I have been thinking a great deal lately about theory, and the role it has to play in research. There are a couple of contexts in which this thinking has been taking place: I reviewed a paper recently that didn’t quite hang together, and after a second reading I worked out that I was missing the significance of the research, largely because the findings were not theorised, even implicitly. I then reviewed an MA proposal in which the student hinted at a particular body of theory in her literature review, but didn’t follow through with an explicit theoretical framework that she then connected to her proposed methodology and mode of analysis. I have also been reading and commenting on a student’s ‘theory chapter’ and have been thinking about how to help her build this theoryology so that it is fit for purpose as she moves into her data, and the analysis of it.
What is theory for?
All of these different ways in which theory, or concepts that are part of theories, have (or have not) been used in all this reading have brought me to one basic conclusion: the thing that theory does in our research is enable us to see the thing we are researching in a new, and hopefully more illuminated light. It enables us to lift ourselves out of the minutiae of what we are researching – the words our participants say, or write in documents, or the issues we are engrossed in while generating and coding data – and see patterns, and bigger contexts and questions. It also helps us to connect our research findings more clearly with the field we are researching in. Without any kind of theoretical or conceptual ‘gaze’ or way of seeing, I wonder if we can do research that adds to knowledge in our field in useful, clear and significant ways.
I do not think that all research needs to employ high-brow, complex or fancy theory – we don’t all need to be Foucauldian scholars, or read Heidegger, Deleuze or Bourdieu in their entirety (thank goodness!). I have worked with many postgraduate and undergraduate students who are scared of theory, because they conflate theory with complexity, and therefore with work that is too difficult and abstract to make sense of. This is a mistake, because theory is actually both useful, and necessary, in research. ‘Theoretical’ research is the wrong term, I think (unless we are actually doing the work of theory-building or theory-creating, which few of us are). What we are aiming for is ‘theorised’ research; research that does more than just describe what it sees, but goes beyond that to consider implications, significance and field-building.
Building the framework we need
We need, as researchers, to build a theoretical framework that will hold and guide our research, and that will help us to choose the most suitable methodology, data organisation and coding tools, and analytical tools as well. This is the foundation, in many ways, for our research. We need, within these frameworks, to select and connect concepts that help us (and our readers) to understand the part of the world we are researching clearly, and in a way that coheres both epistemologically and ontologically. In other words, we need to build, out of our chosen concepts, theoretical frameworks that make sense in the context of the study we are engaged in, and that help us to see more clearly the things we are researching, and say something new, interesting and useful about them. But we cannot just cherry-pick many shiny concepts that look and sound interesting, trendy or clever. We need to select carefully, to ensure, at a deeper level where we consider what we conceptualise as knowledge or truth and how that comes to be known, that we have agreement between the component parts we are building our framework with.
If you are, for example, an epistemic constructivist in terms of your understanding of what the world and knowledge about it entail and how we can come to know anything, you would not choose concepts for your framework from a critical or social realist school of thought, because at a deeper ontological and epistemological level, there would be disagreements that would be difficult to reconcile. Thus, you need to build your framework with a view to the epistemological and ontological underpinnings of the theories and concepts you are reading about and considering.
You also need to choose parsimoniously: how many concepts do you really need to build your framework? How much theory is enough for your problem, and your readers? Often, you can’t really know the answer until you have generated and analysed your data, so the theoryology you start off writing may be larger and more complex than you actually need it to be to tell the story of your research, its findings and their significance. You can and may well cut your theoryology post-analysis, trimming it to be as concise, clear and relevant as it needs to be within the context of your completed research.
However, even though your initial theory chapter draft is by no means final, try not to simply lump all the concepts you find interesting and helpful together in a long list, summarised and synthesised together. As you are writing this part of your thesis, think about the work the concepts you have chosen are doing for you. How do they connect with your research problem, and what relevance do they potentially have in this study? Your reader needs to be written into your theoretical gaze, so that when they come to read your methodology, and the findings and discussion thereof, they can see the theory coming through, and shaping and informing choices made and analyses offered.
There are, of course, different kinds of levels of theory – substantive, meta, applied and so on. I’m not sure I really understand all the differences, to be honest, but I think, regardless of the kind of theoretical framework you are building for the specific research problem you are investigating, it’s useful to remember that the role of theory is to provide you with principled insight: insight into the problem and context you are engaged in that helps you lift out of the murky mess of details, case studies or quantitative data and ask, for example: ‘Why is this particular thing happening in this way? What could be causing this? How could this be addressed or solved or thought about in a new way? How could we address it, and what would the implications be? Theory gives you the means to go beyond your small research problem and think about it in a more principled, generalised way, so that rather than producing many small scale studies that cannot speak beyond specificities, we can produce research that uses local, smaller scale cases or data to build our collective knowledge about the issues, problems and solutions that have relevance within our spheres of interest, research and praxis.