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James Looney

James Looney

Ph.D. Student

By Rebekah Tilley
Photos by Richie Wireman

Who’s afraid of a little theory? Unfortunately, many of us would rather clean our bathrooms than painfully work through the writings of Derrida and Foucault. Geography doctoral candidate and social theory student James Looney found that for many graduate students, the UK Social Theory Program takes the edge off gaining a solid theoretical foundation in their own academic disciplines.

“Theoretical training tends to be two things in many graduate programs – woefully lacking and threatening,” said Looney. “The Social Theory Program allows a place where one can access and learn about theory. It takes care of the unfamiliarity and the inaccessibility of theory.”

Looney is a cultural and social geographer who focuses his research on cultural landscapes, and much of his work is developed through ethnographic methods. The UK Social Theory Program provides him with an avenue to explore theory in a way that is mindful of his research subjects’ place-based knowledge.

“Theory is important and allows us a particular way of putting the world back together for ourselves. However, sometimes it seems quite distanced from the way the people that I work with as an ethnographer think about things,” explained Looney.

“What appealed to me about the social theory program here is the way I could mix it with my more practical interests within the discipline I have chosen. It has been a tool kit for me to think through the ways that theory fits people’s lives.” 

All social theory students at UK have the opportunity to work on the Social Theory journal disClosure, a peer-reviewed journal of social theory. Along with geography graduate student Karen Kinslow, Looney was coeditor of the most recent issue of disClosure, which was devoted to war and its many forms, including discourses and experiences of war, memories of war, the construction of war memorials, anti-war art and poetry.

disClosure provides this amazing job training for those of us going into this sort of work, this sort of academia,” said Looney, reflecting on what he gained from his work on the journal with graduate students from many different disciplines. “Together we learned how to put the journal together, we learned about layout, we learned about editing and production, and how to work with a diverse group of editors and authors to produce a powerful and professional end-product.”

Looney is currently in the process of writing his dissertation on representations and practices of nature and culture on Ocracoke Island, N.C. and within the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. He explores how we talk about nature and landscapes, and how such things are used, cared for, protected, and spoken about in ways that have very concrete results.

“I think about the way that these discursive constructs of nature and culture are not just about people – animals are also constructed in the process, as are places, ecologies, geologies, plants and oceans – and the ways they are constructed have material effects,” explained Looney.

Endangered loggerhead turtle tracks, Cape Hatteras National Seashore (courtesy of James Looney)

“And these things aren’t just effects of human representational practices. They themselves, what they are and how they are seen, work back on us in an agent-like way, such that we humans are in multiple relationships with the non-human, and those relationships construct the world around us.”

Looney credits the Social Theory program with giving him the opportunity to read more deeply into the literatures that inform his research as well as the theoretical work being done by graduate students and researchers in other disciplines.

“The Social Theory program provides a number of actual and metaphorical places in the university where disciplines can come together and people can learn and work transdisciplinarily,” said Looney.

See? Who’s afraid of a little theory?


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