How to think about theory (interview with Mark Carrigan, 28 June 2018)

In June 2018, Mark Carrigan interviewed me and a few other people on what is social theory. The original interview was published on the Social Theory Applied website. I’m sharing it here only lightly edited, as it still reflects to a good degree what I think about the labour of theorizing as well as what I call ‘the social life of concepts’, which is my approach to doing and teaching theory.

MC: What is theory?

JB: The million dollar question, isn’t it? I think theory can mean quite a few things – Abend (2008) has listed a few – but rather than reiterate that, I’d focus on two interpretations of the concept that are crucial to my work. One is that it is a language, or a vocabulary, for making sense of social reality; as all languages, it allows for improvisation, but also has rules and procedures that regulate how and under what conditions specific statements make sense. It is also a practice: that is, the practice of growing, developing, and engaging with concepts in that language. This is why Arendt’s discussion of the concept as theorein is not opposed to practice as a whole, but rather comprises action, though one that entails a different idea of engagement.

MC: Why is it important?

JB: This is also why I believe theory is important – I think that a meta-language, and a language about that language, is necessary in order to ensure we can have a meaningful conversation about social matters – and when I say “we”, I do not mean only scientists. Social life by definition involves some level of reduction of complexity: how we go about reducing that complexity has direct implications for how we go about dealing with other people and our environment. This is also why I think it is fruitless to separate social and political theory. Take the concept of class, for instance: it can – it does – mean different things to different people. We need to have both a language in which to make these concepts meaningfully talk to each other, and a routinized social practice for doing so.

MC: What role does it play in your work?

JB: One of the corollaries of my training in both sociology and anthropology is that I find it difficult to sustain discussions about theory that do not engage with how actual people go about using these concepts – the exegetic tone of “did Marx really mean to say this…” or “why Bourdieu’s concept of social capital is that….” is, in my view, both too canonical and insufficiently exciting.

Theory need not be scholastic. One of the elements I got interested in when I was doing my first PhD, for instance, was the concept of ‘romantic relationship’- there were different attempts to theorise it (inversion of historical abstraction of property/inheritance rights, subjugation of women, emancipation from gender roles, cultural expression of ‘hard-wired’ preferences, and so on), but fewer attempts to see how these interpretations ‘sit’ with people’s ideas and practices. Reality does not ‘naturally’ fit into a specific theoretical framework. Rather than trying to make it do so, I decided to put these different theoretical lenses into conversation, to see a particular empirical case could illuminate their commonalities, differences, and possible overlaps.

My second PhD – which is on the role of critique in and of higher education – pretty much repeated this movement, but took it one step further. It asks what difference people’s knowledge makes in how they go about approaching things (including their own situation). Some of this knowledge is theoretical, both in the sense in which it is imbued by concepts derived from theory (as in Giddens’ double hermeneutic), and in the sense in which the question of the link between knowledge and action is in itself theoretically informed. There’s a whole bunch of nested epistemic double binds in there, and that’s what I find so attractive! In philosophical terms, I am aiming to bridge the gap between [critical] realist and pragmatist accounts of the production of knowledge and its role in social reality. I’ve found speculative realism to be a potentially useful tool in doing so, but it is a signpost rather than a church.

I always strive to work simultaneously *on* and *with* theory; someone recently described this as “theoretically hybrid”, which I think was a nice way of putting that I was inclined to bastardize every and one concept I ever came across. But I think this is what the job of the theorist is about. I understand some people prefer to work within the confines of a single theoretical tradition, sometimes dogmatically so; but this has never been my choice. I have very little reverence for principled fidelity to specific theoretical frameworks. Theories are worldviews; this means they need to be challenged.

MC: What would this routinised social practice look like? Is this something social theorists are uniquely qualified to do? How do we ensure this challenge happens? There are lots of obvious mechanisms within the academy which militate against this.

JB: Well, I think routinised social practice is what happens in teaching of sociology and other social science disciplines; it also happens at conferences, reading groups, etc. – such as the Theory stream at the British Sociological Association’s annual conference. The problem is these practices are often sequestered from other bits of theorising. For instance, feminist theory is rarely treated as part of ‘mainstream’ social theory; same goes for postcolonial theory and theories of race, though it seems this is finally beginning to change.

