||A term devised by the American sociologist C. Wright Mills (1959) to attack what he took to be the obsessive concern of post-war social science with empty conceptual elaboration (\'the associating and dissociating of concepts\') at high levels of abstraction. In his view, Grand Theory was more or less severed from the irredeemably concrete concerns of everyday life and largely indifferent to its immense variety in time and space. His main target was Talcott Parsons, another American sociologist and the architect of structural functionalism, against whom he insisted that \'there is no â€œgrand theoryâ€, no one universal scheme in terms of which we can understand the unity of social structure, no one answer to the tired old problem of social order.\'
Since Mills wrote this, however, a number of other candidates for the grand prize of Grand Theory have emerged: in such numbers, indeed, that Skinner (1985) could write of \'the return of Grand Theory\'. These have included critical theory, structuralism, structural Marxism and structuration theory, all of which have left their marks on late twentieth-century human geography:
Much of the history of Anglo-American human geography in the second half of the twentieth century has involved the search for a single or tightly-bounded set of methodological [and theoretical] principles that, once found, would provide unity and intelligibility to the disparate material studied. When located, such principles would function as a kind of philosopher\'s stone, transmuting the scattered base facts of the world into the pure gold of coherent explanation. No matter the kind of phenomenon investigated, it could always be slotted into a wider theoretical scheme. Nothing would be left out; everything would be explained (Barnes and Gregory, 1997, p. 64).There have been two sets of responses to such a project, fastening on (i) its theoretical temper; and (ii) its totalizing ambitions.
On the one side, there has been a lively debate about the necessity of theory and, indeed, of how \'theory\' should be understood and worked with. Few geographers would subscribe to, let alone advocate a return to, the supposedly theory-less world of empiricism. But Ley (1989), very much in the spirit of Mills\'s original objections, complained of a fixation upon theory: of the privilege accorded to the \'theorization of theories\', second-order abstractions \'doubly removed from the empirical world\', whose proliferation threatened to produce a disturbing fragmentation of intellectual inquiry. Set against this, however, Harvey and Scott (1989) were exercised by what they saw as a withdrawal from \'the theoretical imperative\' and, in consequence, the dissolution of intellectual inquiry into a host of empirical particulars and fragments. The \'fragmentation\' that dismays both sets of writers, in different ways, is itself often a product of theoretical work conducted outside the confines of â€” and in large measure working against â€” Grand Theory: see, for example, postmodernism, post-structuralism, pragmatism.
On the other side, and closely connected to these developments, there has been a more recent and even livelier debate about the capacity of any single theoretical system to know and to represent the world (see also essentialism; foundationalism). In consequence of the doubts raised during these discussions many, perhaps most, human geographers now seem to accept: (a) that no single \'-ism\' or \'-ology\' can possibly ask all the interesting questions or provide all the satisfying answers; and (b) that scholars necessarily work in the spaces between overlapping, often contending theoretical systems, which redoubles the importance of theoretical critique to clarify dissonances, reveal erasures and evaluate consequences (Gregory, 1994, pp. 100-6; McDowell, 1995).
Intersecting with these calls have been further arguments about the powers and politics of grand theory. Thrift (1996, p. 30) has argued that a more \'modest\' form of theorizing is necessary to avoid a \'theory-centred\' style of research \'which continually avoids the taint of particularity\' (Thrift, 1996, p. 30) (see nonrepresentational theory). If Thrift sought to clip the wings of grand theory, Katz (1996) urged human geographers to find other, politically more trenchant ways of letting theory take flight. The metaphor is appropriate since Katz drew upon Deleuze and Guattari (1986) to urge that human geographers learn to work with \'minor theory\': to subvert the claims to \'mastery\' registered by the projects of Grand Theory by working in the heterogeneous \'spaces-in-between\' different traditions, by activating the disjunctures and displacements between different voices and vocabularies, and so ensuring that theoretical work is \'relentlessly transformative\' and elaborates \'lines of escape\'.Â (DG)
References Barnes, T. and Gregory, D. 1997: Grand Theory and geographical practice. In T. Barnes and D. Gregory, eds, Reading human geography: the poetics and politics of inquiry. London: Arnold, 85-91.Â Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. 1986: Kafka: toward a minor literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Â Gregory, D. 1994: Geographical imaginations. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.Â Harvey, D. and Scott, A. 1989: The practice of human geography: theory and empirical specificity in the transition from Fordism to flexible accumulation. In B. Macmillan, ed., Remodelling geography. Oxford: Blackwell, 217-29.Â Katz, C. 1996: Towards minor theory. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 14: 487-99.Â Ley, D. 1989: Fragmentation, coherence and limits to theory in human geography. In A. Kobayashi, and S. Mackenzie, eds, Remaking human geography. London: Unwin Hyman, 227-44.Â McDowell, L. 1995: Understanding diversity: the problem of/for \'theory\'. In R.J. Johnston, P.J. Taylor, and M.J. Watts, eds, Geographies of global change: remapping the world in the twentieth century. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 280-94.Â Mills, C.W. 1959: The sociological imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.Â Skinner, Q., ed., 1985: The return of Grand Theory in the human sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Â Thrift, N.J. 1996: Spatial formations. London: Sage.
Suggested Reading Barnes and Gregory (1997).Â Katz (1996).Â McDowell (1995).Â Skinner (1985), ch. 1.