Study Skills for Social Theory?

Study Skills

NB A more extended discussion of this approach appears in Arksey, H. and Harris, D. (2007) How to Succeed in Your Social Science Degree. London: Sage, and there is a separate webpage of links on study skills here

There is no shortage of material offering advice on study skills these days in Britain. A sceptical analysis might refer to the recent expansion of higher education and the need to accommodate ‘non-traditional students’. Such expansions have always been regarded with a certain anxiety, it could be suggested, and a common solution has been a two-fold initiative: to persuade academic staff to rethink their pedagogic strategies (often in the direction of simplification and institutionalization as I have used the term), and to provide students with ‘study skills’.  This kind of interest in a quick technical fix has sometimes been assisted by an interesting paradox that often seems to follow expansion of places. There has emerged what might be called a ‘social solution’ to solve the problems produced by change -- both the substantial expansion offered by the UK Open University and the more recent attempts to attract (female) mature students have resulted in a form of self-selection whereby those that have come forward tended to be pretty well-qualified and experienced in education already (we found this at the UKOU in 1970 – see Harris 1987)). In these circumstances, the technical benefits of study skills programmes have never really been fairly tested, of course – which might explain their recurrent appeal.

It is necessary to summarize here, of course, from a burgeoning literature, but it might be possible to classify the sorts of advantages study skills approaches seem to offer. Some seem to focus on the immediate problems of memorizing material in order to pass unseen examinations, for example, and offer techniques to increase the powers of recall by associating material to be memorized  with exotic mental images – one thinks of a knight  whose shield is covered with plus signs (+) as a personal signifier for Marx’s theory of surplus (‘Sir +’ = ‘sur-plus value’ perhaps). Concepts can be metaphorically embodied and placed in the rooms of a building which one can revisit in one’s mind, to cite another classic technique.

Study skills can consist of recommended ways to approach the reading of academic work, as in the well-known SQR3 model (Rowntree 1976) which advocates a systematic method of surveying (or skimming) a text, thinking of questions you want answered, and then reading, reviewing and revisiting the text. More generally, advice is often given on developing effective study habits with time management techniques, planned revision timetables, or something as practical as the need to lay out a suitable space. Sometimes, emphasis is placed on developing relaxation techniques to overcome ‘exam nerves’. When combined together, this sort of advice offers a fascinating mixture of bureaucratic self-management and ‘New Age’ themes.

We shall discuss some assumptions buried in study skills advice below, but here we have a rather depressing set straight away. The prospect for any student seems to involve punishing self-discipline, the minute scrutiny of your own behaviour to maximize personal efficiency, endless reading, reviewing and information processing, with only the occasional yoga exercise to relieve the monotony. It’s almost a perfect description of Foucault on the obedient self-disciplining subject! Even the frequent exhortations to get motivated for study can sound like a further attempt to blame yourself if anything goes wrong: failure means you were simply not motivated enough.

Other popular techniques involve ways to rearrange material when taking notes or revising from books. Here, ‘mind maps’ (see Buzan 1992) or ‘spider diagrams’ are often recommended as a way of grasping the structure of arguments or the connection between segments of an argument or the necessary stages of an assignment. These techniques have either more or less formal and logical rules and procedures to guide the processes of mapping. At the most informal level I have seen them used to do ‘brainstorming’ where a group attempts to list relevant aspects of a problem or the views of all the members present. At the most formal level, mind-mapping turns into ‘concept-mapping’, a course design or teaching (see Burge in Lockwood 1995) technique rather like computer programming where key concepts are identified and then sequenced according to some causal or logical principles.

These techniques might well have some useful insights to offer you, especially if your problems are associated with memorizing material for unseen examinations or in organizing your time, but there are also clear problems. At one level, there are the obvious dangers of grasping a technique as some all-purpose solution to study problems, without adequate understanding of the situation. I have seen students using mind maps almost as a kind of magic ritual, for example, in the belief that they are of universal value, and that all one needs to do to solve all problems is to produce one. This can have unfortunate results especially if one uses an informal ‘brainstorming’ mind-map to approach a topic that requires a more standard linear, analytical or logical approach. Certainly, one method almost certainly will not cover even the range of tasks required by modern assessment schemes. Study skills designed to help school students pass public unseen examinations in the US system, for example, probably will not offer much help to undergraduates in the UK, despite the sometimes misleading impression that study skills are universal, based on some timeless and context-free insights into how people’s minds work.

At a more abstract level, study skills techniques clearly imply some sort of priority for certain aspects of the learning process. The emphasis on memorizing reveals this quite clearly, for example. Many university academics would want to say that memorising things is probably a fairly minor part of learning. To cite some recent work on adult learning, and to refer back to the section above, it seems more important to focus on the ‘deep’ principles behind specific assessment tasks and not on the ‘surface’ requirements of individual items. These deep principles can deliver a sounder understanding and skills which can be transferred from specific contexts to new learning situations: this is one aspect, too, of ‘syllabus independence’. We discuss this in more detail below.

This interest in principles is not always explicit in courses you might encounter, but it often finds expression in advice to ‘critically discuss’ material or to ‘(really) answer the question’, or, as in my own institution’s assessment criteria, to be able to form ‘judgements’ about arguments as well as being able to summarise them. All these qualities imply a move away from the specifics of the assessment task towards some more distanced (or ‘deeper’) considerations. Although the usual study skills advice often involves reminders to ‘be critical’ or to ‘ask questions as you go along’, they are not so helpful, generally, with developing these deeper principles.

The ‘deep learning’ approach

Let us begin by summarizing some of the main features of the ‘deep’ approach as exhibited in students’ approaches to their studies.

Figure 1 ‘Surface’ and ‘Deep’ Approaches: 3 definitions

A: Morgan 1993:72—3


Intention to understand

·        Focus on what ‘is signified’ (e.g. the author’s arguments)

·        Relate and distinguish new ideas and previous knowledge

·        Relate concepts to everyday experience

·        Organize and structure content

·        Internal emphasis: ‘A window through which aspects of reality become visible and more intelligible’


Intention to complete [learning] task requirements

·        Focus on the ‘signs’ (e.g. the text itself)

·        Focus on discrete elements

·        Memorize information and procedures for assessment

·        Unreflectively associate concepts and facts

·        Fail to distinguish principles from evidence, new information from old

·        Treat [learning] task as an external imposition

·        External emphasis: demands of assessment, knowledge cut off from everyday reality.

B: Ramsden (1992) (Table 4.1 p46)

Deep Approach

An intention to understand. The student maintains the structure of the task.

·        Focus on ‘what is signified’ (e.g. the author’s argument or the concepts applicable to solving the problem)

·        Relates previous knowledge to new knowledge

·        Relates knowledge from different courses

·        Relates theoretical ideas to everyday experience

·        Relates and distinguishes evidence and argument

·        Organizes and structures content into a coherent whole

An internal emphasis: ‘A window through which aspects of reality become visible and more intelligible’ (Entwistle and Marton 1984).

 Surface Approach

An intention only to complete the task requirements. The student distorts the structure of the task.

·        Focuses on ‘the signs’ (e.g. the words and sentences of the text, or, unthinkingly, on the formula needed to solve the problem)

·        Focus on unrelated parts of the text

·        Memorizes information for assessments

·        Associates facts and concepts unreflexively

·        Fails to distinguish principles from examples

·        Treats the task as an external imposition

 An external emphasis: the demands of assessments, knowledge cut off from everyday reality

 C:  Ramsden (1992) (Table 4.2 p52)

 Indicators of ‘ meaning orientation’ (deep approach)

 ·        I try to relate ideas in one subject to those in others whenever possible

·        I usually set out to understand thoroughly the meaning of what I am asked to read

·        In trying to understand new ideas I often try to relate them to real-life situations

·        When I’m tackling a new topic I often ask myself questions about it which the new information should answer

·        In reading new material, I often find that I’m continually reminded of material I know already and see the latter in a new light

·        I spend a lot of my free time finding out more about interesting topics which have been discussed in classes


Indicators of ‘reproducing orientation’ (surface approach)

·        I find I have to concentrate on memorizing a good deal of what we have to learn

·        I usually don’t have time to think about the implications of what I have read

·        Although I generally remember facts and details, I find it difficult to fit them together into an overall picture

·        I find I tend to remember things best if I concentrate on the order in which the lecturer presented them

·        I tend to choose those subjects with a lot of factual content rather than theoretical kinds of analysis

·        I find it best to accept the statements and ideas of my lecturers and question them only under special circumstances.


