My notes on Lichterman, P (2017) On Social Theory Now: Communicating Theory Now. Perspectives 39(2)

In this response to Social Theory Now, Paul Lichterman offers a compelling vision of social theory as sociology’s meta-conversation, with communicating theory being “to keep track of and facilitate that conversation, treating it as always in movement”. It is a sprawling conversation about the conceptual terms we use to articulate empirical research, linking together the particular subfields within which theories are generated in a topology of the discipline as a whole. Facilitating that conversation involves a kind of “temperature-taking”, “assessing where we are in the various sub-conversations, rather than a statement about which theories best reflect our historical era, or which theories are currently the best contenders for sociological immortality”. He contrasts this dialogical approach to theorising as transmission:

Transmissive theorizing starts with a large conceptual framework, and promotes it, applies it, passes it down with improvements or at least updates.  I’m contrasting that with this book’s version of communicating theory — which I will call “dialogue.” Dialogical theorizing propounds questions, and a few central concepts such as “culture” or “gender.” It sustains questions and central concepts, more than sustaining master theorists or distinct schools as ends in themselves. In transmissive theorizing, the theorist or school is exalted. In dialogical theorizing, the theorist or school is. . .consulted.

It is an overdrawn distinction but it’s an important one which captures the essence of my discomfort with critical realism, which I think suffers from being institutionally locked into a transmissive mode. Transmission gets in the way of “minding the conversation, recognizing its limits, checking out the rest of the party”. It is ill suited to the reality of contemporary social theory, consisting of “relatively porous conversations, where participants invite new participants now and then, rather than a world of masters, and apprentices working their way in”. Critical realism is far from alone in being transmissive but it is a powerful exemplar of this mode of theorising.

He ends with an interesting discussion of vision questions: “the big normative questions that help us envision a society that is—more democratic (Habermas, or Dewey), more self-understanding (Shils), more radically democratic (Mouffe, Seidman), not to mention more solidary, more rational, or less alienating, to invoke the big three”. If I understand correctly, he’s claiming that these vision questions tend to be baked into theorising in the transmissive mode, locked within schools to be accepted or resisted as part of a whole. But could they not be better integrated into dialogue between subfields in a way which renders them autonomous from schools? Can social theorising involve “semi-autonomous, conversational room for explicit communication about vision questions and how they relate to concepts in subfields”? He suggest public sociology and civic sociology as contributing to this process. Could a broader dialogical approach to social theorising better integrate them?

In her keynote at the Accelerated Academy, Barbara Adam explains how she came to her concept of timescapes. It began with the study of social theory of time, leading her to recognise how “everyone used the same word but they didn’t talk about the same thing” because this was “a multiple compound concept, not a single one”. This was further complicated by interviews with diverse groups about their lived experience of time. The notion of timescales was developed in response to the the necessity of extracting something from the ensuing complexity, providing a sense of how these different facets existed in relationship to one another, as well as what this meant. This led her to develop an account of timescapes, as those features of  time which can be found across contexts: time as frame (imposed periods within which activities takes place), temporality (the processual, changing and cyclical character of lived life), tempo (speed, intensity and velocity), timing (synchronisation and coordination) and modality (past, present, future and our orientation towards them). It was a synthetic concept, drawing together existing conceptual and empirical strands while creating something new and distinct in the process, capable of acting back upon the space of ideas it had responded to in order to organise that space and shape the direction of its development.

It was a fascinating account of how a theoretical framework was developed over years of study. But Adam also explained how you don’t lose theoretical insights, they become part of you and you think with them. She explains how she would invoke these facets in an explicit way when talking and writing theoretically but when doing research they are not things which need to be remembered because through their development they have become part of her. But she continually stressed the role of reflexivity in this process, making explicit what you take for granted and examining any contradictions which might become obvious in the process. She explained that “Tools are ways of looking. They shape what you see. Each tool shapes differently” and advocated a reflexivity about these tools through the process of their development. It was an incredibly stimulating account of what it is to do theory, theorising as a skilled activity, rather than to simply write about theories and theorists. This is what I am exploring in this series of interviews at Social Theory Applied and what myself and Jana Bacevic have tried to address through the Practice of Social Theory Summer School. Our sense is these concerns are curiously absent from graduate education, neglecting the fundamental practical quality of theorising in favour of a narrower conception of working with texts. We need more experienced social theorists to offer accounts of how they have approached theory as an activity, as well as what is stake in how it is undertaken for social theory as a body of work and its relationship to social science as a whole. What gets in the way? Ironically, I think it’s often time pressure, bringing us neatly back to the theme of the conference itself.