This past weekend, I finished writing and submitted an article for the 2012 Culture and Agriculture Netting Award. The process of writing this article up resulted in a fair amount of self reflection with regard to my theoretical approach. In fact, it went so far as to make me wonder about the purpose of theory in general. For me, theory is about the process of doing research, writing it up, and other activities associated with that (i.e. activism, advocacy, employment, information sharing, etc.). It is meant to make us rethink the way we do research, and interact with people, and the value of that research for others. For example, with the publication of Writing Culture by Clifford and Marcus, we became more attentive to the way we write ethnographic texts and the consequences those texts had for the people they were intended to represent. This was an important step in the development of anthropological research because it forced us to rethink many established practices in the field. My own theoretical approach – whether you call it constructivist, cosmopolitical, ontological, compositionist, or whatever – is meant to extend this attentiveness to all aspects of our research practice. We have spent a great deal of time and energy thinking about the kinds of knowledge we produce, and the way we represent others, but these activities don’t account for all of what we do – I want to extend this same thinking to our methods, as well as the relationships we build when we’re “in the field,” and the political, economic, cultural, psychological, and material effects of our work. I suggest that all of these practices – relationship building, writing, theorizing, advocating, participant-observing, interviewing, etc. – are practices that shape reality by building relationships between different people, ideas, plants, animals, and objects.
In this sense, a theory is not something that can be proven or validated, nor can it necessarily be used to predict, interpret, explain, or make generalizations. Instead, what makes a theory “true” is its usefulness. But then we can still ask, what makes a theory useful? Some may say that a theory’s usefulness lies in our ability to use it to predict, interpret, explain, or make generalizations. If it can’t, then it’s not a good theory or not a theory at all. This would write off a good deal of what we call theory today, I think, and definitely my own, since, although certain kinds of testable predictive statements can be made from it, the theory itself is not predictive. For me, all of those things are only part of what a theory can do, and thus only a fraction of what makes a theory useful. At the most basic level, a theory is useful if it causes us to think about the things we study in a different way, and, in so doing, to resolve problems that might be posed by our research. Certainly, predicting, interpreting, explaining, or making generalizations are ways of making us think differently about the world, but so can telling a story, or presenting a new and unique representation, or simply interacting with others.
In my article, for example, the goal – and I don’t think I explained this very well – was to depict the bloodworm industry differently from other socio-ecological approaches. Specifically, I designed it to highlight the relationships between humans and non-humans at a very intimate level (although I didn’t have the data or the space to do so as well as I would have liked), the way those relationships are mixed (i.e. their heterogeneity), and the way the actions (practices) of all of the different people, plants, and animals contribute to the reproduction of these relationships over space and time. Rather than talking about the gross level “bloodworm industry” and its relationship to or impact on “the environment” I tried to show how bloodworm harvesters interact with the worms, how the worm dealers combine the worms with the seaweed in order to ship them both over great distances, and how those organisms interact with other organisms when they reach those distant worlds. I also wanted to show how we – the anthropologists as well as the biologists we were working with – interacted with all of these people, plants, and animals, and how those interactions changed both us and them. My hope is not that readers will come away with some kind of model for predicting or explaining the bloodworm industry – one that could then be used to manipulate it to stop shipping invasive species all over the place. Instead, I hope that readers will come away from the article with a respect for the people, plants, and animals who make up the industry (or what I called in my paper the ecology) as well as a different sense of what science (including anthropology) does, and that this will motivate them to engage with the people, plants, and animals, to build relationships with them, and to work with them to find a solution to this problem. In all likelihood it will be completely ineffective, since it will likely only be read by a handful of judges who will award the prize to someone else and my article will be relegated to the dustbin. Even in the best of circumstances (that I win the award and get the article published), it will probably make little difference since it will probably not be read by anyone involved in the bloodworm/invasive species problem.
To me, this is what theory does, it tells us how to engage with the world around us – in my case as a researcher. In the process of writing this article, though, I’ve become acutely aware that this is not what a lot of (most?) people think of when they think of theory – at least not in anthropology. For them, theory is much more circumscribed – it is, essentially, predictive theory as described above. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s a difference that makes communication sometimes difficult. I’m not sure if I should reframe my concept of theory as something else (i.e. more of a general philosophy) and accept the more common(?) notion of theory, or if I should stick to my own conception of theory and advocate for it so that others can understand. It sounds fairly simple, but it has actually provoked a bit of a soul-searching moment for me. I don’t have an answer yet, but hopefully one will come soon.
NOTE: I’ve tried to write this without overusing jargon – it’s a conscious attempt to be clearer in my writing and to make it accessible to more people. It’s very difficult, though, and I found myself putting jargon in parentheses because the usual words just don’t convey the full meaning that the jargon seems to me to capture. If anyone has any advice on that, please let me know.