When it comes to theory many anthropologists want to have it both ways: they want to use enough of it so that their ethnographic reportage is not mistaken for journalism, dressing it up in just enough of the latest theoretical stylings to give their work academic legitimation; at the same time, however, they also want to downplay the importance of theory as something they are actually expected to know something about, dismissing as mere tools the very thing which they otherwise wield to defend their academic expertise. It is true that there are some reasonable arguments defending this state of affairs: the end of grand narratives, the loss of authorial authority, discourse is an endless signifying chain, etc. But when anthropologists say that theory is “just a tool” they are evoking this entire body of poststructural theory, while simultaneously refusing to engage with it directly.
Such refusal is understandable. The theory itself often seems hopelessly complex and of little direct use. So why bother? Part of the problem here is that “theory” is itself a very broad category. Certainly there must be some way to set an outer limit on the body of theory with which anthropologists can be reasonably expected to engage? The call for a “mid-range” theory seems to be an effort to do just that, but in fact it does quite the opposite. In attacking the quest for a single grand narrative of social theory, middle-range theory opens up a pandoras box of multiple co-existing theories:
The deductive-nomological ideal, in this view, leads social science astray by implying that science should converge towards complete knowledge of the laws governing an external reality. Quite the contrary, social science has never seen anything like e.g. the theory of relativity, social scientists tend to use the modest label «a theory of»… Constructivists argue that this plurality of theories should not be regretted, more theories will lead to better explanations…
I don’t disagree with the idea of a plurality of theories, I just want to point out that rather than limiting our engagement with theory, mid-range theory actually calls upon us to be conversant with many more theories than before. And this is precisely what has happened in anthropology. Rather than working together on a common anthropological project (although it could be argued that we never really were), anthropologists find themselves drawing on theoretical work in comparative literature, continental philosophy, systems theory, neuropsychology, etc. Is it any wonder we are suffering from theory fatigue?
Although I would not call for a return to the deductive-nomological approach to theory, I do think that we need better tools to help us navigate this increasingly complex terrain. We need to do the hard work of constructing our own theories about the role of theory in the social sciences. The kind of work you see Habermas doing in Knowledge and Human Interests, or Foucault doing in The Order of Things. At some level I don’t think it really matters whether you choose Habermas, Foucault, or someone else as your model for this kind of theoretical map making. I’m perfectly fine with everyone having their own maps. And I also think it’s perfectly OK to discard these maps later on, just as some argue both Habermas and Foucault did in their later work. But if theory is “just a tool” we still need to know which tool to use for the job at hand. For that we need a theory about the relationship of those tools to social science. Understanding the role of theory in producing knowledge makes it easier to read the maps created by other scholars. It allows us to engage with scholars in other disciplines as well as other anthropologists working in very different intellectual traditions than our own.
I also believe that having such a map makes it easier for us to grow, to learn. Not just in the sense of being able to empirically falsify our own theories, although I am of the belief that our theories should be capable of being wrong, but in the sense of being able to refine our maps over time, of knowing what uncharted territory we wish to explore next, and of the joy which comes from serendipitously stumbling upon maps created by other scholars whose approach is similar to our own.