Finding a theory

I have been advised that I need to define the theoretical basis for my research, but I struggle with the concept of picking one theory that will frame my research. None of my thinking up to this point has been based in any particular theory and much of the literature overwhelms me. A combination of features from multiple theories would sit better with me given my general approach of borrowing from whatever tools work for the situation.

I was listening to The Tim Ferriss Show podcast the other day in which Tim was interviewing Dan Harris (10% Happier) and they were discussing some of the different schools of thought for meditation. The different meditation practices were to me like the social science theories. I have never followed any particular school of thought in my meditation practice, which while very rudimentary serves my purposes, so why do I need to adhere to a particular theoretical approach in my research. Perhaps my use of the term rudimentary is key, as my PhD needs to be in-depth and not a rudimentary study. If I was to do an in-depth practice of meditation, I expect I would need to select a particular school of thought in which to immerse myself.

 In The Sixth Extinction, Kolbert (2014) does a great job at presenting scientific information in a very readable text. One of the key things that stood out to me in reading her book was that over time there have been many different theories about extinction and evolution. Some of these were strongly supported by the scientific and general community at the time, but many of them have now been proved wrong, or at least are at the moment considered incorrect. This made me question all of my assumed knowledge and how I accept the position of science. Some facts seem undeniable but then the earth was assumed to be flat at one point. This further exacerbated my caution in adopting a particular theory on which to base my research, because in a few years the principles may be completely disproved. But at the same time this fluidity resonated with what I was reading on actor-network theory (ANT).

I have read a few papers on ANT and assemblage thinking, based initially on my supervisors’ recommendations, and then following these leads to other papers. From my reading to date, ANT appears to work best as a way of thinking about my research topic. In reading Kofman (2018) and van der Duim et al (2013) I could make clear linkages between ANT and my research. I am looking at plastic waste in a Disney theme park, the number of actors and networks that go into making that an issue and or dealing with the problem are immense and there is no way that a solution can be found without considering the role of all actors and networks.

I feel that assemblage is a component of ANT. From my perspective actors and networks not only form an assemblage but are each made up of an assemblage of parts. However, the literature is rather mixed in its consideration of the relationship between the two. Some authors (Elder-Vass 2015 and Franklin 2008) refer to assemblage as if it is part of ANT, while others represent them as distinct theories (Anderson and McFarlane 2011a and 2011b) and point out the differences between the two (Muller and Schurr 2016). Then in Elder-Vass (2015) I am forced to consider the appropriateness of ANT versus critical realism.

In my interpretation of Latour’s (1996) intention for ANT, I don’t believe that he means to suggest that nothing exists outside of the human discourse around it but rather that as a concept it didn’t exist in that understanding until it was labelled as such. I feel that the various scientific theories discussed by Kolbert (2014) represent this situation. Neither extinction nor evolution existed as concepts until they were labelled as such. Many of the theories on these topics are constantly being reviewed and rewritten as further information is gathered and access to technology is enhanced. It does not mean that extinction events did not exist before this point, but it is fair to assume that humans existing before this discovery had no idea it was a concern. 

Unfortunately, many of the problems that we are dealing with now are the result of previous attempts at solving a problem, like the introduction of cane toads into Australia, or designing a long-life, portable, durable, non-porous container. We cannot judge the actions of previous generations based on knowledge that we have subsequently gained; we can only hope to learn from these experiences. A deeper understanding of these events can be gained by reviewing the actors and networks involved. 

For better or worse, I am going to continue down the path of ANT, and probably incorporate some assemblage thinking and other theories where relevant. I still have a lot of papers and books to read. I just hope that I am interpreting and applying the theory correctly, or at least consistently.

*I wrote this piece prior to Connecting with theory but had been unsure about posting it.

Reading and reference list

  • Anderson, B. and McFarlane C. (2011a) “Assemblage and geography”,  Area, 43(2): pp124-127, Royal Geographical Society, doi: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.2011.01004.x 
  • Anderson, B. and McFarlane C. (2011b) “Thinking with assemblage”,  Area, 43(2): pp162-164, Royal Geographical Society, doi: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.2011.01012.x 
  • Elder-Vass D. (2015) “Disassembling Actor-Network Theory”,  Philosophy of the Social Sciences,  45(1): 100-121, Sage, doi: 10.1177/0048393114525858 
  • Franklin, A. (2008) “The tourism ordering: Taking tourism more seriously as a globalising ordering”,  Civilisations, 57(2008): pp25-39.
  • Kofman, A. (2018) “Bruno Latour, the Post-Truth Philosopher, Mounts a Defence of Science”, The New York Times Magazine,  25 October 2018 at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/25/magazine/bruno-latour-post-truth-philosopher-science.html
  • Kolbert, E. (2014) The Sixth Extinction: An unnatural history, Henry Holt and Company, New York
  • Latour, B. (1996) “On actor-network theory: A few clarifications”,  Soziale Welt,47(4): pp369-381, retrieved 12 May 2021 from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40878163  
  • Muller, M. and Schurr C. (2016) “Assemblage thinking and actor-network theory: conjunctions, disjunctions, cross-fertilisations”, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 41: pp217-229, John Wiley and Sons Ltd on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society, doi: 10.1111/tran.12117 
  • Van der Duim, R., Ren, C. and Jóhannesson, G.T. (2013) “Ordering, materiality, and multiplicity: Enacting Actor–Network Theory in tourism”, Tourist Studies. 13: pp3-20. doi: 10.1177/1468797613476397  

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