Uncle Owen: “Do you speak Bocce?”
Social Theorist: “Of course I do. It’s like a second language to me. I’m also fluent in postmodernism and poststructuralism.”
Uncle Owen: “What I really need is a Professor who will help me succeed in my career, even if I don’t become an academic scholar.”
Social Theorist: “I’m afraid I’m not terribly familiar with careers outside the academy. But if you learn to speak my gibberish I will sign off on your Master’s degree and you’ll be able to find a decent job even though you’ll need to retrain yourself to speak with normal humans.”
You may have noticed I’m battling with the Social Theorists who’ve over-populated the discipline of geography for far too long, preventing true geographers from being seen as useful in the workplace. Here are a few more of their efforts to argue for their own relevance, along with my replies.
“We need people to work through new ways of thinking and practicing and making sense of a changing, complex world.” and “First, whatever the workplace all students enhance their employment prospects and the quality of their work by being able to think critically and philosophically and to be able to apply that to their endeavours. The whole point of the University is that it educates, it challenges, it stimulates, it facilitates critical reasoning and reflection, it enables independent *thinking*; it is not simply training for rote employment.”
I agree. There should be a Department of Philosophy and a Department of Sociology in every University. There should also be a Department of Geography in every University. And the geography department should be composed of geographers, not philosophers and/or sociologists.
“…some professors might be more theoretically, rather than applied, orientated, but their role is an important complement to more practical skills and knowledge because it engages and produces independent, critical thinking.”
Again, I agree. Every grad student should take at least one, preferably two semesters of Theory in Geography. Most of it is boring as hell, but necessary. That said, social theory is not a legitimate sub-discipline of geography, it’s a different discipline altogether. You can be a geographer who also contributes to philosophy or sociology but you are not a geographer if all you do is philosophy or sociology.
“Just because you do not understand it does not make it a fairy tale – as your post details itself, you barely tried to learn the language whilst a student, but nonetheless dismiss it because you don’t understand it “
I understand social theory. I understand it well enough to know 80% of it is a pile of shit. I probably understand its role and relevance to society better than most who claim to specialize in it. I say this because I learned theory in geography from a true master, Alec Murphy. He brought it to life and inspired me to take it seriously (and I did indeed do the reading in his class). But then I was forced to endure, in other far less inspiring human geography seminar rooms, how it can be utilized to create alternate fantasy worlds and to serve no purpose aside from verbal/written ammunition in unproductive semantic disputes.
The claim that others don’t understand social theory is always the line of defense. And, this attitude of superiority is part of the problem. I think it comes from a feeling of insecurity because, deep down, you realize you’re enjoying the luxury of being a paid scholar without, in turn, making a sufficiently meaningful contribution to society’s priorities. So you hide behind absurd jargon and the ridiculous notion that you’re smarter than everyone else. If you are a practicing geographer and, in parallel, also contributing to social theory research – more power to you. But, let’s stop producing so many social theorists in geography departments. In doing so, we’re diluting the discipline and paying too little attention to far more pressing problems we are well-equipped to address.
“The accusation about no-one understanding, caring about or reading social theory simply is a statement without empirical evidence.”
There’s easily obtainable empirical evidence. Why not survey every student of geography and ask them what they want from their geography degree? Put various outcomes on the list along with “understanding social theory” to see what students value. Or, ask parents/taxpayers (the people paying your salary) where they want their money and your time invested. Or ask employers who hire geographers for their input.
I’ll go out on a limb and predict all three groups will plead with geography departments to spend less time on social theory and more time on spatial/geographical/environmental problem solving.
I’m not saying do away with social theory. I’m saying geographers need to do a better job of clarifying what we do and I’m saying the non-academic population is begging the entire academy, not just geography, to become more relevant.
It’s time to listen.