What are these ‘deep’ underlying principles that seem so important? They might be logical principles, governing matters such as the logical operations of the deduction or induction of theoretical generalizations from either initial concepts or from empirical data. Whether formal logic alone would enable one to follow the actual twists and turns of argument in typical sociological material is rather doubtful, though. It would be more useful to pursue slightly fuzzier procedures such as inference or argumentation (including the use of rhetoric to persuade readers of a case), or even more fuzzy conventions used to form acceptable sociological arguments. It is a grasp of these working procedures that new students seem to need in order both to read existing sociological work and to produce their own.

At this point, a bonus awaits the student of social theory. There is a particular reason, perhaps, for sociologists to try and grasp these procedures, since major sociologists have themselves contributed to our general knowledge of how arguments actually proceed and how they have been affected by conventions. To take two examples, the work of both Bourdieu and Habermas seem to me to cast an interesting light on the whole study skills debate I have been outlining. Let us pursue this point a little further.

The social context of study skills

It is clear to me, for example, that advocates of the ‘deep’ approach have made a strong case for the technical superiority of stressing underlying ‘deep’ principles: to be brief, they think of this approach as simply a better and more effective way of learning, and can point to some empirical evidence that seems to suggest that ‘deep’ learners actually do achieve good grades (see Entwistle and Ramsden 1983), and more positive feelings about themselves and their abilities (Morgan 1993). However, it is also clear that good grades can be achieved by the sort of instrumental approach we discussed  above (the ‘strategic’ approach as Entwistle and Ramsden  call it), by the simple technique of rather cynically finding out what is required, and amassing enough information and street wisdom (about the preferences of teachers, for example) to manufacture an assignment. This may have no relation at all to underlying principles or any significant learning: as soon as the assignment is completed, the material is promptly forgotten.

At this point, advocates of the ‘deep’ approach tend to suggest other reasons for  choosing their preferred stance, against the equally successful (in terms of passing tests) ‘strategic’ one. We move from the area of demonstrable and measurable academic success to the issue of positive values as we have seen above, for example. I am myself an advocate of the ‘deep’ approach, and I wish it well, but a classic sociological question arises immediately from this shift to values – whose values are they, and how are these values actually distributed socially (are they universal, or are they held by particular social groups, including our favourites class, ‘race’ and gender)?

Here we are on classic sociological ground, of course, and we can turn to our major theorists. Bourdieu (1986) has done some fascinating work on the resources upon which people draw to make judgements in the field of arts and leisure. Basically, there are principles or procedures in making such judgements -- in evaluating the merits of films, operas, or sporting pastimes, say – which are quite definitely socially distributed. A ‘popular aesthetic’ values qualities in films such as the viewer’s ability to become immediately involved in the action, a content that reflects ‘real life’, and the use of conventional stories and narratives (as in ‘realism’). The ‘high aesthetic’ develops in opposition, as a deliberate way to form a distinctive space in cultural matters ‘against the popular’: it values qualities like the experimental, non-realist elements in films, the stress on forms rather than content, the intellectualized or  ‘academic’ aspects of films (such as the genres in which they fall, or the characteristics of the directors who made them), and the ability by viewers to take a distanced, cool, non-involved stance. Of course, these are systematized generalizations, of which the actual participants need not be conscious: most of us acquire these structures of judgement from the family, in early life, and we deploy them merely as ‘common sense’ (as an ‘habitus’ in Bourdieu’s terms). Bourdieu wants to go on to explain the differences sociologically, of course, in terms of notions like ‘cultural capital’ or the social processes of ‘distinction’ (the struggle for prestige and power between social groups and the ways in which this leads to social and cultural barriers of various kinds).

Bourdieu has also analyzed the ‘structures of judgement’ in areas even closer to home, in academic life itself. Here, teachers judge people such as their colleagues, or, of course, their students, in ways that demonstrate the academic version of the ‘high aesthetic’ described above. Students are judged, as well as technically assessed, by reference to matters such as style, physical appearance and demeanour, family background and so on (see Fig. 2). Several other studies have also picked up this kind of social judgement-making, of course, usually with reference to school teaching.

Figure 2 Academic discourse and its levels -- Bourdieu


LEVEL ONE (the surface appearances in colleges)

·        Specific arguments in lectures, seminars or texts

·        Specific procedures, especially in assessment (e.g. criteria for ‘critical’ arguments) or pedagogy (e.g. the structure of lectures)


LEVEL TWO (the ‘deeper’ social and cultural structures)

·        The ‘high aesthetic’ (distanced, uninvolved, experimental, formalist  etc) (see Bourdieu 1986)

·        The academic ‘structures of judgement’ (‘disparate criteria, never clarified, hierarchized or systematized…[but]…including handwriting, appearance, style, general culture…accent, elocution and diction…and finally and above all the bodily hexis [which includes] manners and behaviour’ --  Bourdieu 1988: 200).


I  hope it might be clear to you that some connection could now be made between Bourdieu’s work and the ‘deep’ approach. There is the non-involved emphasis on form in the ‘high aesthetic’, and the requirement to be cool and analytic, to focus on the principles, and not to get too involved in the specifics in the ‘deep approach’. .  However, one implication that arises is whether the qualities required by the ‘deep’ approach are as socially distributed as those of the more general ‘high aesthetic’, whether, for example, those groups identified by Bourdieu as rich in ‘cultural capital’ also favour the ‘deep’ approach. Perhaps the students who deploy the ‘deep’ approach to their studies are also those who apply the ‘high aesthetic’ to their cultural judgements? If Bourdieu is correct, the 'deep' approaches in education, like the 'high' approaches in culture more generally, will just be naturalised and seen as disembodied 'knowledge', 'philosophy' and the like (see file)

There is a rather depressing implication here too, of course. There may well be a social class and gender dimension to the different approaches to learning, just as there is in the cultural field more generally. At the very least, this could mean that study skills and course design approaches aiming at encouraging the ‘deep’ approach will be received quite differently by students. Those from backgrounds with large amounts of cultural capital (roughly, wealthy, middle-class, male and cosmopolitan) will respond to such initiatives as if they were second nature, while those from different backgrounds will still find the whole process as culturally remote as ever. I am offering a very speculative analysis here, of course, based on the pursuit of some initial analogies and implications – much more systematic work would be needed to proceed much further.

Of course, schools and universities can transmit cultural capital themselves, although for Bourdieu cultural capital is as hard to accumulate as economic capital. This leads him to a discussion on the self-taught academic (the ‘autodidact’) who is forced to use a ‘primitive accumulation’ approach, to scrimp and save, deny and police the self in order to acquire, painfully and gradually, the knowledge and techniques of the accomplished ‘high aesthete’. This seems quite a good description of the hard route offered by many study skills approaches, as I have suggested above. In Bourdieu’s work, the point is a different one – specific combinations of cultural and economic capital are used to explain the emergence of modern class fractions -- but we can bear in mind Bourdieu’s interest in social distinction to produce yet another pessimistic implication. Even if study skills approaches succeed in enabling students to accumulate enough (academicised) cultural capital, there will still be social barriers between the self-taught and those who unconsciously and apparently effortlessly bring to bear the ‘high aesthetic’ (read ‘deep approach’?) since they have been literally born to it.

Thinking of Habermas at this point leads to more cheerful possibilities, perhaps. Habermas might seem to be rather a strange person to turn to here, in fact, since his work is massive, theoretically dense and not normally associated with study skills at all. I am trivializing it, perhaps, to cite it in this context at all.  Yet he offers another example of the possibilities of using social theory itself to understand the problems of studying social theory.

