Monday, 2 March 2015

Dare to theorise!

Last year, when I joined the SoTL@UJ group, I was bowled over by the "theory speak". Although many of the ideas were familiar I did not recognise a single "theorist". Clearly behind, you could say.

I’m an anthropologist and it is not that anthropologists don’t have theory. Quite the contrary. Maybe obscure to outsiders, but there are Boas, Kroeber, Radcliff-Brown, Malinowski, Benedict, Mead, Turner, Douglas, Harris, Levi-Strauss and the rest… In fact, most anthropologists trace their lineage to one of the early theorists.

After the heavy dose of theory in graduate school—my bookshelves are still sagging under Marx, Gramsci, the Latin American radicals, the American feminists, and the French theorists—I decided, particularly after the postmodern turn, the only way out of theory is to focus on “real world” or applied issues. And, I thought that I could do without “fashionable nonsense” (Sokal and Brickmont 2013). However, I soon realised that theory is important, helping to frame answers to complex questions about those “real life” issues; that theory is key to organise and make sense of the data we collect; and, that using specific authors reflects particular political positions. Theory “produces perspectives” and “more or less useful ways of seeing the world” as Wenger-Trayner says (2013).

Kibbie Naidoo’s SoTL seminar on 19 February (What will the world look like if we were not working with Archer?) made me think. In fact, I have started to look for theory/ies that could frame my small project that will be part of the UJ SoTL for Social Justice project. The SoTL seminar series with its wide range of presentations and conversations about possible theories turned out to be very helpful. At the end the question is not if we need theory, but rather which theory do we need? I’m suggesting a reread of Hutchings and Huber’s 2008 article Placing Theory in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.

I agree with Kibbie’s key point that scholars of teaching and learning should look for theories that are contextually sensitive and relevant to South Africa, and not merely follow theoretical trends in an uncritical way. Kibbie’s challenge is: “How do we shape theory so that it can speak more powerfully to data and context?” She argues for a fresh look when examining the relationship between the individual and wider society, using multiple perspectives—the idea of the Sociological Imagination described by C Wright Mills (2000) as “the vivid awareness of the relationship between experience and the wider society”.

Dialogue is at the heart of research with a Sociological Imagination. This, Kibbie says, should be more daring and include conversations with academics from many different perspectives, embrace more than one methodology and theory, and “enter into dialogue with the research context (the actual experience of the participants and the socio-cultural and historical contexts)”.

Finally, theorising is process rather than product (Clegg 2012). How that process works is opaque to most of us, so we fall back on theories that are popular, talked about, frequently referenced, but also mostly from the Global North and decontextualised. We should actively seek out theorists from Africa, India and Latin America, where many social justice challenges in teaching and learning are similar to ours. And, we need to be more daring in our own attempts to theorise as Kibbie suggested in her seminar.

Kibbie's slides: 


1 comment:

  1. Here is a comment I received through email, from Ismail Akhalwaya, from the Department of Pure and Applied Mathematics at UJ, which he asked that I post here:
    I really enjoyed this blog post and going through Kibbie's slides (it's a
    pity I missed the talk).

    I have some follow up questions:

    * Don't these raised issues go to the heart of the problem of what IS
    knowledge? Couldn't we get a philosophy such as Prof Metz to shed some
    * The other big philosophical problem is that of the role of language.
    Language has built in to it a THEORY of the world! (e.g. time, space and
    relationship contructs). So the problem is worse than Kibbie thought:
    every time we try to express ourselves with words we run into the problem
    of THEORY.
    * I like the point about structure without linearity, but then I realise
    that as soon as you impose structure you are in a sense linearizing,
    because any structure can be explained in a linear fashion.
    * So maybe the problem is that we are trying to describe the
    indescribable: the ineffable, the intangible, self-referrential,
    self-reflecting aspects of what it is to be human? (This is apparently
    the crisis of psychology according to the recent talk at UJ on the topic
    that I attended and enjoyed). The strange resolution that the Prof
    proposed at the end (in relation to psycho-analysis) was that in the end
    we are NOT interested in the TRUTH of the theories we build but rather
    how helpful they are in providing insights and guidance (I suppose as
    measured by real-world emprical improvements (the value of which is an
    aprior value judgement)!

    Would love to hear your thoughts