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13 October 2011

Theory and Meta-Theory

Recently thinking about the role of theory, I realized that, while a great deal of time in anthropology is spent either collecting and analyzing data or discussing theory, there is relatively little time spent thinking about what theory is and how it should be used and applied.  Either that or thinking about theory is lumped in with the theory itself so that the two become confused.  I think we need something like a meta-theory or a theory about theory - one that steps back from the debates about structuralism, post-structuralism, positivism, materialism, etc., and talks more generally about what it means to theorize, the relationship between theory and data, and how theory ought to be applied.  Not that these would be universal rules, independent of

Like I said, I think some people already do this, it's just often confused with the act of theorizing itself.  For example, I think that Bruno Latour's principle of irreduction (that nothing can be reduced to anything else) is meta-theory, because it doesn't necessarily tell us how to interpret data directly, but it tells us what interpretation ought to look like.  Other times, meta-theory is assumed and unquestioned. For example, when we say that theory should have a recursive relationship to data such that theory is amended with new data, and new data is interpreted according to existing theory - this is a meta-theoretical statement that, more or less, goes unquestioned (at least in Modern societies).

I think the purpose of ethics is, in part and partially, to describe a meta-theory.  Ethics has other roles including a kind of meta-methodological role that ensures that data is collected in an appropriate manner.  Also, meta-theory is not only ethical (i.e. the example above of the relationship between theory and data), but ethics, in some sense, tells us how theory should be applied, and how we decide what theories to utilize in a given research project.

I think this area has been relatively underexplored, but is full of potential to generate new insights into the process of research, and the role of theory.

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