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The Thinking Allowed Newsletter: Trust me I'm a theorist

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Laurie Taylor Laurie Taylor 12:50, Thursday, 27 October 2011

Editor's note: This week's episode of Thinking Allowed is available as a download on the Thinking Allowed podcast page or you can listen online on the programme page. It's also repeated this Sunday night shortly after midnight on Radio 4 - PM.

Bonn - Installation in the entrance of the Federal art and exhibition hall in Bonn - paving stone in memory of Michel Foucault

Installation in the Federal art and exhibition hall in Bonn - paving stone in memory of Michel Foucault

"Theory" was a dirty word during my undergraduate years studying psychology at Birckbeck College. At that time, back in the sixties, 'behaviourism' was all the rage. And all proper behaviourists believed that the only way in which we could ever reach a true understanding of human behaviour was by the painstaking observation of how animals (usually rats) responded to their environment.

There was no room here for conjecture or hypothesis. Truth could only be reached by adding up the results of thousands of laboratory experiments.

Of course behaviourism, for all the assertions of its adherents, was very much a theory. It depended upon a reductionist version of human nature which, as such critics as Chomsky were to demonstrate with devastating logic, simply failed to account for such complexities of human behaviour as the capacity to acquire language.

But when behaviourism ruled, theorists were best advised to keep their conjectures and hypotheses to themselves. (Birkbeck did offer an undergraduate course called "Theories of Personality" but this was widely regarded by many of the undergraduates as little more than a soft option for those who were not up to the rigours of fully-fledged behaviourism.)

However, as I soon realised when I embarked upon my postgraduate studies at Leicester University, matters were quite different in a sociology department.

I can still remember being told during the first week that I would be supervised by a young lecturer called Anthony Giddens. "You're in luck there", said my tutor "He's a theorist."

At the time Giddens had good published grounds for claiming to be a theorist, but I slowly realised as my course progressed that in order to enjoy this elevated status it was not strictly necessary to produce any actual theories.

It was, for example, very important to be male. After all, the major sociological theorists of the past - the so-called founding fathers of the discipline - Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx - had all been men.

There was also something necessarily male about the way a proper theorist behaved. Theorists had to defend their position against other theorists. Weberians had to wrestle with Marxists. Symbolic interactionists had fight it out with structural functionalists.

This was clearly a job for grown men.

The women could safely be left to get on with the more domestic task of collecting and organising the data which might or might not confirm one or other theory.

Much of this macho strutting was, of course, undermined by the arrival of feminist theory, which not only challenged many of the gendered assumptions about the nature of the world favoured by earlier male theorists, but also opened up many new theoretical topics (I remember attending one conference in the late seventies at which a well-known male theorist actually began his presentation by apologising in advance for failing to do justice to "a feminist perspective").

In the early years of my career as an academic sociologist, I was only too pleased to leave the theorising to others and spent many happy months in the social psychology laboratory carefully recording data derived from the observation of small problem-solving groups.

But then I discovered the work of Michel Foucault.

There'd been something rather pretentious about my original desire to read his work. It felt good to be walking around campus with copies of Madness and Civilisation or The History of Sexuality tucked underneath my arm. But as I read I grew more and more excited (even somewhat disturbed) by the manner in which his theories undermined so many conventional assumptions. (I still recall the shock of reading his famous rebuttal of the idea that the Victorian era was characterised by a repressive attitude towards sex and sexuality.)

Foucault not only tried to think differently about the world - about sexuality, and madness and medicine - but also tried to theorise about the forms of thought - the ways of thinking - which had characterised earlier historical periods.

It was, therefore, a particular pleasure to come across a new book about the nature of contemporary culture which drew heavily upon the ideas elaborated by Foucault in his later work on self-formation, on the ways in which we actively use culture to create a distinctive version of ourselves.

That book - a fine work of theory - is engagingly called Still Life: Hopes, Desires and Satisfactions. I'll be talking to its author Henrietta Moore in this week's programme. Also the sociologist, Dr Sam Farooq, on young British Muslim women who see no contradiction between basketball and religious belief.

Laurie Taylor presents Thinking Allowed

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