Theorising as self-work: the case of heuristics

My notes on Betta, M., & Swedberg, R. (2018). Heuristics and Theorizing as Work on the Self. Sociologica, 12(1), 21-25.

Heuristics are commonly seen as either rules of thumb, simple tricks used under conditions of uncertainty, or tools for discovery, practical steps facilitating knowledge about what was previously concealed. However in this short paper, Betta and Swedberg suggest a third meaning, connected to the increasingly apparent area of theorising. From pg 22:

During the last ten or so years a new field of knowledge has slowly begun to open up; and the knowledge of tricks, moves and advice is part of this field. This new field of knowledge is theorizing. Theorizing is about sociologists becoming aware of what they are actually doing when they work with theory, and also being aware of how they can use this knowledge to shape their work.

The concern of social scientists with their own practice has led to the development of the sociology of knowledge, the sociology of sociology and the sociology of ideas. However they argue that these have been prone to blunt and oversocialised generalisations about the objective determinants of ideas. Furthermore, they are unable to inform an account of how to improve that practice.  There are books which aim do this explicitly, providing guidance about the practical steps involved in common intellectual activities. But these, argue Betta and Swedberg mainly focus on justification and say little about discovery. The focus on theorising aims to correct this deficit, as they explain on pg 22-23:

Theorizing represents an attempt to portray how things are actually done, and how theory is actually used in research. The search light is directed straight at what the social scientist does for two reasons. First, by proceeding in this way, social scientists will become aware of what they are currently doing; and second, they will also learn what they should be doing.

This involves relating to the self as an object of knowledge, in a way analogous to moral action which seeks to ensure more than mere conformity to external rules.  Heuristics should be seen alongside metaphors, induction, deduction, explanation and generalizations as part of theory work. But if I understand them correctly, their point is that beginning to talk about theorising in these terms helps constitute oneself as a theorising subject, relating reflexively to activities which would once have been (largely) tacit in a way guided by these concepts. In doing so, it contributes to constituting theorising as an area of knowledge with a direct connection to practice.

Interestingly, they relate this to the progress of methods and the consequent impoverishment of theory in (American, though they don’t qualify it as such) sociology. They also suggest that the findings of the cognitive sciences could be brought in to help inform the theory and practice of theorising. They conclude by linking this to Kant’s “project of the thinking self, which can be described as persons who act on themselves by teaching themselves how to think” (pg 24): if I understand them correctly, ‘owning’ theorising in the way they suggest involves having the courage to use your own understanding in the Kantian sense.

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