Having theory and ‘theorising’: reclaiming the verb

Jeepers, I have been away a while! But, rather than dwelling on all the Things I let get in the way of my writing and creativity last year, I will look to a new year, and new ideas for the blog instead. In a conference workshop in November, I had a really interesting discussion with colleagues about theory – where theory comes from, and whether its origins are relevant to its current use (for a later post). Part of that discussion focused on how we use theory. It is this I would like to focus on in this post, to kick off the new year.

Theory is key part of research – particularly at postgraduate and doctoral level. In the social sciences we tend to really spell out the theory we use – critical social theory, behavioural theory, post-structural theory and so on, whereas is the natural sciences there is less obvious mention of theories although they are most certainly there (I am told by scientist friends it is usually some version of positivism, but I stand to be corrected). In essence, theory is always present when we are trying to make sense of a smaller part of the bigger picture – connecting the specifics of our study with a more general or wider phenomenon. But, the way we use theory to do this is often inadequately talked about or grappled with in postgraduate spaces. Do we ‘have theory’ or do we ‘theorise’? 

question mark

Patrick White, in an excellent book on research writing, argues that to be called by such a name, theories need to be abstract, explanatory and testable. In other words, they need to be able to apply across more than one field; they need to explain, rather than just name, the part of the world we are researching; and they need to be able to be tested, to see whether and how they apply to the problem we are researching. But, in many projects, especially those where the theory needs to shape choices made in the research design, methods, and analysis of data, theory can be under-utilised in the act of making meaning and creating new knowledge. In other words, I am arguing that there are projects that ‘have theory’, but this is not adequately used in the act of ‘theorising’ new understandings and explanations of the problems we research. 

So what, then, do I mean in my distinction between ‘having theory’ and ‘theorising’?

Let’s start with theorising. This is an act – something we have to do, usually in an iterative manner. This is the act of bringing theory and data into conversation with one another, in the process seeking meanings that will help us both explain the nature of the problem we are researching, and test the viability of the theory we have chosen in making sense of that problem. We are also locating the problem, through theory, literature and methodology, within the bigger picture it connects with. For example, using critical social theory, such as Margaret Archer’s morphogenetic cycles to critique and understand processes of change or stasis in one university’s leadership environment (understood within the broader context of neoliberalism and marketisation of higher education). To theorise, we need to make the theory do work. The work of making sense of the world – through a chosen and always partial lens – but making sense nonetheless.

When we use theory to theorise – to seek, debate and construct meanings so as to create and add to knowledge about the part of the world we are researching – we need to acknowledge that the theory we have chosen is but one of probably a number of theories that could offer an explanation. Research is about looking for truth – a form of truth that enables us to see, know and act with greater knowledge and insight. Thus, the theory we choose, following White, must be able to offer the kinds of explanations that enable this. Your research question – the problem you want to solve – must guide the choices you make here: what theoretical tools, frameworks, explanations will enable you to solve this problem in the clearest, most useful way at this point in time? We choose, and build, theoretical frameworks, or theoryologies as I have called them, based on the problems we are trying to solve, or the truths we seek. They are not just found, fully formed, ready to be placed into the right part of the thesis. 

constructing theory

Photo by David McBee from Pexels

This brings me to dissertation work that has theory, but does not fully theorise. There may be a chapter entitled ‘Theoretical framework’ or some version of that, and the theory is laid out and explained. (In the sciences the theory may be implied in the earlier parts of the thesis rather than explained in its own chapter.) Yet, when the analysis and data sections are reached, the theory is oddly silent, or under-utilised. Rather, you may find a thematically organised discussion of the data that recounts what the researcher has found, and makes suppositions and suggestions of what it could mean without fully engaging the powerful theory to really make meanings that can, following White again, show that the theory has been tested, and is able to explain the data in ways that enable the researcher to create knowledge that adds to what we already know. These findings can then be built on by other researchers as part of the abstracted explanations they may offer for why different parts of the truth, and new solutions to current problems still need to be sought, and found. 

Theory is powerful. Or, it can be when used to actively theorise – to make meanings that are new, or additional to those we already have access to. This process is not simple, or linear. It requires immersion in your data, it requires you to suspend some of your assumptions or beliefs about what is truth, and what your data is saying, so you can allow the theory to act as a lens with which to look at your data with more ‘naïve’ or unassuming eyes. Theorising is an iterative, at times frustrating process, that is both intellectually and personally challenging. But, skimping this process to get the thesis done belies a misunderstanding of what the doctorate – or research – is. It is not (just) the thesis, or the paper. It is the process of engaging with current truths and meanings, findings under-explored problems and questions, and working to make meanings that will add to our knowledge about the world, and how we live in it (and that will transform your own understandings and knowledge).

In these uncertain, and challenging times in which we all live, we all need to embrace the difficult act of theorising – we need to reclaim the verb, over the noun. We need to embrace the research process and the learning therein – both personal and professional. The product that emerges in the form of that thesis or paper – and its author and readers – will be the richer for it. 

 

7 thoughts on “Having theory and ‘theorising’: reclaiming the verb

  1. Rieta says:

    Dear Sherran,

    Thank you for a very useful piece and at an appropriate time. I have always been baffled a bit with theory, and I think supervisors and those in the know often assume that research students automatically know how to make use of theory or to even locate a theory in the fist place. I also find that we get so used to working with one theory or theorist that we often “make” everything we do fit the mould of what we know.
    My question is still whether I am trying to find a fit or how do I find a match? I often think the answer lies in questioning the traditional way of looking at research, we follow a laid down pattern or are there other ways. If we believe that students are unique individuals then we should also believe that each one has the ability to understand the world with different eye -views, different lenses.

    Regards,
    Rieta

    • sherranclarence says:

      Thank you for this comment, Rieta. I experienced finding the theory I used to build my framework as a kind of ‘kismet’. When I read Bernstein for the first time I found him putting into theoretical terms my own more basic sense of what counted as knowledge and truth, maybe – my ontology. I think that’s one part of how you make the choice or find the fit, and that speaks to your comment about students selves, and research problems, being different from one another. I think you need to work out what your ontology is – what counts as truth? What is the world like? Is there objective knowledge only, or a mix of objective and subjective knowledges and ways of knowing? Or is there no such thing as objectivity? This is a good place to start, I think, as it indicates a broader paradigm you can start then reading within to find theory and concepts that name and explain the world as you already see it. I’ll think on this more – maybe a post will come of it :-). Thank you, again.

      • Rieta says:

        Thank you for the “food for thought” – will definitely start to ponder on the advice.

        Rieta

  2. Thabile Zondi says:

    Thank you so much for writing about theory. You read my mind because I’m currently working on this chapter. You have explained it thoroughly and gave relevant examples.

  3. Olivia Sylvester says:

    Thank you for this post. I struggle with how to articulate these topics to students and I will gratefully share this with my Ph.D. students. You refer to White in this piece, what citation are you referring to?

    • sherranclarence says:

      Thank you, Olivia. I am so glad it is helpful. There is a hyperlink to the book just after I mention White’s full name. It’s called Developing Research Questions.

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