Habermas is famous for his work on human communication which develops out of a substantial research programme aiming to achieve a number of rather specialist goals (including developing a way to classify social sciences, to overcome a number of technical problems with earlier theoretical schemes, and to justify in a strong sense the practice of social and political criticism) (see, for example Habermas 1972 -- and file). The latter project especially interests us here, since it has led Habermas, after substantial theoretical labour, to produce a number of points pertinent to the much more specific issue of the problems posed by the nature of academic argument and how to begin to grasp it.

We have, for example, extended commentaries on ‘strategic’ and ‘distorted’ forms of communication, which (briefly) are designed to persuade us to act in the interests of others (Habermas 1976) ( and see file) . The commentaries are designed to critique political communications especially, but they could be used equally well to grasp the strategic and distorted elements in pedagogic communications too. We have mentioned strategic orientations before in our discussion. Distorted communication in Habermas is slightly different – here powerful groups launch a form of communication that tries to persuade us that their specific interests are in fact universal. Both of these categories could help us pursue a very rich critique of forms of communication used in teaching, in my view.

The commentaries turned out to be located in a broader discussion of argumentation (Habermas 1984) which, I have already suggested, would also be an excellent addition to any purely logical analysis of characteristic academic procedures and conventions. Finally, at the broadest level, Habermas is famed for developing a notion of some ideal form of fully open and critical communication – the ‘ideal speech act’ (or ‘ideal speech situation’). This notion provides us with a set of critical procedures with genuinely universal applicability, inherent in any speech act: to summarize rather bluntly, any native speaker is always in a position, in principle, to question the validity of any utterance (spoken or written). To be slightly more precise, a question can be placed against any statement in terms of its intelligibility, validity, sincerity and/or social appropriateness.

In the specific area of our discussion here, I hope it is possible to see some implications for ‘deep’ approaches again, rather more optimistic ones, perhaps, than before. Language itself provides any speaker with a critical potential, so to speak, irrespective of social differences like class and gender. Some sort of universal and fairly simple procedures seem to be universally available, so that anyone can critically discuss and evaluate even academic speech and writing.

I have summarised the points in Fig. 3, but as a quick clue to what  I am driving at, examine the following example. Anyone reading it would be impressed by the constant references to surfaces and depths in McCarthy’s (1984) well-known account of Habermas’s work, especially of his general theory of communication. In the course of this account, incidentally, McCarthy (1984: 340) summarizes Habermas on the third stage in the acquisition of communicative competence, in a way which leads to further connections with the discussion of the ‘deep approach’ that we have summarized in Fig 1:

‘The child now “differentiates between perceptible and manipulable things… intelligible subjects and their utterances…and it no longer confuses linguistic signs and their references and meanings” [this confusion looks just like the characteristics of  the 'surface' approach]. It becomes aware of the perspectival nature of its own viewpoint [one of the witty consequences displayed beautifully in the 'deep' approach]’

Figure 3 Academic discourse and its levels -- Habermas

 LEVEL ONE (the surface appearances in colleges)

·        Specific arguments in lectures, seminars or texts

·        Specific procedures, especially in assessment (e.g. criteria for ‘critical’ arguments) or pedagogy (e.g. the structure of lectures)

 LEVEL TWO (the structure of ‘practical’ argumentation in general -- ‘empirical pragmatics’)

·        ‘speech acts’ (not just formal linguistic operations)

·        types of communication: (a) ‘interactionist’ (designed to reach consensual understanding with others) (b) strategic, including ‘distorted’ and ‘blocked’

·        discourses to remove blocks and distortions

 LEVEL THREE ( ‘universal pragmatics’ -- the basic human competencies)

·        realising the ‘ideal speech act’ and its relation to the ‘four worlds’ : language, external reality, social reality, inner states of consciousness.

·        forming the ‘happy utterance’ which relates well to each ‘world’ and is therefore intelligible, true, ‘moral’ (socially appropriate), sincere.

·        raising ‘validity claims’ about comprehensibility, truth, morality and sincerity etc. in the utterances of others

·        launching theoretical discourses to discuss without constraint the validity claims of disputed utterances, and metatheoretical claims to discuss the rules for assessing validity (truth, morality etc)

Before we cheerfully reduce Habermas’s work to a series of study skills checklists, we would still need to be sensitive to specifics and to contexts, though. Habermas’s work is at a very general level, and he knows very well the problems of addressing specific social situations like encounters in colleges or universities. Extra conventions and rules apply in those contexts, so to speak, which may have to be followed in the very process of releasing these universal critical potentials. As all students know (some more explicitly than others, perhaps), there are acceptable and unacceptable ways of asking questions, confessing to ignorance, disagreeing with other students, reconciling different ‘readings’ and so on, and, once more, those conventions are supported in colleges and schools by assessment and grading practices. The implications from Bourdieu’s work seem to crop up again. Of course, we have a critical edge with Habermas’s work too – we can use his notion of the ideal speech act to contrast with the actual types of communication that go on in colleges, to expose the distorting or strategic effects of conventions, to realise that university communication is not simply ‘natural’, and perhaps not even innocent of manipulative undertones. 

What have we learned from this brief detour into some high-powered social theory? Even if we cannot apply Bourdieu or Habermas immediately to our task, some critical insights might have been gained. At least we now are in a position to think about academic communication at different levels. At a general level, there are universal argumentational devices, universal critical potentials that enable any one of us to critique arguments, and at the specific level sets of conventions or ‘judgements’ that influence the specific operations of academic work in organizations like colleges or schools (which might include types of communication such as ‘strategic’ and ‘distorted’).

To become an effective student of social theory, in the specific context of a university or college (rather than in the ‘idealised’ context we discussed above) requires social and cultural skills to operate at these different levels which exist ‘beneath’ or ‘behind’ the specifics of the syllabus. If we can think of these different levels, it becomes easier to recognise, operate with, and critique forms of communication encountered in syllabi in the specific location of the college. Let us now pursue the notion of ‘levels’ in another, more abstract, direction.

Levels of theorizing

Let us begin this section with some implications following on from our analysis of the production of social theory (see earlier file) . I hope one general implication is clear already -- that conventional study skills can offer only a partial solution to the problems of studying social theory. Those that focus on the immediate problems of coping with specific materials in order to complete specific assignments will offer only a limited insight into the many levels at which social theory operates. The same comment applies, obviously, to the semi-deviant and unofficial ‘study skills’ of the hidden curriculum – the short cuts, and the ‘cheats’ of student rumour and legend. These techniques might serve to help you cope with pressing demands on your time, but they can never lead to sufficient understandings of the contexts and dynamics of social theory. There is a good chance that you will fail to demonstrate your grasp of ‘deep’ principles that leads to the really high grades awarded for students who can deliver ‘understanding’ or ‘critical analysis’. Finally, you risk longer-term problems as you become ‘syllabus-dependent’: simply following blindly a syllabus designed by pedagogic experts will always leave you feeling mystified and alienated, and this will work away at your confidence and motivation.

There are levels of social theory, what we have called ‘residuals’, from the other stages which operate ‘before’ or ‘outside of’ the institutionalized syllabus, and different sorts of dynamics which drive theory forward and explain the changes and differences in it. It seems necessary as a result to pursue other sorts of ‘study skills’ to acquire different sorts of understandings. I have been arguing throughout that social sciences offer their own techniques to understand ideas and theories. As a result, students of social sciences are in an excellent position to apply these techniques to the understanding of social theory itself.

The earlier file argued that social theory could be seen as going through three (simplified) stages, for example. The first phase involved a relatively informal way of thinking about ‘real’ problems found routinely in the social world. The second phase involved an attempt to systematize and formalize this knowledge, to develop more specialist concepts and problems – even specialist ‘objects’. The third phase we called ‘institutionalization’, where social theory gets transformed into actual syllabi, teaching sequences and assignments for you to encounter specifically as students. Let us follow through some implications for the problems of grasping social theory. 

