Why is Social Theory So ‘Difficult’

Social theory is a complex area. Many students will already be aware that it contains strands based on the work of different individual thinkers, or organised around different ‘perspectives’, ‘approaches’, ‘paradigms’ or ‘schools’ (such as marxism, functionalism, interactionism, the ‘Chicago School’ and so on). At the risk of making things seem even more complex, though, I want to begin my discussions by suggesting there are different ‘levels’ or ‘locations’ for social theory too.

Other commentators have identified different ‘levels’ for social theory before – some people think of theory as divided in to ‘classical’ and ‘recent’ types, for example (see Ritzer 1996). Waters (1994) sees theory as split according to its intentions into ‘formal’, ‘substantive’ and ‘positivistic’ types. Others have identified an underlying evolution of theory, from object-related to metatheory, or from practice-dominated to reflection-dominated types. However, it is by no means easy to simply see the relations as evolutionary, with smooth progressions over time. The relation between classical and modern types of theory, for example, can involve selective interpretation, forgetting, restatements, announcements of new beginnings and so on – see Bourdieu on ‘How to Read an Author’ (Bourdieu 2000). When we discuss Lyotard,we might find the notion of ‘paralogy’ useful too (Lyotard 1984) (and see file).

My classification is different, though, based on what might appear to be an immediate and important social division for the student.

At one level, social theory is performed and disseminated by individual ‘great thinkers’ or specialist theorists, but at another, social theory is an academic subject in a definite location – the university. This later level has its own structuring effects on social theory, I shall be arguing.

To illustrate the point about levels, the classic tradition in sociology usually includes the ‘founding fathers’ such as Durkheim, or Marx, and one common device is to see these thinkers as founding ‘schools’ or developing ‘perspectives’ as above. It is common to structure courses and textbooks around such perspectives. This helps pedagogues (teachers and writers) organise academic histories and debates, but one of the many questions raised by such schemes can be detected immediately, perhaps – did each great thinker found a school or ‘perspective’, and if not, where do the isolated individuals fit? (Often, for example, Weber plays a series of walk-on parts, as a kind of ‘action theorist’, as an organisational theorist, or as a theorist of social class and so on, rather than as a founder of a distinct approach or school). Another question arises quickly here too -- does everyone fit into a ‘perspective’ like this (one controversy surrounded the location of feminism, for example)? Where should we place current writers, academics and intellectuals such as Baudrillard, Bourdieu, Eco, Featherstone, Giddens, Grossberg, Habermas, Hall, Jameson or Morris?

Current social theory at the most general level goes on outside the neat divisions of school syllabi, and sometimes outside of actual universities for that matter, at high-powered international and prestigious conferences as well as via best-selling publications or in journals. The titans of social theory meet, discuss and publish their work at an apparently ‘pure’ level, where arguments are pursued for their own sake, following internally-set agendas of relevance and interest, with no apparent ulterior motives, no particular anxieties to justify their ‘quality’ to exterior bodies, and no obvious desire to maintain institutional, national or subject matter boundaries. Given the current isolation of social theorists from power, at least in the UK, there are no obvious (conventional) political implications either. Hints of this sort of activity also appear in textbooks, as arguments ebb and flow apparently in a purely logical or theoretical way – although, from my limited experience, textbook writing also features other important constraints as well.

However, social theory also has a much more mundane and workaday existence, based in universities and colleges, as a taught element in broad courses in social science. These courses are assessed and bear public awards. Here, the mediators and representatives of social theory are likely to be paid academics and pedagogues, working in institutions that, in Britain at least, have increasingly strong constraints placed upon their activities.

Social theory courses certainly are constructed in definite institutional contexts. They develop according to a number of interwoven agendas, of which the pursuit of theory ‘for its own sake’ is but one, and where the freedom of the course designer is limited by a number of institutional factors, ranging from the nature of the teaching system and its organization (as a modular scheme, perhaps, with a volatile student ‘market’, and with particular forms of student assessment), to the type of faculty structure and policies affecting the distribution of work and the organisation of collective course design and teaching ( single- or multi-disciplinary, for example. There are also academic conventions to consider, the need to make a course ‘balanced’, ‘up-to-date’, ‘rigorous’ and assessable.

Social theory courses are also received rather differently in the two spheres I have outlined. Social theory at the grand, ‘pure’, international level is pursued by those with definite interests in theory, either as fellow researchers and theorists or, even these days, as more general intellectuals who may not actually be employed by universities but who have an interest as journalists, writers or even as artists of various kinds. As I have implied, that constituency used to contain politicians, even in Britain. Members of such audiences are not, of course, tested on their retention of the main concepts, are not necessarily treated as intellectual or social inferiors, and are expected to impose their own agendas and interests on the topics they have discussed. The reverse applies at the institutional level.

