Participatory Theory

Chapter Five: Participatory Theory

[This is a DRAFT chapter for the book Fanfare for the Future – not for quoting, please – only for comment in the group HelpAlbert and on the web site ZCommunications.]

He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards
ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may case.

-Leonardo Da Vinci

We now have a broad intellectual framework in hand. People tend to call such a framework, when it addresses a particular domain – which in our case is society and history – a theory. 

So let’s do that, to go with the flow. In this last chapter of part one, then, let’s step back a bit and consider theory per se, our’s and other’s, and the benefits and costs of having one, using one, etc. We could have put this as our first chapter in part one, as easily as our last, and you will notice, I believe, as we proceed, that the views offered here actually as much guided the creation of part one as derived from an examination of part one. 



What Is Social Theory?

Even for practical purposes theory generally 

turns out the most important thing in the end.

 -Oliver Wendell Holmes


Theory is a mental construction we use to explain, predict, and also guide. Examples are a theory of gravity, language acquisition, or baseball. 


Social theory is a theory about some part of of human activity and engagement. For example, it could be a theory of markets, or law, or bureaucracies, or families. 


In our case, the theory – and, again, I prefer to call it the tool box of thinking aids but I will bow to popular usage and say the theory – addresses societies and history in general and also of specific types of society or epochs of history, or even actual instances of either. 


The components of a theory are called concepts, and we also notice that they can come in groups or sub theories bearing on some particular part of the whole. For example, we may have a theory of gravity, with concepts like force and mass – but we may also then have sub theories like one of black holes or gravitons. Or it we are theorizing baseball, we might have concepts like player and coach, ball and bat – and also have sub theories like of hitting or pitching. 


Concepts can be more general and encompassing such as player, or more specific such as shortstop. They are, we notice, just names for patterns or things that we usefully and frequently highlight in our thinking about the overall topics we consider. 


Theory also contains assertions about necessary or at least likely relations among its concepts. Again, this highlights recurring patterns we can usefully be alert to and think in terms of and about, for example the relation between certain hitting or pitching styles and possible outcomes in the game.


The components of the social theory used in this book are, at the broadest level, humans and institutions, people’s consciousnesses and preferences and roles, the four functions and associated spheres of social life and their influences and the two encompassing contexts and their influences, the social center of people and their attributes and boundary of institutions and their roles, and the two relations, accommodation and co reproduction. Getting more specific we have additional concepts bearing on each of the four spheres, like family, religion, legislature, market, workplace, among many others, and regarding the effects of the four spheres on people and groups via the roles they offer – such as mother and father, workers, coordinator, and owner, and so on, up to, arguably a sub theory for each sphere.


Theories are typically about specific domains, such as gravity or cosmology, baseball or sports, society, history, and they are better or worse insofar as they accurately address the domain we wish to consider and also deliver the type of insight we are seeking for that domain – which could be explanation of its operations, prediction of its future or reaction to different choices, or informed guidance in our actual choices of actions to pursue or aims to seek, or all these. 


For example…baseball theory is supposed to help us understand past and upcoming games and seasons. But suppose we are not just spectators or even historians of the sport. We also want it to predict likely outcomes of particular situations because we bet. Or, we are not just betting on games or seasons we are playing and coaching and we want it to guide actions we can take. 


In this book, our theory is similarly meant to explain past societies and historical events as if we were historians or spectators, to predict likely outcomes of particular situations as if we were betting on outcomes, and also to help guide us in formulating viable and worthy aims and in making choices to attain them because we are activists – all of which will become ever more obvious as we proceed.


Finally, the validity of a theory rests in how accurately its insights correspond to what occurs in its domain – whether the domain is planets hurtling through space, or stars collapsing, players competing, humans aging and dealing with pathogens, or societies chugging along or dramatically altering. And the theory’s worth to us, even beyond its technical validity, corresponds to how well it helps us accomplish whatever our particular agendas may be – understanding, predicting, and/or acting. 