Understanding social theory in its first phase requires the skill of trying to trace in social theory the signs of the real-world problems that interested the writer in the first place, as it were. Those problems probably will be influenced by your own contemporary interests, of course. At the first stage, the biographies or biographical sketches in many textbooks can help (e.g. Ritzer 1994, Waters 1994), as can the interviews or letters, the historical accounts of the development of various ‘schools’ (Ritzer 1994 again on the ‘Chicago School’, or the more ‘difficult’ pieces like Held 1980 on the ‘Frankfurt School’, or the ‘key thinkers’ in Lechte 1994).

As you pursue your studies in social sciences, you will probably encounter specialized approaches that attempt to explore systematically the impact of existing social problems on the formulations of specific texts in social theory. These approaches might be given names like ‘hermeneutic analysis’ or the ‘sociology of knowledge’, and there are major investigations of these issues in marxism or in the work of writers like Foucault. It would be inappropriate to pursue these specialist approaches at present, but the questions they ask are not that far removed from your interests as a student, I believe, and, as a very quick first hint of what might be possible when you do encounter these specialisms, I have listed a few possible initial questions in Figure 4.

Figure 4 Types of Analytical Questions for Phase 1

1.      ‘Hermeneutic’ questions (see Palmer? Thompson?):

·        I am assuming that this text is meaningful to the person who wrote it -- how can I read this text so as to release those meanings?

·        What personal meanings are at work in this text for the typical academic of the time and the context?

·        What theoretical (religious, political, academic) traditions can be traced in this text?

2.      ‘Sociological’ questions (see Mannheim? Marxism?):

·        What assumptions (values, concerns, problems) can be found in this text and whose are they?

·        How do these assumptions etc. relate to what we know of the social problems, structures, political struggles and dilemmas of the time?

·        What social groups did the author(s) belong to or identify with, and what sort of influence emanating from these groups might be detected in their work?

3.      Archaeological’ questions (see Foucault 1974):

·        How does this text relate to others I know in terms of both the similarities and differences of its concepts, problems, procedures, or methods?

·        How does this text relate to the broader field of knowledge about this topic available now or at the time it was written (e.g. that knowledge displayed in newspapers, social comments,  other academic or popular accounts, my personal knowledge and experience) – e.g. what is going to be needed to ‘update’ this text?

·        Does this text claim to be more ‘scientific’ than other texts and if so, on what is this claim based, and how is it actually demonstrated?

Of course, this sort of analysis must be careful not to miss the effects of the other phases: social theories are never simply determined by their social origins (and Foucault (1974) in particular insists on the relative independence from context of what he calls ‘discourse’). Once we enter the systematic phase, theories can develop a momentum of their own, we argued. It is necessary to remember this to avoid the occasional dismissive summary of uncongenial approaches as somehow hopelessly bound to their time. The most notorious case in my experience concerns those attempts by British activists to persuade generations of students that ‘critical theory’ derives its characteristic pessimism from its unfortunate early life in Nazi-dominated Germany – in fact critical theory has a number of excellent theoretical reasons for its pessimism, of course, as Held argues.

There is no shortage of analytical techniques to explore the development of social theory at this second phase. The sociology of (natural) science offers many parallels to pursue here – the role of ‘paradigms’ or ‘research programmes’ in governing actual work, the interplay of logical, social and linguistic factors, the institutional connections between research and commerce or government, for example.

More recently, the whole ‘post-structuralist’ movement has featured expert analyses of what might be termed the strategies of classical (or ‘modernist’) social theory, the practices by which meanings are prematurely stabilized in concepts; the ways ambiguities or incoherence are masked by tactical deployments of metaphor, or dogmatism, political interests, ill-thought out ideological assumptions, or other forms of premature closure; the ways literary techniques are used to make convincing or involving stories out of research findings.

To take one quick example, Hindess (1977) offers a wonderfully terse and thoroughly critical analyses of trends in modern sociology ( see file). His chapter on Weber sets out very effectively to expose the assumptions in the great man’s work, starting with the famous distinction between ‘action’ and ‘behaviour’: this distinction is not based on any sociological observations or any very clear discussion, but reflects Weber’s allegiance to some rather dubious philosophical premises about the ‘essences’ of humanity and the old dualist idea about ‘Man’ having a body (which merely 'behaves') and a soul or mind (which is capable of action), says Hindess. Weber goes on to develop a confusing ‘sociology of action’, weaving together claims that (a) we can never fully understand the meanings of others; (b) that we can work only with meanings we have ‘imputed’ for typical actors; (c) we should select concepts and construct types according to ‘value-relevance’; and yet (d) that we can test types against some ‘objective’ criterion of ‘causal adequacy’. In fact, says Hindess, the first three points make any sort of rational testing of ideal types completely arbitrary: there are always good reasons for the skilled Weberian to explain why ideal types never correspond to the real.

'Causal adequacy’ is a case in point, according to Hindess. Weber says we can test the causal adequacy of our concepts and constructs against ‘established generalizations from experience’, but he does not tell us how to establish these generalizations, and supplies only his own ‘vague analog[ies]’ (Hindess 1977: 43). Overall ‘there is no reason why the social scientist should not let his imagination run wild. He has nothing to lose but the chains of reason’ (Hindess 1977:38).

I am not suggesting that we have to go along entirely with Hindess at this point, of course. His views depend upon his own rather narrow and strange notion of what a proper social science should look like, and this is open to criticism too (see Crook 1991 for an excellent discussion). Yet the questions he raises are powerful and interesting, and reopened for me many doubts I felt when reading Weber for the first time as a student: the approach seemed to me then to be rather contradictory and odd, although I was inclined to blame myself for not perceiving the subtleties (no doubt, Weberians still would want to insist that their man had it right, of course). Questions like Hindess’s can still be raised though, and should be in any critical discussion (and we shall raise something like them ourselves when we consider ‘action’ approaches later -- in the actual book I mean).

These sceptical techniques of the ‘post’ phases (Hindess is sometimes described as a ‘post-Althusserian’) extend into ‘postmodernism’ too, of course, as, say, Lyotard (1984) exposes the ‘foundational claims’ of sociology, or Baudrillard (1987) gives us convincing reasons why we should ‘forget Foucault’ (and Habermas, and several others). The style is contagious, and I have even been inspired by some of these writings myself to examine critically major approaches in British cultural studies – again, we shall rehearse some points in later chapters (in the book). There is a satisfying further stage of reflexive application of these critical insights – to include postmodernism itself. As a number of commentaries have pointed out (Dews 1992 is perhaps the most developed), it is impossible to exempt one’s own analyses from powerful critiques aimed at all analysis, so that 'postmodernism' becomes as illogically 'foundational and just as 'forgettable' as its rivals!

At the third phase, where theory gets institutionalized into a university or college course or option, we have already explored some possibilities. The trick is to refuse to see the specific syllabus as a ‘natural’ one,  as an obvious option, requiring no further explanation, or as a completely meaningless construction that just happens to put topics in sequences for no apparent reason. Syllabi are social constructs, structured to a large extent by the conventions and the micropolitics of the academy, we have been arguing, and as such they can be understood, using the insights of some of the works in the sociology of education (in its broadest sense), as we have suggested here, perhaps.

There is some insightful work on higher education in particular which explores the links between academies, their political and social contexts, and other forms of organization. I have already mentioned my own work on distance education, and more recent approaches enable analysts to grasp the latest changes in terms of more general models – ‘postfordism’, or ‘Macdonaldisation’(see, for example, Parker and Jary 1995 -- there is  now a substantial debate on Macdonaldisation).

This sort of work might seem ‘unprofessional’, or it might run the risk of debunking the very institutions in which students are struggling to survive. However, it should also help students to begin to decide how they want to participate in the syllabus, how much they want to devote to learning the conventions of academic life, for example, as well as following the ‘surface’ requirements.

