Theory vs. Practice

I love critical-theory in IR. I speak in critical-theory all day, every day (which I have noticed solicits lots of eye-rolls from people). Critical-theory, to me, forces people to think between the lines; to think at higher levels and really get to the crux of issues. I love how abstract theory can be. I believe critical theory attacks the puppeteers of oppression who are hidden behind the curtain of daily-life. However, being in Addis and working for an NGO that directly helps women at a grassroots level, I keep questioning whether the theories I talk about in the classroom is irrelevant in practice.

At my internship this week I attended a meeting of similar organizations that use micro-financing and economic self-help group (SHG) models as a tool to empower women. The meeting was to discuss how these organizations can create a network in order to advocate for themselves legally. Sitting in this meeting hearing different directors of these NGOs talking about the benefits, successes and the need for SHG and micro-finance models for women, all I could think is the numerous discussions that I’ve had in the classroom that criticizes micro-finance projects, and other projects that empower women through credit/loan/saving models.

In the classroom I often criticize these types of organizations and models because it is still operating within capitalistic institutions that oppress many people in developing countries in the first place. Moreover, a major criticism is that a money centered project will only accomplish goals in regards to money (if that), while racism, sexism and gender oppression and patriarchy continues to operate. I had thought that these projects operate with the idea “give a woman money and watch her change the world”, when in reality that instrumentalist approach perpetuates a lot of problematic ideologies and does not get to the crux of the issues that women face.

But why am I, and many other academics, criticizing something that is working? Women need money. Poor, rural women, who have little to no education need money. And this money empowers them and transforms families, which then transforms communities, which then transforms local governments, you see where this is going. I see this unfolding before my eyes; it is evident through the projects and the amazing work that CoSAP does. There are several instances where seeing women handle money so well has changed the perception male business owners and politicians have of women. From what I see with the work I am doing at CoSAP, this model that I have criticized is actually making a huge change!

This is a problem that I see time and time again. I have several professors who are practitioners who state that theory is not reality (which I adamantly refused). Theory seems to be an ivory tower concept that isn’t really expressing the needs of people on the ground. Similarly, I have professors who are theorists who state that theory is demonstrated in practice, and when theory isn’t considered oppression perpetuates itself.

Though I am still searching for the answer to this question I present, I am realizing that what theory is missing is the real-life application. I have read many theories that incorporate practical applications, however so much of theory is philosophy heavy and is missing the “how will this theory directly affect the most vulnerable people”. Theory is written for theorists to be discussed in classrooms, but this doesn’t make sense. Shouldn’t theory be written for and discussed with and among the people it is aiming to help? I can tell you from experience, a sure way to gain distrust among vulnerable people in developing countries is by beginning a statement with, “Well post-colonial feminist theorist (insert theorist’s name), says…”

Ultimately I still believe that theory is essential. As I continue to work at CoSAP I hope to ask these questions to understand how development works outside of the classroom so in the future I can tailor my theories and papers to have the real-life component that I believe is missing from critical-theory. I believe that incorporating art and creativity into theory is the stepping stone to translating it to the ground. Theory and academia has a culture of it’s own, but maybe it needs to incorporate the cultures that are present in day-to-day life. This includes incorporating stories, narratives, color, dance, song, art etc., into the dense academic writing that compromises so much of theory.  Theory and practice attack the same oppressor, but maybe it’s time to find a better communication between the two so they can work together to accomplish the shared goal. I believe that this can be done through art and culture, and hope to learn by working with CoSAP how to make this a reality.