Okay, that overview took a bit, though a tiny fraction of what a philosopher would devote to the topic – which was, we might say, theorizing about theory – or what the philosopher would call meta theory. But so what? Does any of this have any relevance for us? Well, on the one hand it demystifies theory a bit, I hope, and that is very important. And about more, let’s see.


The Language Of Theory

One of the most successful and brilliant mathematicians of the twentieth century, David Hilbert, said, “A mathematical theory is not to be considered complete until you have made it so clear that you can explain it to the first man whom you meet on the street.” Albert Einstein said the same thing about physics, except he referred to a barmaid as the person who would have to understand. What were these great theoriests trying to convey?

I think it was that when you actually technically understand a theory – the concepts and their relations – and then you become so immersed in it that you make it totally your own in more general and also specific terms, then you ought to be able to at least get the essence of it into a form expressible for someone who hasn’t been immersed in it to hear and with some reasonable effort broadly comprehend. And Hilbert and Einstein thought this was true even for theories whose discovery and use necessarily utilized very very technical tools of mathematical analysis and had highly unfamiliar and even counter intuitive attributes because those theories explored so deeply and so precisely into relations so very far from our familiar experience. 

When we switch back from math and physics to understanding what we are concerned with in this book, society and history, our comprehension goes far less deeply and is far less precise, and mostly requires at most only a few new terms to highlight things we don’t typically talk about but need to give a name, but certainly no really complex tools of understanding, like complex math, etc. History and society are in fact familiar to everyone’s experience. 

So, here is the point I take from this. Social theory, like all theory, should not be made unduly obscure even in its creation, much less once it is developed. Even more so, we said above that a theory has to be weighed not only by its bottom line ability to explain, predict, and guide when it is employed by the best trained and prepared practitioners who have made the theory totally their own, but by its utility for accomplishing whatever agendas it is meant to aid. 

In that light, please consider any theory which is meant to guide efforts at social change. 

Who is supposed to engage in such efforts? Well, this is jumping ahead a bit, but it will come as no surprise, that in this book we have in mind that broad populations are meant to engage in such efforts. This is, however obvious, a major observation. 

The only people who really need to be able to creatively and efficiently utilize the actual concepts of gravity, or biology, or even baseball, are the practitioners within those domains. But in our case, dealing with society and history – not as historians but as activists – the practitioners of social change are meant to include essentially anyone and everyone aroused to help. 

And that tells us that obscure social theory, no matter how insightful it may be, is for our purposes flawed. To be successful at guiding normal people living in normal kinds of circumstances and with normal kinds of prior experience, social theory must be highly congenial and accessible. A random person doesn’t have to be able to just pick it up and run with it in five minutes. It can reasonably take more time than that to comprehend and become adept with a worthy social theory and especially those elements that are contrary to prior beliefs or biases. But by all means, picking it up to use it should not require essentially learning a whole new language and a vast amount of training. Everyone learns to ride a bike. It isn’t trivially easy, but nor is it out of reach. Everyone needs to be able to learn to understand, make predictions about, envision, and act on social situations in pursuit of a better future. It need not be trivially easy but nor should it be out of reach.

In the toolbox of aids to social thought that we have offered in this book we have opted to include just a few new words so far – far fewer than the number of special words that appear in a theory of baseball, say – and hopefully we won’t have to add too many more. The meanings of these new words are also hopefully clear, and in most all instances correspond to things we already intuitively know from our experience, in any case. Even the relations of our concepts to one another that we have begun to display but will add to as we proceed, we hope will present no insurmountable obstacles. 

However, if some purported “big thinker” for social change claims to be for a bottom up and highly participatory future, but then poses as the tools to think about such a process and to guide it and be part of it, an utterly incomprehensible framework of arcane terms very few of which he or she can even define for us and which he or she cannot, even given some time for it, explain clearly enough for the proverbial “man on the street” or “barmaid” to understand, and which he or she then routinely stitches together into incredibly convoluted sentences and paragraphs that defy logical interpretation, then you should question the person’s motives or methods or both. If the “big thinker” then gets defensive and says you are anti intellectual for questioning him or her – you should redouble your critical efforts. Neither Hilbert nor Einstein doing math and physics would resort to such a stance – so certainly an advocate of participatory social change looking at societies ought not do so.