Figure 5 Questions for the Institutionalised Phase

 1.      ‘Sociological’ Questions:

·        What sorts of social backgrounds do academics come from and how might this affect their work?

·        What wider social forces are likely to affect colleges and universities – e.g. what are their social functions? What changes to work patterns might have an impact – e.g. rationalization? advanced capitalism? modernity? Macdonaldisation?

2.      Anthropological’ Questions:

·        Are there aspects of university life which look like ‘tribal’ behaviour or like ‘witch-hunting’?

·        To what extent do university professionals act like the professionals studied by Goffman – e.g. is there a ‘back-stage’ region? 'role-distance’?, ‘presentation of self’?

3.      ‘Media Studies’ Questions:

·        What are the main narrative strategies used in academic presentations – e.g. is ‘academic realism’ still dominant?

·        What positions are offered to the audience in these presentations – e.g. what are the modes of address? what are the strategies to involve the audience?

·        What forms of audience ‘resistance’ or ‘recontextualisation’ are available?


The danger arises at this point that you might be already experiencing some sort of vertigo or demoralization as you come to see first that there are no simple ‘technical fixes’, and second that there are multiple levels of theory and corresponding multiple levels of understanding. It is necessary to live with this sort of anxiety, though, to be aware of the limitless scope of the task while still being able to cope, by following particular skills for particular purposes, by accepting that there are other ways to understand and to learn while not feeling overwhelmed. It is still better to think of your tasks in this way rather than to entertain illusions that it is possible to quickly grasp the essential meanings of the texts you will be reading, or to rely on being able simply to reproduce the summaries of others with little personal engagement. However, my belief is that it does get easier: as I have suggested, sociological expertise enables this reflexive grasp of social theory itself, once you can use it to generalize.

 Active theorizing

I have already suggested some ways in which you might develop some sort of active approach of your own, asking your own questions of the texts you encounter – where they came from, what their social context might be and what influence this might have – and so on. Let us see what more might be done, as confidence and expertise grows. It is necessary to clear some ground first, of course.

We referred to an Althusserian notion of theorizing in the first file. Other writers have seen much more connection between theorizing as an activity undertaken by specialist intellectuals and the processes of ‘normal’ thinking. There is still a specialist level, in this sort of work, but the boundaries between it and the sort of thinking that goes on in everyday life are much more permeable. Social theory becomes a matter of systematizing or (critically) ‘reconstructing’ everyday thinking, and the characteristics of social theory are located on a continuum with  those of everyday thought, rather than being separated by a substantial ‘break’ into science. Ironically, this is the conclusion that the ‘post-Althusserians’ came to, more or less, after seriously testing to destruction the science/ideology division (see Benton 1977). For other thinkers, like Habermas, or in a different way Giddens or Foucault, the two had always been connected.

Let us follow some arguments from Habermas again at this point. We have already introduced the work on the ‘ideal speech act’ and referred to notions of ‘universal pragmatics’. This implies that the essential critical capacities of all thinking are universally available. The potential to raise ‘validity claims’ is a universal one. In practice there may well be constraints on the ability to think  critically – social constraints where others are ‘deaf to argument’, as Habermas puts it, and are content to use some form of strategy or even force to support their views, or even inner constraints where thinkers are ‘blocked’ and do not know their own minds. Theoretical discourse occurs where these constraints are removed, where participants are free to pursue arguments wherever they might lead, and where the aim of the exercise is to achieve some genuine consensus about the various validity claims.

It is not simply that specialist organizations – university seminars on theory-- go through a number of stages of production. You might have already become alerted to one implication of the Althusserian notion: thinking of ‘ordinary ideas’ as ‘raw materials’ for some particular production process carried a notion of a hierarchy, of course. One implication is that only specialist theoretical producers can carry out the transformations between (mere) ideas and (cognitively superior) theory. In the case of Althusser specifically, intellectuals of the Communist Party were to be the ones who actually did the production of theory, using the special concepts of (suitably theorized) marxism. There was little room for much active theorizing by anyone else. Such elitism might have been well-intentioned, in that it would provide theory to guide the process of social change on behalf of the ‘ordinary’ members of the party, but it was still elitism. In Althusserian marxism the whole process was underpinned with a strong belief that there were clear differences between ‘ideology’ and ‘science’, so that the one had to be definitely transformed into the other. Becoming an active theorist seemed to require a good deal of long and specialist labour. For other traditions too, theorizing remains an elitist activity, possible only after lengthy induction into theoretical traditions.

No teacher would want to deny that active theorizing comes best after a long period of exposure to other specialist theorists, but is there no other way of conceiving of theorising so as to offer a more accessible route in?

We have already discussed this point in describing some of the peculiarities of ‘educational’ talk and how this can provide difficulties for newcomers required to switch between different sorts of communication. Sometimes teachers ask genuinely open questions, for example, inviting a genuine answer, while at other times they ask special pedagogic questions designed to get students to arrive at an answer teachers have in mind already. This can baffle small children (who do not see the point of telling the teacher what colour a toy is, for example – see Brice-Heath (1987) --  but students are not always sure either what is required. Other exchanges are clearly rhetorical, designed to persuade students to see the world in a particular light, or provocative rather than sincere, designed to challenge student perceptions and to help them reflect on their own subjective experiences. Some of this activity might be described as deliberately ‘therapeutic’ or ‘aesthetic’ in Habermas’s terms, while some elements of discussion might be seen as ‘practical’ discourse serving to test out or justify people’s sincerity or their  grasp of the norms and values at work in academic intercourse. It would be fascinating to take Habermas’s list of types of communication and use it to analyze in detail actual lectures, seminars or other teaching materials., perhaps along lines suggested by some famous work on talk in school classrooms (Hammersley 1988): we might be able even to quantify the time taken up by the different types. We would certainly find mixtures of all these types of communication, as well as more specialist theroretical discourse, I believe.

And on the other hand, normal thinking is also capable of displaying all the potentials and competencies, Habermas would  argue, if only given the right circumstances. This point brings us back to the issue of whether current universities or colleges do offer the right circumstances for the critical potential of student thinking to develop. At the very least, there seems to be a paradox which we have identified already: students do need specialist concepts with which to extend their existing capacities for theoretical communicative activity, but existing institutions often also teach them to become strategic, in the very process of trying to pass on these specialist concepts. The concepts become alien, to be kept entirely separate from any personal thinking. Once again, we seem to need several sorts of inputs, some related to institutions and their syllabi and teaching methods, and some completely independent of those institutions and their activities.

At this point, we can follow the links between study skills and social theory back the other way, so to speak, to discover another bonus for the ‘deep’  student of social theory. To put it at its simplest, managing deep and surface levels of a syllabus or task is actually a form of theorising in its own right. Social theory is actually riddled with notions of surfaces and depths, as we have already indicated, and we have already seen the deployment of a ‘deep’ level of analysis in the quick summaries of the work of Bourdieu and Habermas, of course. If you can take a ‘deep’ stance towards learning, you are doing something like theorising for yourself, at a preliminary stage, of course. You are looking for principles ‘beneath the surface', you are exploring ways to become independent of a syllabus, and to exercise the potential for theoretical discourse. It goes without saying that such an approach can deliver both sorts of the benefits we have been outlining – a genuinely independent and personal sense of learning social theory which will help you to grasp some of the principles of social theory, and, in a more strategic mode, an ability to supply the ‘critical discussions’, ‘understandings’ and ‘originality’ that is required to gain the best grades in most assessment schemes.

Beginning to Theorize

Let us sketch in some activities as examples of how to exercise this capacity to begin to theorize, to explore the ‘deep’ levels of social experience. Specialist social sciences have their own concepts to refer to ‘depths’, as we have just seen (‘functions’, ‘mode of production’, ‘virtual’ levels and so on), but, to repeat the argument, the assumption here is that social theory begins at least as simply a more systematic procedure than the procedures of ordinary ‘know-how’. In what follows, I discuss some basic procedures that actually require very little in the way of specialist concepts, but which turn far more on developing an interest in wanting to stand back from arguments, context them, begin to see connections between them, and begin to criticize them.

