Reading, Talking, Seeing

Every theory is a program of perception.

Pierre Bourdieu

Last year I wrote a post about analytical writing that many people found useful. My main point was that our analyses should attribute meaning to what the people we study have said and done. This provided a neat way to distinguish, paragraph by paragraph, your key sentences from the rest of the prose of your analysis. Your data tells you what your subjects said in your interviews (or how they answered your survey questions) or what they did while you observed them. You use this material to support interpretations of their experiences, i.e., statements about what their practices mean to them. The interpretations are expressed in the key sentences and your data supports those interpretations through quotation, paraphrase, and description. In this post I will try something similar with theoretical writing. I will argue that our theories are ways of seeing that emerge from discourse, i.e., the reading and talking we do in our discipline. The key sentences will delineate perspectives, i.e., ways of seeing, that the rest of the paragraph elaborates on the basis of a shared literature and an ongoing conversation. Let’s see how well this works.

Learning a theory takes a great deal of reading. This begins while we are students but continues throughout our research careers, and whether you’re a first-year student or a retired scholar, you will find that reading affects the way you see the world. “A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures,” said Borges; “it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory.” Those “durable images” are a good proxy for your theory. Reading a book about organizations, or economics, or history, or literature, installs lasting pictures of companies, markets, epochs, and classics in our memory, and these shape how we see such things when we encounter them in our own lives and in our research. Reading a book about the Great Depression shapes how we see the 2007-8 Financial Crisis and the COVID-19 Recession. Reading a book about Shakespeare shapes our perception of Beckett. And it isn’t just books that do this, of course; our mental models are constantly tweaked and challenged by the papers we read in the journals. Every time we see a theory applied to some object we see both the theory and the object a little differently. That’s the point.

Writing instructors never tire of telling their students that research is a conversation. They mean this both figuratively and literally. As Borges notes, there is a virtual “dialogue” between the readers and the (sometimes dead) authors who they’re “talking” to. But the specifically “academic” situation that many of us are immersed in offers plenty of opportunities for entirely real conversations. Living scholars, who are each other’s readers, meet in seminars and at conferences to share their results and challenge the conclusions of their peers. This is something Heidegger pointed out in a lecture back in 1938: “The research man no longer needs a library at home. Moreover, he is constantly on the move. He negotiates at meetings and collects information at congresses.” How much more true that is today! Even our writing functions more like talking when we post it to social media. While the jury is still out on whether it is an on-the-whole positive or negative influence, these new media certainly participate in the gradual formation of knowledge in discourse. They are a special case of the gradual perfection of our thoughts while speaking.

What we are ultimately working on is our “worldview”. Learning a theory isn’t just a lot of reading, and a theory doesn’t just give us something to talk about; it amounts to acquiring a way of seeing the world. This is what Pierre Bourdieu meant when he said that a theory is “a program of perception”. A theory will emphasize some things and downplay others, it will focus on some things and outright ignore others. In fact, a very good theory will make you entirely unable to see certain things and unable not to see others. The whole purpose of theory is to establish a perspective from which the phenomena you’re interested in will appear salient, and the relationships between them will become obvious. Ideally, with a good theory in mind, what you’re looking for in your data will be visible at a glance. Of course, this only actually happens after you have analyzed you data. But if you have built a good model you should be able to easily present your result to a reader who is familiar with your theory. You simply look at things in the same way.

How can you implement these ideas when writing your theory section? First, make sure that your key sentence articulates a “way of seeing” or calls up, if you will, a “subroutine” in your “program of perception.” As an example, consider the perfectly theoretical notion that “sensemaking is a retrospective process.” That also happens to be a perfectly good key sentence for a paragraph; it tells us to see sensemaking as a backward looking process. While not all theoretical statements will use a so obviously visual metaphor, you may be surprised how often it does happen once you start looking for it. In any case, to elaborate on the retrospective nature of sensemaking will normally involve citing Karl Weick and those who have built on his seminal work. We decide what scholarship to invoke on the basis of the discussion we’ve had with our peers, in class, in seminars, at conferences, and over coffee (or worse poisons). “Sensemaking is a retrospective process. Weick (1995) originally suggested that … But it is sometimes argued … The most recent studies indicate …” Every paragraph in your theory section could well feel like that: a way of seeing elaborated with reference to the literature and the conversation you share with your peers.

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