Sectarian or Participatory Theorizing


What is Sectarianism

Thomas Jefferson, famous American President, wrote: “The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees in every object only the traits which favor that theory.” THis is a problem to address, but not necessarily what we mean by being sectarian. For one thing, the whole point of having a theory is to use it, so we can’t reject doing so. Jefferson’s highlighted problem is having an orientation that assumes the theory is without flaw, and, even more, having an orientation that is prone to ignore flaws or even hide flaws. Of course this tendency can get grotesque or remain subtle – the difference being that between the robotic and totally reflex application of some concepts, and the more patient and seemingly thoughtful version. But, either way, the process is harmful when it presumes  its own worth and rules out perceiving that which contradicts its own worth.

We have all seen this often enough. It exists with conspiracists, with fundamentalist and even more subtle religious adherents, and with all manner of political ideologies. It can even arise among scientists. Rather than provide examples that each instance of each type sectarian practitioner will immediately recognize as the behavior of others, but deny regarding him or herself, let’s ask, instead, why does it happen? Why do I see the world through my theory, my concepts, refusing to notice that which calls them into question or even denying the possibility of questions and  worst of all, reacting adversely and perhaps even antagonistically, indeed even violently, to any questions that are raised?

Jefferson is talking about the benign but not unimportant part of this problem. We inevitably use theory to think with, much like using a colored filter to see through, And, when doing so,we  inevitably as a result tend to think theory highlighted or sanctioned thoughts and tend not to think theory neglected or even denied thoughts – and tend to even perceive or not perceive facts based on their supporting or denying our theory – just as a colored filter causes us to see or not see certain shades of colors. That more or less inevitable by product of using the theory provides a foundation on which far more aggressively sectarian traits can grow – but, luckily, the means of combatting those worse tendencies will serve nicely for the more benign tendencies as well. So – the next question is, what are the worse tendencies rooted in?

Here is a hypothesis. 

A person has a perspective, a conceptual toolbox, a theory. If the person tends to see this perspective as not a mutable and transitory attachment, held for utilitarian reasons, but, instead, as a literal extension of self – almost like a personality trait, or even a physical attribute – this is typically the seeds of disaster. 

Joe or Sue is an anarchist, feminist, nationalist, leninist, conspiracist, fundamentalist or whatever. If they see the concepts and beliefs they hold as aids to accomplishing important aims – but mutable and potentially temporary and thus to be refined and improved or even replaced if need be – then aggressive sectarianism, I maintain, is highly unlikely to be present. But if Joe or Sue feels these concepts and beliefs to be their identity – to be who they are – to be a part of their very being, then aggressive sectarianism is highly likely to be present.

Joe or Sue encounter someone who questions a view they hold or a concept they employ. In the first case, where Joe and Sue see their views simply as aids to accomplishing important aims, this critic may or may not be right. If right, then Joe or Sue want to know it so they can fix their view. If wrong, okay, Joe or Sue need to explain why, calmly. 

In the second case, where Joe or Sue see their views as composing their own identity, their reason for being, who they are, who they wish to be, and who they will be – then the critic who raises a question seems to be attacking Joe or Sue. The claim that their view is flawed is heard as an attack indicating that they are flawed. Joe and Sue get defensive as they might if called nasty names. They strike back as they might if lied about, maliciously. The critic, under assault, replies in kind. The discussion barrels toward disaster.

The logic and pattern of sectarianism, everyone agrees, is the tendency to assume that one is right, that others are wrong, and that everything thereafter should flow from those quite obvious truths. But the foundation of sectarianism, I claim, derives from people making their beliefs into their identity and then reacting to criticism of beliefs as if those criticisms were personal assaults that should and must be defended in kind, and indeed, even far more aggressively since one has been wronged. Of course any degree of insecurity about self only adds fuel to the inferno.

We have been developing a conceptual toolbox for social change. We advocate using that toolbox. What then, do we offer, as the alternative to becoming sectarian?


