Going Out To Look In

Theory. The word usually conjures an image of a pile of dull readings, black-and-white Xeroxes lacking any ability to enchant, but perfect at inducing sleep. Dry, heavy, unintelligible, a bitter pill that we must swallow to pass the exam. This misconception that I had harboured for long began to get cleared when I actually started engaging with theories, and was completely clarified after the panel discussion our department organized on “Theoretical Imagination: A double edged sword”. In truth, theories can enchant. Without even knowing it, we have been doing theories since childhood, something we would understand only if we read them the right way, engage with them, and befriend thinkers rather than getting scared of them. As one of the panellists, Professor Pathak said, view theorists as fellow travellers. And this should not amount to trivializing them.

All we have to do is open the window. “What’s the use of a book, thought Alice ‘without pictures or conversations?’”. We must converse with these thinkers, get them out of the text and take them with us when we travel around. Illustrate theories with pictures in our head. If this is done, we’d realize that there exists a deep connection between theories and experiences.  For instance, I could hear Marx on commodification, and actually see his theory being played out at the recently held Comic Con, with art becoming a mart. Durkheim comes to mind when I watch my twelve year old cousin prepare a hymn from their school issued hymnal, which he has to sing in school the next day. I get reminded of Weber on bureaucracy as I stand in a long queue in a government office, and I’m made to walk around from one counter to another. These are just some instances among many. If we just look around, we’ll see theories happening all around us, from the little boy on the bus, engrossed in his mobile, to the old man joining his hands together in a quick prayer as he passes the temple.

However, as another panellist, Professor Rodrigues said, rigor is important in any vocation. We wouldn’t be able to relate these theories to the world around us unless we dive deep into them. They have to be read, again and again and again, until we begin to understand them. Our relationships with these thinkers evolve as we read them over and over, getting a better insight into their ideology with every stage. Through theories, the world becomes more comprehensible, a value of studying sociology we’ll be able to realize only if we engage with the texts seriously enough.

Moreover, while theories offer us lenses to view the world through, a potential shortcoming could be that we look only through these lenses, ignoring other viewpoints. This is why one must be present herself/himself while reading theories. Critical thinking is another wonderful skill that studying sociological theory stimulates. We would never be able to engage in it if we just take theories the way they are. I think developing this skill takes time. Because I’ve been schooled in rote learning, it took me some time to analyse texts critically, and I’m still at it. But one must remember that theories would be of no use if they are gulped down, reproduced in exam papers and forgotten. They are meant to be chewed on.

Indeed, the panel discussion stirred a lot of thoughts. Its profound impact was quite evident, as we discussed things we’d just heard over tea. We took back something much more than the lingering taste of tea and samosa that day. We took home some food for thought. For one thing, I now firmly believe that theory can be a lot more than a pile of readings.

Avanti Chhatre



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