Thinking/Writing Theoretically about Society

Raju J Das

Changing society presupposes studying it. And, studying society (critically) is not an easy task, although some people may believe that this is an ‘amateurish act’. Studying society is difficult for many reasons, some of which I have briefly discussed in a previous article (‘Why must social science be critical and why must doing social science be difficult?’).

Representing ideas about the world

A study of any aspect of society requires a scholar to critically engage with the existing ideas about that aspect of society. This work is often called a ‘literature review’ or goes in the name of ‘writing theory’. Many younger scholars resist doing it; they want to jump to the field and see what is out there. They also get some encouragement from their professors to do this: that is to jump to the field without prior theoretical preparation. They forget that without concepts one will know nothing by just seeing and hearing, and that developing concepts requires hard intellectual labour, including a critical engagement with existing ideas.

When one reviews the existing literature about a topic, one addresses three questions:

  1. what does the literature say? (this constitutes the review of the literature in a narrow sense);
  2. what is wrong with what the existing literature says? (this will constitute one’s critique: it can be epistemological, ontological and methodological plus theoretical, e.g. political-economic, and empirical); and
  3. how must the topic be (re)examined, including what new questions need to be asked and how these questions must be addressed such that one’s work will be better than the existing literature in certain respects? (here one provides an alternative framework for understanding a given topic).
    These three points are elaborated below.

In terms of 1 (review of the literature in the narrow sense): one needs to think about what the literature says about the following, among other issues:

a)      what the object of analysis is, and how it is different from other things (in other words, how does the existing literature conceptualize the object of analysis?)

b)      why the object of analysis (e.g. non-farm employment; contract farming; food insecurity, GM crops; child labour; strikes in Gurgaon; corruption; class differentiation; state repression; portrayal of violence in Bollywood movies; poverty; rape in Delhi; SEZ, etc.) exists/happens/changes/develops, and

c)      what are its effects (what are the effects of poverty or of non-farm employment or of contract farming on other aspects of society?).

Why is a thorough familiarity with the existing literature necessary? The answer is the social character of knowledge production, the idea that we always build on others’ shoulders. Knowledge production is a social activity. One should know what has been said about a topic so that one does not say exactly what has already been said. One also learns something from what has been said and seeks to go beyond the existing literature. The more we know, the more we do not know. The more we know about the existing literature, the more we find out that there are areas that are still worth exploring (and in new ways).

One could use the three broad categories (a, b, and above) around which to organize the existing views in the literature. Or one can keep these categories in mind and invent other categories around which one may discuss the literature. One may use both these strategies. Often the difficulty is: how will one identify common issues? These are the issues which usually come up again and again, the issues which several scholars emphasize, if differently. In the identification of issues, one’s own tacit/implicit/semi-developed theory (or pre-existing ideas), of course, plays a role.

In doing a thorough literature review on a topic, one should read as much as one can on the topic and on some of the topics that are very closely related to the topic at hand. As just mentioned, one may group the different things one reads about a topic and identify 3-5 issues around which the existing literature can be discussed. Identification/analysis of major issues is one. Their  presentation is different. Discussing the literature author-wise is, in most cases, not that interesting. An author-wise discussion often leads to repetition. However, when a given issue is being discussed, one may turn to an author-wise discussion of the separate aspects of the issue. Let us say that one is writing about poverty and that one has identified three broad aspects of this topic (e.g. how poverty is caused by agrarian differentiation; how it is caused by pro-ruling class government policies, and how poverty has an impact on electoral politics). In this case, one may conduct an author-wise discussion while discussing each aspect of poverty as long as authors’ views are different one from another.

The act of thinking and presenting critique:

In terms of the critique part of theoretical thinking and writing: in ‘Why must social science be critical’, I pose a list of questions. That list does not exhaust all the questions one can ask of the existing literature, but using these may be a small starting point.

Critique is an important productive activity in the sphere of intellectual production. This is in two senses: critique itself produces ideas (criticisms), and these ideas create a space for further production of ideas, both conceptual and empirical.

