A more daring approach to writing theory

“What if we took a more daring, modernist, defamiliarizing approach to writing theory? What if we asked of theory as a genre that it be as interesting, as strange, as poetically or narratively rich as we ask our other kinds of literature to be? What if we treated it not as high theory, with pretentions to legislate or interpret other genres, but as low theory, as something vulgar, common, even a bit rude—having no greater or lesser claim to speak of the world than any other? It might be more fun to read. It might tell us something strange about the world. It might, just might, enable us to act in the world otherwise. A world in which the old faith in History is no more, but where there are histories that still might be made—in a pinch.”

—McKenzie Wark (2019). Capital is dead.

Metaphysical isms and theorising gender

I had tried to avoid engaging in grand metaphysical “ism” talk, but it seems that resistance is futile! So here are brief thoughts, in the context of theorising gender.

I reckon we can assume that there is a reality to people’s gender-relevant experiences and biochemistry which exists independently of our understandings. Taking this (to me obvious) stance is known as ontological realism. Theorising, about gender or otherwise, is done by people who have imperfect and indirect access to reality and theories evolve over time. Our vantage point—beliefs, biases, values, experience, privilege and oppression—has an impact on our theories, so two gender theorists doing the best they can with the available evidence can produce very different explanations (epistemic relativism). This is true of any science where multiple theories are consistent with evidence; in other words, the theories are underdetermined by evidence. It is also true when we theorise about ourselves.

Even with this relativist mess, manifesting as bickering in scientific journals and conferences, consensus can arise and one theory can be declared better than another (judgemental rationality). However, there are often many different ways to classify biological, social, and other phenomena, even with impossibly perfect access to reality (this has a great name: promiscuous realism).

The underdetermination of theories means that something beyond evidence is needed to decide how and what to theorise. Scholars in the critical theory tradition are required to pick a side in a social movement, for instance communism, feminism, anti-racism, trans rights, or an intersectional composition thereof. It’s not enough for a critical theory to be empirically adequate; it also has to help chosen social struggles make progress towards achieving their aims. Two theories may be empirically indistinguishable but one transphobic; from a trans rights perspective, the transphobic theory should be discarded.

For more on epistemic relativity, ontological realism, and judgemental rationality, see Archer et al. (2016).

Unsticking social research through lived experience and citizen control

Having lived experience and knowing people with lived experience are really effective way of researching social conditions—unavoidably, whether or not you want to—and lead to rich theory.

Compare what activist groups do versus a model of social research in which you have a central institute, running surveys and writing supposedly “independent” reports, making policy proposals. The latter leads to flat, superficial theorising if done without lived experience.

In activist groups with rich communication (e.g., chat groups and regular meetings) the “data collection” is continuous, doesn’t feel like research, and is inseparable from day-to-day individual support and activism. But traditional reports can still be important to get media and government attention: “What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Job Like This?” is a good example of research drawing on lived experience and traditional research skills.

To unstick social research requires holding onto all methodological advances whilst radically opening up research to citizen control. Sometimes getting a good estimate of the population prevalence and correlates of some form of oppression are important to highlight severity and likely causes. Advances in techniques and software for qualitative analysis can be useful too and ensure best use is made of material.

Academics without lived experience running convenience sample qualitative studies with small numbers of people and pretentious methodology are fundamentally limited in what they can discover. But the same sample from lived experience and lived theory is very different.

There are many professional researchers with lived experience (Max Weber, 1864-1920, was one, with experience of psychiatric inpatient stay). But higher education is a hostile environment now—you couldn’t design a better system to reward junk research and cause burnout if you tried. Such a system is deeply challenging for people who are oppressed.

Your various identities, privileges and oppression (due to race, man/woman/non-binary, cis/trans, wealth, monogamous/poly, how valued your labour skills are, property ownership, disabled, etc.) fundamentally constrain who will answer your calls for research participants, what social phenomena you can understand, who will listen to what you discover. They literally change what you see and hear and what you can research. (Epistemic relativism is a useful concept to make sense of this.)

Some researchers break free of these constraints thanks to contradictory locations; for instance, being articulate and well connected can be used to resist a position of oppression. Though then you can end up being attacked for having helpful privilege, even by “your own side”.

Academics with more secure positions can help, for instance:

  1. Support PhD students and colleagues who are oppressed in various ways: grants, decent pay, and mentoring are helpful.
  2. Instead of “giving voice” to people through interview excerpts, give a platform.
  3. Cite blog posts and reports from activists with lived experience.

Mr Justice Mostyn vs. vague, rhetorical applications of theory

A court case (GM v Carmarthenshire County Council [2018] EWFC 36) has ruled that a social worker’s “generalised statements, or tropes” based on attachment theory are not admissible evidence.

The full judgement by Mr Justice Mostyn has interesting thoughts on the valid application of theory and balance between theory and observation.

“… the local authority’s evidence in opposition to the mother’s application was contained in an extremely long, 44-page, witness statement made by the social worker […]. This witness statement was very long on rhetoric and generalised criticism but very short indeed on any concrete examples of where and how the mother’s parenting had been deficient. Indeed, it was very hard to pin down within the swathes of text what exactly was being said against the mother. […] [The social worker] was asked to identify her best example of the mother failing to meet L’s emotional needs. Her response was that until prompted by the local authority mother had not spent sufficient one-to-one time with L and had failed on one occasion to take him out for an ice cream. […] A further criticism in this vein was that the mother had failed to arrange for L’s hair to be cut in the way that he liked.”

There is also a detailed section on attachment theory:

“… the theory is only a theory. It might be regarded as a statement of the obvious, namely that primate infants develop attachments to familiar caregivers as a result of evolutionary pressures, since attachment behaviour would facilitate the infant’s survival in the face of dangers such as predation or exposure to the elements. Certainly, this was the view of John Bowlby, the psychologist, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst and originator of the theory in the 1960s. It might be thought to be obvious that the better the quality of the care given by the primary caregiver the better the chance of the recipient of that care forming stable relationships later in life. However, it must also be recognised that some people who have received highly abusive care in childhood have developed into completely well-adjusted adults. Further, the central premise of the theory – that quality attachments depend on quality care from a primary caregiver – begins to fall down when you consider that plenty of children are brought up collectively (whether in a boarding school, a kibbutz or a village in Africa) and yet develop into perfectly normal and well-adjusted adults.”

Much to discuss!