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What is social theory? Interview with Linsey McGoey

Published in Latest Posts, Theory by Mark Carrigan on April 20, 2018

Dr. Linsey McGoey, image courtesy of Hudson Institute

In this interview, Mark Carrigan (@mark_carrigan) talks to Dr. Linsey McGoey, Reader in Sociology at the University of Essex. Dr. Goey is a social theorist and an economic sociologist, whose work is centred on developing new conceptual frameworks for understanding the political value of ignorance and the unknown. Her book, No Such Thing as a Free Gift (Verso, 2015), was described as ‘path-breaking’ by Naomi Klein, and chosen as a book of the year by inequality expert Danny Dorling. Her second book, The Unknowers, is forthcoming from Zed Books. More detail on Dr. McGoey’s research can be found here.

What is theory? 

I see theory as inventiveness on a tight empirical leash. It’s a way to illustrate counterintuitive connections between different historical periods and sensibilities, while trying to stay attentive to the limits of empirical knowledge and avoiding false claims that can’t be substantiated. That said, I don’t believe that the most important social knowledge is knowledge that is demonstrable. Often important social knowledge is intangible or can’t be measured according to available methods, but that doesn’t undermine its existence, it only compounds misperceptions of a phenomenon’s triviality. Social theories are a reminder of the limits of empiricism and vice versa. Both theory and empiricism are useful for carrying out reciprocal accountability checks on each other.

Why is it important?

I hope and think that sociology can change the world for the better.

How does it feature in your work? 

I like to play with concepts, inventing new phrases that reflect social processes in a different light. Concept work is not necessarily the same as theory building, but I think it serves a valuable function, and more selfishly, it’s a fun thing to do: the freedom to be creative with language, testing phrases and seeing whether they have any analytical purchase. I have a book coming out this summer, and it has five main concepts. Two of them, strategic ignorance and elite ignorance, are not my coinage, but I define each term in a specific way that is my own treatment. The other concepts are ‘useful unknowns’; ‘ignorance alibis’; and ‘oracular power’. I’m sure the list might seem a bit gratuitous, but each neologism speaks to different social processes, and I feel fairly confident that each of these conceptual ‘babies’ has earned the right to live. But other people will be the judge of that, which is a valuable aspect of theory: it is necessarily iterative. The ‘life’ of a new concept can be brutally short. I will try to prepare my ‘babies’ before the book is out.

This is a really powerful vision of theory as creative and joyful work. Is it hard to find space for this in the contemporary academy? 

It’s very hard. The management at my university has adopted a punishing attitude to staff, especially around REF outputs. I have amazing colleagues at the Departmental level and I’m very grateful for that.

Could you expand on your distinction between concept work and theory more generally? 

My thinking on this comes from other sociologists, including Darren Thiel, Monika Krause and Michael Halewood. Michael is someone who I have taught social theory with at Essex for a number of years. He is a great colleague and always insightful about good ways to make difficult sociological concepts comprehensible to students.

Monika helped open my eyes to the value of deep analytical attention to a single word – any word – ‘abundance’ or ‘neutrality’ or ‘birthright’ – as a spur for developing counter-intuitive insights into a phenomenon. Staying with the word and compelling yourself to write about in a freestyle way can have fruitful effects.

Darren defines the distinction between theory and concepts in a simple way that I find very useful. Concepts can be illustrative – concepts can even be life-changing – but on their own, concepts have no explanatory value, only the power of illumination. Theory doesn’t necessarily ‘explain’ anything either, but done well, social theories can have explanatory purchase that a concept on its own may always lack.

I also think that theory and concepts can and should be set against each other. Looking at concepts cynically, with deliberate attention to what the concept might be concealing or obscuring, can help to illuminate new explanatory frameworks. Henry David Thoreau and more recently José Medina, in his book The Epistemology of Resistance, have written about the value of friction as an epistemological tool of discovery, and a political orientation. Thoreau wrote: ‘If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government…Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.’

This relates to important work on the value of oppositional epistemologies. I am interested in the ways that desecrated and maligned forms of knowing and emoting like ignorance and indifference have become rehabilitated as tools of power-taking and political disputation by different groups, a shift spearheaded by feminist, postcolonial and racism studies from thinkers like Charles Mills in his work on ‘white ignorance,’ or Gurminder Bhambra and Gayatri Spivak on what Spivak calls ‘sanctioned ignorance.’

I starting writing about ‘strategic ignorance’ about ten years ago, but drawing on a different intellectual lineage than postcolonial theory. I was drawing from the sociology and anthropology of science and medicine. Trying to link aspects of these different sets of literatures has helped me to more clearly understand the economic importance of Spivak’s work, and especially the ways that imperial mercantilist violence in China and India undermines the plausibility and analytical purchase of common narrative tropes used to characterize the British economy in the 19th century, like ‘economic liberalism’ or ‘free trade.’

These points are not new: Marxist and to a more limited degree Foucauldian analyses make them. But, as Bhambra’s work helps to show, the academy still strategically ignores the ways that imperialist violence exposes the absurdity of treating the 19th century as a time of growing global economic liberalism. In reality, it was an era of increased protectionism and continued mercantilist policy, from Britain’s reliance on indentured labour from military conquests in China and India, to the state offering new forms of liability protection to corporations, in contravention of Adam Smith’s dictum against letting crony cabals in business persist unchecked by the state. The French sociologist Marie-Laure Djelic has done some interesting work on corporate protectionism in the 19th-century.

I make these points to return to your question about how concepts and theory relate, and my point above about the value of ‘cynical’ concept work. For me, looking at ‘neoliberalism’ cynically was useful in formulating the points above. There has been a great deal of valuable work on neoliberalism lately, especially by Will Davies, who develops important insights, building partly on Foucault, on the social and moral functions of competitiveness and competition theory within state-led capitalism.

But my concern with ‘neoliberalism’ is that different readings of Foucault’s The Birth of Biopolitics lectures seems to have led to a tendency in economic sociology today to see late-20th-century neoliberalism as signifying a marked departure from 19th-century economic liberalism, obscuring the ways that both discourses could more constructively be perceived: as tools of mystification that obscure the long perpetuation, over the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, of mercantilist forms of economic control.

For example, in an otherwise excellent article on Carillion’s demise, Paul Mason wrote recently, ‘In the 19th century, the state stood back to let market forces rip and allow businesses to stand or fall.’ In a book coming out soon, I argue that Mason’s offhand remark is emblematic of a still pervasive but misguided way to look at economic liberalism in the 19th-century. Strategic ignorance of the reality of 19th-century mercantilism during a period now mythologized as ‘economically liberal’ functions in practice to produce a perpetual ‘ignorance alibi’ for today’s super-rich, by making it feasible for them to deny the ways that state protections over the last three centuries gave them their wealth.

About the author /


Mark Carrigan is Digital Engagement Fellow at The Sociological Review Foundation and Research Associate in the Faculty of Education at University of Cambridge

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