How to Read Theory
Recommendations for reading theory:
Read theory in 2 different modes
Read theoretical systems. Theories assume a perspective
and elaborate that perspective. Try to understand that perspective comprehensively.
Think of it as a system that once you are embued with it, it allows you
to see things a certain way. Try to see and describe the world the way the
theoretical system does.
- Read lines of inquiry. Theoretical work also proceeds
one problem at a time. Theorists consider problems they see in the theory
and work to address those problems. Learn to follow this work. To see the
reason why the problem is significant to the theory. To understand what happens
when the problem is successfully addressed.
Techniques when reading theory
- Get beneath the reading to see:
- the mind that generates it. Theory is written by an author.
Try to understand the strategies that the author is using to construct the
- the symbolic action performed with it. Theories allow
us to do things. Try to understand what the power of a theory is. Also try
to see the limits of that power, the things we cannot do with a theory.
- Read abstractly and concretely simultaneously
- You must read abstractly. Theory involves concepts that must
be related to each other. You must be able to work with concepts as abstract.
- But make your reading empirical too. Keep working your abstract
understanding against the events of the world around you.
Keys to understanding rhetorical theory:
- Motivation for the theory. What is the situation from which
the theorist writes? What are the facts of their life that shape the tasks
that they define for themselves? What is the situation of his/her culture
that gives him/her an audience?
- How is the rhetorical act constructed? Every communication
theory wields its vocabulary to describe the rhetorical act in a particular
way. One way of approaching this is to use Burke's pentad. How does a well
rounded description of communication proceed in this theory? What is the weight
of agent, or agency, or scene, or purpose, or act?
- What image describes rhetoric's role in world? Theories
also make statements about the power that rhetoric exercises in the world.
Try to understand those statements. What is the work that rhetoric does?
- Purpose: What does the theory do? Rhetorical theory inevitably
involves a concept of power. What is that power? When you have mastered this
theory, what does it allow you to do?
- The theorist's way of experiencing & thinking. You
will have mastered the theory when you can generate enhancements. When you
can experience as the theorist experiences and think about communication the
way s/he does.
Make notes of the building blocks of theory
- Vocabulary. What are the key terms? the key concepts?
- How are the concepts related to each other? How does the theory construct
- To what does the theory attend? All theories construct accounts which
emphasize some things and ignore other things judged important by other theories.
What are those choices?
- What does the theory do? All theories have telos, problems they seek
to solve or powers that they permit us to exercise. What are these?
- What are the key strategies in bringing the theory to life? in perceiving
the world in terms of the theory? in writing about the world using the theory?
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