Engaged theory is a methodological framework for understanding social complexity. It provides a framework that moves from detailed empirical analysis about things, people and processes in the world to abstract theory about the constitution and social framing of those things, people and processes. One lineage of engaged theory is called the ‘constitutive abstraction’ approach associated with the journal Arena Journal Engaged theory is one approach within the broader tradition of critical theory. A second lineage of engaged theory has been developed by researchers associated with the Global Cities Institute, scholars such as Manfred Steger, Paul James and Damian Grenfell, drawing upon a range of writers from Pierre Bourdieu to Benedict Anderson and Charles Taylor.
All social theories are dependent upon such a process of abstraction. However, they do not characteristically theorize their own basis for establishing their standpoint. For example, Grounded theory, a very different approach, suggests that empirical data collection is a neutral process that gives rise to theoretical claims out of that data. By contrast, engaged theory is reflexive in a number of ways. Firstly, it recognises that even something as basic as collecting data already entails making theoretical presuppositions. Secondly, it names the levels of analysis from which theoretical claims are made. Engaged theory works across four levels of theoretical abstraction. Thirdly, it makes a clear distinction between theory and method, suggesting that a social theory is an argument about a social phenomenon, while an analytical method or set of methods is defined a means of substantiating that theory. Engaged theory in these terms works as a 'Grand method', but not a 'Grand theory'. It provides an integrated set of methodological tools for developing different theories of things and processes in the world.
Levels of analysis
The four levels of analysis moves from the most concrete form of analysis - empirical generalization - to more abstract levels of analysis. Each subsequent level of analysis is more abstract than the previous one moving across the following themes: 1. doing, 2. acting, 3. relating, 4. being.
This leads to the 'levels' approach as set out below:
1. Empirical analysis (ways of doing)
The method begins by emphasizing the importance of a first-order abstraction, here called empirical analysis. It entails drawing out and generalizing from on-the-ground detailed descriptions of history and place. This first level either involves generating empirical description based on observation, experience, recording or experiment—in other words, abstracting evidence from that which exists or occurs in the world—or it involves drawing upon the empirical research of others. The first level of analytical abstraction is an ordering of ‘things in the world’, in a way that does not depend upon any kind of further analysis being applied to those ‘things’.
For example, the Circles of Sustainability approach is a form of engaged theory distinguishing (at the level of empirical generalization) between different domains of social life. Although that approach is also analytically defended through more abstract theory, the claim that economics, ecology, politics and culture can be distinguished as central domains of social practice has to be defensible at an empirical level and, at the same time, be useful in analysing situations on the ground. The success or otherwise of the method can be assessed by examining how it is used. One example of use of the method was a project on Papua New Guinea called Sustainable Communities, Sustainable Development.
2. Conjunctural analysis (ways of acting)
This second level of analysis, conjunctural analysis, involves identifying and more importantly examining the intersection (the conjunctures) of various patterns of action (practice and meaning). Here the method draws upon established sociological, anthropological and political categories of analysis such as production, exchange, communication, organization and inquiry.
3. Integrational analysis (ways of relating)
This third level of entry into discussing the complexity of social relations examines the intersecting modes of social integration and differentiation. These different modes of integration are expressed here in terms of different ways of relating to and distinguishing oneself from others—from the face-to-face to the disembodied. Here we see a break with the dominant emphases of classical social theory and a movement towards a post-classical sensibility. In relation to the nation-state, for example, we can ask how it is possible to explain a phenomenon that, at least in its modern variant, subjectively explains itself by reference to face-to-face metaphors of blood and place—ties of genealogy, kinship and ethnicity—when the objective ‘reality’ of all nation-states is that they are disembodied communities of abstracted strangers who will never meet. This accords with Benedict Anderson's conception of 'imagined communities', but recognizes the contradictory formation of that kind of community.
4. Categorical analysis (ways of being)
This level of enquiry is based upon an exploration of the ontological categories (categories of being such as time and space). If the previous level of analysis emphasizes the different modes through which people live their commonalities with or differences from others, those same themes are examined through more abstract analytical lenses of different grounding forms of life: respectively, embodiment, spatiality, temporality, performativity and epistemology. At this level, generalizations can be made about the dominant modes of categorization in a social formation or in its fields of practice and discourse. It is only at this level that it makes sense to generalize across modes of being and to talk of ontological formations, societies as formed in the uneven dominance of formations of tribalism, traditionalism, modernism or postmodernism.
- For a book that uses this approach see Simon Cooper, Techno-Culture and Critical Theory, Routledge, London, 2002. One of the most important early pieces of writing in this approach was Geoff Sharp, ‘Constitutive Abstraction and Social Practice’, Arena, 70, 1985, pp. 48-82.
- See Paul James, Globalism, Nationalism, Tribalism: Bringing Theory Back In, Sage Publications, London, 2006
- Paul James, Yaso Nadarajah, Karen Haive, and Victoria Stead, Sustainable Communities, Sustainable Development: Other Paths for Papua New Guinea, Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 2012 (ISBN 978-0-8248-3588-0 hb 978-0-8248-3640-5 pb).
- B. Anderson, Imagined Communities, Verso, London, 2003.
- One of the earliest formulations of the notion of a postmodern level of the economy was John Hinkson, ‘Postmodern Economy: Value, Self-Formation and Intellectual Practice’, Arena Journal, New Series, no. 1, 1993, pp. 23-44.