This reproduces, as your question suggests, one of the worst tendencies in the academia (and beyond): theories about and by educated Western white men are treated as ‘theory’, while almost all theory that falls short of even if just one of these categories is automatically a ‘special case’ – as if feminist theory applied only to women, and theories of race only to people of colour. As someone whose induction into theory happened initially through the combination of social anthropology (where questions of identity and difference are pretty much front and centre) and philosophy of science (which acknowledged quite a while ago that all claims to knowledge – including theoretical knowledge – are socially grounded), I find this almost incomprehensible – or, rather, I find that explanations for this go back to the elements in the academia we do not particularly like: racism, sexism, Euro- or (not always mutually exclusively) Anglo-centrism, etc.

Social theorists, on the whole, have not been very good at talking about this. This means that this challenge tends to happen in isolated contexts – and a lot of mainstream social theory carries on with ‘business as usual’. Making it more central requires, I think, a lot of concerted effort. Some of this is personal – for instance, I make a point of always calling out these practices when I spot them, and very adamantly resist ‘pigeonholing’ in which, eg, women’s theoretical claims are routinely repackaged or treated as empirical. For example: a man writing on privatisation of enterprises is seen as contributing to Marxist theory, but a woman writing on the gendered division of labour is either writing ‘about women’ (sic!) or about household labour.

When I was writing my first PhD, about relationships, people often said ‘oh’, as it was a ‘light’ topic, or as if it pertained only to practices of social mobility in a post-socialist context, where my fieldwork was. Giddens’ ‘pure relationship’, on the other hand – which, incidentally, is a concept I did my best to write against – was not taken as only representative of the lived experience of transnational bourgeois mobile academics. This will sound a bit Gramscian, but a lot of theoretical claims made by ‘academic celebrities’ that are routinely taken seriously are often little but the extrapolation of their privilege. Yet, clearly, that is not the problem in and of itself – everyone writes themselves into theories they develop. It’s treating some of these as reflections of universal, God-given truth, and some as ‘about women’ or ‘about race’.  It’s the culture of condescension towards women and minorities that really needs to change.

Obviously, calling it out is not enough: I think we need a strong organisational and institutional support for this. One of academia’s performative contradictions – that I am particularly dedicated to exploring – is that often collective practices work precisely against this. So, we can have a workshop or panel on sexism, racism, or colonialism in social theory, but actually challenging these practices – including in their ‘everyday’ guises – takes a lot of courage, but also a lot of solidarity. It cannot happen outside of challenging the whole culture of fear that currently pervades the academia but which, I hope, the UCU strikes have started chipping away at.

The other thing we can do is provide spaces where these conversations can take place. For instance, the Social Theory summer school we ran at the University of Cambridge in 2016 was developed exactly to surmount this tendency towards ‘cloistered’ (well, of all words!) theorising. To step outside of the retreat of academic positions, seminars, self-rewarding research grants panels, etc., and ask: what is it that doing theory actually entails? Is it anything other than an attempt to justify our own (academic and non-academic) privilege by casually namedropping Foucault or Durkheim? I think this is the question we really need to answer.

How to revise theory

These are some of the slides I have developed for this year’s revision lecture for my students on Modern and Contemporary Sociological Theory at Durham. I am posting them here as they may be a useful pedagogical resource for thinking through teaching – not only social (or sociological) theory but also other kinds of social and political thought.

These slides are meant to help students revise and prepare for exams – note that this is not the extensive engagement we seek to encourage in essays, and does not represent the way teaching or revising theory is approached in other modules (or the other half of this module) at Durham. If you are using these (or similar) slides in your own teaching I’d be keen to hear from you!

This is the introductory slide that describes the ‘4C’ approach to revision:

(1) Specify the social, historical and political context of theories;

(2) Discuss their content (and how they approach different elements of social ontology and epistemology – note that this is a longer discussion);

(3) Contribution: discuss how they contributed to sociologcal knowledge, and addressed and challenged preceding/existing theories;

(4) Critique: how have other (or later) theories challenged or deconstructed the theories you are summarizing?

This is an example of how to do this for Critical Race Theory and theories of intersectionality (as difficult as it is to reduce all of this to one slide!)