Theory as Analysis

Here, the point is to explain what is on the surface as combinations of smaller more fundamental units. The classic examples in systematic theory are found in ‘structuralism’, where actual social practices are explained as combinations of underlying structural relations. Thus Levi Strauss offers an analysis of kinship systems using a minimal set of relationships and emotional orientations (Leach 1970 and see file). There are other examples of the technique in, say reducing the complexities of actual identities in modern life to combinations of the three ‘core identities’ of sex, class, and ‘race’ (as was common once in British cultural studies). Or try Poulantzas (1975) ( and see file) on the middle classes as determined by combinations of only three underlying social levels.

This sort of analytic procedure parallels the successful practices of natural sciences in reducing complex compounds to more fundamental elements, or elements to atoms, and then to subatomic particles and so on.

Theory as Classification

Here, existing events or practices are subsumed under larger categories. This sort of general classificatory activity leads to actual industrial disputes or the concrete fights between pupils and teachers over classroom ‘discipline’ being recognized as ‘class struggle’, for example. Classic examples apart from Marxist ones include Weber and types of authority, or ,best of all, perhaps Parsons and the AGIL model ( see Rocher 1974) (and file)

At an individual level, this sort of classification can produce the ‘perspectival’ effect noted above, when you come to see that what you took to be a unique viewpoint turns out to be simply a typical one for people of the same age, sex and social background as yourself (it is usually easier to recognize this in others). Sometimes, social theorists positively reconstruct specific views in terms of some larger and more embracing scheme, not only classifying a perspective as part of some larger set, but also explaining why it appears to be unique and self-sufficient or adequate for the time. Postmodern social theory, on the other hand, seems to head back into perspectivalism, with its denial of the supremacy of the grand theoretical narratives and their mission to order and rank the others.

Theory as making comparisons

Here, we operate between events at the same level, so to speak. This act of making comparisons is widespread in ‘everyday knowhow’, as people try to make sense of new situations by comparing them to the ones they already know about. Social interactionist or social phenomenological approaches describe these ‘ordinary’ subjective processes very well, as people establish shared forms of understanding, and then gradually work outwards towards the ambiguities.

We can develop an argument connected specifically with study skills again here. A famous text (Polya 1990) identifies the process of drawing analogies as crucial in understanding mathematics (and as a routine competence available to any thinker). Stewart’s Introduction to the 1990 edition significantly points out that ‘Polya’s strategies relate to a much deeper level than the operational surface [of mathematics]’ (xvi), and goes on to outline the approach as a matter of following four phases. The first one involves trying to understand the problem, and Stewart says that ‘Polya places a great deal of emphasis on the consideration of related problems whose solution is already known, and on reasoning by analogy’ (xviii).

An analogy, of course, exhibits relations of similarity between two objects (not identity), which invites a creative exploration of similarities and differences between the two. This requires a certain ‘know-how’ as well, as Stewart points out, and, as is always the case with academic subjects, there are tried and tested analogies which the student needs to learn (and Polya goes on to develop some teaching strategies to help students to learn to both formulate analogies and then test them in the rather specific area of mathematical problem solving). Things are rather less formalized in social theory, but the same processes of analogical comparisons and subsequent exploration or test are identifiable in just about all the classic theorising, from  Weber’s survey of organizational forms in different countries and at different times (leading to the ideal type bureaucracy) to Giddens’s sustained efforts throughout the 1970s and 1980s to compare and then synthesise whole tracts of European social theory leading to the work on 'structuration' (see file), or to Habermas’s reconstructions of different traditions in sociology and philosophy (leading to the theory of communicative action, which we have already examined).

In these cases, comparisons are systematized, leading to deliberate theorizing at a level which lies behind or beneath the specific examples in the comparisons. Here,  theory acts as a deliberate ‘third term’ to help us to generalize, and analogies can be pursued explicitly and systematically with this theory-generating aim in mind. There is also a meta-theoretical level, of course, where theorists debate different possibilities for these analogical processes: briefly, ‘good’ analogizing should produce theory that is non-contradictory, and non-arbitrary (to paraphrase Foucault 1974). In the pursuit of these goals, great arguments have raged about whether or not it is possible to generate rules to join the various levels logically and consistently: you will encounter some of these debates when you discuss the options available to social science to become a ‘rigorous’ or a ‘positive’ science.

However, a good deal of profitable theorizing can be undertaken simply by considering comparisons much more speculatively. Students are often asked specifically to engage in such speculative theorizing, most specifically of all, perhaps,  in those assignments that actually invite you to ‘compare and contrast…’. Less explicitly, speculative comparisons can be involved in the simple invitation to ‘discuss’ something, or in the teaching strategies used (especially where, say, a range of different examples is offered, and you are invited to make sense of them).

Using analogies in different teaching situations

In my own teaching recently, in Media Studies this time, I covered some work on analyzing the conventions of the promotional video, and we examined music videos as specific examples. Then we went on in subsequent weeks to consider the conventions of those promotional videos that try to persuade students to enrol for various universities and colleges. Looking back over the work, I invited students to consider what those two types of videos had in common and where they differed. It wasn’t that I had some specific work in mind which I wanted my students to mention in discussion (which, I suspect, is what some of them thought). Instead, I wanted them to speculate for a bit about some possible issues which unite and divide the actual examples and to ask critical questions like:

·        Why are educational videos so ‘serious’ compared to music videos?

·        Why do educational videos offer a ‘realist’ account of campus life, while so many music videos have broken with ‘realism’?

·        What strategies to engage the audience are found in both types, and are they the same or fundamentally different ones?

·        What are the similarities and  differences between these two types and other types of ‘persuasive’ materials (including some ‘propaganda’ films we had seen on another section of the course)?

Speculations about these links and connections between topics are always possible. The more social science you do, the more it becomes possible to think of similarities and differences between the topics you cover. If there is an educational advantage to modularised degree schemes it is that students cover a much wider range of topics than ever before, leading to more and more raw materials for analogical thinking. Specific social theory courses (and textbooks) should enable that thinking to become more and more explicit and systematized.

I think students are often put off by an inability to perform this sort of speculation in a suitable language, one that does not look too pompous or over-confident. Local conditions vary, but it is usually possible to establish with teachers (and assessors) suitable ways to express your own attempts at theorizing. In my college, it seems safest to adopt a cautious and rather impersonal speculative style using phrases like ‘It could be argued that…’ or ‘It is possible to see some connections between…’, or ‘If we compare X to Y, we find that…’ or whatever.

Another problem is that students find the pursuit of ambiguity or speculation an insecure process (especially for ‘surface learners’, of course). We have already suggested that a substantial amount of cultural capital, or the willingness to acquire some, might be crucial. It is also important to realize that social theory is ambiguous, imprecise, open to reinterpretation. I hope I have begun to indicate this already, when pursuing some implications of possible similarities between concepts of ‘depth’ in Morgan, Bourdieu and Habermas.

To take another personal example, recently I read with interest Ritzer’s (1994) account of the development of interactionist accounts of professional work undertaken by people like Hughes. That work was based on analyses of certain professional groups (like doctors) in the USA nearly 50 years ago. However, I also came across it in a course concerning the current state of professionalism among teachers in the UK. The authors of that course had taken concepts like ‘(subjective) career’ or ‘segmentation’ or debates like whether ‘professional’ is a subjective or objective term, and had tried to use them to theorize about UK teachers: did the same concepts work with the new group? In this way, theory gets extended, and, since new cases almost invariably offer challenges, theory gets developed as well.

Two points arise from this discussion. The first is that social theory gets easier as you learn more of it: theory enables us to pursue operations on arguments, to classify events or to analyze them in particular ways. And theory enables ‘its own’ comparisons to be made. Specialist theoretical concepts are the ‘third terms’ in our analogies, as we have deployed the term above, and when we develop them, we move away from the first steps into theory proper.