Criticisms are, at least, of five types. Criticisms are philosophical (ontological and epistemological) and methodological (concerning, for example, the method of collection of information). In making philosophical criticisms, one seeks to undermine the philosophical assumptions which underlie the specific substantive assertions being made in the existing literature. Marxist critics wanting to launch philosophical criticisms can accuse a piece of work as being: idealistic/social-constructionist (reducing what exists to what is thought to exist), empiristic/a-theoretical; relativistic (i.e. failing to assign causal primacy to certain processes); a-historical (considering what is historically specific as universal), a spatial (being blind to the fact that attributes of an object may exhibit spatial unevenness); un-dialectical (this can be in many ways including in terms of the laws of dialectics and theory of relations), and so on.

Criticisms are theoretical (theoretical in the substantive-scientific sense). Theoretical criticisms, above all else, raise the issue of causality. A person says that K causes T. A critic says: does K necessarily cause T?; why must K cause T?; what is the logic of the assertion that K causes T? Here refuting the logic one uses one’s power of theory in political economy (e.g. content of Marx’s discussion in Capital), state theory (see Lenin’s State and Revolution), etc.

Criticisms are also empirical. A person says that y happens in place z, but a critic says that y happens in place p, and provides evidence to this effect. Empirical criticisms are usually weaker, epistemologically speaking. One may say that the state acts in the ruling class interests because ruling class people directly control the state, sitting in the parliaments and controlling the commissions of enquiry. In response, a critic may say that in such and such case, the parliament is not dominated by people belonging to the ruling class and yet the state, more or less, serves the interest of the ruling class.

Then criticisms are practical/political. A Marxist can be critical of reformist political implication of a given assertion. Commenting on the mainstream research, Bertell Ollman says:  ‘the age-old link between knowledge and action has been severed, so that scholars can deny all responsibility for their wares while taking pride in knowing more and more about less and less’ (in his Dance of the Dialectic). One has to be a little careful in making political criticisms though. On the one hand, given an intellectual assertion (e.g., x causes y), more than one political conclusion (i.e. an assertion about what is to be done) can be made. In other words, our view of what happens and why it happens does not entirely determine our view of what can be done. On the other hand, in practice, I have often seen that reformist political conclusions can be traced to certain kinds of faulty theoretical assertions (e.g., those who rubbish the labour theory of value or think about  class as merely income inequality or a matter of attitude tend to be reformists). In practice, also, it is very difficult to separate intellectual criticisms from political criticisms, whether or not the latter are made. Usually, non-Marxists hide their political/normative views and claim that their knowledge-claims are politically neutral when in fact they are not. Marxists are often more candid about their political views. For a Marxist (I am not saying revolutionary Marxist, for the word ‘revolutionary’ is redundant here, and you will just see why): class relations, and most importantly capitalist class relations, are the most fundamental cause of the most fundamental problems of the humanity and therefore the abolition of the class system through independent political mobilization of proletarians and semi-proletarians against the class system and its supporting political-ideological mechanisms (e.g., state) is the most fundamental solution to the problems of the humanity. One sees that one’s theory of class is immediately intellectual and political.

Note that often substantive criticisms – theoretical and empirical criticisms – are the only type of criticisms that are made but these are informed by philosophical and political criticisms. One does not criticize everything one is reading. In developing a critique, one presents a selected number of major criticisms, which may include sub-criticisms (part of a major criticism). Note also that one must try to avoid making the mistakes which one accuses one’s opponents of.

The labour of theorizing?

Often a scholar can stop at the criticisms, and in the light of these criticisms, may carry on her/his own empirical investigation (Lenin’s The Development of Capitalism in Russia is almost an example of this). Some make an attempt to offer an alternative theoretical framework, which will inform one’s own empirical study. In the latter case, the framework informing her/his own original research is explicit. In the former case, it is implicit.

One can see that doing conceptual work, including literature review in the narrow sense (in the sense of saying who has said what about a topic) is not easy. Doing conceptual work involves not just reading and thinking but dialectically organizing one’s thinking.