There is a strong status distinction between the activity of reading or hearing social theory in the two settings, and this is perhaps one reason why the institutional setting is so little discussed as a problem for social theory. In the professional ideologies of academics, it is common to see the practice of actually teaching social theory as a lesser task, a low-status necessity which funds the loftier activity of doing social theory at conferences. Some colleagues try and gloss the differences between the two levels I have outlined, so that for them teaching a social theory course is (or ought to be) the same as giving a paper at an international conference, however restive or distracted the actual audience becomes.

Such ideologies are comforting, and I have certainly indulged in these occupational fantasies myself, but I want to argue that the institutional level is important as a factor in its own right. To put this in a contentious way, one serious source of difficulty with social theory is that it has often become institutionalized, dominated by the requirements of a ‘suitable education’ with its concepts of ‘proper standards’, its notions of ‘coverage’ or ‘depth’, and, above all, its requirements to generate acceptable distributions of student grades. ‘Pure’ social theory is difficult enough to understand, but institutionalizing it can compound the problems.

To be fair, and to acknowledge the often heroic efforts of my fellow teachers, institutionalized social theory can offer students some solutions to the problems of ‘pure’ theory too. The whole structure of academic courses assumes that newcomers need help to grasp the principles, and that is why we design special teaching sequences or special materials to mediate between students and the originals. I am no exception here – my mediating materials attached to this book take the form of the ‘reading guides’ on my website..

However, there is always a price: any teaching system will make life easier for some students and, at the same time, more difficult for others. With that paradox in mind, let us begin our discussion with some thoughts about the most likely form of encounter with social theory for most people -- not as participants in an international conference but as students on social theory courses in an educational institution. Let us begin with a look ‘behind the scenes’, at the work of the course designer. 

Designing Social Theory Courses

If my experience is anything to go by, social theory courses are widely regarded as ‘difficult’ by both parties involved in the business of teaching and learning. Staff or faculty find the field notoriously difficult to pin down and face an early question -- what is appropriate social theory? Of course, this is a constant question in the wider politics of sociology -- national politicians, especially in Britain, have continually asked about the relevance and place of ‘theory’ in a modern education system, often in a way which implies a suspicion of political bias. Courses which feature marxist theory will have obvious problems here, but the whole area of social theory is chronically likely to be seen as subversive or frivolous: ‘...students... in such fringe subjects as media studies and sociology, absorb limited resources which could go to help children with innate potential from lower income and educational strata’ (Sherman 1996).

At the more local institutional level too, theory courses have to find a place amid competing courses which look more ‘vocationally relevant’ or ‘practical’, as colleges and universities become more ‘market orientated’ and as accountants and managers increasingly affect policies. Student ‘choice’ can have an impact too, producing a drift towards courses which just seem more familiar, and thus easier and less demanding. There is also a tendency for disciplines such as geography, history or English to develop versions of social theory within their own frameworks. In all these cases, at the institutional level, the self-sufficiency of social theory, or its claims to be embedded best within sociology, come to be questioned, implicitly if not openly.

These institutional matters are not easily solved by an appeal to an authoritative tradition or public consensus among experts. Social theory has always been a contested field, with powerful rival approaches, and a good deal of reflexive critical commentary about the rival merits and limits of each approach. As everyone must be aware, for example, there has been a recent upsurge of radical debate with, and criticism of, ‘postmodernism’. The most popular versions of the ‘postmodernist crisis’ refer to serious and detailed doubts about the fundamental (or ‘foundational’) claims of social theory, to deliver some organizing ‘grand narrative’ and to offer some kind of emancipation (in thought if not in political practice), somehow on behalf of ‘humanity’ or ‘the people’, or in some other universal interest. For the radicals, this sort of searching critique has led to a complete abandonment of the usual kinds of social theory as an attempt to make sense of the current social scene.

The notion of the ‘end of the social’ (see, for example, Smart 1993) means, among other things, the disappearance of the classic social conditions which spawned sociology (and marxism), and which shaped social life and culture -- the controlling influence of shared beliefs and institutional practices which supported them, or the overwhelming constraints of the ‘mode of production’, or of some unstoppable grinding rationalization of social life. In the postmodern era, it is argued, we have new forms of culture and identity, far less constrained by these social conditions, with their own dynamics and autonomous impulses, and so the old classic sociological (or Freudian, or semiotic, or political) explanations and ‘grand narratives’ no longer apply.

