Why Theory Actually Matters

Another post for those of you interested in the research process.

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard that theory is “irrelevant” or “too complex” or “a waste of time.” And no, that’s not just from undergraduates who don’t want to study it! It’s from people in all walks of life. They are justified, I think, because theory is often portrayed as “special” or “elite” knowledge, rendered completely inaccessible.

But theory matters and here’s why.

I’m interested, as some of you know, in three approaches to understanding work and time:

  • Political economy of time
  • Symbolic practices of time
  • Conscious experience of time

Each one of these approaches has implicit “truth claims” or “ontological assumptions” or “this how I think the world is” embedded within them. If you never talk about theory, you never know what your implicit assumptions are. And you never know how these assumptions can be out-right WRONG.

Case in point: Political economy believes time is a resource or a commodity that can be bought and sold (and therefore, fought over). Few political economists question this idea — it is implicit. But there is ample evidence to suggest that time is not actually experienced as a commodity, but more as a sense of timelessness. This is the theory of “flow” for those of you who are interested.

Time is also experienced through social events. The space between breakfast and lunch, for example, is this kind of time. The years between matriculation and graduation is another example. Time passes without our notice if do not bookend it with anniversaries, birthdays, and other social practices.

Now why does theory matter? Because you use it anyway. If you don’t examine what you are implicitly using, you run the risk of doing all sorts of ill-advised things, like restricting the money supply, preventing broken windows, and teaching intelligent design.

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