Relationships with Theory – Prof. Tony Brown

An ongoing focus of discussion at ESRI is our relationship with theory. How do we choose a theory or theories? Do theories choose us? Are our decisions made on a pragmatic basis according to which theories have the greatest explanatory utility or have the most persuasive evidential basis? Or are our decisions laden with social and cultural values about the purpose we seek through our research or the type of researcher we aspire to be?  If we prefer elegant and expansive theories or parsimonious theories, does our choice of theory illuminate aspects of our personality? Thus we are running a series of posts on ‘Relationships with Theory’ to describe why academics at ESRI have made particular theoretical choices in their research.

The first account is provided by Prof. Tony Brown:

My work is typically theoretical but I let bits of empirical reality creep in through “fictional constructions”, as Derrida would call them. That is reality can be processed through fictional constructions.  Derrida’s example focused on TV reports of war. Ricoeur draws many parallels between the constructions of fictional and historical narratives and refuses to draw a hard and fast line between them. Whether we are talking about Jacques Lacan or John Maynard Keynes or Jane Austen, stories of how things are distanced from the realities that they seek to depict. Yet it would be a mistake to suppose that the stories fail in any sense since a direct imprint of reality would not be possible. We are only able to offer alternative ways of looking. Lacan’s work for example is premised on examining the relationships between individuals and the symbolically defined universe. A reconfiguration of the past redefines the present and opens the possibility of alternative futures. But we are still talking about the same life as it were but a life transformed through our modified attempt to apprehend reality through the symbolic apparatus available to us. A theory can’t stand still in depicting life and life can’t stand still to wait for theory. Yet acting as if theory can stand still, or as if life could stand still, have been common attributes of theory production. But those very temporal displacements, the very failures of fit, alert us to the disparity between life and theory such that we can learn to fail better. I have proposed a new sales pitch for MMU: “the university where you can learn to fail better”.


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