Mental and Personal Flexibility

Individually, what, if anything, can we do? It is easy to say, listen. Be mature. Have patience. But in practice it doesn’t accomplish much. We each think we are listening, are being mature, are having patience, even when we are not. We think it is others who are not hearing us, respecting us, taking time with us. So – what can we do?

There may be no magic policy, no magic stance. Certainly there is no choice that will always, automatically work. Everything one might suggest to an individual to do is subject to dismissal in practice – just like listening, being mature, being patient – on grounds the individual is, after all, doing all that more than enough, which is even sometimes true. 

Still, here is a possibility. Suppose you get your sense of self not from the tenacity of your beliefs but literally from your flexibility about your beliefs. In other words, suppose the change isn’t a kind of preventive applied on top of the problem of having identified self with a set of views as in, despite that your identity is your perspective, listen when folks criticize it. Suppose, instead, the change is a change in the connection between your identity and your views? 

Then advisory to avoid sectarianism becomes to literally see yourself, respect yourself, even admire yourself, in precise proportion as you not only have what you think are worthy views, but as you are ready and in fact even quite eager – given good reason – to refine, alter, or even replace said views. Suppose, in other words, that the anarchist, feminist, or whatever sees self not so much as anarchist, feminist, or whatever – but as a flexible, thinking, caring, listening person, who, at the moment, feels a certain set of views are excellent, but who even more basically is hunting better views, eager to hear others propose different views, etc. Suppose one is more excited at the prospect of changing views then of keeping them unchanged. Suppose one’s view is, there is always room for improvement, so if I stand pat I am not improving, but if I change, intelligently, I am improving – and who I am, who I want to be, is a person always improving.

This is not easy, but if a person sees him or herself thusly, then the person automatically, as a near reflex response that their dignity demands, hears others and continually reassesses and hopes to refine revered views. The listening and assessing pause before pouncing and in fact replaces pouncing with exploring, becomes the key to one’s self respect. Pouncing without pause, in fact pouncing at all – unless really really warranted – actually violates rather than protecting one’s self respect. 

I suggest, pending lots of evidence, that this growth oriented approach to perspective or theory perhaps ought to be another feature of the toolbox of concepts and methods of the effective social change activist – and of its relation to self. Call it having personally participatory theory, or having growth oriented theory and views, if you like having a name for it.


Institutionally Participatory Theory

Personal solutions to problems arising in personal behaviors are worth trying to enunciate and employ, of course. But collective solutions and even institutional solutions, are better still – precisely because they are less subject to individual error and violation in the heat of the moment. 

We have identified that frequently utilized perspective has a built in tendency to protect itself partly by how it bends perceptions (which a nasty by-product of a key virtue, highlighting what is important and setting aside what isn’t important), and partly by how it co-opts personal identity and then, aggressive defensiveness of self. We have also, however, of course noted that perspectives can be modestly or even fundamentally flawed and need to be regularly reassessed in light of experience and reasoned challenge, and very likely updated periodically as well with additions, refinements, or perhaps even more fundamental changes. 

What would it mean to have a political perspective, a participatory growth oriented theory, in institutional practice? It would mean that one’s institutions – and now we are presumably talking about the organizations aimed at social change, which we will talk about much more later in this book – should literally have as one very serious part of their operations, continual assessment and reassessment of theory and all other components of political beliefs and practices. Not lip service, serious attention. 

This means, in turn, that there should literally be roles in our social change institution that compel actors to engage in continual challenges, to seek out doubts and concerns, to give dissidence space and resources to make a case, to take all such cases very very seriously – and to even hope that they prove successful in inducing change so that rather than always feeling vindicated and uplifted if a criticism is demonstrated wrong, individuals and even the collective population of the organization instead feel a bit let down when criticisms are shown wrong, because it means a chance at improvement led nowhere new. 

Again, as with personally rebutting tendencies to sectarianism, this stance to induce a growth oriented theory, vision, and strategy attitude not easy. We will see some kinds of structures it implies, later, when we have a better picture of vision and strategy and thus of some of the organizational requisites for carrying through strategy to vision.


Contending Extremes


Experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is mere intellectual play.

