theory, practice, and discipline

A friend of mine recently started a discussion on Facebook that touched onto several topics within academic Asian American studies. One issue brought up offhandedly was the place of “theory” within both AAS and academia generally. In the discussion, which was about bridging disciplines and doing interdisciplinary work, the participants distinguished between cultural studies scholars who use “theory” and social science scholars who analyze and accumulate “data.” While I understand their point and their reasoning, the distinction they make is false and the short-hand terms they and other academics, mostly in humanities, use require further examination.

My point is not to take a position against theory, but to argue for its broader and more specific consideration.

Humanities and cultural studies scholars who speak of “theory” generally refer to writing and work that fall under the slightly more specific categories of literary, cultural, or critical theory. These categories themselves overlap, but have different, if at times linked, histories. Literary theory, for instance, began as the philosophical basis for literary studies, which took turns in the second half of the twentieth-century toward criticism and historicism. Cultural theory has both a separate genealogy tracing back to the origins of sociology and anthropology as disciplines and to a connection to late twentieth-century literary theory as literary studies extended its analysis of texts to non-literary cultural forms.

All disciplines, however, have their own philosophical bases, although those those who practice them may not engage them as self-consciously. As a historian whose work is interdisciplinary and engages cultural studies, I’ve always been disappointed that cultural studies scholars were more concerned to theorize culture than they were to theorize history. Many conceived history as a naive narrative presentation of an objective past with little awareness of the diverse richness of historiography.

The idea that social scientists collect “data” is similarly rooted in a lack of awareness of sociological theory and practice as well as basic philosophy of science and sociology of knowledge. Research social scientists are quite attentive to their methods and to the assumptions, intended and unintended, imbedded in the data they collect. Moreover, this attention applies equally, although differently, to the various forms of data they collect, statistical (or more generally, quantitive) and qualitative.

Recognizing the variety of theory in actual academic practice is a first step toward intellectual work that is actually interdisciplinary. Academic training, as graduate studies are currently constituted, involve absorbing the discipline of the field within which one trains. This discipline applies as much to one’s practice as it does to the research and work one produces. Historians are trained not only to think historically and offer historical analyses, but to teach history. As a practical matter of course, it is difficult for me to consider ways to structure a course without chronology and historical context even if it has a non-historical subject. Similarly the language academics use, including short-hand terms and what they reference, is a product of disciplinary training.

My point is not to disparage disciplines or disciplinary work. However, when disciplinary terms are used in a discussion about one’s interdisciplinary work, it seems, at least to me, the dissonance between language and subject make claims about interdisciplinarity more an unexamined gesture toward an idealized notion rather than actual engagement in interdisciplinary practice.