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How much theory?

30 January 2006

(From Suburban Satyrs, para 9DJ1) "I think you have a framework in order to decide on evidence, and the work on the evidence proves, tests and validates the framework. Empsom in the Structure of Complex Words does quite a bit. Foucault in the Order of things and the Archaeology of knowledge gives some good cases. There is a political argument about theory and practice which tells us that those who don't want to deal with theory are simply living with an old one."

1 | 'Theory' is commonly seen as an instrument to explain the inner workings of some real, or of what is assumed to be, or constructed as, real. This instrumental idea implies change since you wouldn't want to create a theory unless you thought change of reality was desirable or at least to be counted with. For a theory of a steam engine or a nuclear reactor, this is evident.

1J1 | I don't think theory is commonly seen as anything. I don't think most people have any theory at all. All the people I work with, when I ask them, don't even understand the question. I did this last week on semantics.

1J1D1 | What I meant is the use of those who use the term, in other words, we are already in the academic tradition. Maybe not the most useful starting point. Another approach is to start from the stimulus for interpretation, i.e. the moment when something ceases to blend in in some unquestioned normalcy. Think of tube train, where you spot a man with a dark stain on his trousers. Has he peed? On purpose or was it an accident? Is he drunk? So unhappy that he does not care what others think? In a provocative mood? Did he spill a drink? What has happened?

1J2 | And I don't think theory is about inner workings of a construction, I think it is the meta or supra layer of intangibles which connects the otherwise unconnected. Feet are connected by brain. Feet walk. Brain theory?

1J2D1 | The metaphor was mechanics. With construction I mean social and political 'organisms', too. And inner workings stood for the relays, the hypotheses linking what may indeed be connected.

2 | Such a theory can then serve as a blueprint for building another reality or as a contingency plan to prevent that reality (in the way 'guerilla theory' may equally serve guerilla warfare and counter-intelligence). A big advantage is that it can also be checked in application - is it correct, predictive? Is it explicit and specific enough to support a practice or aid its transformation? Is it over-specific or dealing with irrelevant aspects?

3 | Theory rests on evidence seen and produced in the light of earlier theories that rest on earlier evidence etc. So calling this relation between theory and evidence 'dialectic' seems little more than putting a fancy label on an intractable tangle. A theory tested in application (creating evidence), recursively revised and re-tested, is a living thing that may well undermine its own assumptions, point to something previously not known, change its aim and therefore, its thesis, method and proof.

4 | The academic framework is there to prevent this from happening. 'Methodology' here does not mean the 'intelligence of finding the way' as a literal translation from the Greek may suggest; rather, it serves as insulating device and protective shield, numbing the minds of those that must suffer its reading. Aunt methodology take a clumsy step back to delimit the broader theoretical context the author has chosen (or been chosen) to treat as valid, marking a vantage point and a usually pityful aim (the thesis). This neat separation (methodology, and theory proper) represses the fundamental problem of receding knowledge, implicit ideologies, contested and contaminated, 'dodgy' evidence.

4J1 | Academic framework
I wonder what this means?

4J2 | Is it the same as the scholarly apparatus? In which case, when we move from a book which we understand, to a journal, to an abstracting and indexing service, to an institutional repository, to a few things in between then to google, we have a good case for examination.

4J2D1 | I would define the academic framework as the incessant reproduction of the scholarly apparatus in the way a finger nail grows, only that this nail is never clipped. What it also produces are academic careers, and via the brownie points / publication records, the reputation and funding levels of HE institutions.

4J3 | If what is meant is something larger, the whole process of discourse involving teaching, research, publication, learning, writing, reading, arguing, within the institution of jobs, contracts, charters, degree awarding powers, then I think we have two lines we can follow to answer the core question, how much theory?

4J4 | The one concerns the discipline or faculty, for there are traditions which are institutionalised about the value of evidence, and dodgy evidence; of expertise and truth protocols.

4J5 | The other concerns the concept of university or common sense. What is true here, now, or then, there, and what are the representations?

4J5D1 | I am not sure what it means then to follow one of these lines. 'Truth protocols' sounds good but what does it mean in the not-so-exact sciences? I can imagine such protocols in the natural sciences and perhaps the more controlled fields of social or psychological research (dodgy enough here) but what a critique of the framework would need is to show how a priori (ideological) decisions define these protocols and the scope of what can be considered true or false by applying them. That itself is nothing but understanding that methodology is always ideological, and that decisions to include or exclude should be rendered as transparent as possible (that part is the logic (rationale) of method).

5 | So if I talk of dodgy evidence, what would be the criteria of 'good' evidence?

6 | In other theories (post-modern?) the author rejects this traditional academic option, jumps straight into the morass and manages the construction of a discourse around and beyond all this, at which point he or she has conceded defeat before reality - it is not going to claim a status as 'authoritative' explanation or blueprint for a different reality. This does not mean that the theory is worthless, but there is no easy means to test its worth appart from registering side-effects on one's own apparatus and its other tasks. (And another academia has come into existence.)


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