And here are two more…decolonial and postcolonial theory and (some of the) contemporary feminist theories, performativity and affect

The King’s Two(ish) Bodies

Contemporary societies, as we know, rest on calculation. From the establishment of statistics, which was essential to the construction of the modern state, to double-entry bookkeeping as the key accounting technique for ‘rationalizing’ capitalism and colonial trade, the capacity to express quality (or qualities, to be more precise) through numbers is at the core of the modern world.

From a sociological perspective, this capacity involves a set of connected operations. One is valuation, the social process through which entities (things, beings) come to (be) count(ed); the other is commensuration, or the establishment of equivalence: what counts as or for what, and under what circumstances. Marion Fourcade specifies three steps in this process: nominalization, the establishment of ‘essence’ (properties); cardinalization, the establishment of quantity (magnitude); and ordinalization, the establishment of relative position (e.g. position on a scale defined by distance from other values). While, as Mauss has demonstrated, none of these processes are unique to contemporary capitalism – barter, for instance, involves both cardinalization and commensuration – they are both amplified by and central to the operation of global economies.

Given how central the establishment of equivalence is to contemporary capitalism, it is not a little surprising that we seem so palpably bad at it. How else to explain the fact that, on the day when 980 people died from Coronavirus, the majority of UK media focused on the fact that Boris Johnson was recovering in hospital, reporting in excruciating detail the films he would be watching. While some joked about excessive concern for the health of the (secular) leader as reminiscent of the doctrine of ‘The King’s Two Bodies’, others seized the metaphor and ran along with it – unironically.

Briefly (and somewhat reductively – please go somewhere else if you want to quibble, political theory bros), ‘King’s Two Bodies’ is a concept in political theology by which the state is composed of two ‘corporeal’ entities – the ‘body politic’ (the population) and the ‘body natural’ (the ruler)*. This principle allows the succession of political power even after the death of the ruler, reflected in the pronouncement ‘The King is Dead, Long Live the King’. From this perspective, the claim that 980 < 1 may seem justified. Yet, there is something troubling about this, even beyond basic principles of decency. Is there a large enough number that would disturb this balance? Is it irrelevant whose lives are those?

Formally, most liberal democratic societies forbid the operation of a principle of equivalence that values some human beings as lesser than others. This is most clearly expressed in universal suffrage, where one person (or, more specifically, one political subject) equals one vote; on the global level, it is reflected in the principle of human rights, which assert that all humans have a certain set of fundamental and unalienable rights simply as a consequence of being human. All members of the set ‘human’ have equal value, just by being members of that set: in Badiou’s terms, they ‘count for one.

Yet, liberal democratic societies also regularly violate these principles. Sometimes, unproblematically so: for instance, we limit the political and some other rights of children and young people until they become of ‘legal age’, which is usually the age at which they can vote; until that point, they count as ‘less than one’. Sometimes, however, the consequences of differential valuation of human beings are much darker. Take, for instance, the migrants who are regularly left to drown in the Mediterranean or treated as less-than-human in detention centres; or the NHS doctors and nurses – especially BAME doctors and nurses – whose exposure to Coronavirus gets less coverage than that of politicians, celebrities, or royalty. In the political ontology of contemporary Britain, some lives are clearly worth less than others.

The most troubling implication of the principle by which the body of the ruler is worth more than a thousand (ten thousand? forty thousand?) of ‘his’ subjects, then, is not its ‘throwback’ to mediaeval political theology: it is its meaning for politics here and now. The King’s Two Bodies, after all, is a doctrine of equivalence: the totality of the body politic (state) is worth as much as the body of the ruler. The underlying operation is 1 = 1. This is horribly disproportionate, but it is an equivalence nonetheless: both the ruler and the population, in this sense, ‘count for one’. From this perspective, the death of a sizeable portion of that population cannot be irrelevant: if the body politic is somewhat diminished, the doctrine of King’s Two Bodies suggests that the power of the ‘ruler’ is somewhat diminished too. By implication, the current political ontology of the British state currently rests not on the principle of equivalence, but on a zero-sum game: losses in population do not diminish the power of the ruler, but rather enlarge it. And that is a dangerous, dangerous form of political ontology.

*Hobbes’ Leviathan is often seen as the perfect depiction of this principle; it is possible to quibble with this reading, but the cover image for this post – here’s the credit to its creator on Twitter – is certainly the best possible reflection on the shift in contemporary forms of political power in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.