How to enjoy reading social theory

I wrote recently about my route into theory after reflecting on why some people enjoy reading theory while others don’t. Taking inspiration from The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction I thought it would be worthwhile to share a little about how I navigate theoretical literature, some of which I’ve learned from others and some of which I’ve worked out myself over time. My experience has been that those who identify as theorists inevitably have a range of techniques like this but that for whatever reason this is something which is rarely discussed outside of, for example, supervisory relationships.

I found the terminology of upstream and downstream used by Alan Jacobs extremely helpful for thinking about this. However before we can navigate the wider literature, we need a starting point. This is where the case he makes for reading on whim (i.e. in a purposive way but driven by pleasure) is so useful; in my biographical reflection I explained how it was only when I moved from philosophy to social theory that I developed the habit of wandering round the library stacks and picking things at random. I’ve long since lost this habit and in the last few weeks I’ve been trying to develop it once more. However after years of engaging with theory, it feels different because it is inevitably more purposive than it used to be. Jacobs draws the distinction between ‘whim’ and ‘Whim’, with the former being “thoughtless, directionless preference that almost invariably leads to boredom or frustration or both” and the latter being “something very different: it can guide us because it is based in self-knowledge – it can be become for us a gracious Swiss pedagogue of the mind” (pg 36).

Do students reading theory get stuck in a transition from the former to the latter? I think it’s by nature a nebulous process because there is no point at which you suddenly have a fully fleshed out understanding of what it is you’re interested in and where your curiosity is leading you. It’s more of a feel for the game which you develop over time, through the process of exploring but also reflecting on what you’ve explored. I’ve always liked a term C Wright Mills used in a letter to a friend: “the feel of an idea”. It describes to me that moment of curiosity being piqued when I can feel there’s something which I’m keen to explore or unravel, even if I can’t quite articulate what exactly it is. This is something I’ve become immensely sensitive to over time and I take it as a sense that I’m heading in the right direction. Conversely, its absence helps me realise that I’m going in the wrong direction or (worse) I’ve committed to do something which I fundamentally don’t care about intellectually.

I’ve heard other people describe similar experiences but the phenomenology of it differs, as does that way in which they conceive of it in their own mind. For this reason I think developing Whim involves slowly cultivating self-awareness about your intellectual motivation and intellectual curiosity, which can in turn provide self-knowledge that guides you in your intellectual explorations, providing ever more material through which you can cultivate that self-understanding. For some people this becomes a virtuous circle when reading theory, for others it becomes a vicious one which leads them to get frustrated and see social theory as something fundamentally difficult. That is my suspicion at least.

Finding spaces in which you can reflect certainly helps with this, at least if it can take place without the constraints and pressure which come with formal publication and presentation. At risk of stating the obvious, this is the role my blog has served for me since I started it in 2010 a couple of years into my part-time PhD. I had other blogs before this which served the same purpose, albeit in a less comprehensive and systematic way. Twitter can be a place for these conversations as well, albeit less so in my experience in recent years. But there’s no reason they need to take place digitally, with seminars and reading groups being capable of support these dialogues if they are planned and enacted in a supportive way.

If you’ve found something to read which sparks that curiosity, where do you go next? Alan Jacobs talks about moving upstream in terms of moving “toward what preceded Tolkien or Austen or whomever rather than what succeeded them” (pg 52). This can be a useful move for exploring theory, at least if we interpret ‘precede’ and ‘succeed’ in terms of intellectual influence. I’d suggest we might see moving ‘upstream’ as exploring the intellectual influences of a theorist whose work you find valuable. For example I might explore Walter Buckley’s Systems Theory or Karl Popper’s account of Objective Knowledge because of their influence on Margaret Archer’s Morphogenetic Approach. To move ‘downstream’ would be to look at developments or applications of theoretical work, much as I’m going back to empirical deployments of Archer’s concept of reflexivity for my forthcoming edited book project. I’d suggest we add lateral moves to the categories offered by Jacobs, in which we trace through citations which caught our interest in a theoretical text. To the extent we are following through influences on the text then this can easily lead into moving upstream but it can also be used to understand the interlocutors of the theorist we are reading and/or the issues they are grappling with in their work.

