Who Teaches Academics to Theorize?

The commonplace theorizing black scholars engage in as racialized people may differ from white Western academic standards, but it is no less valid, argues Anthony James Williams.

June 15, 2018
 
 

Who teaches academics to theorize? The answer is less simple than it seems; our advisers are not our only instructors.

Academics do pay homage to genealogies of theory through racially and gender-selective citations or the occasional acknowledgment section. But citations speak to scholars who discussed the topic before us. Citations do not explicitly reference the process of creating theory. We frame theorizing as a solitary venture when, for many of us, it is anything but solitary.

So how do we begin to consider the accidentally forgotten, purposefully plagiarized and systemically erased techniques of thinking that produced well-known theories?

For me as a young black sociologist, theorizing is an unspoken family tradition predating my formal academic training. Although they would not necessarily call it “theorizing,” my style of creating mental maps and determinations comes from my maternal great-grandmother, my maternal grandmother and my mother. A graduate of Spelman College, my grandmother was a high school teacher with her own time-bound views of the world. Although she passed too young and well before my birth, I am familiar with her everyday theorizing through my mother.

We are not, however, some Talented Tenth exception -- we’re the norm.

Barbara Christian’s oft-cited “The Race for Theory” tells us, “People of color have always theorized -- but in forms quite different from the Western form of abstract logic.” In her own words, this “Western form of abstract logic” refers to a particular wave of literary theory that is “prescriptive, exclusive, élitish,” rather than one that embraces the theorizing that quite literally saves our lives. Christian alerts readers that theorizing is not just academic but also a survival strategy. Theorizing is an art, a necessity, a coping mechanism, a political project and a folk tradition. And, ultimately, theorizing is a historical project that begins well before we enter the academy and -- when done right -- should extend well beyond the academy.

In The Art of Social Theory, Richard Swedberg defines the how of theorizing. First, the theorist engages in social observation of some phenomenon. Second, the theorist names, conceptualizes and typifies their observations. Third, aided by analogy, metaphor and pattern, the theorist provides an explanation. The theorizing process that my mother taught me was not profoundly different, but it was a more iterative process. And like Swedberg, my mother taught me to begin with an observation, but every step after that was a troubleshooting process that alternated with the specific object of inquiry.

Race, for example, was always something we discussed in the house and as we walked throughout the world. We would observe a particular person’s phenotypical features to determine how we classified blackness. I would ask questions and we would work collaboratively through debate. We relied on other evidence such as the use of language, physical location and cultural context to come up with a working definition of racial classification. That process was one that sometimes included traditional methods like reading texts on the subject but also nontraditional methods such as learning to trust our instinct. The largest difference between Swedberg’s formal theory and my mother’s informal theory is the importance of our physical sight, gut feelings and other sensory experiences.

Everyday black women theorists are often forgotten, undervalued and rarely considered theorists due to their lack of formal training and scholarly publications. But for my maternal lineage, the social patterns they observed became lessons. Those lessons then became theories about the social world they incorporated into their daily lives. Keen observation on their part lead to mental maps of where it would be safe to walk as black women, raise their children and avoid white violence. As the wife of a man in the military, my grandmother inevitably had her own theory of residential redlining based on her lived experience well before any academics published on the topic.

The theories we co-created were not foolproof, and as such I have revised portions of our theories, but I began my theorizing practice with my mother. For instance, I now recognize that one's racial self-identification does not rely only on phenotypical features despite how others may perceive them. But over all, I have kept my mother’s free-flowing theorizing technique that now informs how I theorize within the academy.

Yet using lived experiences as a primary source for theorizing is heavily discounted within white professional circles. Marginalized people are unfortunately familiar with the invalidation of our lived experience in the face of evidence that is seen as empirical and unbiased. But Rose M. Brewer reminds us that many of the concepts white academics claim were previously theorized by black and nonblack women of color feminists. Numerous feminist texts were produced by black women scholars such as Anna Julia Cooper and Ida B. Wells-Barnett well before Catharine MacKinnon or Simone de Beauvoir. But sometimes those black women organic intellectuals were housed outside the academy, and other times their ideas later flourished in disciplines like Black Studies and Ethnic Studies on the premise that there is “an inseparable connection between community and academy.”

Whereas interdisciplinary fields explicitly recognize the theorizing that occurs in forms like autobiography -- Malcolm X and Assata Shakur -- and fiction -- Toni Morrison and Octavia Butler -- most disciplines in higher education actively discourage the link between community and academy. But if we truly claim to contribute new knowledge as academics, we must first expand our concept of the act of theorizing.

That is where black sociology, or Chocolate City sociology, and the broader trend of black theorizing as survival becomes particularly salient. Marcus Anthony Hunter and Zandria F. Robinson write, “As an intellectual tradition, black sociology has long served as a corrective to dominant sociology.” Robinson and Hunter remind us how long blackness has worked against white supremacist notions within the discipline of sociology.

Further, as black social scientists we are aware of histories of present and past scientific racism in both the biological and social sciences. We know that empiricism and objectivity are contentious subjects. All data are subject to the interpretation and biases of the researcher(s), gatekeeper(s) and so many more social actors. So again, how do we think of theory and the act of theorizing while also considering systemic bias against not just black theorization, but black people ourselves?

The commonplace theorizing we engage in as racialized people may differ from white Western academic standards, but it is no less valid. For sociologists, Marx, Weber and Durkheim aren’t the only theorists. Christian echoes that daily theorizing through proverb, wordplay and riddles is rarely seen as “theory” in any sense of the word. However, my goal is not to seek legitimacy for our black cultural and intellectual products from those who embody white logic. Instead, I merely want all academics to engage the frequently ignored question: Who taught you how to theorize?

So even as Du Bois has slowly made his way into the sociological canon through the efforts of black scholars and nonblack accomplices, we must also not forget the nontraditional black theorists who taught Du Bois, whom Ida B. Wells-Barnett read and who nurtured Anna Julia Cooper’s imagination. In order to honor those who came before us we must reconsider why we currently legitimize certain actors and delegitimize others. In addition to racism, heterosexism, ableism and queer antagonism, we often ignore anyone without an academic credential. And to truly engage in the theory making that we hope advances our scholarship, we must read across disciplines and outside our academic bubbles. We must acknowledge who built the foundations upon which we stand.

Bio

Photo of Anthony James WilliamsAnthony James Williams (he and they pronouns) is a doctoral student in sociology at UCLA. They study race, gender and disability as axes of marginalization across social movements, public spaces and incarceration. You can follow them on Twitter at @anthoknees or learn more at antjwilliams.com.

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