What is theory? Stefan Collini argues that “‘theory’ is what happens when common starting-points can no longer be taken for granted”. If there’s any truth to this suggestion, it points towards the irrevocably social nature of theory. The inclination to address a question in a theoretical way, the variability with which different parties will approach the same question, point in manifold ways towards the social context within which theory happens. However theory also takes on a life of its own, giving rise to theorists who elaborate upon theory, in the process rendering common starting points ever more elusive. These theorists often deny the social aspect of the theory they promulgate, abstracting what they do from the conditions in which they do it and contributing to its mystification.

The obvious response to this is to look to the theorists themselves. Theory is produced and this labour takes place under specific conditions that contribute to the character of the ensuing work. But so too are theorists. In fact the theory produced by their contemporaries and predecessors plays a large part in the constitution of theorists themselves. This raises the question of how we conceptualise this relationship – to do so deterministically risks obscuring the processes through which innovation occurs but conversely its untenable to suggest that the transmission of theory proceeds through a whole sequence of individual choices. I like how Peter Preston describes this specifically intellectual dimension to individual biography

If one stands back from the day-to-day demands of professional routine, it becomes clear that an intellectual trajectory is not organised in advance, we do not begin by surveying the intellectual ground before deciding upon a line of enquiry; rather, as Hans-Georg Gadamer might put it, we fall into conversation; our starting points are accidental, our early moves untutored, they are not informed by a systematic professional knowledge of the available territory, rather they flow from curiosity; we read what strikes us as interesting, we discard what seems dull. All this means that our early moves are quite idiosyncratic, shaped by our experiences of particular texts, teachers and debates with friends/colleagues. Thereafter matters might become more systematic, we might decide to follow a discipline, discover an absorbing area of work or find ourselves slowly unpacking hereto deep-seated concerns. It also means that we can bestow coherence only retrospectively. This idiosyncratic personal aspect of scholarly enquiry is part and parcel of the trade, not something to be regretted, denied or avoided; nonetheless systematic reflections offers a way of tacking stock, of presenting critical reflexive statements in regard to the formal commitments made in substantive work.

http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/15515#sthash.UbvirAPS.dpuf

In this sense transmission can be seen less as a choice and instead as a more or less idiosyncratic path we negotiate through an intellectual environment, in the process contributing in partial ways to the reproduction or transformation of that environment. At each stage the circumstances of the theorist (or theorist to be) condition the pathways available to them, how these are understood and the costs/benefits attached to different options. We often don’t weigh up choices in these terms, or assess accurately when we do. However the benefits and the costs are still there. Moving towards social theory while studying in a philosophy department generates intellectual frustration even if you don’t yet understand why this is so. Those who pursue an academic career are forced to choose and compromise, balancing passion and expediency in an institutional setting which values some activities and denigrates others. What Preston describes as “the day-to-day demands of professional routine” discipline the paths that are chosen, as does the socialisation into disciplinarity which is usually a precondition for establishing a ‘professional routine’. The possibilities for exploration shift and so too does the kind of work that’s produced. Expediency takes a different form as positions within organisations shift and with paths of activity come interests in relation to things done in the past. Our dispositions towards what we have done and what we hope to do change, often in ways that are difficult to understand if we only focus on social factors and ignore the way our character changes in relation to them. This description of Leibniz’s changing orientation towards his philosophy is a vivid example of a kind of claim that I think can be made much more generally: 

With Leibniz, inevitably, as with almost all ageing philosophers, a certain amount of intellectual sclerosis set in, too. In his later years, the elements of the metaphysical system he first outlined in the Discourse became so self-evident to him that he often saw no need to argue for them. they became a fixed part of his reality, and his deepest philosophical pleasure came less from formulating his propositions than from seeing their truth reflected back to him in the statements and activities of others.