In my experience reflection and annotation are key to making this an enjoyable process. Without recording your reflections this can easily become an intractable mess because simply following these can very easily give rise to the sense of vertigo described by Robert Frogman in Sustainable Knowledge (loc 1257):

I feel like I am drowning in knowledge, and the idea of further production is daunting. Libraries and bookstores produce a sense of anxiety: the numbers of books and journals to read is overwhelming, with tens of thousands more issues from the presses each day. Moreover, there is no real criterion other than whim for selecting one book or article over another. To dive into one area rather than another becomes a wilful act of blindness, when other areas are just as worthwhile and when every topic connects to others in any number of ways. The continual press of new knowledge becomes an invitation to forgetfulness, to lose the forest for the trees.

I was struck by his use of the term ‘whim’ here. This is why the distinction made by Alan Jacobs between whim as ‘directionless preference’ and whim as reflective self-knowledge is so useful. If we approach the exploration of the theoretical landscape in a genuinely reflexive way, using it to understand our own interests in the process of engaging with the texts those interests have led us to it, then what Frodeman dismisses as ‘whim’ comes to seem like a perfectly reasonable criterion for making these selections. It means being aware of the trade offs which Frodeman draws attention to, recognising that we can only read a tiny portion of the potentially relevant material which is available to us in the age of Google scholar, digital-first journals and eBooks. But this is why it becomes so important to read in purposive ways which take advantage of this intellectual abundance, driven by the questions which we want to answer and the vague intuitions with which we begin the exploration that ultimately makes it possible to act those questions.

If you identify what an idea feels like to you then you begin to understand the occasions on which longer reflections become necessary. I had the ‘feel of an idea’ while reading the Alan Jacobs book which prompted this pair of blog posts which have to a certain extent pushed me towards the articulation of something I’ve vaguely been trying to express for years, without actually getting me there. They’ve also clearly been inflected through my desire to reclaim a professional identity as a theorist which for various strange reasons I abandoned in recent years.

This is an example of how writing prompted by the ‘feel of an idea’ connects with the broader horizon of your work and life. If something sparks your curiosity, leaves you with a sense that you have something to say, it is speaking to you in a way that is rarely narrow. To get into the habit of articulating this on a regular basis is enormously helpful in my experience, helping writing become an enjoyable outlet rather than a source of anxiety. It also contributes to the elaboration of the self-knowledge which Jacobs is talking about as Whim, iteratively building up a direction finder which makes vast and opaque theoretical literatures much easier to navigate than would otherwise be the case. The pleasant side effect of this navigation is that it helps ensure reading theory is enjoyable, by providing it with an affective infrastructure that means the (increasingly relevant) things you are reading connect with the underlying questions which motivate and fascinate you.

If you keep your reflections in a systematic way then it invites the possibility of reviewing them later. I’ve rarely done this for reasons which I find increasingly curious, apart from using my blog archive as a resource when doing more formal writing. I’ve been trying to develop the habit of a general review in recent months and while it’s still far from habitual, it can be remarkable to read things which you wrote years ago and see the threads which you’re still now working with. These threads are I think the key to reading effectively, even if my own reading hasn’t been effective for long periods of time which should give me pause for thought. But I suspect these threads are also key to reading enjoyably, in the sense that they track your sustained concerns over time in a way which makes it possible for these to better guide your reading.

4 responses to “How to enjoy reading social theory”

  1. You have certainly posted some intriguing thoughts recently, some of which I am still reflecting on, but with this piece, I was reminded of some recent reading around the concept of ‘bricolage’ to describe the early research process. This seems to best explain how I have set about my research for three or four articles, for which I have a very specific idea, but few apparent sources. Eventually I am able to discern patterns forming among the notes, quotes and annotations, which shape further research, almost like assembling a jigsaw. Martyn

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Thank you for writing this! This was a really interesting post about *how* to enjoy reading and I love the ways in which this makes the tacit explicit.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.