Why is theory such a big deal in postgraduate research?

I am working with a new student. Long story short, I am not his first supervisor, and this his not his first attempt at his PG research project. He’s had a tough time thus far: significantly with theory as his first supervisor did not seem to feel he needed any. Quite understandably, then, one of his first questions to me was ‘why are we making such a big deal about theory [when my research is narrative]?’ In answering this question, I have been pondering a bit more about why theory is such a big deal in research, especially at PG level.

The best way to begin is with an overview of what postgraduate research (any academic research perhaps) is for: to make a novel, valuable and needed contribution to knowledge in your field or study and/or practice. Often, particularly in the social sciences, we are taking a known problem and trying to solve it with a new approach, or we are critiquing the work of others from a particular perspective to extend knowledge further, or we are introducing a new problem, solvable with established approaches in ways that extend or consolidate knowledge and practice. To achieve this contribution to knowledge, we focus on small slice of the known world – our data – and we analyse this in ways that connect our findings to broader understandings/knowledge/phenomena so that what we are contributing clearly fits within the bigger picture in our field. 

If this, then, is basically why we do research, then how do we actually achieve this goal of saying something new and fitting the new into the established knowledge in our field? This is, in many instances, where theory really does its best work.

leaving star trek GIF-downsized_large

When we do academic research, any research, we are trying to find an answer to a question that needs one. We start with a research problem, and we read around that, becoming increasingly focused until we have read enough to locate a gap in the field that we can contribute to filling with our research. We then narrow down a research question, the answers to which will fill (part of) this gap. At this point, we have a sense of what data we are going to generate and how (research design and method) and we may even (from reading) have a basic sense of what we may find. But, what we need is a framework within with to understand what we may find, and tools to use to make meaning from this data. We need to ensure that we move beyond purely descriptive meanings, even in descriptive studies. If all we are doing is describing or narrating our small slice of the world, it may be interesting, but perhaps only to a tiny group of potential readers who understand the specifics well enough to extract meanings of their own. This falls short of the kinds of contribution to knowledge expected of postgraduate scholars and publishing academics.

The potentially frustrating and difficult issue of finding the right framework for your research is that you can’t really ‘find’ one and just put it into your project, where it will do its own thing. Doing this would be akin to writing a ‘theory’ chapter or section, and then doing nothing with that theory in the analysis to connect your study to the field. Rather, you have to build and use your theoretical framework to make sense of your study, and its contribution to the field. This means you need to find theory that fits with your research problem and questions, that can help you understand this problem in helpful ways. Then, you need to select the relevant parts of the whole theory (you don’t necessarily, for example, need to include everything Pierre Bourdieu ever wrote in your thesis if all you really need to focus on is the interplay between capital and habitus in the structuring of a field). This selected theory then needs to be explained, exemplified in relation to your study, and connected into a coherent structure, or framework. 

scrabble mess

Once you have what Bernstein called the ‘internal language of description’ for your study – your study’s own account of the theory it will be using and why this theory is the most appropriate choice for this study – you can generate, or analyse generated, data. This is where theory becomes the big deal that it is. Theory is transformed when it is brought into contact with data. It stops being quite so abstract, and becomes more alive and real. It actually helps you to say something about why you see what you do in your data, and what the things you see actually could mean, connected to the larger picture. It helps you create an ‘external’ language of description – a translation device as Maton puts it – which transforms theory in the abstract into an analytical language that can describe and make meaning of data. Other researchers can draw on, adapt, and add to this in their own studies, further amplifying the value of your research.

For example, several students have told you that no one will assist them with supervisor issues. rather than saying that this is just an unsupportive environment, you can use theory that gives you insight into power and university cultures around autonomy. With this insight, you could postulate that the environment is structured so as to give administrators and supervisors way more power than students, and with that power they can maintain an unsupportive status quo. Perhaps this unsupportive environment is created and maintained with the (misguided) notion that students need to be autonomous and independent, but you can now critique this with your data and theory to show why this doesn’t actually work. And you could back up this postulation with reference to other studies that have made similar or related arguments.

Instead of just a small story about your data, and why you think it is interesting, you now have a potentially powerful analysis of the data that says what is means, why this meaning is important to pay attention to, and how this meaning connects with other meanings, thus making a contribution to research in your field.

research-2

Theory isn’t just an odd requirement that has to be met in postgraduate research. It also is not some sort of relic of an ‘elitist’ version of higher education (one criticism I have heard a few times now). It’s a tool: it helps us really say something important and valuable about the world around us. We need to be doing research that connects us to other people, other research, other meanings, so that all of these meanings and arguments can build on one another cumulatively, amplifying our findings and voices. If what we want is better understanding of problems, new solutions to old problems and powerful change, then we need to harness the power theory offers us as researchers and use it to help us achieve these goals.

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