Introduction

In The Elements of Style, Strunk and White famously implore us to show rather than tell what we want to express. In contrast, theoretical work seems perpetually prone to the latter. Nonetheless, abstraction and disciplinary jargon remain useful, synthesizing and communicating complex ideas—at least, to those who are already familiar with the terminology. This book aims to demystify theoretical concepts, making abstract-yet-valuable ideas more accessible by showing rather than telling how they are meaningful and usable in day-to-day situations.

Bringing together a collection of “illustrative vignettes,” Showing Theory to Know Theory aims to help students understand complex ideas without dumbing them down. Each vignette takes form in a different way: concrete, illustrative examples; short, evocative stories; reflexive and intimate poems; illustration, described photographs, and other audio-visual materials. Along with our dozens of contributors, we hope that this volume will be of use across disciplines and community contexts, democratizing theory while linking it to practical, grounded experience.

As a user of this book, it is important to remember that each vignette is not intended to be encyclopedic or exhaustive. Instead, in combination with classroom discussion, they aim to ground learners’ understanding of the term or concept in a specific example. Further nuance and interpretation will come from responding to the questions included with each vignette, completing exercises or additional readings, and having an instructor situate terms within their conceptual lineage.

Ultimately, after reading/viewing and discussing an individual vignette, our hope is that students will be able to articulate, in their own words, the meaning of the term or concept. We also imagine that this book will help learners form and describe connections between theoretical abstractions and concrete examples of how that abstraction is meaningful to lived experience. Eventually, they may identify or create their own vignette, based on an existing understanding of a theoretical concept or term, and draw connections to lived experience and concrete examples. In the long term, and as discussed later on (see Adopting this Book), the community of users around this book may choose to expand it into a larger, more comprehensive collection, mapping the broader relationships among social science disciplines and areas of study.

Overall, we aspire to help learners in both university and community contexts to make the all-important connections between theory and practice, the abstract and the concrete, the world of knowing and the realm of doing. Along the way, may they also develop the critical reading and thinking skills—as well as innovative forms of expression and representation—that are so urgently needed in today’s complex, entangled, and fraught social and political ecologies.

With gratitude,
Patricia Ballamingie and David Szanto

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Showing Theory to Know Theory by Showing Theory Press is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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