The second main point is that none of the operations described above should be seen as finalized or as unproblematic. New students often misunderstand this point, in my experience, and expect a ‘proper theory’ to deliver some sort of perfect fit between concepts and actual examples: failing to find one, they can often think they have made some sort of mistake. Describing specific events in terms of more general categories always involves a loss of some specific aspects, however, and it might be necessary to return to those lost aspects later to reopen the issue. The best example, for me, concerns gender, and the tendency for theorists to ignore its specific effects when classifying wage disputes, say, as ‘class struggles’, but there are, of course,  many others

Indeed, concepts never go over into reality without some loss or remainder, to paraphrase Adorno (1973) (see file), and this is what makes ‘applying’  theory both problematic and creative. To take the case of the work on the professional, for example, it became clear when applying American theory to British teachers that the role of the State was far more important here in the UK, in regulating claims to professional status in various ways, for example, and that gender became more important too.

Growth of understanding took place in two directions, as a result. First ‘professionalism’ as British teachers knew it could be seen as not unique but as offering one set of possibilities based on specific British circumstances. And secondly, Hughes’s original work could be seen as requiring additional dimensions to include the effects of the State and of gender.

This kind of cycling between theory and specific cases (or between theoretical concepts and empirical data) is sometimes called ‘abduction’, to contrast it with the more formal and more limited procedures of deduction or induction, and it is an active and creative process in extending understanding. Indeed, strictly speaking it is the only creative process. After some years of operating with models of ‘proper theory’ or ‘science’ as some sort of automatic and ‘objective’ procedure following strict rules of logic, we now know that the creative bits are inherent in theorizing, even if they have to be tidied up and rationalized afterwards.

To borrow a specifically ‘post-structuralist’ or ‘postmodernist’ formulation of this point, one benefit specifically arises for the beginner in social theory – there is a much greater justification for an opportunity for new participants to form their own ‘little narratives’, even if only as critical asides in the most tightly structured university assignments. It becomes possible to consider the revolutionary programme offered by people like Game (1991) that theorizing might become personally significant, pleasurable, empowering (to use a rather overworked term), and even disrespectful.

However, let us not run before we walk. I am still assuming that most students will want to know first about the ways in which drawing analogies is going to help them understand the syllabus and prepare for the examinations. In principle, one can draw analogies between any two terms in the pursuit of any goal (or, if you prefer, any desires), but in the practice of the modern university, it is  likely that the options are going to be rather limited by the sorts of constraints we were discussing in the first chapter. There are constraints set by the actual syllabus (and assessment scheme), and, more broadly, by the conventions of the academic subject and by academic life itself. Not all of these constraints are ‘bad’, of course: there is sometimes a tendency with work like Game’s to see any constraint as a part of a deep male conspiracy aimed at world domination, but sometimes ‘mastery’ (of the academic subject) is a necessary stage to achieve for the budding theorist.

Thus, to provide another example from my own teaching, it is sometimes useful to offer guided or structured forms of analogising in order to secure some understanding before opening things up to free-flowing critique. I teach a course on (largely British) popular culture, for example, and it becomes important to demonstrate the key theoretical concepts that inform many of the concrete studies. I do this by asking students to think what these concrete studies (work on youth cultures, studies of school life, specific work criticising the ‘health craze’ of the 1980s and so on) have in common. I want my students to pursue a specific analogy at this point, and be able to notice that all these studies have been inspired by some general theoretical work associated with a particular ‘school’, and that all represent some sort of attempt to ‘apply’ some of the key concepts associated with that ‘school’ (‘hegemony’, ‘articulation’, ‘struggle’ and so on, in this case). I tend to call this ‘school’ the ‘gramscians’ (others refer to ‘ classic British Cultural Studies’, the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies’ – usually abbreviated to CCCS)

Once having recognized that there is a theoretical ‘third term’ to the analogies between such studies, students can proceed to undertake the next stage in critical thinking. Remembering the general discussions of ‘gramscianism’ they have had (or more usually, having had it pointed it out to them that they should remember these discussions), they can begin to connect general and specific levels and ask critical questions like these:

·        Are the concepts ‘hegemony’ or ‘articulation’  used consistently in the different studies?

·        How is gender treated?

·        Is there a consistent stance on the use of empirical data?

I am fully aware that I have to police students’ thought processes at this point, to get them to focus on what I take to be a significant and important specialist analogy, and to persuade them to delay (‘defer’ would be even better) their own ‘spontaneous’ analogies, based, perhaps on their own experiences of these areas. When this policing is skilfully done, it can seem relatively painless, and even pleasurable for students, almost as if they had ‘discovered’ these theoretical and specialist analogies for themselves, without any pressure from me.

Yet I have been engaging in strategic communication here, and I think it can be justified as long as it does genuinely produce a later stage of more sophisticated independent thinking. This more sophisticated independent thinking is what experts do (like Game, or like the ‘postmodernists), after having received a solidly conventional and structured education, no doubt. It is much easier to play with ideas, to pursue your own goals, act out your desires, and open up ‘poetic’ and playful readings of classic works once you are knowledgeable, well-qualified, and both culturally and economically secure. Few students are in that position, of course, and it would be a very abstract academic approach that suggested that their (relatively untutored) independent thinking is of the same kind as Game’s or Baudrillard’s. It would be an error, it could be argued, to equate postmodernist thinking with pre-modernist thinking (thinking that has not yet even encountered the classic modernist works), even though there are continuities and they can look rather similar at first blush.

Students seem required to pursue the conventional analogies of their institutions and their subject disciplines, at least initially, but we also have to guard against the slide over into formulaic thinking. There is a chronic tendency for this to occur, we have already suggested, driven largely, I believe, by the pressures of the assessment system felt by both students and staff. In the case of textbooks, commercial pressures probably have the same effect. Tired old stock forms of argument and discussion appear. Every theoretical work can be criticized as lacking empirical evidence, while empirical studies lack theoretical sophistication.  In sociology, everyone soon learns that interactionist approaches lack an adequate account of social structure (and vice versa), that Marx’s work on social class can be criticized by Weber, and Durkheim’s on suicide by ethnomethodological work (but never the other way round, or never criticizing Marx using ethnomethodological work, or Durkheim by Weber, or any of the other possibilities). In Media Studies, debates circulate endlessly between emphases on text and context, the effects of narratives and the readings of ‘active audiences’: the one emphasis can always be ‘corrected’ by adding the other. In British Cultural Studies, analyses always and already overemphasize either the constraints upon, or the capacities to resist held by, the viewer, the consumer, the sportsman, the school student, the shopper, the tourist and so on, in an endless cycling.

New students might well be delighted to discover these fairly simple rules and procedures. Faculty might be delighted to be able to solve awkward problems of what we have called the ‘domestication’ of social theory by relying on the tried and trusted formulae for ‘organizing a debate’, ‘covering a syllabus’ and so on. Both groups might even experience those rather dubious deeper pleasures of ‘mastery’ where you gain a sense of yourself an active and creative subject by being able to dominate, subdue and domesticate knowledge in this way, and deny its ‘otherness’ (I read this argument first in Adorno 1976, but it is clearly stated in different terms in the invaluable Game 1991).

In those circumstances of institutionalized stagnation, however, fresh analogies which break through the stale terms of the debates are essential, for the students, seeking to maintain motivation, we have already argued: social science soon becomes boring if it gets reduced to simple formulae like this, and it has been known for students to drop out in disgust at the triviality of it all (‘moral dropouts’ they have been called, or ‘rebels’ – see Elton (1996)).

Institutionalization threatens the academic community too, of course, but luckily there are the tensions we have already described at the different ‘levels’. Undomesticated types of social science thrive, and are easily available in the environments which surround colleges and universities. There is a constant temptation to move away from the institutional demands back towards the wilder zones of theory. Indeed this sort of tension has been identified in the whole process of theory growth in Bourdieu again (Lash 1990 has an excellent summary).

