Why is learning theory important?

I had a conversation earlier today which clarified why I see learning theory as inherently useful, even if this promise is rarely realised in practice. There’s an indispensability to theoretical reasoning which I see as an obvious feature of social inquiry in the sense that describing or explaining anything involves the use of concepts which are not provided by the object of investigation. In fact the simple fact of having such an object is inherently theoretical in that you a developing a notion of what you are studying (let alone why) is something which must happen before you begin the investigation. Even a speculative study there is still some sense of what it is you are speculating about with implications about how that speculation precedes. This methodological sense in which theory is useful is not what I’m talking about here.

Instead I’m thinking about learning theory as the development of competencies which can be applied in other areas of academic life. We often think of the competencies involved in learning theory as mastery of a particular approach or body of work e.g. I have an in depth understanding of Margaret Archer’s sociological realism. Over the years I’ve started to find this sense of learning theory frustrating and often counter-productive. To develop a competency in this sense too often leads to a self-conscious endorsement of a particular body of work (usually because it carries a more or less explicit intellectual identity) which detracts from the collaborative labour of keeping programmes of research alive as programmes of research. If you are inclined to defend the core premises of the original programme as an expression of your identity it hinders the free flow of ideas in what Doug Porpora once described as ‘argumentative space’.

This is not to say there’s anything wrong with defending core axioms in itself but rather that this defence such be motivated by a sense of their value in terms of criteria which are reflectively endorsed. The fact there is little agreement about the criteria by which we should evaluate theory makes the underlying problem worse. But the tendency for identification with a theoretical approach is a distinct phenomenon which would cause problems even if there were carefully worked out and uniformly agreed upon criteria for better or worse adjudication criteria, as I understand to the case in mainstream econometrics for example. I’m concerned that the way social theory tends to be taught within British Sociology (and Education, though I’m less confident about my judgement here) leaves it divorced from a sense of practical application and understood in terms of overdrawn oppositions between intellectual generalisations. This was my own experience of someone who felt I had to choose between postmodernism and positivism as a student before I encountered critical realism.

Under these conditions there’s a tendency to see one’s own position as the correct stance in a war of attrition between a small number of competing schools. This is intellectually counter productive for the reasons I’ve described above but it also undermines an invaluable competency which learning theory can provide. This is the capacity to negotiate between competing positions in order to see the points of departure between them. Rather than seeing this in terms of a zero sum opposition between competing positions, the crucial issue becomes the (chains of) decisions which are made about how to conceptualise elements of the social world which are a common consideration for both. This involves having a sense of what is at stake in theoretical arguments e.g. the slightly tedious debate about reflexivity vs habitus in the early 2010s revolved around the degree to which past circumstances shape the present action of agents.

It means being able to translate between different kinds of conceptual vocabulary in order to recognise there can be convergence between otherwise different ways of talking about social phenomena. The recognition that the concepts we use to think and talk about the things which interest us are contingent products of past conversations, which will grow and develop through future conversations, can be intellectually liberating. It lets us see that even if we are advocating for a particular way of speaking and thinking, this is a choice we are making for reasons which should enter into our discussions and be subject to revision. This is something which most social theorists I’ve known are adept at doing, even if their professional commitment to a certain outlook means they might not always do this as enthusiastically or publicly as I personally hope. It’s something which I’ve found invaluable as someone trained in social theory but whose work has long been focused on fields and problems which are much less saturated by theoretical ideas.

It’s something which I think needs to be thought of as a socio-intellectual competence. It’s an enormously valuable outcome of being trained in thinking theoretically which requires some degree of breadth in terms of the sources you read and the people you talk about them with. But sadly it seems often invisible in professional discussions about theory and rarely, if ever, enters into the case we make about the value of learning theory. This is a real shame because it’s one of the most important outcomes from this sometimes esoteric and self-absorbed field of professional inquiry. It’s valuable in a way that extends beyond the progression of theoretical debates in their own terms and their methodological outgrowths, if any. It could even be described as an impact, albeit one which wish are to quantify.

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