This specific and internal sort of crisis can reveal how designers of sociology courses have to cope (enquiries from national politicians about political bias can be handled differently). The challenge of postmodernism is by no means the first, of course – similarly radical challenges have come from marxism, various approaches in linguistic philosophy, or feminism, which have all announced the redundancy of all earlier theory. Of course, redundancy is a word with institutional and personal implications too, and it is not surprising to find teachers of social theory wanting to carry on with the older work, whatever the radicals argue. Crises like these often have to be contained or (concealed or otherwise ‘managed’), in other words, in the practical business of teaching social theory in sociology or other courses. A number of options to structure syllabuses can help here:

1.   The ‘museum’ approach, where classical social theory, the work of the ‘founding fathers’ is displayed as a matter of necessary historical interest. As with all the best museums these days, any dry and dusty material can be made more palatable with modern ‘applications’. These can tend to gloss the issue of the continued relevance of classical approaches: Durkheim can be profitably employed, no doubt, to discuss modern forms of social solidarity, (see Alexander 1988) or Weber to offer insights into Japanese business practices  (Ritzer 1994), but it is never quite clear why they should be so employed instead of anyone else. Sometimes there can be an implicit ‘generationalism’ in this approach too, whereby older approaches are simply assumed to be less relevant, and where ‘recent’ means ‘good’ or ‘more powerful’. Such generationalism can work in reverse too, when old hands smilingly shake their heads at new fashions such as postmodernism.

2.   The ‘filing cabinet’ approach, to borrow a term from Craib (1992), where options are simply displayed in a kind of list, like files in a directory. A syllabus often provides the rationale for the sequences. With this sort of list structure, there is often no real attempt to offer any guidance about how to choose between the options, merely a succession of options, each one equally plausible (officially at least -- in practice it is often difficult to avoid quietly privileging personal favourites). This kind of indifference can be useful critically, of course, to question the more imperialist claims of some of the approaches to have replaced alternatives. This approach can also produce difficulties for students in that the sequences can look arbitrary – people’s filing systems rarely make sense to anyone else.

3.   ‘Asset-stripping’, where social theory is apparently subordinated to over-riding goals, including things we have mentioned already (like ‘vocational relevance’), but also to political commitments of various kinds (in the broadest sense). Thus if we expect practitioners in a field like youth work to be socially activist and critical, we might find ourselves drawn into a working sympathy with certain kinds of marxism or feminism. Social theory is deeply implicated with the most vocational or practical courses, of course, even though it might not be foregrounded as a topic for discussion. Thus any critical debate can rapidly head towards examining implicit theoretical frameworks, concepts and assumptions. There can be a tendency to try and limit such debate, though, in the name of ‘practicality’ or ‘professional relevance’, or to introduce only those elements of theory that support or justify a political position.

Of course, some institutional limits are essential given the competition for resources at the level of course design, and there are good pedagogical reasons for structure of some kind too. Our job as theorists and researchers might involve us in some open-ended pursuit of knowledge, but as pedagogues (and as textbook writers), we have what might be seen as a ‘contract’ with students to deliver some structure, some guidance, to limit uncertainty. In the professional world of the pedagogue, it is still common to talk of setting definite and limited objectives that students can achieve at the end of the course, for example, or of offering material at a suitable ‘level of difficulty’.

More generally and informally, the purpose of doing social theory is rarely discussed among teaching staff, in my experience at least, in terms of producing first-rate theorists. Instead, a certain limited mastery is seen as a ‘good thing’, sometimes in order to help students understand more ‘relevant’ material (on social inequality, say), and sometimes more generally, as enhancing intellectual capacities, or as introducing students to the high-status ‘core’ of sociology. Staff will also talk in terms of the need to play an academic game or to demonstrate certain desirable and high-status qualities like managing abstract knowledge, or delivering some kind of participation in an elite activity dominated by high-powered intellectuals. At our most cynical, we are also aware of the need to demonstrate our ‘commitment to academic standards’, at least on those occasions when we are inspected, and there is nothing like a tough-looking social theory course to do that. Equally cynically, we know that students will expect an easier ride in practice, that we will have to attract suitable numbers for our course by avoiding any suspicion that it is ‘too difficult’, and that we will have to deliver student gradings that are both fair and acceptable.

Indeed the grading of students is one of the most important tasks affecting course design. It could be argued that if we did not have to grade students, we would simply not have to structure and manage social theory at all in the ways we do. Many of the apparently independent design procedures I mentioned briefly above (setting objectives, getting the right ‘level’ and so on) are driven to a large extent by the need to grade students in a publicly defensible way. Course design follows a curious career, where academics set out formal syllabuses and official student teaching and assessment schemes, and then treat these as external constraints, problems to be dealt with when it comes to ‘getting students through’. At the most obvious level, for example, a grading system that rewards detailed but limited knowledge of isolated topics (as most do) is likely to produce some pressure towards a ‘filing cabinet’ approach (and perhaps a more detailed ‘bullet point’ technique for individual topics).  Yes of course I am aware that I am using a bullet-point approach here too!

There is often a professional reluctance to give grading its proper place as a key activity in our practice as academics, but the importance of grading comes through very clearly when we turn to the problems students face with social theory.

