociology Lecture, LSE Oct. 2015 available here.