Post by Etienne:

In my visiting professor position at Manchester University and during the course of social theories of learning I co-teach there, I have often been challenged to articulate how my own theorizing relates to other theories, such as Activity, Structuration, or Actor-Network theories, or the work of people like Bourdieu, Foucault, Gee, and Holland.

I have also been challenged to explain why certain issues of traditional interest in social theory are not directly addressed, for instance, socio-political and organizational structures, class, gender, or race.

Recently the Manchester group invited me to reflect on what I have learned from these questions in a chapter for a book they were publishing.

The result is a kind of meta-theory of progress in social theory. I call it the discipline of plug-and-play. The idea is that in the social sciences, the real challenge is to have theories run through each other rather than to replace each other in a quest for some grand unifying theory.

While plug-and-play suggests something easy for the user, it is in fact a very demanding discipline for the designer. Applied to social theorizing, the plug-and-play metaphor suggests that theorists have to work hard to define the essence of their theory so that people can understand its modular place in the broader system of social theory. This way researchers can apply some rigor to combining theories when it serves their purpose, rather than looking for everything within a single theory.

In my chapter I suggest three dimensions of theories to pay attention to for more pug-and-play rigor: purpose, stance, and technical language.

My chapter is called “The practice of theory: confessions of a social learning theorist” and you can download the last draft in my possession:

Download plug and play paper here

P.S. As the comment below suggests, I forgot to include the citation in the original post:

Wenger-Trayner, E. (2013) The practice of theory: confessions of a social learning theorist. In Farnsworth, V. and Solomon, Y. (Eds.) Reframing Educational Research: Resisting the “What Works” Agenda. Routledge.