the theoretical jungle

the funny thing about theory is that you can have a theory about a theory and then theorize it. these different levels make the entrance to theory for a student seem like a fight through a think jungle of entangled thoughts, ideas, names and concepts. to make the walk through the jungle enjoyable, one has to start at the very beginning.

1) the construction of theory

in a way, one can argue that every human being has created at least one theory in their life. theories are an abstraction of dynamics, processes and facts. we try to make sense of this ever changing life around us and we do it by abstracting complex problems into understandable variables, by breaking down the whole into pieces of puzzles we can play with. scientists do exactly the same thing, just on, as we like to think, a more sophisticated level. this construction we use to make sense of the world is what we call a theory.

but theory is not all positive, since it is right there, in the construction of theory, where the first “hierarchies of thought” (bell hooks 1991) come in. the question of which idea is validated as a theory or devaluated as a thought is crucial since it decides upon which issues will be addressed and questioned and debated.

in addition to the question which theory gets selected, one must not forget that every theory must be understood as a product of a person situated in a certain time, at a certain geographic and cultural area as well as within a socioeconomic class. all these factors influence the way this person perceives the world around him/her and thereby have an effect on the parameters of the theory. and in contrast to mathematics where an idea, theory or formula can be proven right or wrong by mere calculation, the world of human behavior, culture and society can only be attempted to be understood. the only way to actually revoke a theory in the social sciences is to question them and analyze the frame on which they are built and what effect it has on our perception. one of the most famous works in this regard is the questioning of orientalism by edward said.

2) putting theory to use

when ideas are put onto paper, creating defined concepts, abstract structures and basic ‘rules’, these theories offer a analytic approach of how to understand the world or at least a part of it. these theories can then be used by others. by applying the rules and concepts of a theory onto a certain problem, the researcher finds a convenient way to follow an ariadne’s thread through the process of collecting data and making sense of it. it is like, whenever he/she uses a theory, he/she puts on a pair of glasses, viewing the world in an ‘according to’-frame. these glasses can make life easier to find things, but they can also make you forget that you might just overlook something.

yet theories are not only used for academic purposes. sometimes they can also lead to action. according to bell hooks (1991), theory has three consequences: 1) it addresses issues – whereby it raises awareness, 2) it asks questions – which can challenge the status quo, and 3) it heals – for it offers a chance for reflection. this raised consciousness can influence action on a political or social level.

therefor, the question of whose theory is used in order to address a topic, is highly relevant.

3) theorizing theory

sometimes people then look at this mass of theories, ideas and concepts produced and try to make sense of it as well. one can compare this act with any filing system: by using one folder for each idea, come the time you need a filing system to put your folders into a system on a shelf. this is what happens at a meta-theoretical level. one tries to make sense of the different ideas, how they have changed and why.

yet this theorization of theory is not the only entanglement that arises in the jungle of theories. one has to be careful in the observation of who or what is made the object of the theory. especially in the case of “who”, since the very act of making a person, a culture, a people -a subject- into an object, is an act of power one forces upon the other. men over women, europe over the middle east, a white skin over a dark skin. it is like the host in lila abu-lughod’s (2006) paper says: “knowledge is power” (abu-lughod, p. 267).

in the end we have to realize that a theory is a construct – a useful tool for everyday research, a pair of glasses to put on an see an issue in a different light, or an ariadne’s thread to lead our way through the messy of the world – but after all it is just a construct.

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