Friday, March 04, 2011

Theory, or How the Present Produces the Past

New theories create new problems -- or they respond to problems -- by "problematizing" things. That's fine.

Yet what strikes me as wrong with this is the assumption that "traditional" or previous ways of thinking/being/doing/understanding certain issues have not yet been 'problematized.'

There is an assumption that if certain things were not, in the past, understood in the way they are in the present, with a theoretical perspective available only in the present, then these things were previously misunderstood, or at the very least have been 'undertheorized.'

This strikes me as mostly a political, not an intellectual, judgement. And while it is not wrong to make your approach to research fit into how things are moving in your field at the moment, I think there is a kind of contemporary arrogance to arguing that old theory X is problematic because it did not take into account new theory Y.

New theories don't simple replace old theories. They produce old theories. They tell us what old theories were and why they were wrong, doing so in the light of theories that exist in the present. In a scholarly climate where 'knowledge creation' is the watchword of research, new theories will always have the upper hand.

(Unless you want to get into some arguments about space and time, which I don't.)

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