Coping With Social Theory Courses

Students find it hard to get involved in what often seems like an alien world of impenetrable jargon and obscure argument, but although we can sympathize, we need to be able to try and diagnose the difficulties a little. A common institutional response, for example, is to suggest some sort of course in ‘study skills’. We will discuss some of the options in more detail below, but for now it seems important to begin with an examination of some typical concrete difficulties which students experience. I have no systematic research to offer her, but my experience suggests that students encounter a range of problems, not all of which are endemic to social theory as such.

For example, I sometimes ask my student to read a short piece of an article or a chapter and to note exactly when they begin to have difficulties. Some report difficulties with words such as ‘vicissitudes’ or ‘bifurcation’, (to cite a recent example), and tend to record their problems in terms of ‘sociological jargon’. However, these words are not particularly confined to social theory, of course, but feature in a particular style of writing found widely in ‘educated English’. In my view, many reported difficulties with the ‘style’ of social theory are of a similar nature -- they are really difficulties with complex English, with its structure of subordinate clauses and parentheses, for example.

There are problems with the style of ‘educated English’, its habit of impersonal and detached writing, the ways in which different ‘voices’ sound in it, as when Giddens summarizes Dahrendorf on Weber, for example. Finally, there are difficulties sometimes in grasping a sense of context or in identifying an intended audience. Students get disappointed and annoyed if a writer fails to address them and their interests directly and immediately in the ways to which they have become accustomed on other courses: they sometimes seem to expect Marx or Weber to have written in the manner of a modern textbook or handout. Even deliberately constructed teaching materials, such as those devised by the UK Open University, usually have in mind an audience of academic colleagues as well as students, though (see Harris 1987 for some examples).

These sorts of problems are interesting in that they require more than the usual ‘study skills’ to make progress with them (we pursue this in the next Introductory file). They have also attracted some sociological commentary in their own right, of course, with strong echoes of the classic work of Bernstein (see Atkinson 1985), say, on the ‘elaborated codes’ of ‘school English’ and the difficulties faced by British working class speakers of ‘restricted codes’. There are also several famous studies of the problems faced by members of ‘non-mainstream’ linguistic communities like native Americans (Dumont and Wax 1971) or African-Americans (Brice-Heath 1986) on entering school systems.  At the level of higher education, the work of Bourdieu (1988) on the academic ‘habitus’ with its ‘high aesthetic’ and its unconscious structure of judgement and distinction-making seems promising, as we shall see. These analyses not only help us to appreciate the wider context of ‘difficulties with theory’ (the classic location of high-status knowledge and language, and an elitist activity, hence a major site for academic distinctions), but also provide some stimulating possibilities about what might be done to overcome some of these difficulties – see next file.

At the institutional level, context becomes important again, as soon as concrete difficulties are explored. Students will frequently refer to pressures of time, for example, preventing them from reading in sufficient depth.. There are more recognisable and concrete demands placed upon students in their outside lives as well, which can take an acute form with female married mature students who are expected to look after families  before settling down to the ‘private’ activity of reading social theory (see Morgan 1993). Again, it is convenient to partition these concrete problems as ‘welfare’ matters quite separate from ‘study skills’, but the two are often inseparable for students who find themselves quite unable to concentrate on Weber’s critique of functionalism if they are worried about childcare or if they are exhausted from having worked the night-shift at the local fast food outlet. To cite a recent real discussion again, the Student Union at my College suggested that supplying additional laundry facilities would produce a higher return on investment than employing more academic counsellors.

Sometimes, complaints about ‘pressures’  should be read as a symptom of something deeper. As Bourdieu seems aware, ‘pressures of time’ is a coded way of referring to problems engendered by clashes between a student’s socially-located ‘dispositions’ and those of academic life (see chapter 8 in Bourdieu 1986). Another important area indexed by complaints about ‘pressures of time’ is student grading and assessment again: to cite the findings from a study I once undertook (with others), students who had dropped out from the UK Open University commonly referred to external pressures as the reason for their decision, but expressed no wish to re-enter the system even if the pressures were resolved. Sometimes, they seemed to mean that the whole process was just taking up far more time than they thought it should for a ‘proper’ student, or that the time they were spending still did not deliver the grades they wanted.

The pressure induced by student assessment has long been recognized in classic studies of student ‘instrumentalism’ (such as Becker et al 1995). More recent studies of student ‘approaches’ to their work have also suggested that assessment tasks can induce a superficial ‘surface approach’ to knowledge, one which stresses ‘memorizing details, with the emphasis on assimilation of knowledge and information, and an external emphasis on assessment tasks’ (Morgan 1993: 77). A dependence upon the teacher and on the syllabus also follows this approach – students have no other way to gain access to the arguments, no ways to structure material for themselves. Assessment practices can completely reverse the lofty emphases upon independent thought in social theory courses, yet it is not uncommon for teachers to spend hours devising suitable teaching strategies while thinking little of student assessment and its unintended effects.

