Notes on ‘doing theory’

When writing as a scholar one is always utilising theory. What is more, the collections and interrelations of ideas mobilised in the process is not a static or staid process – it is dynamic, not in a clichéd way but as a changeable movement of concepts at different speeds and across different durations, in short you are doing theory.

At a postgraduate surgery on ‘theory’ attended by a mix of ‘human geography’ PhD candidates from a number of institutions I was struck by some intimations of a mistrust of theory or a confusion over ‘which theory is best’? The underlying assumption in these cases is that theory is somehow separate to the doing of research, that it might be ‘crowbar-ed’ in to justify the empirics or vice-versa that empirics are sought to justify a particular theoretical position. On the contrary, in doing research are we not always and already doing theory? One makes assumptions about the world and thus inevitably, whether implicitly or explicitly, adopts an ontological position.

A methodology for investigation and/or experimentation of an empirical case is proposed that almost certainly implies an epistemological position, which is inherently political, as that position will always be situated within discursive practices characterised by ‘ a delimitation of a field of objects, the definition of a legitimate perspective for the agent of knowledge, and the fixing of norms for the elaboration of concepts and theories’ (Foucault 1977, p. 199). Again the interpretation of any empirical ‘evidence’ involves the use or development of one’s epistemological position (cf. Latour 1999, Mol 1999). Knowledge as contextually situated in cultural and political entanglements is of course a key concern of feminist scholars such as Donna Harraway (1991) and Sandra Harding (1998). We are thus asked to consider how ‘interested standpoints’ play a role in the our doing of theory and how discursive practices and ‘situated knowledges’ engender the politics that arguably too often remain implicit in knowledge production. This is a politics of authority, having the authority to speak and to ordain what is, and is not, a valid or valuable contribution to knowledge. As Harding (1998) notes arguing for the ‘universality’ of certain systems of knowledge – one ‘truth’, universally held – when unchallenged can promote normative assumptions that channel knowledge in certain directions (and may benefit peculiar agendas) and can thus produce an inequity and staleness in knowledge.

We should perhaps be asking then: when conducting research, has pre-conceived theory been put at risk? If not, why not? In making an interpretation one inevitably makes claims about the world that go toward validating or questioning previous ontological and/or epistemological positions – a process that is again inherently political (cf. Stengers 1997). Philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers has suggested that ‘being at risk’ provides ‘a litmus test for distinguishing well and badly constructed propositions […] as opposed to true and false theories’ (Whatmore 2005, p.97). Throughout the doing of research then, it seems clear to me, is a synchronous doing of theory. The two are intertwined.

There are of course hundreds of thousands of pages of journal (as well as blog and press) articles and commentary that explore these themes in greater depth. I have taken particular influence from poststructuralist thinkers such as Gilles Deleuze who, with Felix Guattari, suggest, in asking ‘What is Philosophy?‘, that philosophy (which of course is the central act of doing theory) ‘is not a simple art of forming, inventing, or fabricating concepts, because concepts are not necessarily forms, discoveries or products. More rigorously, philosophy is the discipline that involves creating concepts’ (1994, p. 5). Without delving too deeply (for a short commentry) into how one defines ‘concepts’, what can be taken away from passages like this is the notion that the struggle to produce knowledge is a creative act, stemming from the potentiality of practical engagements with the world, whether that be through sciences, arts or philosophies.

What is important to me, in my efforts to be reflexive about my research practices, is that the research participants you engage with, those assemblages of subjects and objects, should be as Whatmore (2005, p. 103) suggests ‘troublesome intermediaries in the research process’. This troubling of analysis, maintaining the ‘risk’, can prompt those new and unexpected directions in doing theory that afford the creativity we are asked to strive for by Deleuze and Guattari (1994).

  • Deleuze G & Guattari F 1994 What is Philosophy? Burchell G & Tomlinson H trans. London & New York, NY: Verso
  • Foucault M 1977 Language, Counter-Memory, Practice Bouchard D. F Ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press
  • Harding S 1998 Is Science Multicultural? Postcolonialisms, Feminisms, and Epistemologies, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press
  • Harraway D 1991 Simians, Cyborgs and Women, London: Free Association Books
  • Latour B 1999 Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the reality of science studies, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
  • Mol A 1999 “Ontological politics: A word and some questions” in Law J & Hassard J Eds. Actor Network Theory and after, Oxford: Blackwell
  • Stengers I 1997 Power and Invention – Situating science, Bains P trans. Minneapolis, MI: University of Minnesota Press
  • Whatmore S 2005 “Generating materials” in Pryke M, Rose G & Whatmore S Eds. Using Social Theory, London, Thousand Oaks CA & New Delhi: Sage Publications with the Open University: pp. 89-104
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