The Courtier and the Heretic, Pg 260

What I’d like to think of as the Social Life of Theory is an attempt to understand how theorists make theory but theory in turn makes theorists. This dialectic finds reflection at the level of social life as a whole: the social context shapes theory but theory in turn shapes the social context. I’m borrowing the terminology from the Social Life of Methods project pursued by CRESC. However I’m using it in a different way, albeit one that leads to questions not a million miles away from those they asked about methods. In effect I’m using it as an umbrella under which to explore the overlaps between my two overriding fascinations in social theory: the sociology of social theory and the sociology of intellectual faddishnessOver the next few months (years? decades?) I want to try and understand how (a) intellectual biography shapes theoretical work (b) how theoretical work shapes intellectual biography (c) how social context shapes a + b (d) how a + b shape c. It seems an immensely unsatisfying way to express the questions that interest me and it leaves me unfortunately aware of how unclear the questions are. I suspect I’m going to have to get far beyond 1.1 if I’m going to address these issues in a remotely satisfactory way. 

Earlier this week at Computational Social Science 2014, I heard Gene Stanley, an affable and rather polymathic physicist, reflect on his experience of collaborating with economists. He was concerned to make clear the different skill sets that physicists and economists bring to collaborative work, with each able to do things which the other can’t. But what really caught my imagination was his description of their divergent sensibilities. As I live tweeted at the time:

This is a topic that has intrigued me for a long time. One aspect of my PhD research which got slightly lost amidst the many other aspects was the aspect of self-selection involved in choosing a university degree. Obviously many other factors are in play here but I was curious about what, if anything, draws people towards certain subjects? Are certain kinds of people attracted to certain kinds of disciplines? Much of one thesis chapter was devoted to unpacking this claim. Leaving aside the limited scope of the data itself, it’s important to avoid imputing a uniformity to decision-making on these matters that manifestly isn’t the case. Many people have no feeling of being ‘drawn’ towards a discipline. Even amongst those who do, it is balanced by many other concerns (e.g. employability, location of university, grade requirements for the course, confidence in the subject matter) which are weighed up in a way that is clearly purposive but often far from being ‘rational’ in any abstract sense. Furthermore, many students simply acquiesce entirely to the advice of their trusted interlocutors or inflect their own preferences through the assumptions loaded into the advice of authority figures.

Another complicating factor is the opacity of the cultural system, particularly when we were are young. Our intellectual journeys are path-dependent, leading us to push against the limitations of what we encounter and search for intellectual variety, often without knowing exactly what it is we’re looking for. Peter Preston nicely captures how what can be a fundamentally messy process of intellectual engagement begins to consolidate through graduate school and into academic careers:

If one stands back from the day-to-day demands of professional routine, it becomes clear that an intellectual trajectory is not organised in advance, we do not begin by surveying the intellectual ground before deciding upon a line of enquiry; rather, as Hans-Georg Gadamer might put it, we fall into conversation; our starting points are accidental, our early moves untutored, they are not informed by a systematic professional knowledge of the available territory, rather they flow from curiosity; we read what strikes us as interesting, we discard what seems dull. All this means that our early moves are quite idiosyncratic, shaped by our experiences of particular texts, teachers and debates with friends/colleagues. Thereafter matters might become more systematic, we might decide to follow a discipline, discover an absorbing area of work or find ourselves slowly unpacking hereto deep-seated concerns. It also means that we can bestow coherence only retrospectively. This idiosyncratic personal aspect of scholarly enquiry is part and parcel of the trade, not something to be regretted, denied or avoided; nonetheless systematic reflections offers a way of tacking stock, of presenting critical reflexive statements in regard to the formal commitments made in substantive work.