Every participant can surely see that an onerous assessment system demanding fairly trivial operations will rapidly drive students into demanding nicely institutionalized, instantly accessible social theory in the form of quick fixes, bullet points or stylised debates. Such a system can also produce a definite compartmentalisation, as elements of courses are omitted by coping strategies of ‘selective neglect’ (Becker et al 1995). Meeting student demands for compartmentalised courses which help them directly with their assessment requirements completes the vicious circle.

This compartmentalising tendency is found throughout the famous textbooks that many of us meet at schools or in introductory sociology courses. Those texts feature a management strategy that clearly (and very successfully) bears in mind the main assessment tasks to be faced by students -- the need primarily to ‘get through’, to produce just a few discrete examination answers (as in the English sociology A-level exam). Strange incoherencies can result.

It is common, for example, to see debates in sociology structured around the old tension between ‘approaches’ like ‘structure’ and ‘action’, for example, which fits topics like sociological methods, or discussions of deviancy (especially of suicide), yet when discussing stratification (say) it is more common to structure debate quite separately, around rival claims made by Marx and Weber. However, it might be interesting to ask whether the split between Marx and Weber could also be read as an example of the apparently universal ‘structure/action’ split, or, conversely, why the ‘structure/action’ split does not appear in discussions of stratification in the same way as it seems to in discussions of methodology, or, indeed, why Marx and Weber do not appear to have a prominent place in discussions of methodology -- did Marx not have a methodology? Questions like these would only distract the instrumental student, of course.

There is indeed a whole industry devoted to getting people through examinations, involving writing textbooks, editing journals, and providing specimen answers, often by those who have designed or examined the relevant syllabus (see Selfe 1993 for a classic example). Nothing illustrates better the ways in which assessment practices can dominate the apparently neutral, natural or ‘pure’ discussions of topics, as the very opposite of what is normally thought of as the real  relationship.

Much pedagogic practice at the level of higher education reveals similar qualities, I have already suggested. Distance education systems like the UK’s Open University offer student ‘study guides’ and ‘revision materials’ which often contain frank advice about what can be left out, or feature a series of less obvious structuring principles for the production of assessable course materials. I have identified and discussed some of these techniques myself (Harris 1987). In more conventional institutions, the same procedures can be seen as underpinning some of the proposals of some recently active ‘pedagogy mongers’, like those advocating ‘effective teaching’ (Harris in Evans and Murphy 1993). There are also some interesting rumours that lecturers are increasingly simply ‘teaching to the test’.

If staff are already processing, packaging and managing materials for students with both general ‘educational’ and specific assessment-oriented goals in mind, perhaps students need only to learn to reproduce these packaging principles of their teachers?  A ‘surface approach’ could become institutionalized, with an even tighter form of dependence for students: even their ‘deviant’ coping strategies could be topped and incorporated!

Such a development would be a marvellous case-study for a much wider debate still under way in cultural studies, in fact. This debate turns on the possibility of individual subjects’ resistance to the increasing powers of various culture or entertainment ‘industries' (see Harris 1992 for my own contribution). I must say my pessimistic conclusion here has been influenced by that debate. But until the loop finally closes between instrumental teaching and ‘surface’ learning, there still might be a possibility to both cope with the demands of a syllabus and its assessment and still be able to learn something for yourself, so to speak. The next file explores some ideas for pursuing this project.

The production of social theory

It is possible to suggest the same sort of layering in theory itself, in the material, for example, which exists outside of the specific teaching material you will encounter. My thinking here follows a different model, one actually based on Althusser’s  work on the production of  formal ideas (‘ideologies’ on the one hand, and ‘scientific theories’ on the other). Benton (1984) has a clear discussion, if you want to research this for yourselves: we shall simply cheerfully borrow the bits that seem best to fit our introductory discussion here. Briefly, what we see in front of us in colleges, in the actual books and other materials we examine is the result of a definite production process. Ideas have to be produced, from raw materials, using productive practices, in definite ‘modes of production’. We can pursue this notion to gain further insights.

Some classic social theory, especially marxism, for example, was developed independently of any participation in formal teaching, since Marx and Engels were freelance intellectuals not university academics. Durkheim and Weber were more attached to college bases, but still developed their ideas with more than the practices of teaching in mind, and the current leading theorists can probably claim the same intentions. In other words, there is level of theory before (or behind if you prefer) institutional theory: we can think of this as the raw material for college-based social theory. It is important to remember this material – it might help us realise some of the limits of theory courses.

