What Google suggestions say about social theories

While struggling with Latour’s actor network theory I did what every serious social science scholar did – I googled it, hoping to find an easy introduction or an example. While typing into Google I noticed the auto-complete suggestions, which suggested that most of the people were struggling with the same issue. Most wanted an example, hence it was the suggested term. This brought me to the idea to compare auto-complete suggestions for different theories of the social sciences, to study, what most people search for. The questions guiding this little research project (which I did in order to avoid reading more Latour *cough, cough*) were: How do people perceive these theories (what adjectives do they use)? Are they seen as complex or easy? What problems do they have with these?

As in every science paper, a bit on methodology first. From the top of my head, I drafted a list of theories or frameworks and included: Actor Network Theory, Constructivism, Critical Theory, Feminism, Functionalism, Institutionalism, Marxism, Materialism, Poststructuralism, Rational Choice, (IR) Realism and Structuralism to see what words were associated with them on Google. In a first run, I just typed in a name of the theory. In a second, I added ‘Is theory‘  to see what would be suggested. For example “Is critical theory … bad, good” etc. In a third run I wanted to find out the why for the is: “Why is theory“. I used a United Kingdom geolocation. The date of the study was 25 January 2016. So here are the results.

1.Just the theory

When looking just for theories, most people search for definitions, explanations or example. If terms like example or explanation indicate complexity, then Poststructuralism and ANT are complex. Noteworthy is the ‘for dummies‘ version in case of Marxism. Both Constructivism, Functionalism and Marxism tend be contrasted with Structuralism. Some terms ask for relevancy, for example whether Critical theory is still relevant today.

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2. Is theory x

When asking for characteristics of a theory, it gets more interesting. Here, normative attributes like ‘good‘, ‘bad‘, ‘bullshit‘ or ‘the best‘ are attributed, with Constructivism favoring highly among searches. Feminism is highly disregarded “‘sexist, bad, dead, still relevant‘, which highlights its contested position. Searches ask for the benefit of Critical Theory, whether it is a ‘paradigm‘ or indeed a ‘type of research‘. Marxism is attributed with ‘socialism‘ and ‘communism‘ and is seen negatively ‘bad‘. The same holds true for Materialism, which is seen as ‘sin‘, pointing to many religious searches. The complexity of Poststructuralism is indicated by questions whether its the ‘same as postmodernism‘ or ‘deconstruction‘. Some outliers are ANT, for wich mostly PDF files are searched, Functionalism, where searches want no know more characteristics (whether its ‘macro or micro‘) and Institutionalism and Realism. Realism is no clear term and used in art and IR, therefore producing weird results, however I often wondered if IR realism is ‘a style or genre‘ or whether Institutionalism is ‘an art‘.

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3. Why is 

Finally for the most-philosophical question: Why? Whether a theory is important is most commonly asked. Constructivism again as a good image. Why is it ‘important in the class-room‘, and ‘good‘? Critical theory is again seen either as ‘bullshit‘ or ‘important‘, same with the genera negative attitude towards Feminism (‘bad’, ‘important‘, ‘needed‘, ‘so hated’). I wonder too, why it is so ‘hated’ and negatively perceived. Other contested theories are Marxism and Materialism. Functionalism is seen as better as ‘Structuralism‘ and ‘Behaviorism‘ pointing to a good standing within the sciences. Post-structuralism is a funny outlier: who asks whether ‘Poststructuralism is a live wire for the left‘? Finally, over years of uncontested dominance, the merit of Rational Choice is questioned – Why is it ‘important‘, ‘useful‘ simply ‘wrong‘.

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What about quantity? I’ve added another test which measures the search frequency over time with Google Trends. The most commonly searched theories are Feminism (43%, Marxism (46%), Materialism (23%) and Rational Choice (7%). This is in line with the high contestation of terms. The more public a term, the more debate there is about it.

Conclusion

This little experiment showed the following. Constructivism, Functionalism favor strongly among the searches. Here, the most positive attributes can be found. Highly contested theories are Critical Theory, Feminism, Marxism, Materialism and Rational Choice. These are either seen as positive or completely bad ‘wrong‘. This also indicates their societal relevance. Outliers are the complex theories such as Post-Structuralism and ANT, which do not produce as many results or clear tendencies. IR theories such as Realism and Institutionalism, due to their name, have an image problem because they have different connotations in different disciplines, producing incoherent results. Further research could be done by adding more theories and checking different geo-locations. Are theories perceived differently in different countries? Favor the French french theories?

Appendix

ANT Const Critical Theory Feminism Functionalism Institutionalism Marxism Materialism Poststructuralism Rational Choice Realism Structuralism
plain word …example

…and after

… and material semiotics

…definition

…art

…vs structuralism

…politics

…today

…sociology

…of communication in organizations

…definition

…in sociology

…definition

…in psychology

…vs structuralism

…definition

…art

…international relations

…definition

…and structuralism

…for dummies

…definition

…quotes

…philosophy

…explained

…definition

…examples

…theory

…definition

…crime

…examples

…definition

…art

…literature

…international relations

…definition

…in literature

…vs functionalism

Is X … Is … critique

What is…

…pdf

…the best philosophy of education

… a critical theory

…all or nothing

…a failed approach

…bullshit

…a type of research

…a paradigm

…and epistemology

…sexist

…bad

…dead

…still relevant

…macro or micro

…a macro theory

…monism

…a materialist theory

…a type of political theory

What is … in political science

What is … in art

…socialism

…communism

…bad

…capitalized

…bad

…a sin

… true

…good

Is … the same as postmodernism

Is … the same as deconstruction

…dead

…interested in

Is …theory of all social science

…macro or micro

…possible

…scientific

…a genre

…capitalized

…a religion

…a style or genre

…still used today

…nature or nurture

…the same as functionalism

…postmodern

Why is… …suitable for studying computing …important

…important in the classroom

…and good constructivism

…good

…bullshit

…important

…bad

…important

…needed

…so hated

…better than structuralism

…better than behaviorism

…important

…important in psychology

…bad

…good

…popilar

…so popular

…bad

…good

…important

…a problem in society

…important

…a live wire for the left

…important

…useful

…wrong

…a reaction to romanticism

…important

…important in international relations

…important in literature

…important

…unreliable

…important in psychology

…in literature

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