Book Angst & the Role of Theory in Social Scientific Research 23 June 2006Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Gay and Lesbian History, Philosophy & Social Theory, Queer Theory.
As many of you know, I'm working over the summer to complete revisions on the manuscript of my first book. Since I started revising a couple weeks ago, my tension level has been gradually increasing, as evidenced by the nightmare that woke me up this morning at about 4:30 a.m. The rewards system in academia is certainly not money; at best it's the recognition of peers that your research means something and advances knowledge of the field in some important way. But this morning I find myself irritated that I care so much about what my peers think of my work. On one hand, instrumentally, advancement in my career depends on the book reviews that will follow publication. On the other hand, I've really tried to do something different in the area of gay history in my book, and I feel a bit defiant about it, especially given the peer-reviewer's comments.
Academic monographs like mine go through a peer-review process, where other academics in the field look at your work, verify the soundness of the research, and comment on the book's worth in the field. My peer reviewer was quite complimentary in many regards, but made the incongruous statement that it needed "major revisions" before publication. I've been a peer-reviewer before on articles, and "major revisions" is usually code for "not ready for publication." Yet the peer-reviewer highly recommended the manuscript for publication and the substance of his/her comments was really pretty light revisions in the grand scheme of things. There were two major points: first, that I don't "use" theory enough, either my primary methodological lens (John Dewey) or contemporary queer theorists in the text itself; and second, that the manuscript needed serious organizational work. On the second point, I wholeheartedly agree, and frankly, much of my angst is coming from the fact that I'm finding it difficult to hold an entire book in my head and the rearrange the pieces into an order and progression that will make sense to readers.
But on the first point, I find myself resisting. Part of the problem I have with so much of the research done in gay and lesbian issues is that they are driven by theory, which has often ossified into an ideological position. In cultural sociology, especially queer sociology, theory is often normative rather than descriptive. There is a time and place for normative theory, but normative theory should arise out of the conclusions or consequences produced in the methodologically sound inquiry into actual conditions and interactions out of which emerge “culture.” When cultural theory is treated as normative before inquiry begins, it risks being treated as a generalization through which to evaluate all cultural phenomena, a dogma to be followed, which then has the effect of warping the research to meet the ends of the theory. Put more simply, cultural theory treated this way becomes an end-in-itself. That's what I love about John Dewey's philosophy cum social theory: it offers a meta-theory of theory based in his naturalistic reformulation of the origins of human knowledge, his instrumentalism, which gives a very loose framework for understanding the human process of meaning formation, rather than an a priori heuristic for interpreting those meanings, which is what most queer theory is. As an anti-foundationalist, some of Dewey’s conclusions are obvious to us 80 years later. Yet his analysis of the mis-use of theory offers some powerful suggetions for the direction of cultural sociology. My problem is that the peer-reviewer has the expectation that I would/should "use" theory in the way that has become current and expected in the social sciences and humanities over the past 25 years or so.
But in doing historical-empirical research, I feel that using theory in that way can only serve to distort my subjects, the gay men of 1960s San Francisco, by sifting them through the sieve of some theoretical expectations. To further complicate matters, because my project is to demonstrate the origins of late 20th century gay male culture, the most prominent queer theory out there, Michel Foucault, becomes itself an object of study, as it was a theory that emerged out of this very period!