A CONTRIBUTION FOR THE SSP
2000 WORKSHOP ON MAY 6th 1999
I am engaged in teaching sociological
theory (as a component of social theory) on a variety of undergraduate
courses, and I am writing a textbook (provisional title Teaching Yourself
Social Theory), which I also think of as ‘teaching’. In what follows, I
would like to try out some ideas on engaging student experience and knowledge
as a resource in such teaching.
Idea #1 – ‘enabling
It might be convenient to suggest
to students that there are two (not necessarily ‘real’) phases in theorising.
There is a phase in theorising which connects with ‘normal’ social experiences,
and there is a subsequent phase of professional theorising which is located
in academic institutions and which follows their conventions and works
within their constraints (the ‘contexts’ for academic texts in the terms
of Bennett (1998)).
This (mythical) first phase
can be used to introduce some classic social theory, based upon the familiar
story that the ‘founding parents’ were concerned with their experience
of the impact of ‘industrialisation’ on their societies. Having drafted
a list of consequent problems (with a contemporary gloss, of course), it
becomes possible to introduce theories as answers to them – Durkheim on
the problem of social order, Marx on the mechanisms of capitalism, Weber
on rationality, Chicago School on the ‘melting pot’, and so on. Development
can be traced as a growing technical formalisation of these problems, leading
to concepts as it were – to ‘social facts’, ‘surplus value’ and ‘rationalisation’,
for example – which are still recognisable as rooted in theorised experience.
A slightly more loaded story, of ‘lightning flashes’ of ‘discovery’ or
even of ‘epistemological breaks’, might be developed in addition.
The equally mythical second phase
involves both the continued formalisation of experience AND critical reaction
(obeying professional and scholarly conventions) to the concepts of the
first phase. In this phase concepts are developed but also tested, applied,
amended, extended, combined, transcended, replaced and so on by university
professionals who find (inevitable) flaws, puzzles and absences in the
initial theorisations – thus dysfunctions and strains are added, political
effects newly theorised, subjectivities explored, ‘subcultures’ clarified
– and so on. The field expands and settles into generative ‘traditions’,
‘perspectives’ or ‘schools’, as in Collins’s (1994) account. Waves of additional
theorising from parallel fields (psychology, economics, anthropology and
then linguistics or various philosophies) are incorporated or fought off.
The influence of specific constraints of institutionalisation, the needs
to pursue research programmes, justify rational theory choice, publish,
engage with pedagogical structures, relate to funding agencies and so on,
are as important as the need to clarify experience and address everyday
Idea #2 – reflexive
Seeing ‘second phase’ theorising
as the result of professionalisation and institutionalisation enables the
second tie with experience to be developed. Theorising goes on in
universities, and university life offers some experiences shared between
students and staff. This can be linked explicitly to the task of applying
social theory as the examples below might indicate.
1. There is quite a lot
of oldish marxist analysis of academic life as ‘ideology’. Some more concrete
examples I have used include trying out Althusser’s notion of ‘hailing’
[see file] on the mechanisms of university assessment
schemes (instead of his actual examples), and exploring (student) reactions
and resistances in terms of ‘coding and decoding’ in Hall, ‘multi-accentuality’
in Volosinov, or ‘counter-identification’ in Pêcheux.
2. Habermas on the ‘ideal speech
act’ could be used to try and grasp the peculiar nature of academic discourse,
as he briefly suggests himself at one point. Students might critically
apply additional concepts like ‘distorted communication’ or ‘strategic
communication’ too. These concepts might be tried out on notions of the
‘ideal seminar’, perhaps, or on types of ‘student involvement’.
3. I have ‘applied’ work in media
theory on narratives as (ideological) ‘positioning devices’ to invite reflection
upon academic narratives and their possible effects in ‘academic realism’
[see file] . This parallels some of the recent
critiques of ‘ethnographic realism’ as an effect of writing. Many other
forms of ‘linguistic’ analysis could be applied too, no doubt.
4. Work on distance education offers
interesting case-studies applying the work of Giddens on modernity, thus
engaging various ‘postmodernists’ and ‘postfordists’.
5. Popular accounts of university
management have already been analysed explicitly by Ritzer and others as
examples of ‘McDonaldisation’ [see file] , and
there are other approaches using the more sociological aspects of Foucaldian
analysis (e.g. on the ‘micropolitics’ of university organisation).
6. More generally, Foucault has inspired
at least one plea to ‘deconstruct’ academic sociology; Foucault’s methods
would make an interesting addition to ‘methods’ courses.
7. I have used Bourdieu’s work in
Distinction to sociologise some of the current work on student study
skills and orientations – the ‘deep/surface’ approaches can be mapped as
‘high’ and ‘popular’ aesthetics with some success. Bourdieu’s notion of
‘habitus’ appears more concretely in his Homo Academicus , and his
Outline of a Theory of Practice looks equally promising an ‘application’
of the term, offering ways to explore ‘practical’ courses in universities
as well as commentaries on the ‘schools’ in sociology.
There must be many other possible
examples: Goffman’s work on the back-stage world of the professional applied
to pedagogues, Durkheim on graduation day rituals (and on subject benchmarking?),
Becher on academic tribalism, Lutz on university witch-hunts, Garfinkel
on assessment as a coding problem. Of course there are dangers and problems
here, but at least students might genuinely have something to offer in
any critical discussions if these potentially ‘wild’ and reflexive applications
are pursued instead of the old, safe, familiar ones. These examples can
also help all parties to recognise some often neglected aspects of theorising,
often buried deep in the academic habitus – it can be risky, partial,
and intertwined with power relations and social constraints, for
example, and not at all the technical, ‘rational’ (and abstract and dry)
pursuit that it can seem to be.
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