In order to explore this further, let us construct a much simplified and rather stylised history of social theories and how they might develop. I am not suggesting that social theories all must necessarily ‘really’ develop like this, of course. It is possible to identify three phases:

Stage One – social theory and life experiences

Social theory arises from the definite life experiences (including political struggles and social agendas) of individual theorists, from their personal biographies but also from the intellectual, political and social climate in which they find themselves. As an example, Marx developed his ideas against an experience of social change and exile, as he moved from Germany to France and then to England. Several accounts (such as McLellan 1973) trace the effects of this journey in his theoretical thinking as he came to see the importance of new issues (the role of economic change and the politics of the workers’ movements in England), and as he came to realise the limits of the old ways of thinking (say in his work on German thought). Similar accounts exist for Durkheim and his responses to the changing political circumstances of France, or Weber and the results of his personal family background and his subsequent career, according to Ritzer (1994). Just about everyone else could be included here as examples too -- Habermas has mentioned in interviews the effects of his early life and career (see Dews 1992), Foucault (1980) hints at his own struggles and engagements and their effects on his subsequent views, Ritzer (1994) supplies a personal background to his work on McDonaldisation – and so on. We know from the work of these writers themselves that ideas do not spring immediately from the mind of the individual thinker, that the stock of experiences available clearly have an effect (not a totally determining effect, of course) – clearly their own ideas cannot be exempt. 

Stage Two – systematization

As theory gets systematized, though, it develops its own dynamics (it enters into a definite mode of production, if you wish). This can be hard to grasp until you actually do some theory yourselves, but it is a common experience to find that the arguments take on a force of their own, as it were. For example, published work gets read and criticized by other specialists. As a result, new implications arise, and new possibilities for research or for further interventions into some debate. Theorists develop their own work too, of course. In the next file, I have discussed the concrete implications of the work of Bourdieu and Habermas for study skills, but the implications flow the other way too, so to speak: can we see the work on study skills as some kind of test for the more general theory, something that might lead to some additional development of Habermas, say on whether there is a  ‘good side’ of strategic communication in colleges, for example?  

Something else can take place too -- new theoretical objects can emerge which may have no immediate connections with existing empirical social reality. Modern physics provides good examples, perhaps, with fashionable developments like chaos theory with its theoretical objects (produced by mathematical theory) like ‘strange attractors’. There are equally well-known earlier examples too -- quarks, black holes and the like – which have captured the imagination of the public. There are fascinating stories throughout the history of physics concerning the attempts to find empirical ways of measuring or detecting these theoretical objects, and these reveal that there is certainly no easy correspondence between theoretical objects and the ‘real world’. Nor does physics wait for the real world to reveal itself, so to speak: the manipulation of concepts in mathematical ways produces new theoretical objects. In many ways, that is the whole point of the exercise – there are systematic possibilities of novelty in abstract mathematical manipulations.

Social theory can operate in a similar way, to construct theoretical objects as a result of the application or development of concepts rather than as generalizations from experience. Students can have difficulties if they do not realise this at first – that Weberian ‘ideal types’, say, are not the same as statistical types based on purely empirical generalizations, or that the marxist concept of ‘mode of production’ did not derive exclusively from, and cannot simply be ‘applied’ to, empirical data about the economy of modern Britain. Similarly, Durkheim’s discussion of the functions of religion clearly operates with a conception of religion that exists, as he tells us, implicitly in the actual religious practices of the social group. Social theory operates like this in describing some ‘virtual’ level ‘behind’, or ‘beneath’ the actual specific level of concrete organizations and practices.

An insistence that theory has its own domain, in sociology or marxism as much as in physics, is sometimes unpopular, and there is a chronic likelihood of confusion where theoretical terms and everyday terms are similar. This is perhaps one reason why special terms have been developed in social theory, of course – not to confuse, bluff or mystify the beginner, as is so often suspected, but to signal a special theoretical use of a word. Sometimes these signals can be too subtle, perhaps, like the use of a lower-case ‘m’ for ‘marxism’ which signals an interest in the body of concepts associated with a tradition, rather than the specific writings of the individual Karl Marx (some of which are marxist but by no means all, it has been argued).

Theoretical implications can lead to extensions of original concepts, but also to substantial revisions of whole systems of concepts. Theorists are especially open to theoretical challenges, in ways which non-theorists can find hard to grasp. Discussing the impact of ‘postmodernism’ on social theory, say, with some of my students can be revealing here. Why has marxism or feminism become so unfashionable they sometimes want to know. Why is everyone reading the much stranger work of Baudrillard or Deleuze instead? Whereas I tend initially to think of these changes in terms of a theoretical crisis in the very foundations of  marxism, freudianism or feminism, my students tend to think more in terms of academics wanting to keep up with fashion, sell out their radical commitments, or open up some elitist distance between those who can read Deleuze and those who cannot. It can seem inexplicable to abandon whole approaches because of a mere theoretical problem, yet those abstract theoretical problems can be decisive for theorists themselves (often in conjunction with other problems too, of course).

