Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Theory as Subfield

Some interesting thoughts from Kieran Healy and Fabio Rojas on the fate of theory in sociology and the social sciences. From Healy:
Social theory within sociology is in a strange position. The nickel version is: there are no longer any theorists in sociology. There are theories (or things people call theories); there are theory courses and there are people who teach theory; there are theory articles and theory journals; inside papers there are mandatory theory sections; inside the American Sociological Association there is a Theory Section, too; there are career returns to being thought of as a clever sort of person who can do good theory; you cannot get published in a top-flight journal without convincing the reviewers that you have made a theoretical contribution; and there are people who were once hired as theorists and still think of themselves as such. In some related fields on the humanities side there is also capital-`t’ Theory, with its own practitioners. But since the late 1980s or early 1990s there has essentially been no occupational position of “theorist” within American sociology. No-one gets a job as a theorist. 
Rojas attributes this to the victory of more empirical work driven by both better data collection and computation ability. Clearly the state is different in the humanities, and in film studies in particular. Not in the least because the empirical research (i.e. film history) takes different, more humanistic form, but also because the New Theoretical Turn has reclaimed a good deal of disciplinary space for film theory. And the aesthetic verve of film theory means that amateurs and filmmakers consume and produce theory in a way perhaps unknown for social theory. But it's also surprising how much of Healy's characterization can apply here. Theorists, at least at the junior level, are often expected to be generalists as well.

Oddly enough, film criticism has been the subfield in film studies that has faded into relative irrelevance. Or maybe it's better to say film criticism has lost its distinct identity and is now merged with theory and area studies. Perhaps that tendency could be the starting point for thinking through Girish's call for reinvigorating film studies-film criticism connections.

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