Engaged theory is a methodological framework for understanding social complexity. It takes social life or social relations as its base category, with 'the social' always understood as grounded in 'the natural', including humans as embodied beings. Engaged theory provides a framework that moves from detailed empirical analysis about things, people and processes in the world[1] to abstract theory about the constitution and social framing of those things, people and processes.[2]

Engaged theory is one approach within the broader tradition of critical theory. Engaged theory crosses the fields of sociology, anthropology, political studies, history, philosophy, and global studies. At its most general, the term engaged theory is used to describe theories that provide a tool box for engaging with the world while seeking to change it.[3]

One lineage of engaged theory is called the 'constitutive abstraction' approach associated with a group of writers publishing in Arena Journal such as John Hinkson, Geoff Sharp (1926–2015), and Simon Cooper.[4]

A related lineage of engaged theory has been developed by researchers who began their association through the Centre for Global Research at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia – 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. A group of researchers at Western Sydney University describe their work as 'Engaged Research'.[5]

The politics of engagement

For all of its concern for epistemological grounding (see below), Engaged theory is an approach that is 'in the world'. All theory in some way affects what happens in the world, but it does not always theorize its own place in the constitution of ideas and practices. Anthony Giddens calls this movement a double hermeneutic.[6] Engaged theory is more explicit than most about its political standpoint. Carol J. Adams expresses one dimension of this when she writes:

It is engaged theory, theory that arises from anger about what is, theory that envisions what is possible. Engaged theory makes change possible.[7]

However, the other important dimension is that any theory needs to be aware of its own tendencies to be ideologically driven by dominant concerns of its day. Liberalism, for example, with its reductive advocacy of the ideology of 'freedom', fails to be reflexive about this dimension. Similarly, critical theory sometimes fails to be reflexive of what it means to be critical or advocate social change.

The grounding of analysis

All social theories are dependent upon a process of abstraction.[8] This is what philosophers call epistemological abstraction. However, they do not characteristically theorize their own bases for establishing their standpoint. Engaged theory does. By comparison, 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. Engaged theory, to the contrary, treats such a claim to value neutrality as naively unsustainable. Engaged theory is thus reflexive in a number of ways:

The modes of analysis

In the version of Engaged theory developed by an Australian-based group of writers, analysis moves from the most concrete form of analysis – empirical generalization – to more abstract modes of analysis. Each subsequent mode 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 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’.[11]

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. It can be used for understanding and assessing quality of 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. It needs to be useful in analysing situations on the ground.[12]

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.[13]

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.[14]

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 form 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.[15]

See also


  1. ^ See for example the engaged research associated with Circles of Sustainability. www.CirclesofSustainability.org
  2. ^ See Paul James, Globalism, Nationalism, Tribalism: Bringing Theory Back In, Sage Publications, London, 2006 [1]
  3. ^ James Clifford, 'On Ethnographic Authority', Representations, vol. 1, no. 2, 1983, pp. 118–146.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ "About ICS".
  6. ^ Anthony Giddens (1987), Social Theory and Modern Sociology, Cambridge, Polity Press.
  7. ^ Carol J. Adams in Species Matters: Human Advocacy and Cultural Theory, New York, Columbia University Press, p. 91.
  8. ^ Ann Hartle (1997), Self-knowledge in the Age of Theory, Lanham Rowman and Littlefield.
  9. ^ James, Paul (2006). Globalism, Nationalism, Tribalism: Bringing Theory Back In. London: Sage Publications.
  10. ^ Gunter Abel and James Conant, eds (2012) Rethinking Epistemology, Berlin, De Gruyter
  11. ^ James, Paul; with Magee, Liam; Scerri, Andy; Steger, Manfred B. (2015). Urban Sustainability in Theory and Practice: Circles of Sustainability. London: Routledge.
  12. ^ Liam Magee; Andy Scerri; Paul James; James A. Thom; Lin Padgham; Sarah Hickmott; Hepu Deng; Felicity Cahill (2013). "Reframing social sustainability reporting: Towards an engaged approach". Environment, Development and Sustainability. 15 (1): 225–43. doi:10.1007/s10668-012-9384-2.
  13. ^ 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).
  14. ^ B. Anderson, Imagined Communities, Verso, London, 2003.
  15. ^ 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.

Further reading