Disciple or pathmaker? Critiquing your theoretical ‘gurus’

I recently enjoyed an amazing week at the University of Sydney, where I spent time talking about my work with the researcher who developed the conceptual tools I used to frame my theoryology and methodology, as well as with PhD scholars and researchers who are also using these tools in their own research. Two of my friends asked me whether the week with my ‘guru’ was a good one, and these comments coupled with a recent seminar I attended on data and theory gave me pause for thought. I do not think of this person as my ‘guru’, although I find the tools truly brilliant, and I am so enjoying working with them in my research and practice. I think (I hope) I am capable of putting aside my admiration for both him and this conceptual toolkit to offer critique and questions, and to find ways in which I can contribute to this field of research and practice with my own work. But, when you are new to a particular theoretical or conceptual approach, or new to a significant piece of research like a PhD which requires so much deep and extended engagement with theory, it can be really difficult to do this. I certainly found it difficult to be critical of the concepts when I was working with them during the PhD. This ability I now feel I have to critique the tools and the theory is very much a post-PhD thing.

Why are we so tempted to make ‘gurus’ out of our favourite theorists? Why is it hard to be critical of the theories we have chosen to use to provide the foundation and analytical tools for our research, especially in a PhD? I think, for me, the answer was quite simple: because I needed them to be right. I really wanted to have answers to my questions, and I really needed the theory and the tools to provide me with those answers. I suppose, too, I was afraid that pointing out gaps, holes and areas where the theory was still fuzzy would ultimately weaken my stance and my arguments. I opted, without quite realising it at the time, for being a bit of a theory disciple. This was in big part due to what I have just said, but it was also due to the fact that I was so excited about the ways in which the theory opened my eyes to things in the environments I was researching that I had not been able to see otherwise, or in quite those ways, that I got a bit carried away by just how thrilling my research actually was for me when I got into the data  and started finding tentative answers to my questions.

One of my thesis examiners suggested to me in the report I received that I should exercise caution in getting too excited and too carried away. Part of the role of a good researcher is to be able to stand back a bit from the thing we are looking at, or the lenses we are looking through or with, and wonder if we are seeing the right sorts of things, or asking the right sorts of questions. We need to be able to see gaps, holes, inconsistencies, not just to avoid being accused of having a weak argument and having no defence in your viva or examination, but more importantly to show that you are clear enough on what theory you are using, as well as why and how you are using it, that you can show that although there may be questions you cannot yet answer, or things you cannot yet see, you know that the answers you have are good ones, even though they are always partial and fallible. You aren’t answering all the questions in your PhD – you are just answering one – but you need to be able to show not just all the reasons why your theoretical framework and tools are right for answering this question; you also need to be able to be critical and careful, so that you anticipate and can stand up to critique of your own work and answer back to the critics.

Rather than being theory disciples, I think we should be aiming to be research pathmakers. Theory on its own is a bit pointless. Your research will bring any of the theory you use to life in a range of ways depending on how you draw the framework, and also what data you choose to generate, analyse and interpret using the theory. You can be a pathmaker, even if the bit of path you are chipping out for others to walk on is small or short. But, this is not easy. I think you have to be well-read and brave to be critical, and you also need to know your theoryology well. It is almost impossible to offer a sound and useful (but not too damning) critique of your own theoretical framework unless you really know it well. In chipping out your piece of path, you will be following the paths of those who have gone there before you, and you’ll hopefully be either extending the paths they have created, or branching off in slightly new and unexplored directions, rather than simply smoothing out their already-trod path or pruning the bushes on either side of it :). It’s hard to be this kind of pathmaking researcher if you are not going to be brave enough to take your ‘gurus’ off the pedestals you could tend to place them on when you start your PhDs, and offer thoughtful, relevant and useful critique that shows your readers just how well you do know your own field, and that adds depth and credibility to your own researcher’s voice.

I have learned that I don’t need the theory or my answers to be ‘right’ (if they even can be); but I do need them to be credible, productive and interesting, and being able to both believe in and offer measured critique of the theoryology that serves my research well will certainly help me to find my ways to the kinds of answers I am seeking.


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