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Theory and Its Uses

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Created: March 25, 2001
Latest update: May 29, 2001
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Oppression and Revolution - Part I

Understanding How We Oppress Others and Are In Turn Oppressed
and The Revolutionary Concept of Not Doing This to Each Other

by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata, March 2001. Fair Use" encouraged.



What Is Theory? Why Do We Need It?

Theory is an organized way of thinking about a subject. Most theories define the concepts they need to talk about the problem. Then they organize all those definitions so that they do not contradict one another. Definitions given, theories then try to explain and predict behavior on the basis of their concepts.

Most of us use theories unconsciously. When you suggest that idle hands should be kept busy, giving your children something to occupy their attention, you are operating on the theory of protestant ethics, or the work ethic. Depending on the definitions you use for the concepts, you might consider playing with Nintendo productive work, or you might consider it idle, leading to mischief later. At least one researcher uses Nintendo to reprogram the rules of the games and teach young children how to think critically about games. (Pogrow, the HOTS Program, the University of Arizona.) Now that would cause us to reconsider our definitions and how they fit together, wouldn't it?

Some people today insist upon teaching their children to read before the age of three, providing productive activities, ballet, gym, martial arts, etc. for almost every minute of their day. They are predicting that their children will be better motivated and more successful in later life if they learn productive work habits at such an early age. Other parents are alarmed at the loss of creative play. They would let children develop more spontaneously with less emphasis on production and competition at the preschool age. You can well imagine how these people have different definitions of the concept of achievement motivation. They have probably never thought out their definitions, probably never thought of this in terms of theory and prediction of future behavior. Unfortunately, this leads to more opportunities for contradictions and poor results in the theory's predictive and explanatory powers.

The abilities to predict and explain are powerful tools. Even though no one has any definitive answers as to whether playing Nintendo and/or following a full social/developmental schedule is good or not so good for preschoolers, we all of us sooner or later have to make decisions based on the answers we come up with. We may have young children and be forced to make decisions for them. Or we may just be forced to make a ballot decision on whether to pay for such education for all children. Either way, we can make better predictions and decisions if we get the contradictions out of our thinking, if we consider what is known on the many sides of the issue.

Theory helps in another important way. Most of these issues are intensely emotional when they apply to our friends and family. The parent who is opposed to Nintendo can get pretty emotional about the presence of Nintendo in the preschool or kindergarten classroom. That parent may not be willing to listen to why the teacher or the school has approved this, even though it might be part of Pogrow's research on critical thinking. The parent's emotion gets in his way. He "knows" Nintendo is bad. In order to hear what Pogrow has to say, the parent needs to step back, talk about the technical aspects of the problem, define what Nintendo means to her, what she thinks it means to her child. We call that critical distancing. Theory helps us to accomplish this.

Edward T. Hall, in The Silent Language, speaks of the "affect" attached to learning and knowing. He explains that the more technical the approach we take to an issue, the less affect we feel over it. Bloom and Krathwohl, in The Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, speak of the "affective domain" in education, and the "cognitive domain." They recognize that we have strong feelings about what we "know." So, of course, we have strong feelings about what we learn. Once we have learned a concept that fits and is appropriate and fits well in one context, we are disconcerted when we encounter later contexts in which this piece of knowledge fails us. Think of math. How many parents were upset to learn that two plus two no longer equaled four for their elementary school children, who were studying numbers to the base two, not to the base ten?

What we know, how we come to know it, and how we measure the appropriateness of the context in which we apply that knowledge is of major concern to every social problem we face at the end of this twentieth century. We classify this officially as epistemology in philosophy, as the sociology of knowledge in sociology, as the cognitive and affective domains in education, and by dozens of other terms across all the disciplines, for every discipline addresses this issue. Jonathan Lear has written a whole book on the problem, Open Minded, in which he speaks of our "need to know," to be certain, to be "rational," to have rational reasons for what we do, so much so that we see rational resons where there are none. (The Wolf Man? in Freud.)

Theory depends almost entirely on the definitions of the concepts which underlie it. Martha Minow refers to these underlying concepts as unstated assumptions. These definitions and assumptions come from our experiences which differ radically from one social context to another. That makes empathy harder. Especially because the assumptions and definitions are normative, shared across the group and out-of-awareness, considerable affect is attached to them, and we find it difficult to imagine alternatives. When our normative expectations and assumptions conflict, we shout rhetoric at one another, failing to gain any real communication, and thus failing to solve our social problems. (Donald O. Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction.)

In this text we focus on the rhetoric, how it confuses the issues, how we fail to hear one another, and why. If we can analyze these issues from the critical distance that theory provides us, then perhaps we will be better able to listen and hear, better able to understand our similarities instead of fighting over our differences. Theory allows us to do that precisely by affording us critical distance, by helping us to step back from the affect that so many research studies have shown to be attached to what we think we know, especially about others.

Catharine MacKinnon is a Professor of Law at the University of Michigan, and a radical feminist. She addresses the oppression of women, using feminist theory which she bases on marxism, postmarxism, theories of racism, and others. Ultimately she pulled these theories together into a book, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, a theory in which oppression would have no place. Unfortunately she called her book "Toward" a theory because the theory that will end oppression has not yet found its practice.

