The relativity of theory

August 11, 1995

Patrick Finney's near-assertion (THES, July 28) that academics who do not jump on every theoretical bandwagon should remain unemployed was breathtaking (and I say this as someone who is happier with theoretical chuntering than empiricism).

While we can argue about whether theories exist to understand the world better or - more narrowly but not necessarily differently - to open up "spaces for those who have been marginalised or disenfranchised", many of the theories in vogue in the social sciences and humanities will be found wanting (some for good academic reasons, others because they will no longer be fashionable).

Academic communities work because of intellectual diversity; theories emerge, develop and fail out of intellectual diversity. Finney's analogy with a car mechanic who did not understand how cars worked was doubly spurious. Not only have cars become so complex that few mechanics do understand how they work (as opposed to understanding how to make them work), but few of us would employ someone who was happier conceptualising the car than mending it. Theory is of critical importance in the development of understanding, but let's not get too imperialistic about our theories.


ESRC research fellow School of geography University of Manchester

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