Let us now return to the whole act, the act of theoretical thinking. One way of organizing the theoretical thinking, including the discussion of the existing literature may be as follows:

Issue 1 Issue 2 Issue 3
X group of writers[1]

X1 X2 X3
Y group of writers who are critical of X group


Y1 Y2 Y3
The author’s critical assessment of the Y group (agreement and


V1 V2 V3
The author’s own views laid out
in the form of an alternative
A1 A2 A3


The above framework suggests that one has at least ‘12 bits of knowledge’, 12 categories of views. This would make one’s conceptual work very thorough, critical and synthetic. An advantage of doing this is that one cannot be accused of painting everything with the same brush because one has split the existing literature into two parts: a thesis and an anti-thesis, which lays the foundation for one’s own critical synthesis (I know this way of saying things is a little clichéd). Following this method, one produces a differentiated view of the existing knowledge, and one tries to create a new way of looking at the things.

Now, what does offering an alternative theoretical framework consist of? It is about theorizing. It is about saying three things:

  1. what an object is?[2]
  2. what are the necessary and contingent conditions for its existence?;
  3. what are its necessary and contingent effects?; and how do conditions and effects reciprocally impact each other?

Here an understanding of the dialectical theory of the multiple relations that exist in the world will be useful (e.g. relations in the world are substantive and formal, relations are necessary and contingent; relations are of similarity vs difference; relations are of contradiction, and so on).

In wanting to offer an alternative way of knowing an object one is offering an alternative way of conceptualizing the object (e.g., what does X mean, socially, subconsciously, emotionally, etc.[3] and how is it different from other objects), and one is offering an alternative way of explaining the object?

How do we explain an object, an event E? One way is to think that: certain structures of relations (S) which give rise to certain mechanisms (M1, M2, etc.), which under certain contingent conditions (C1, C2), will cause an event (E). This is based on critical realist philosophy as popularized by Andrew Collier, Andrew Sayer and others. One’s theory must include all the four elements: structures of relations; mechanisms; contingent conditions, and effects/consequences.

For example, capitalist social relations will cause mechanisms of technological change to exist which in turn will cause low wages, under conditions of strict control over migration and other relevant government policies.

Whether these empirical conditions exist and how effective they are and whether their effectivity varies over space and so on, this is an empirical question which can only be ascertained through a concrete study.

Whether the power of the mechanisms being posited in theory is activated/counteracted is also empirical. We are just saying, given such and such things, x and y will happen. If people are dispossessed of their means of production, they are going to have to work for a wage, other things constant. If a person is working for a wage, one is going to be subjected to domination and exploitation in the work-place. But there is no guarantee that this will happen to a given person or a group of persons: they have to find wage-work in the first place.

One has to think about the entire society of which a given object of analysis (e.g. poverty or non-farm employment or contract farming) is a part. The society is constituted by social relations of class (as well as other relations). These relations give rise to certain other things (mechanisms and processes). One’s object of analysis is connected to, and are rooted in, these.

As mentioned, one begins theorizing by conceptualizing and re-conceptualizing an object in the world, whose image is reflected in our mind, which is interpreted in our mind. An object can exist at different levels, in more or less abstract forms. Consider technology (as used in farming) as an object of analysis. Here are the different levels at which technology can exist (or can be seen as existing):

Productive force of which technology is an example; Technology; capitalist technology; technology used in capitalist agriculture or agrarian capitalism; biological technology in capitalist agriculture; and genetically modified seeds as an example of the latter.

In theorizing, at each level (ideally at each level), technology has to be seen in terms of its necessary and contingent preconditions/causes and necessary and contingent its effects, and in terms of their reciprocal relations (relations between effects and conditions). In theorizing one has to bear in mind the relation between what is technology and other aspects of society.

There are many other aspects of theorizing. It is not possible to write an algorithm for how to theorize. But what is certain is that, theorizing requires familiarity with: philosophy including ontological and epistemological views as well as views about human nature; and general theory of society or social theory (relation between individual and society; view of how a society changes vis changes in contradictory relations between its productive forces and class relations and via struggle; relations between the economic and the non-economic within a system in which the economic has a certain primacy, and so on). One also needs familiarity with more specific theories, theories of the most important ‘parts’/’aspects’ of society (see Plekhanov’s Fundamental Problems of Marxism as well asMarx’s famous Preface to A Contribution to The Critique of Political Economy): political economy and class theory, state theory, theory of culture and meaning, and theory of the relation between society and environment/space. One still needs even more specific theory, given stratification of the reality, given that the reality happens and exists at different levels of generality: theory of technology or theory of agrarian change as a part of the theory of political economy, or theory of state bureaucracy as a part of the state theory.

