A few sketchy thoughts on how theory is accelerating

To speak of the acceleration of social theory can sound counter intuitive, as we often regard theory as a quintessentially slow pursuit in which careful reflection leads to a gradual accumulation of insight. But there are a number of mundane senses in which theory is getting faster:

  1. There is likely to be more being published with a theoretical inclination, even if it remains difficult to provide precise estimates. The journal system is growing at a spectacular rate, though it remains a matter of debate whether that reflects an increasing rate of publication by individual academics or simply the corollary of more academics operating within an increasingly globalised system. As a consequence what we refer to as ‘the literature’ within a particular field changes more rapidly, leading to a corresponding pressure to read more quickly and/or more narrowly in order to keep up with this change. Abbott’s (2008) observes the number of references in a typical sociology paper have increased alongside a decrease in the number of those references which refer to a specific page, suggesting an expansion in the scope of reading co-existing with a decline in the specificity of referencing.
  2. There are more opportunities to publish work with a theoretical inclination. This can be inferred from the increase in journals itself, with anecdotal evidence suggesting that journals with a theoretical focus are liable to be amongst the grass roots initiatives, utilising the affordances of open access software such as Open Monograph Systems, unlikely to be indexed in the main scholarly databases. But it also reflects the more public life which organised grey literature avenues such as work in progress paper series are likely to have   when research centres and departments are rendered digital in a comprehensive way, accessible through web pages and promoted through social media. Social media itself entails a range of opportunities for writing, not least of all through the informal yet substantial exchange facilitated by blogging. There is more theoretical writing one existence and it tends to circulate with greater velocity than would have previously been the case.
  3. While the relationship of theory to the social world is a complex question, the inevitably of some relationship gives reason for us to expect that an increase the rate of social change will lead to new objects emerging within theoretical discourse (consider populism, the anthropocene and the biosocial as major areas of theoretical inquiry which ave been driven by political, social and scientific developments respectively). Another way to make this claim would be to suggest that exogenous influences upon theoretical discourse have their own tempo. The occasional emergence of new objects of interest which are liable to become objects of concern for significant numbers of theorist may in themselves have little impact upon the temporal dynamics of theoretical discourse. But their continual emergence of new objects leads to changes within the theoretical landscapes that can be characterised in terms of fragmentation on the one hand and acceleration on the other.

To suggest this means theory is getting faster necessitates clarification. A more precise way of formulating this claim would be in terms of the temporal structures which the academics who produce theory are subject to, as well how their negotiation of the associated challenges shapes  their ensuing work. The fact there is more to attend to does not mean that theorists must inevitably work faster, as would be obvious to anyone who has ever heard a complaint about lacking sufficient time to read. But this quotidian complaint helps illustrate the temporal predicament in which theorists find themselves when this intellectual intensification is underway. Should you follow the trails you encounter and read more widely at the cost of depth? Should you focus narrowly and ensure your specialism at the cost of being widely read? Should your sense of what ‘keeping up with the literature’ entails be reconsidered given the sheer quantity of literature which is available? There are not straight forward answers to these questions, itself reflected in the lack of a systematic language in which to frame them as environmental constraints upon a professional activity rather than idiosyncratic difficulties which individuals contingently encounter.  I only take reading as an example because it can be portrayed so straight forwardly. There are comparable questions which can be asked about any of the activities which theorists engage in, nor are they confined to those who work on social theory as Vostal (2014) illustrates.

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