Tag: social theory

The Lost Jedi Art of Reading Closely

I thought, mistakenly, that the Hoth symposium had run its course: Ackerman point, a bunch of us counterpoint both at Danger Room and elsewhere (here at Duck, and, if it’s not up yet it will be soon, over at Grand Blog Tarkin), and my tossing a little more fuel on the fire by arguing what I generally take to be a pretty obvious and I thought uncontroversial point: that Star Wars is a story about the struggle between Jedi and Sith about the nature of the Force, with other people and organizations (like the Rebel Alliance, and the Empire itself) getting caught up in the middle of what is, basically, a theological dispute. I thought that was pretty obvious because, well, the Star Wars universe is presented to us as one in which the Force exists and is efficacious, in which some people have Force-sensitivity and others do not, and in which the greatest of galactic events derive their importance from their connection to the Jedi-Sith struggle, whether we are talking about Palpatine’s election as Chancellor or Luke’s decision to leave Tatooine with Ben Kenobi.

Then I chanced (or maybe it was the will of the Force?) to glance at twitter as I was waiting to board a plane, and found this gem from Robert Farley: “The real story in the Star Wars universe is about whatever we find theoretically interesting and relevant.” What then ensued was a flurry of thrust-and-parry twitter jabs, a kind of miniature lightsaber duel carried out mainly through 140-character quips (although as Rob pointed out I did break that rule by producing several linked tweets that continued a thought past that limit; whether this is deserving of a penalty or not I leave for the general audience to decide). It was temporarily halted, not as in Episode I by a series of functionally-opaque force fields that impose a break in the action, but by the announcement that we had to turn off electronic devices in preparation for takeoff. Taking the time in fight to gather my thoughts and prepare a reply for posting, here is my contribution to a possible next round. Continue reading

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Morning Link, with Commentary, on the Shrinking Place of Theory in Sociology and IR

I’m crashing on multiple deadlines, so in lieu of “morning linkage”….

Last night I was in a twitter conversation with Phil Arena and Kindred Winecoff about Fabio Rojas’ recent post at orgtheory.net concerning the incredible shrinking vocation of social theory.

Roja’s observations echoe themes that we’ve been talking about at the Duck, both in print and in PTJ and my 10 August 2012 podcast (m4a). After quoting Kieran Healy’s excerpt from his grad-level sociological theory syllabus — about the incredible shrinking character of social theory — Rojas argues that:

  • A humanities style moral/social philosophy/history of thought sub-field is in retreat in every discipline. Political science is the exception.
  • You can still do theory, as in writing fat books that are praised but rarely read. They get published. There are theory journals, and you can still get career points for them.
  • Hypothesis Uno: Old style theory was only advantageous in a data poor environment.
  • Hypothesis Dos: Old style theory was only advantageous in a low tech environment.
  • Hypothesis Tres: Science is now bigger, which gives an advantage to empirical specialists.
  • Conclusion: In a fast paced world where people have real data, high tech tools, and can consume a lot quickly, writing Parsons style magnus opuses is something that few people can pull off.

Final comment: I’ve now spent 9 years between IU and Michigan as faculty and post-doc. Very different departments, but that allows you to see the wide range of sociology. I’ve looked over (and tried to read) *hundreds* of job applications. Very, very few “pure theory” applications. What does that tell me? From time to time, you’ll the fat theory book come out, but the profession collectively says “meh.”

I agree with the correlational analysis, but not the mechanisms. Rojas’ provides the “standard story” but his arguments are about functional efficiency when they should be about sociological forces operating within, across, and upon various social scientific disciplines. To name just a small one: when the safest route to acquiring social capital is to invest heavily in technical knowledge, that trades off with the investments necessary to be good consumers and produces of social (or, in our case, international) theory.

I also think that theorists in International Relations have become worse at explaining why the field should pay attention to what they have to say. In that sense, “international theory” is the victim of its own two-decades long flourishing, during which time it became less important to demonstrate the downstream implications — positive and negative — of different ways of conceptualizing the ontology of world politics.

And that leads to another comment. Kindred said the other night that we need more “big think” in IR, especially in light of the decline of the traditional “paradigms.” A number of people agree, but it isn’t clear what that would like it, let alone how it would be packaged and presented current tastes and reviewer expectations.

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