Last time, I promised to tell you what a ‘theory’ is. For me to successfully do that, I need you to do as I say:
Imagine a theory to be a machine, one that looks complicated from the outside. For it to work, it requires not more than 3 very important body parts that each serve a specified purpose along the process of creating ‘information’:
Process 1: Theories are perceptional filters
Perceptional filters do awesome, yet dangerous things. From amid the sea of endless information on how things progress, they pick out those that they deem worthy – hence they evaluate what’s relevant and what is less relevant and thus not relevant enough to mention. The latter type of information vanishes into thin air forever – if nobody decides to pay attention to it ever again.
Process 2: Theories use cognitive frames
While we’re at filtering out ‘relevant’ data, why not put them together as we wish and order them ‘right’?
Process 3: Theories are conceptual schemata
And last but not least, theories wrap their information up neatly into a scheme full of conceptual categories and analytical terms.
At the end of this process of creating ‘information’, a theory always has the intention of wanting to explain everything in the way of attributing reasons for specific outcomes. If A is, B is, too. If A is not, B will not follow, et cetera.
After all, a theory is not a good theory if it can’t explain right, meaning if it can’t select relevant information and put them together in a context so as to explain you the world. So, you see, a theory only explains the only world that it believes to be worthy of explaining to you.
Up until now, it has only been about the theory of theories and I admit: it must have been a bit boring. If you stayed until now and you’re reading this, I’ll give you a really delicious cookie, umm, example: The second half of the 19th century, a lot of ‘academics’ decided it was relevant to explain why societies in Africa and Asia never stopped waging wars. They came to the conclusion, or rather their theory led them to the conclusion that peace could only be reached if local despots were eliminated and elite ‘civilized.’ Rudyard Kipling, an author and a big fan of British imperialism, said one is even forced to ‘savage wars of peace’ to help these countries to be freed from despots and thieves. It is a peculiarly Western thing to believe in certain necessities that urge for a Western call for action.
Not only did this example show you that a very neutral assertion (“They wage wars in Africa and Asia.”) led to a normative conclusion with a call for action (“We must free them.”), it also showed you that it can serve as a relatively good justification to wage another war, only this time it is waged for peace, and not for… whatever these crazy Africans and Asians are waging wars for.
Where do theories come from?
Knowing this now leads us to one important question: if theories can have an impact on political decisions such as waging wars against another people, who is it that creates theories?
It would be naive to assume theories and their assumptions and filters have always been there. Because they have not always been there. They must come from somewhere in order to exist. And it is this question that decides everything: they either come from a society that has passed on its view on life and especially politics to the next generation, and/or from the contemporary dominant group of influences around the world. So, let me accentuate the necessary steps to my soon-to-come revolutionary statement: every information is based on a theory, every theory is based on a certain conviction – both lead to the conclusion that knowledge is socially constructed and dependent.
5 tips on how to read:
This is hard to swallow but in order for you not to become paranoid while reading, I’ll tell you my top 5 of tips on how to read a newspaper, books, articles or magazines from now on:
1 ) You must pay attention to who has written the particular piece that you are reading: find as much information as you can to make sure you know who you are lending an ear to – and quite possibly, who you are letting to influence you.
I was a TIME magazine subscriber for many, many years and at first, the first 4-6 months of my subscription, I found every article, every author, every cover page insanely intelligent. While there surely are brilliant freelance journalists contributing to TIME every now and then, after a while I changed my approach to reading, became much more critical and even began criticising some authors’ entire school of thought. What I essentially did was to create a profile of each author not just to get to know his or her respective viewpoints on all subjects imaginable but also to be able to understand them. Yes, I stalked them – for it is not enough to just read an author’s biography. Nowadays, journalists are exposed more than ever and if they decide to join Facebook and Twitter – that’s when things get interesting. Following fans/users rebut an article so harshly, that within the comment box underneath, the discussion initiated often gets more interesting than any other give-and-take at the Frankfurter School.
2 ) Read different viewpoints of the same subject. For example, if you want to know more about the Israeli – Palestinian conflict, read Alan Dershowitz and Norman Finkelstein. Read NGO reports and official government reports, and so on and so forth. It saves you a lot of headache and gives you better analytical insight into what is really going on and why it is hard to solve the conflict.
3 ) Mind the language used. Search for terms that you don’t clearly understand, or that you have heard somewhere else before. Sometimes different authors and journalists use the same term for two different things. You need to find out why they call it differently and what the word truly means in each viewpoint.
4 ) Pay attention to footnotes. Sometimes authors are kind enough and want to refer you to key discussions on the same subject.
5 ) Note his/her sources. If you are well-read in a certain subject, you can most probably evaluate an author’s sources. If you are not, look them up and see if he has presented the information in the same manner as the book he cited did. That gives clues as to how he interpreted his data and most importantly his sources – it justifies the existence of the book you’re reading.
You might not apply these tips right away. It takes practice, effort and persistence but trust me: it will enhance your reading and analyzing skills by 150%.