 – Immanuel Kant


The famous American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory.” His meaning was that theory is in texts, it is uttered, it is often abstract. If you want to see outcomes, however, well, ultimately you must act. And of course his observation is apt and accurate. 

However, there is another meaning one could attach to his wisdom. Screw theory, let’s get on with it. This is a widespread sentiment which also has at least some, but now much less logic. Theory is, we cannot deny, often just a lot of noise, on and on and on, and more, even when it is sound, one can bandy it about well beyond what insight requires so that at some point, already, let’s get moving. However, this reasonable advice often gets taken beyond this rightful applicability to a feeling that theory is just plain junk. Thought is little more than a brake on action. We must go go go. 

When I was first becoming socially and politically active, back in the 1960s, we used to have a name for folks with this inclination. We called them, and I was sometimes pretty close to the stance myself, the action faction. Get moving, dammit. “Do it,” as the wondrously clever Abbie Hoffman put it. 

But here is the thing. If you act without concepts and ideas placed in juxtaposition and considered regarding what you are doing – then you might as well be a dumb tractor as be a smart person. Our most prized asset, when trying to do things – is in fact our minds. Getting so frustrated as to turn our minds off or ignore them, is hardly the way to success. The action faction needs to slow down, just a little – not to smell the roses, or waste time in useless and pointless posturing, but to legitimately exercise the mind.

But not too much. 

Erma Bombeck, an American newspaper columnist/satirist who was often more insightful than most highly schooled academics, once wrote, “I have a theory about the human mind. A brain is a lot like a computer. It will only take so many facts, and then it will go on overload and blow up.”

My guess is she was venting about pointy headed show off intellectuals who would parade fact and claim after fact and claim, while nothing ever got done. In the sixties we called this syndrome the paralysis of analysis. It often took the form of beating a topic into dust even when, in fact, one didn’t actually have the knowledge or tools or insights – and in fact nobody did – to get much beyond a serious but reasonably rapid assessment and judgement. It also typically embodied much preening and prancing about by people with lots of training, which is to say lots of vocabulary, but not necessarily much on the ball. This was the opposite poll to the action faction. Slow down. Slower. Slower still. Wait. Reconsider. Let’s debate that again. I must have my say, yet again. And so on.

As an antidote to mindless action, excessive debate offers little, and the same goes for mindless action providing an antidote to excessive debate. Both extremes miss the real point. If you have theory, okay, good. But theory isn’t everything. It is one thing. Combine it with experience, don’t bury experience. If you are eager to act, okay, good. But action isn’t everything. It is one thing. Combine it with theory. Think and act. Act and think. Either without the other is a recipe for disaster.




We can summarize our meta theory ruminations quite quickly, not least because they are all utterly obvious once enunciated. The issue isn’t difficulty of conception, but difficulty of implementation. 

First, we realize that theory is good. We need it to get at relevant truths, aims, and methods effectively. Thus we develop and continually utilize, and refine diverse concepts. 

We do not get caught up in posturing about these concepts and their relations, making believe they are more subtle or complex than, in truth, they are. Rather, we put a great premium on making our thoughts as clear as we can by making our concepts and the relations among them congenial to people and certainly not obscure to people. Indeed, we mistrust obscurity in the realm of social change comprehension and action.

We use our theory – or conceptual toolbox – but we do not abuse it. We assume it always can be and needs to be better. We welcome critique, hope for wise and valid improvement. Personally we admire ourselves not for our views but for our willingness to hear contrary views, truly understand them, and when need be, adopt them in place of or as refinements of what we thought before. To be right is nice. To become more right is still nicer.

We believe in analysis. We believe in action. We combine the two without unduly privileging either. 

With the above stance in place, as best we can adopt it, and with our concepts of societal functions, four social spheres, two contexts, institutions and roles, institutional boundary and human center, familiar critical constituencies for change (and the new three class rather than two class conception), adapted insights from prior feminist, nationalist/intercommunalist, anarchist, and anti capitalist stances, and accommodation and co-reproduction, we are ready to proceed to issues of vision, preparatory to later addressing issues of strategy.

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