Bourdieu captures the tension between the domestic and the wild by referring to ‘priests’ and ‘prophets’ in social theory, for example. Like religious thinkers, both groups can lay claim to a tradition: social theory has been both clearly located in central institutions like universities and associated with cultural and political revolutionary movements and upheavals. The former location immediately opens a space for an institutional dimension to the apparently ‘pure’ arguments about theory, of course. Bourdieu analyses the institutional dimension in some detail, but we can rapidly summarize the basics: both priests and prophets engage in struggles for dominance, and this struggle is clearly affected by and expressed in the traditional competitions, rivalries and distinctions between different educational institutions and departments. The  recent emphasis on research activity in British universities helps us to see much of this struggle taking place over the claims of rival ‘research programmes’, just as in Lakatos’s account of struggles in natural science (Lakatos and Musgrave 1979).

For the winners, there is a chance to consolidate their position, backed by a classic academic form of distorted communciation: they speak of their work in the language of science instead of the language of politics as Bourdieu puts it (Lash 1990: 244). There is always a chance of a return to the wild, however, and we can think of cycles of innovation and routinisation. Finally, there is a complicating factor in  the emergence of a less institutionalised academic/cultural field outside of universities altogether, characteristically among the well-educated ‘new petit bourgeoisie’ (although this too is a mixed blessing).

To conclude this section, then, there are ‘wild’ and domestic’ forms of active theorizing available much more locally for you, the student. Again you may feel this is an excessive amount of choice, but I have argued that both types are necessary. As always, much depends on your circumstances as well as your interests. You might be located in an institution which favours one kind or the other (and institutional support, and the encouragement of your tutors and friends is crucial: students need a ‘research culture’ as much as Faculty). Your career (both objectively and subjectively) might be just beginning and you might feel you need to find your way into that necessary level of security first, before becoming too adventurous. In those circumstances, your theoretical practices will be linked closely to the conventional and you will need to spend some  time finding out just what the conventions are  (especially if you were not ‘born to it’) – but even here, remember that the conventions can be paradoxical and usually still expect some kind of critical grasp, some limited independent thinking, some sort of demonstration of an ability to comment and to speculate (there is a requirement for an ‘optimal level of challenge’ in one  formulation).

On the other hand, you might have located space for a bit of wildness, and have begun to formulate interests of your own which you want to pursue with your own theorizing practices, to push out from the narrow syllabus, perhaps, to begin to consider links with other disciplines and courses, and with your own experiences, pleasures and desires. However remote it might seem at the moment, that stage too is possible for any student of social theory, in my view.

Writing a social theory text

The problems and choices I have outlined above apply just as much to my task in writing this book. There are already many excellent books which are clearly linked to existing syllabi and which offer detailed summaries of the key authors and issues which you are expected to cover on those syllabi. To mention the most obvious cases, the close connections between the series of texts produced by Haralambos  and Holborn (1995), Bilton et al (1996), Giddens (2001) or Selfe (1993) and the British A-level Sociology syllabus is a major factor in the commercial successes of these pieces. For undergraduates with different syllabi, there are the famous books by Turner (1996) Waters (1994) or Ritzer (1994, 1996). It would be impossible to do better than those authors in assembling expert arguments directly covering social theory as it is usually structured in college or university syllabi.

However, that is not the only ‘level’ at which theory operates, we have argued above, and there are problems when students rely excessively on those texts, as any teacher will confirm. We have all met students who can apparently effortlessly summarise some complex arguments about marxism and its critics in their assignments, for example, yet who cannot answer the simplest questions about central concepts in marxism in seminars, nor apply any sort of marxist analysis to an area in another discipline. These people have kept within the laws banning plagiarism, but have become heavily dependent on their favourite texts, sometimes even to the extent that the very agenda of the author seemingly cannot be amended. Even where the precise course or assignment calls for a different emphasis, a new ‘application’, or a different level or ‘depth’ we find the same sequences, same summaries, same structures of argument, often in that formulaic manner we discussed above.

Of course, this is not necessarily the fault of the texts themselves, which often urge students not to follow them blindly or to pursue alternative approaches. The ‘wilder’ aspects of social theory are often referred to, and key texts (on postmodernism or postructuralism) mentioned quite properly in the bibliographies for further study – it is the ‘filing cabinet’ design together with the institutional constraints, especially of assessment, which produces the features of dependency. In my book, I am interested in encouraging a ‘deep’ approach, one which focuses on underlying principles, and one which does not lead to a tight dependency on any actual syllabi, although I aim to ground my discussion firmly in the areas covered by the more focused texts.

It is a commonplace that texts of this kind should focus tightly on the audience, but the audience too is problematic. The modular scheme in my own institution, for example, reminds me that students will have come to actual courses with a wide variety of different experiences. Under the old scheme, students were channelled much more definitely into subject disciplines so that one could be sure that by the second year they would have done a fair bit of introductory (often ‘applied’) sociology or media studies. In those circumstances, it is possible to introduce themes from social theory inductively, to tease out what applied studies might have in common, say, or to begin to consider specific problems of actual studies or research findings in a more abstract way. That sort of common starting point can no longer be assumed, however, in a modular scheme. The task is to think of some other sort of common interest or starting point.

As we noted above there is also an audience for social theory outside the  academy altogether (especially for the wilder variants, perhaps). Addressing this audience and emulating the success of the great bestsellers (Giddens 1998, Hutton 1995, Hebdige 1979) would be a tempting option – I have largely heroically resisted it and kept to my task of addressing students.

Clues to my approach lie in the discussions we have had already. Theory itself often went through an initial non-specialized, non systematized phase, it was suggested, which led on to a more formalized, and eventually an institutionalized phase. If most existing textbook focus primarily on the last stages, perhaps it would be possible to write a text which reconstructs all the phases? Of course, this would be a definitely pedagogic  form of reconstruction – it would not need to be one which traces actual, real, historical  developments, but one designed to help people attain the necessary ‘deep’ grasp of some underlying principles. An admiration for books like Morgan’s (1993), or insights derived from the recent work of Martin (in Francis 1999) leads to the idea that the book should consider the ‘root metaphors’ of social theory, and show how these have developed from ‘normal knowhow’ sorts of thinking about social life to the specialized  and organized work of social theorists.

The ‘root metaphors’ are routinely used in everyday life, I believe, in journalism and social commentaries of all kinds as well as in social theory as such. It is not just sociology students who use them to think with , and, sociology students probably used them before they did sociology (and perhaps still do so in their normal lives outside the academy).

The notion of social life as ‘external reality’, for example, to take the theme of the first section, is easy to grasp by any competent thinker, even if it might be counterintuitive at first. Tracing that metaphor through into the works of Marx, Durkheim and their critics and disciples should help reveal some of the principles upon which social theory works, and provide another level of understanding behind the expert summaries of other texts. With any luck, students should be able to combine my book and those famous commentaries mentioned above, to operate both at the ‘surface’ level of the requirements of the university or college syllabus and at a deeper level of understanding contributed more by themselves and their relatively syllabus-independent pursuits of ‘root metaphors’.

Of course, we have suggested that the practice of doing social theory is deeply intertwined with matters like managing course organization and assessment. I consider that I have a kind of ‘contract’ with students when I teach them, to offer material in the style and at the level they require as well as offering some sort of further explorations, and the same applies to readers of my books. It follows that I am expecting readers to skip sections of this book if they are reading it under the sorts of institutional pressures I have outlined (and I hope they return to it when the pressures are off). I have followed a similar structure in each chapter (at the risk of staleness and predictability) to permit this kind of skipping. In each chapter I offer sections aimed at both grasping existing syllabi and opening up ‘wilder’ areas of debate:

·        a discussion of ‘root metaphors’

·         a more focused discussion to show how these metaphors could be seen as developing into more systematic theory

·        a more specific critical  reading on a chosen central text

·        some critical discussion and controversies, current debates, possible ‘applications’ and so on, some well-known and others suggested by analogies I have drawn (as examples of the ones you can draw).


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