One of the most detailed and thorough discussion of what we have been calling ‘systematization’ is found in Foucault (1974|) (and see file). Foucault has a most ambitious project to explain the emergence of specific and sometimes conflicting ‘discourses’ (we can think, for now, of academic disciplines instead of this rather specialist term). The argument is dense and turns on the role of various ‘pre-discursive formations’ and practices. To take just one little element, Foucault writes about the ways in which discourses (disciplines) develop specific forms in relation to various themes, implications which get pursued and problems which arise. These emerge within disciplines themselves and in other disciplines: much development work is devoted to clarifying relations of similarity and difference between the discipline in which one works, and those of other specialists (‘concomitant fields’), which may include some general field of ‘science’ which one approves of, or a rival field which one wishes to build upon, replace, negate, incorporate or divide.

Foucault’s own examples refer to his interests in clinical medicine, political economy and linguistics, but something like this task (but with different concepts) informed my own work (Harris 1992), on the development of ‘gramscianism’ in British cultural studies, as it attempted to preserve some admired discourse (a variant of marxism) and identify itself with it, while tackling and dismissing or incorporating rivals. 

Stage Three – institutionalisation

The third stage brings us back to the earlier discussion -- social theory, as a product of theoretical labour, gets institutionalised in various schools, colleges or universities. I think this is important enough as a stage to separate it out from the more general Stage Two above, since many of the more general processes of development and systematisation take place in special circumstances. We have already mentioned the effects of conventions, customs, and structures of judgement at this stage. Theory has to be domesticated, and applied to respectable and specifically educational ends, sometimes despite the intentions of the original theorists. This almost inevitably involves a reduction of scope. The domestication of marxism so that it becomes a mere ‘topic’ on an undergraduate course, or a mere ‘perspective’ in a textbook is perhaps the best example, although I imagine most writers would be amused or appalled to see themselves reduced to six bullet points in an examination crammer. I even have a little experience to relate here on seeing my own extensive, subtle and beautifully crafted critique of the UK Open University appearing as part of a rather dull and limited assignment -- on an Open University course!

Reductions and transformation like this take place under the influence of some of the pressures of course design we have outlined – the need to be ‘balanced’, to take into account other courses, to provide assessable material and so on – and, of course, not all of these transformations are ‘bad’. Sometimes, pedagogy actually works, and arguments genuinely are made more accessible by these processes, although there are always the paradoxes of ‘access at a price’ that we have mentioned.

One result, which can be ‘good’ or ‘bad’, is the shock which can be felt when students encounter undomesticated ‘raw’ theory, if they read the original texts or if they stray beyond the limits of a course. Out there are books which are clearly written as ongoing projects or emerging thoughts, still struggling with ideas and straying across the apparently fixed boundaries of the ‘perspectives’. There are even books written deliberately in a style designed to resist or actively to oppose the tendency to package ideas nicely in a summarised form – the works of Adorno, Barthes or Foucault immediately spring to mind. It is not surprising that many students prefer to remain within the safety of a limited syllabus, a favoured textbook, the mechanical accumulation techniques of conventional study skills, or the semi-deviant world of the ‘hidden curriculum’.

For the course designer there is also a choice to be made. Much social theory refuses to be domesticated, and all sorts of untidy residuals from the originals persist. There are often clearly ‘political’ sections and interests, lengthy, specialist and ‘difficult’ theoretical interludes, sometimes substantial empirical sections requiring some additional expertise beyond the reach of a short ‘theory’ course, clear signs of theoretical changes (from ‘early’ to ‘later’ works, for example), and, these days especially, ‘poetic’ writings where eminent professors deliberately let language ‘play’ in their work.

Teachers can feel themselves torn between their ‘contract’ to students and to colleagues (to provide a manageable course at ‘the right level’) and their wider obligations to their subject and their peers (to provide the ‘real thing’). In courses, and in the textbooks they write, many strive to do both, to provide a framework that will help students cope and gain understanding, while at the same time somehow alluding to something deeper, more open, more general, less dependent on the immediate context of the syllabus and the specific work of the college.

It is hardly surprising to find these tensions at work in the materials students receive, although it is also common never to mention them to those students: in academic work specifically, as in cultural work more generally, it is somehow inappropriate to reveal the process of construction to the consumer. Yet student confusions can deepen as a result of this convention. To take one example, one UKOU course was produced by a group of teachers who disagreed rather profoundly precisely about the issues we have been discussing. To those in the know, the twists and turns in the actual contents of the course clearly reflected the course of this (micro)political struggle, as first one faction then the other took turns to introduce their material, sometimes with little regard for sections that had gone before. Students remained baffled, however, failed to read the coded references to the underlying disputes, and sometimes even blamed themselves for not grasping the purely conceptual links between the different sections!