– Peter Preston, Arguments and Actions in Social Theory, Pg 1

The process of pursuing graduate education and even an academic career necessitates continued self-selection, often through making choices which have increasingly pronounced disciplinary characteristics (though this is far from universally true). However it can also reflect social inertia, as people continue making choices which increase the opportunity costs of future exit while privately doubting whether academia is for them. My meandering point is simply to stress the complexity of this process – it’s inherently biographical, unfolding from iterated choices within an environment which entails a variable constellation of constraints and enablements each time, in a way which can’t be divorced from the context itself. The ideographic complexity of this process finds itself reflected in the kinds of intellectual biographies someone like Ray Monk writes (e.g. Oppenheimer, Russell, Wittgenstein) who deftly traces the multiplicity of ways in which the character of these thinkers and the character of their work co-condition each other within the context of an unfolding human life. Analysis with this level of detail obviously doesn’t scale but it’s important that we remember the complexity of the lived lives we’re abstracting from.

Which brings me to the topic I started with. Can we talk about the pleasures of disciplinarity? Can we talk about the things that thrill physicist and economists? I would certainly like to. As an accidental sociologist (and far from the only one) I’m very conscious of the what appeals to me about sociology. I’ve been also been aware recently of the ease with which I could have ‘discovered’ social psychology as a frustrated philosophy masters student in much the same way I ‘discovered’ sociology. This is Peter Preston’s point in the extract above. Where the pleasures enter into it is how these possible routes would have felt to me – would social psychology have fascinated and frustrated me in the way that sociology has? I suspect not. There’s a complex interplay of factors driving the pleasures we derive from disciplines and they are made all the more complex by the fact that we too are changing as we are socialised (and socialise ourselves) into disciplines. In other words, I think the different ‘thrills’ that physicists and economists derive from their work is in part simply a reflection of their having been trained to do that kind of work, though of course sustaining this training necessitated their co-operation (at the minimum) and more likely their growing commitment. So if there are not ‘physics people’, ‘economics people’ and ‘sociology people’ could there be potential physicists-to-be, economists-to-be, sociologists-to-be co-existing within the same person prior to the training which gives life to these peculiarly intellectualising ways of being-in-the-world? I suspect so, though probably not all at the same time. I’m aware of not having really answered my own question here. But I’m also aware of being entirely comfortable with that fact yet nevertheless wondering what it says about the peculiarity of my own intellectual socialisation (or perhaps simply my own peculiarity).

If one stands back from the day-to-day demands of professional routine, it becomes clear that an intellectual trajectory is not organised in advance, we do not begin by surveying the intellectual ground before deciding upon a line of enquiry; rather, as Hans-Georg Gadamer might put it, we fall into conversation; our starting points are accidental, our early moves untutored, they are not informed by a systematic professional knowledge of the available territory, rather they flow from curiosity; we read what strikes us as interesting, we discard what seems dull. All this means that our early moves are quite idiosyncratic, shaped by our experiences of particular texts, teachers and debates with friends/colleagues. Thereafter matters might become more systematic, we might decide to follow a discipline, discover an absorbing area of work or find ourselves slowly unpacking hereto deep-seated concerns. It also means that we can bestow coherence only retrospectively. This idiosyncratic personal aspect of scholarly enquiry is part and parcel of the trade, not something to be regretted, denied or avoided; nonetheless systematic reflections offers a way of tacking stock, of presenting critical reflexive statements in regard to the formal commitments made in substantive work.

– Peter Preston, Arguments and Actions in Social Theory, Pg 1

I really like this style of video. I think these in depth profiles of the intellectual biographies of specific academics could be really effective from a marketing perspective, particularly when it comes to recruiting grad students.

Orgtheorist and loyal orgtheory commenter Howard E. Aldrich is featured in a video about his intellectual trajectory and the history of organizational studies.  Learn about Howard’s start in urban sociology and organizational studies, why he finds cross-sectional studies “abhorrent,” his years at Cornell where he overlapped with Bill Starbuck, and how he got started publishing in organizational ecology.  He also explains how the variation, selection, and retention VSR) approach was a “revelation” for him, and how various institutions (University of Michigan, Stanford, and others) have promoted his intellectual development via contact with various colleagues, collaborators, and graduate students