MacKinnon defines sex and sexuality as either growing out of perceived differences, or as growing out of the subjugation of women through structural inequality. Whether we see the oppression of women from the "difference" perspective or from the "equality" perspective alters the whole pattern of what we want to proscribe as injustice. If we perceive gender as difference-based, then we perceive specific behaviors as impermissible, outlawing those based on wrong and/or purposefully limiting views of women. That means we evaluate individual behaviors and expectations for "wrong thinking," seeing nothing inherently wrong with the system except for abuse and misperceptions within that system. But if we perceive gender as structural subordination, then we see the system itself as inherently wrong, regardless of underlying wrong or right thinking about the individual behaviors. Very different explanations, very different predictions.

This is perhaps the most fundamental social problem we face in the world today. Do we regard differences, of which there are many, as misperceptions within a fundamentally just system? Or de we regard the system as oppressive and unjust? One perspective approaches the problem through individuals and sees the solution as occurring through individuals. The other approaches the problem structurally and seeks solutions through restructuring or deconstructing the system. There are no answers. The question is not whether there are differences, but how to structure a reasonably legitimate society without exacerbating those differences, how to decide between preferential treatment and equality. The question is: what must we work to change, inappropriate behavior within an essentially just system, or structural change of an essentially unjust system? According to what we perceive as creating the present conditions, we will understand different solutions.

What is discrimination? Our answer to that question certainly depends on the theoretical underpinnings of our approach to difference. Does equality mean that we treat everyone alike, even when we are all different and when equal treatment produces unjust results? Or does equality mean different treatment, sometimes preferential treatment for those who have been disadvantaged in some way? In most societies race and gender are the primary characteristics on which oppression is based. But in some, religion, ethnicity, skin color have produced the same effects. Why do people oppress others? Can we become aware of it? Can we learn not to do it? And discover ways to cope effectively when it is done to us, in any measure? That is the focus of this course. If there is indeed to be a revolution such as MacKinnon envisions in Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, or such as Che Guevara envisioned, or as Subcommandante Marcos of Chiapas envisions, it must take the form of a revolution of behavior, in which we learn to see the world in a way that allows us to hear, to see, to feel, and, in consequence, not to oppress. That is the revolution of the title, the one that MacKinnon presumes will be ready to happen in eighteen years or so, the one of transforming or shifting the dominant discourse away from adversarialism and toward mutuality. (Fellman, Rambo and the Dalai Lama)

Discussion Topics

Study Questions and Lecture Summaries

This section is unusual. It adds relatively little new material, drawing instead on what has gone before, and on some additional information that we know will have come out in lectures. It is designed to guide you in the application of the conceptual framework presented in the text and excerpts. In reading the tests for this course, we want you to be aware not only of the dilemma posed by hastily, unsubstatantiated statistics strewn through the media, but also the theoretical implications of that fiasco. We want you to see the connection of dogmatism, cognitive dissonance, privileging, and preservation of the elite in the context of forums being manipulated, statistics being used to support intuitive apologies of the existing normative patterns. We want you to understand the level of anger and frustration in that episode, and be able to account for it through a discussion of affect in knowing and learning. We want you to recognize that most communication is affected by out-of-awareness needs dictated by highly unique life spaces. We want you to see, read, and hear against a contextual framework that gives depth to your perspective.

The section is designed to guide you in the practice of applying theory and methodology to actual texts. It gives you samples of the way to do that. By no stretch of the imagination does it exhaust the possibilities provided within the simple bounds of this text. Seek your own variations, for that is how you will learn.

You will find that the answers given in this section are highly structured. Every now and then we even venture a YES or a NO, when the question specifically calls for convergent production. We do not do that very often. The purpose of the text is to teach you divergent production, connected knowing, skill in analyzing relations between people and institutions. That means that the answers given most often fall into the category of "one plausible response." They are meant to stimulate discussion and study, not limit them. On the other hand, they guarantee that you will have at least one plausible answer for what we had in mind when we posed the question. And that should reduce some of the ambiguity, especially in studying for tests.

  1. What is theory?

    jeanne's lecture notes on one plausible answer:

    See theory definition in text. and note these key concepts:

    1. Organized way of thinking
    2. Definitions of concepts
    3. Non-contradictory, internal consistency
    4. Explain and predict behavior

  2. What purposes does theory serve?

    jeanne's lecture notes on one plausible answer:

    1. Provides ability to predict and explain.
    2. Provides critical distancing.
    3. Reduces affect when we confront issues.

  3. What theoretical positions underlie many social problems on the differences that lead to oppression?

    jeanne's lecture notes on one plausible answer:

    1. Either we approach the problems from the perspective of difference and the individual, which means that we see the problem as occuring in the individual, the solution as occurring in the individual, and the system as basically just and legitimate.
    2. Or we approach the problems from the perspective of the social structure and structural inequality, which means that we see the problem as occurring in the social structure, the solution as changing that structure, and the system as basically unjust and not legitimate.
    3. Notice the tension described here between the individual and the structural context.
    4. Good example in Joan Kemp's theoretical analysis in Chapters 3 and 4 in Women's Work. (late 70's?)

  4. How does our philosophical view of the fundamental justice of the system in which we live affect our perception of difference?

    jeanne's lecture notes on one plausible answer:

    1. See discussion in text.
    2. Key concepts:

      • Do we regard differences, of which there are many, as misperceptions within a fundamentally just system?
      • Or de we regard the system as oppressive and unjust?

  5. Does the philosophical view of the fundamental justice of the system have anything in common with Kemp's analysis of social problems as located in the individual or in the social structure?

    jeanne's lecture notes on one plausible answer:

    1. Both approaches are describing the same tension, between the individual and the social structure in which the individual finds himself/herself. Perhaps one could suggest that the philosophical approach goes to a deeper level in which we are trying to decide the balance between structural context and agency. (Henry and Milovanovic, Constitutive Criminology at Work.)