Living with theoretical pluralism

How do we live with theoretical pluralism? It’s too often a matter of ‘peace treaties’, avoiding fights by moving disagreements off-stage. But if we do this then are we really occupying the same argumentative space? I don’t think we are and the intellectual value of theoretical pluralism is lost if we find ourselves in such a situation.

But this intellectual value challenges us to engage across boundaries, recognising differences as a resource for dialogue rather than simply a constraint. It necessitates a sense of the other’s motivations, avoiding getting hung up on the wider network of disagreements by focusing only on those that are relevant to the topic at hand. Not objecting to the fact someone’s starting points are different to ours but rather trying to understand how our different routes to overlapping topics can be mutually enriching.

This requires a sensibility which seems far too rare in the academy. Pablo Boczkowski and Ignacio Siles describe the danger as “a sort of intellectual insularity (or provincialism) that privileges a certain inwards-looking commitment to a particular paradigm, set of ideas, or mode of inquiry without considering work done in other fields that might significantly enrich or transform it”. Instead they argue for an intellectual cosmopolitanism that “promotes the crossing of territorial scholarly quadrants in the study of media technologies to rethink assumptions and normalized processes” (pg. 58).

Social theory has generated widespread  intellectual provincialism and we urgently need to move beyond it. The poverty of meta-theory plays a role by robbing us of higher level languages in which disagreements could be negotiated. But there’s also a sensibility  engendered by the ensuing fragmentation which I find deeply  problematic.

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