the trouble with theory (EPIC ethnography III)

Epic_1 My EPIC presentation took a position impatient with theory.  I will later accused of being anti-intellectual.  This must be wrong.  As my neice pointed out, I am uncle-intellectual.

The trouble is not with me.  The trouble is with what it means to solve problems in a dynamic culture.  The trouble is with theory.

Marshall Sahlins argues that every theory is a bargain with reality. It gives us certain kinds of knowledge by denying us the possibility of other kinds of knowledge.  (My phrasing.  All regrets if the master had hoped for something more nuanced.)

Working for clients, we are obliged to deal always with shifting perspectives, mountains of data, complicated problem sets and an urgent time line.  As good marketers, there is lots to crunch, much to contemplate, and the BFI (big f*cking idea) can come from any where. Anyone who is a slave to any one theory puts the enterprise at risk. 

Solving the problems of most clients demands methodological lability and an intellectual opportunism.  We want to have all the theories we have ever encountered at our disposal.  In my case, this must mean a willingness to draw upon structuralism, semiotics, structural functionalism, functionalism, post modernism, and much else besides. We want to be agnostic.

Theoretical loyalty is a terrible idea not least because we are willing away all the other insights that promiscuity make available. Theoretical loyalty, that’s precisely the sort of thing that is likely to appeal to academics for whom tribal loyalty is the very point of the exercise, not least because it is so often used to decide whether and where they will be allowed to teach and publish. 

No, a certain intellectual mobility is called for.   Typically, we have 10 days between our introduction to the problem and the our conclusion.  That’s 10 days to get from, say, a deep ignorance of the mutual fund industry to insights and recommendations that are capable of adding real value.  I think we can not unless we are prepared to press into service any and all the intellectual patterns with which we are acquainted.

I am not arguing the case for no theory.  The world of marketing began, I guess, in retail.  Someone would go to the shop floor and see what was selling.  This was all the intelligence one needed to stay in business.  This was no theory.  But every corporation is now a ship in high seas.  Every kind of data must be consulted.  Every kind of strategy contemplated.  Only consultants who are prepared to make use of everything they know can serve.  We do not wish these consultants to forsake theory.  We want them to forsake the idea of a single theory.  But a blue helmet on them if we must, but "ecumenical" is the watch word here. 

7 thoughts on “the trouble with theory (EPIC ethnography III)

  1. Tom Guarriello

    My mentor, Antos Rancurello, was brilliant (would that more of it would have rubbed off.) His speciality was the history of ideas. One of his PhDs was in philosophy, the other, in psychology. As an undergraduate, he taught a course I was fortunate to take entitled, “theories of personality.”

    What a revelation! So many insights. The germane one: every personality theory (which is, after all, a theory of all human life, if you think about it) contains a kernel of truth. Each illuminates a corner of the reality of human existence, which it then totalized to be ALL of the reality of human existence. Do we symbolically relive the past? You bet. Freud had that one down pat. Is that all we do? Um, no, I don’t think so. Are we moved by reinforcement schedules of which we are totally unaware. Undoubtedly. With apologies to Peggy Lee, is that all there is? Nope.

    So, I learned then that theories map segments of the territory, which zealots confuse with the whole enchilda. They’re helpful, correct, and incomplete.

    And, for the record, anyone who accuses you of being anti-intellectual is someone from whom you should retreat, post haste!

  2. Natasha

    The idea that one can pull from a plethora of theoretical possibilities to best inform actionable recommendations for our marketing clients is encouraging.

    However, I guess this requires us to really be masters of our art then. Cool!

  3. steve

    Of course, the question becomes which club to take out of the bag (I don’t golf, but it just sounded hard-headed and businessy). Is it instinct, or can the choice be made systematic? And if the latter, isn’t there a kind of meta-theory being proposed that links together the underlying theories?

    I think most applied work in any field (e.g. engineering or strategy or law) requires a degree of theoretical pluralism because no field has a single over-arching framework that can solve (as opposed to merely rationalize) the problems it faces. In strategy, you do some industry analysis (say Porter’s five forces), you do some positioning analysis, some game theory might infiltrate, some organizational sociology, etc. I should point out that this pluralism and pragmatism is exactly why applied work receives little academic or intellectual respect.

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  5. Grant

    Tom, well said, sir, every theory another flash light for our trek through the marketing darkness (though I couldnt help notice you avoiding metaphors as banal as this one). Thanks, Grant

    Natasha, great to meet you in Portland, and, yes, marketing as something theory driven, and multiple theory driven, instead of this serial big idea approach (blue oceans!) we are now inclined to take. Thanks, Grant

    Steve, I believe with Bateson that our intellectual “instincts” are ideas first carefully chosen and mastered and then thoroughly automated, the faster and more creatively may we call them from their lair. And yes, academics scorn us for our theortically versatility, but then I believe they smuggle this in to practice and then conceal it after the fact. Best, Grant

  6. Donna

    My daughters are the grandaughters of Antos Rancurello, of the University of Dayton, I am not sure if you were speaking of the same man, but I would love for them to know who he was. I am fascinated, to know him, even though I married into the family, he is my daughters heritage. And I enjoyed your writings, thank you!

  7. doug barker

    I was a student of Antos and a one-time professor of his son, Michael.
    They are both outstanding people and scholars.

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