Is Social Theory the hardest language to learn?

So, I signed up for a working group on Social Theory. I have so far spent my short academic life trying to avoid anything theoretical, but as I am about to enter the second year of PhD study I realised I cannot and should not escape it for any longer. So I figured the best way to better understand social theory is to join a group that are designing an online platform to teach social theory – genius!

'Fields arranged by purity of concept ' Darjeelingzen, 2012

‘Fields arranged by purity of concept ‘ Darjeelingzen, 2012

I haven’t denounced social theory altogether, I am pretty hot on feminist theoretical debates, and have dabbled in Bourdieu, Foucault and Marx. So what is it about the idea of social theory that has got me in such a bother? I am pretty good at this academic stuff otherwise so why shy away from something so innocuous as conversations about studying the social world? Conversations about grand theories, meta-theories, induction and reduction, epistemology or ontology, positivism and interpretivism….. sorry, it’s too much I need to sit down.

Social theory is a language that helps us understand and explain the social world, suggested my colleague. And that’s when I realised why I find social theory so daunting and so, well…hard. It is like learning a foreign language. Social theory, like many other languages, is taught in a classroom of students where most know a one or two words or none at all, but need to learn more words as well as how and when to use them. Then there are others in the class who know a few words, but like to use these words over and over again, not always in the right context but just saying them at any opportunity just to prove they know some words. Those people always make me feel stupid and put me off learning languages.

Like learning any language, the usual pedagogic techniques don’t suit everyone trying to learn social theory. So for that reason this Social Theory Research Group, led by Michael Hammond and Milena Kremkova at Warwick, are developing an interactive, online platform to help budding researchers get to grips with social theory. The aim is to make social theory more approachable by taking it down of its scholarly pedestal, and provide accessible tools for learning and sharing information about a wide range of theoretical ideas.

We are considering glossaries, dictionaries, literature maps, metaphors and discussion forums, as well as utilising the power of social media from Facebook to Twitter to Blogs. To do this we need your help, and would like to find out about your own relationship with social theory: What has been easy? What has been hard? What are your positive and negative experiences when exploring social theory? We would like to hear your stories, the good, the bad, and the theoretically ugly.

Please send your comments to or on message me on Twitter (@FlexiblePhD).

Blog first published in The Sociological Imagination, 08/10/15 –

Heather Griffiths is a second year PhD student in the Department of Sociology, funded by the ESRC. Broad research interests are in gender and work, work life balance and feminist theory. Her PhD research will look at flexible working policies within the finance sector, and whether such policies will be supported by finance sector culture, as well as how they impact on gender equality and work life balance both at work and in the home.

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