I am not a good cook, so I frequently ask silly questions like, “how long should I boil this?” My family members are not bad cooks, so they have no idea what the box says, and instead give me answers like, “until it’s brown and has the right texture.” But we have found synchrony in the cooking of spaghetti. How do you know when spaghetti is ready to eat? It’s ready when you throw a piece of it against the wall and it sticks.
I am a pretty good anthropologist, so I no longer have questions like, “what counts as theory in my paper?” But my students are still learning, and my thoughts on which models of power are most relevant to their data are about as helpful as the color brown. Luckily, cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz provides this piece of guidance:
“Theoretical ideas are not created wholly anew in each study; as I have said, they are adopted from other, related studies, and, refined in the process, applied to new interpretive problems. If they cease being useful with respect to such problems, they tend to stop being used and are more or less abandoned. If they continue being useful, throwing up new understandings, they are further elaborated and go on being used.”
I have fixated on the words, “throwing up new understandings.” Tempting though it is to think of theory like vomit, the spaghetti metaphor probably works better. Take that “related study” and “throw it up” against the wall; if it sticks, if it gives you a “new understanding” – or better yet, a new question – you have found theory.
Foucault, I tell my students, throws up lots of new ways of thinking about the world for me. I introduce my students to Foucault, but I know that they’re still struggling to understand what is meant by a “technology of the self” in relation to a contested chronic fatigue syndrome diagnosis. If they throw that idea against the wall, it’s still going to be a slimy noodle. If they need to keep cooking their Foucault, it’s probably not good theory for them yet. But the idea that a diagnosis isn’t a neutral experience for a person with chronic fatigue syndrome might be just right.
What I love best about this definition of theory is that it honors students as real researchers. Of all the things I’ve given them to read, good theory is what stuck.