I like this essay by Kieran Healy a lot, even though I am probably the kind of person who habitually calls for nuance. What this helps me to understand is what I am doing when I make that nearly instinctive move. I suppose in part I am doing what E.P. Thompson did in writing against theory as abstraction: believing that the important things to understand about human life are always descriptive, always in the details, always in what is (or was) lived, real, and tangible. There are days where I would find more persuasive, both as scholar and person, from the truths found in a novel or a deep work of narrative journalism than from social theory. But it is stupid to act as if one can be a microhistorian in a naive and unstructured fashion: there’s tons of theory in there somewhere, from the selection of the stories that we find worth our time to what we choose to represent them as saying. I do not read about human beings and then insist that the only thing I can do is just read to you what I read. I describe, I compress, I abstract. That’s what Kieran is arguing that theory is, and what the demand for “nuance” prevents us from doing in a conscious and creative way.
I suppose I lately have a theory of theory, which is that it is usually a prelude to doing something to human beings wherein the abstractions that make theory ‘good to think’ will become round holes through which real human square pegs are to be pounded. But this is in some sense no better (or worse) than any other abstraction–to really stick to my preferences, I should take every theory (and its application or lack thereof) on its particulars.
I also think that there is something of a puzzle that Kieran works around in the piece, most clearly in his discussion of aesthetics. (Hopefully this is not an objection about the need for nuance by some other name.) But it is this: on what grounds should we prefer a given body of theory if not for its descriptive power? Because that’s what causes the kudzu of nuance to grow so fast and thoroughly: academics read each other’s work evaluatively, even antagonistically. What are we to value between theories if not their descriptive accuracy? (If that’s what we are to value, that will fertilize the kudzu, because that’s what leads to ‘your theory ignores’ and ‘your theory is missing…’) We could value the usefulness of theory: the numbers of circumstances to which it can apply. Or the ease-of-use of theory: its memorability, its simplicity, its familiarity. Or the generativity of theory, tested by the numbers of people who actually do use it, the amount of work that is catalyzed by it.
The problem with all or any of those is that I don’t know that it leaves me with much when I don’t like a theory. Rational choice/homo economicus fits all of these: it is universal in scope, it’s relatively easy to remember and apply as a way to read many many episodes and phenomena, and it has been hugely generative. I don’t like it because I think for one it isn’t true. Why do I think that? Because I don’t think it fits the actual detailed evidence of actual human life in any actually existing human society. Or the actual evidence of how human cognition operates. But I also don’t like it because of what is done in the name of such theory. That would always have to be a post-facto kind of judgment, though, if I were prohibited from a complaint about the mismatch between a theory and the reality of human life, or it would have to be about ad hominem: do I dislike or mistrust the politics of the theorists?
I think this is why we so often fall back into the kudzu of nuance, because if we clear away the overgrowth, we will face one another naked and undisguised. We’d either have to say, “I find your theory (and perhaps you) aesthetically unpleasing or annoying” or “I don’t like the politics of your theory (and perhaps you) and so to war we will go”. The kudzu of nuance may be ugly and confusing, but it at least lets us continue to talk at and past one another without arriving at a moment of stark incommensurability.