Concluding Thoughts

The example of institutionalization gets to the heart of some important debates and issues in social science more generally, in fact. The processes involved are examples of the ways in which social life becomes ‘external’, ‘thing-like’ (‘objectified’ or ‘reified’ to use some sociological terms). The arrangements you will encounter in universities – the organization of timetables, course structures, syllabi, teaching systems, programmes of work and assessment – are in one important sense socially constructed. They are not natural, immediately obvious or logically binding ways of proceeding – instead, they arise out of various detectable social practices, from ‘ideas’ which are expressed, then  negotiated and occasionally struggled over.

This process of emergence from ideas and recognizably localized expressions to a material phase of apparently objective constraint is at the heart of social life itself, of course, and has led to much theoretical elaboration and debate (which we are going to extend a little in subsequent sections). These debates operate, as always, at a more general level, and touch upon issues such as how best to explain the externality of social life – as a matter effectively of material constraints or as the result of social constructs, or even as some kind of judicious combination

For participants in institutions, these debates are differently oriented. Ideas can take on a personal force once institutionalized – they can appear as constraints, that is they are supported with sanctions of various kinds (from those involving social disapproval to those involving the criminal law). Any competent social  actor in any institution faces the problem of knowing where the practices in which they are engaging stand in this continuum of subjectivity and objectivity – are practices still negotiable or are they effectively fixed? When are rules best renegotiated and when are they best simply obeyed?

This sort of contextual issue returns us to the opening argument of this section: in ‘pure’ theory, we are free to pursue arguments wherever they might lead, but practice (especially the practices in educational institutions) offers another dimension to theoretical exploration: we have to do it in institutionally approved ways, in accordance with practices that we are likely to experience as constraints.

Yet it is necessary to end by stressing that the constraints might not be as they appear at first. University syllabi and teaching systems are expected to be ‘open’ to a certain degree, to permit some negotiation and interaction within fairly loose constraints. I have suggested that the constraints might tighten as one moves from teaching to assessment, but even here the problem is complicated:

·        assessment requires you to show a level of challenge, critique, debate and questioning (‘optimal challenge’ it is sometimes called), to answer questions but also to do more, to show you are aware of other possibilities or contexts

·        formal assessment is one aspect of a more informal series of judgements being made about you, which seem to include matters like how you respond in seminars or classes, how ‘involved’ you seem, how enthusiastic you appear about the sorts of debates and dilemmas that excite the professionals (for example)

·        following the rules and constraints of others entirely or completely makes for a very dull experience of university life, and it could well adversely affect your motivation and your understanding.

In the next file, we can consider some implications of the processes of institutionalisation more generally.         


Alexander, J. (ed.) (1988) Durkheimian sociology: cultural studies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Becker, H., Geer, B and Hughes, E. (1995) Making the Grade: the academic side of college life, with a new introduction by Howard S. Becker, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers
Benton, T. (1984) The Rise and Fall of Structuralist Marxism: Althusser and his influence, London: Macmillan.
Bourdieu, P. (1986) Distinction  A social critique of the judgement of taste, London: Routledge.
Bourdieu, P. (1988) Homo Academicus, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bourdieu, P. (2000) Pascalian Meditations, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Brice-Heath, S. (1986) Questioning at Home and School: a Comparative Study, in Hammersley, M (ed.) Case Studies in Classroom Research, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
Craib, I. (1992) Modern Social Theory: from Parsons to Habermas, 2nd edition, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Dews, P. (ed.) (1992) Autonomy and Solidarity: interviews with Jurgen Habermas, London: Verso.
Foucault, M. (1974) The Archaeology of Knowledge, London: Tavistock Publications Ltd.
Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and Punish: the birth of the prison, London: Peregrine Books Ltd.
Foucault, M. (1980) Power/Knowledge: selected interviews and other writings 1972—1977, edited by Colin Gordon, Brighton: The Harvester Press.
Harris, D. (1987) Openness and closure in distance education, Barcombe: The Falmer Press.
Harris, D (1992) From Class Struggle to the Politics of Pleasure: the effects of gramscianism on cultural studies, London: Routledge.
Lyotard, J-F. (1984) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
McLellan, D (1973) Karl Marx, His Life and Thought, London: Macmillan.
Morgan, A. (1993) Improving Your Students’ learning: reflections on the experience of study, London: Kogan Page.
Ritzer, G. (1994) Sociological Beginnings: on the origins of key ideas in Sociology, New York : McGraw-Hill Inc.
Selfe, P. (1993) A Level Sociology: Patterns and Trends, London: Macmillan Press Ltd.
Sherman, Sir A. (1996) ‘Opinion’, Guardian Education, July 9 1996.
Smart, B. (1993) Postmodernity, London: Routledge.

back to social theory page