Theory as Retrospective Sensemaking

Or, “Am i a Theorist?”

Annette Markham

Jan 31, 2023

I was recently asked a series of interview questions about how I became a theorist and what theorists “do” when constructing theory in the field of communication studies. I nearly laughed aloud, since I’ve been trying to avoid writing theory my entire career. Then I started to wonder: Am I a theorist? How and when “theorizing” started to creep into my work. And then I wondered, why did I avoid theory in the first place? The interview gave me reason to consider these questions, so I figured I’d share my answers here.

Q: How did you become a theorist?

Annette: I should begin by saying I did not aspire to being a theorist. I did my graduate education in communication studies in the US in the middle of both the “interpretive turn,” and the “postmodern turn,” a time period characterized by multiple disruptures in the field (or “foments,” as they were called at the time). One feature of my own doctoral training in a highly fraught department, where professors declared themselves parts of competing “camps,” involved downplaying the role of theory, if not outright rejecting it. Following the latest interpretive practices of reflexive social science, I was trained to bracket theory at the outset of a study, in the effort to take an emergent and open-ended perspective, and also resist theorizing in the outcomes of a study, to focus on forming “tales of the field,” or “thick descriptions” a la John Van Mannen or Clifford Geertz, respectively.

I recognize that in my own work I am theorizing when I write more at the level of epistemology, and at this level, my writing influences how other researchers frame, design, or conduct their own studies. This can be read as theory, in that over time and repetition in variation over several pieces, it starts to generate a longstanding body of assumptions about how the world of research works and therefore how researchers can operate within this mindset. Because I study the everyday practices and epistemologies of method and ethics, this means I am not a social theorist or even a communication theorist, but a theorist of method. I started to embrace this when my Danish colleagues in Social Studies of Science and Technology (STS) would often call me a “philosopher of method.”

This likely makes me an accidental theorist, or a theorist in retrospect. I don’t try actively to write theory. And, my theories are not labeled as such, but embedded in what I write about how one might practice inquiry. Often, people who follow my work can see the theories there, even better than I can see them myself.

Q: What questions or problems are currently researching?

Annette: How do citizens’ sensory impressions and feelings get transformed into ‘data’ in smart cities? Is it possible to capture “moods” and datafy this as information? These are critical engagement questions intended to provoke thought, since the answers are easy: No, moods are impossible to transform into data, therefore cities that rely on smartcity data collection or that engage in systematic dehumanizing of data forms are missing huge swaths of information about how citizens are feeling. This project is addressing the problem of oversimplification of data in smart cities and raising the challenge of bringing the human back into the loop of building data about relevant concerns to build richer baselines for understanding what’s happening in urban contexts.

How can we facilitate better critical data literacy among users when digital infrastructures get more difficult to see when systems become seamless interfaces? ChatGPT is a great example of the seamless way that an algorithmic system of data analytics can produce swift and ready “truth” answers for users, disabling the users’ ability to see, scrutinize, or evaluate where the information came from, or to even know the machine reasoning that occurs between the user’s input (user’s search parameters) and the output (composed response).

What sort of ethical and human rights statements might help us globally anticipate and then address the next generation of ethics concerns, arising as we continue to meld humans and technologies through robotics, ubiquitous data collection and broader aggregation of data in analytics undergirding automated decision making, physical, human, and planetary costs of rampant digital transformations, control and power in decentralized and autonomous organizations, digital twins at the level of individuals, with accordant issues around deep fakes, and digital twins at the levels of cities, with privileged attention on only certain data layers, to the exclusion of other ‘non data’ points or leaving out certain people whose data doesn’t count.

Q: Why do you believe your theory constructs took hold so well in the literature?

Annette: I’m not sure they really have taken hold so well. I write in ways that make my theories more like concepts. So they’re more readable. But this actually means the constructs don’t take hold very well at all.

First case in point: My early theory on how people perceive “digital” as a tool, place, or way of being never took hold in the literature, at least not in the United States. It was accessible only through close reading of my single book on the topic –this was the only place where I wrote about it, other than a conference paper that is fairly well cited now on the Metaphors of Internet in 2003, but this didn’t get that much traction until more than a decade later. The concepts about identity formation and the rhetorical power of digital media were buried in the stories and explanations. I didn’t write like a theorist. So it didn’t read like theory. Moreover, it was in a deliberately casual voice, so it didn’t get taken seriously as theory. It read more like an engaging ethnographic account. This was intentional. But if I had been taking a “writing theory” point of view, I would have written it differently. ……In Scandinavia, however, people read my book quite closely in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and so the concepts had stronger uptake in this region.

Second case in point: I was working on a theory about echolocation as a theory of digital sociality in 2016 and since I was presenting it in short form at a philosopher-heavy conference in Sweden, I decided to write in the style of a philosopher. I read a ton of Judith Butler, Anthony Giddens, and a few pieces by heavy philosophers, then wrote my talk. Immediately, I received accolade for these ideas and since people started referencing some of my vocabulary over the next two days to think about their own concepts around identity and digitality, I posted a blog about it, so they could have something to cite. Since it’s a strong theory that returns to systems theory thinking and reimagines the basic components of what’s happening in the symbolic interaction process, I’ve been quite deliberate in writing more in the style of “theory” than I did with any of my previous work. This is helping to build this theory as a theory with a set of constructs within it. The style of authority I’m using is also helping me claim unique space in associated disciplines.

Q: What’s hot in theory development now in the discipline?

This is too broad a question to answer briefly, since I am interdisciplinary and this would involve many disciplines. I’m particularly attracted to revisiting the basic communication processes implied in human/machine interactions, which is going well beyond computer-mediated or digital media communication. Here, I’m thinking of the machine-machine interactions (when algorithms communicate back and forth), human-search engine interactions (e.g., when people are influenced by the rhetoric of auto-complete suggestions), human-interface engagements (as when people learn to think in 140 characters for Twitter or frame images or moments as “instagrammable”), bot-bot or robot-robot interactions, and so forth.

….That doesn’t even begin to answer the question adequately, but is a snapshot of what I’m thinking about in late 2022/early 2023, anyway.

Q: What advice would you give to early career researchers aspiring to become theorists?

Frankly, I’d say: Don’t aspire to be a theorist. It’s not where the action is. We need social change, advocacy, which for academics is a form of scholar-activism. Making actual, lasting change requires understanding the complexities and histories of concepts, comparing different ways concepts or ideas have been developed or applied, and then designing projects that strive to apply knowledge in ways that make sense and work. While there’s always room for thoughtful deliberations and the world of human achievements has been built on imagination and conceptualizations, we currently face many crises that require actions, applying well-known principles and practices to make things better. I believe the Academy’s best foot forward in this historical moment is to do more applied work with discernible impact.

Theories will inevitably emerge after the fact, but if one aspires from the outset to build theory, the question is: Why? What’s it for? Theory won’t help us get past the walls of the Academy and into the streets to do the work of disseminating best practices, helping citizens become researchers of their own communities (what I’ve called citizen social science), or otherwise putting knowledge to work. Theory is not to be avoided, as I might have thought in my early days as a PhD student, but it’s also not the starting or ending point for researchers in the field of communication. Rather, I like to think of it as retrospective sensemaking, drawing on Karl Weick, a retrospective collection of concepts and processes that can guide further inquiry and action.