To develop theoretical knowledge, knowledge about necessity in the world, knowledge about how the world really works, one needs to bathe in practice. All Marxists, including Marx (see the Theses on Feuerbach) and Mao (see his On Practice) stress the relation between knowledge and practice. ‘The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question’, says Marx. Mao, whose other views on society and revolution I do not endorse, however, says something that is interesting. This is about the practical character of knowledge. Our social practice, on which our knowledge depends,

‘is not confined to activity in production, but takes many other forms – class struggle, political life, scientific and artistic pursuits; in short, as a social being, man participates in all spheres of the practical life of society. Thus man, in varying degrees, comes to know the different relations between man and man, not only through his material life but also through his political and cultural life (both of which are intimately bound up with material life). Of these other types of social practice, class struggle in particular, in all its various forms, exerts a profound influence on the development of man’s knowledge. In class society everyone lives as a member of a particular class, and every kind of thinking, without exception, is stamped with the brand of a class.

Scholars must observe the act of production, including production of ideas (how are ideas produced in the universities and how this is influenced by generalized commodity production and need for order). Then there is the issue of political practice. Marx’s and Engels and Lenin’s, Trotsky’s and Luxemburg’s and others’ practical engagement with the world – their involvement in class struggle from the standpoint of proletarians and semi-proletarians – was a source of their theoretical – and not just theoretical – knowledge, which continues to evolve as new developments in the world are constantly reinterpreted and as one’s views at a point in time prove to be less effective than originally thought. It is also the case that over a period of time, one’s actual degree of practical engagement and its form will vary. Sometimes, it may take the form of the creation of ideas to help a developing movement. Just the revolutionary intent, the act of breathing and dreaming revolution, the intent which is rooted in and in turn informs one’s intellectual views of the world, becomes a form of practical activity. This is just as: radical ideas become a material force when they grip the minds of the masses, as Marx asserted. At other times, one’s political practice may be less ‘speculative’.

One also needs to be familiar with empirical trends, with what is going on in the world at different scales, in different areas and in different time-periods, including via government and NGOs reports, social media, online radical and mainstream magazines, newspapers, etc. One needs to find out, for example: is inequality rising or falling; is farming going out of business and to what extent, and how does it vary from place to place, and so on. One’s theoretical ideas must be constantly rubbed against empirical developments which exist independently of one’s contemplation of these developments by a researcher as against ideas produced by other researchers.

Let us turn to Marx’s intellectual practice for a moment. He spent an enormous amount of time reading and writing about Adam Smith, Ricardo, Feuerbach, and so on. See his long footnotes in Capital or discussion in Theories of Surplus Value or his review of Proudhon. He read these scholars, appreciated what was positive and developed his criticisms of these scholars. These criticisms along with his more ‘practical work’ – which included not just his political engagement of different forms but also his deep familiarity with government reports, work of history, etc. – fed into his own alternative way of understanding the society, both at more concrete and more abstract levels.

Like Marx or Lenin, one combines all these different inputs (philosophy, theory at different levels, political practice, and empirical knowledge) in a critical and empirically sensitive way, and one begins the journey of theory-making, without which the project of remaking the world in a revolutionary way is an impossible task.

But ‘Every beginning is difficult’, Marx says. Thinking theoretically and critically is difficult at the beginning, in the middle and in the end! However, Marx hopes that although ‘There is no royal road to science’, it is the case that ‘those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.’

The certainty of the joy of theoretical thinking which produces an ‘artistic whole’ and the inevitability of the ‘fatiguing climb’ are dialectically connected.


Raju J Das teaches at York University, Toronto.



Here one says what a group of writers is saying about the different aspects of a given topic represented as Issue 1, 2, 3, etc.

Here one re-conceptualizes an object; one asks: what does the scope of the concept which refers to an object cover? And one changes the boundary/scope of the concept depending on the situation at hand; this is what reconceptualization is.

Note here that the concept, what it refers to, and the word which is used to refer to the concept are different.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: