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. 

 

Finding a problem to solve: searching for your doctoral thesis

I am working with a new PhD student, as a co-supervisor. He is just starting out, and recently emailed us with a slightly panicked email about what title he should have for his PhD? He sent a few ideas, wondering if they were too broad or too narrow or off-topic. My first response was to think: never mind about the title yet – we’re still trying to work out what the study is about! But he was genuinely concerned, leading me to wonder where this panic about his title stemmed from. It became apparent that he had to write down a title on a form in order to register, and he was worried that this would commit him to sticking with that title from now on. We could reassure him that this was just a form, and had no bearing on his PhD proposal or final topic. But it also pointed us to a bigger conversation: how to search for, and find, your PhD.

Bureaucracy and forms aside, do we fixate on finding a title before we have located a problem we can solve? I remember (and have proof in my research journal) scribbling down several possible titles early on in year 1 of my own doctorate, long before I knew precisely what the parameters of my study would be. Unsurprisingly, they were largely discarded along the way and I ended up somewhere quite different. I still do this in writing papers. I think it is, quite simply, because playing with words and titles is more fun, and immediate, that spending months reading, writing and speaking about my research in the effort to find a problem that is small and focused enough for me to research and write usefully about.

I do think that having some notion of a title might be helpful – it gives you a basic search area to focus on, and a way in to your reading, writing and speaking journey. But it should be seen, at this early stage, as a movable placeholder, rather than a limitation. In other words, you know you want to say something about, for example, teaching in Physics and how students learn effectively, but you remain open to further refining and reading around that issue, as opposed to discounting any reading that is not strictly about what you think you are researching.

map

I have written here about research problems, and return to the notion of a corridor of doors: at the early stage of a research project, like a PhD, you don’t want to have too many of those doors already closed. If you know the answer or solution already, why do the research? You want to remain open, read widely, and as you keep your reading journal and start to piece the field together, you then start closing doors to refine and focus your study on one problem you can viably research and respond to, making a useful and original contribution to knowledge in this field.

The reality is that you have to spend about a year reading, writing reading journal or annotated bibliography entries, making connections, taking a few wrong turns and doubling back, and talking a lot with your supervisors and peers about your study, working out where it needs to go, why and how. A great deal of the writing you do in this first year will not go into the thesis (although hopefully much of it will end up in your formal proposal*); it will be writing in your journals, writing for yourself, writing for your supervisors to guide you and offer feedback.

All this reading and informal writing can feel, at times, frustrating: you’ll read papers and even books that will be profoundly helpful, and others than you will never cite or include. You will write many words that will never progress beyond drafting/thinking/scribbling stage. I often felt as if my time was not being well-spent, especially as a part-time student with so many other things to do, if the reading was not exactly relevant, or the words were not all for The Thesis. At times, I felt I was paddling around in a circle, rather than slowly crawling forwards towards a complete thesis.

But, with hindsight, I can see just how much I gained from all that reading, scribbling and talking, even if none of it is now visible in the final thesis I wrote. In writing for myself, and giving myself permission, if you like, to just read and not panic too much about my topic or title, I slowly read and wrote myself into my research problem, locating, refining and focusing it until I was doing just one PhD (instead of the apparent four I initially proposed to my supervisor!). I found my voice through becoming immersed in the research in my field, both directly connected to my PhD and indirectly as well. I gained confidence that I was making a useful contribution as I wrote, and spoke with more knowledgeable peers, about what this contribution could be.

one way signWhile the original spark of an idea, and impetus for doing a postgraduate degree by research may find you and light you up, driving you forwards into a PhD (or MA) journey, the searching for and refining of a specific, clear and viably solvable research question or problem is a long process. Before you fixate too much on a topic, or sexy title, take the time to open yourself up to reading in and around your idea, write for yourself and your supervisors, find your researcher voice, and try your ideas out on peers and colleagues. You won’t, of course, be reading indiscriminately, but try not to hem yourself in too much with a title or topic that limits you before you have searched your field and found your PhD within it.

*In most South African PhD programmes, most of the first year of a doctorate is spent developing a formal PhD proposal, which then has to be approved by a ‘higher degrees’ committee before ethical clearance is granted and a student has permission to begin the study proper.

The relationship between your research question and your argument

In the last post I wrote about research problems, and working out one that is the right size and shape for the scope of your project and level of study. In this post, I want to go a step further, and reflect a little on research questions, and the relationship between your research questions and your argument, and how to think about building your argument from the start.

In the workshops I have been facilitating with postgraduate students, all of whom are in the early stages of their projects, it has become clear that they have research problems, and questions, but are still struggling to a) pin these down into a manageable project the right shape and size for their level of study and time available; and b) separate (yet also connect) their research questions from their proposed argument.

(b) is a tricky thing to do early on in an MA or PhD – how do you really know what your argument is if you haven’t even done the research yet? I didn’t really know clearly what my argument actually was until I had finished the research – generated and analysed the data and considered what kinds of answers I had found in response to my research questions. But I had a sense of where I was trying to go. Working out a basic, ‘holding’ line of argument, and clear research questions that can reasonably be answered within your proposed timeframe and project scope is important to work on at this early stage for two main reasons.

Clear strategy and leadership solutionsThe first is so that you have a track to stay on when you start  reading, sharing your work, getting feedback and so on. Having a sense of the point of your project can limit the risks of  being pulled in different, potentially confusing directions, especially by reading and other people’s responses to your early thinking. This track may shift and change shape a bit, but you need to try and argue for what your proposal says you will argue for, so having a basic idea of what that argument could be, even if it starts off a little more fuzzy and ill-defined than it will be at the end, is helpful.

golden-threadThe second reason for creating a line of argument refers to the golden thread I have written about here. The questions you ask, and the argument that you propose as the answer to these questions, will guide the rest of the work you do on your thesis. You choose conceptual tools and build your theoryology in order to create a framework within which the argument can be built; you create a methodology, and choose a research design and methods in line with the theoryology and the research questions and proposed argument; and you analyse your data within the bounds set by these frameworks, so that you can actually refine and strengthen your overall argument. Thus, having a fairly clear sense of what this golden thread will comprise, and how it will pull through the different parts of your argument-building process, is also important.

Your argument is your original contribution to knowledge in your field, at PhD more than an MA level. It is the answer, more or less, to your research questions. It is the most important part of your research. You may well find that it is difficult to pin down in a concise few sentences, in your proposal or early on, exactly what your argument is. You may only find this emerging from your research as it progresses, and your thinking deepens. If you have followed a more linear research process (theory, then methods, then data, then analysis, then pulling it all together) you might find it easier to see your argument, your contribution, from early on. If you have started somewhere in the middle, with data, and are moving back and forth to build your theoryology and methodology around the data, your argument might be more fuzzy and difficult to pin down.

The point is, though, that your argument is there, and that pulling it out and jotting it down, at various points, is a useful exercise. Ask yourself: ‘What is the point of my research? What am I trying to say here?‘ Write down what you think the point of your research is on post-its and stick them up where you work. Rewrite these every few months and update them, even if the changes seem small.  A workshop I went to during my PhD encouraged us to come up with a haiku to capture the contribution we thought our research could be making (this was actually pretty spot on, and fun to do, so it’s worth a try). Keep a research journal, and make a point of checking in every few months on what claims you are making, and how these might be slowly becoming more refined, sharper, and possibly changed.

At the end of your research project, at whatever level you are working, and whether you are writing a paper, a book or a dissertation, you need to have found an answer to the question that started the research process in the first place. This answer is your argument, and it is what will make that contribution to your field, whether bigger or smaller. This is your voice, joining the conversation, and you want it to be a loud, and clear, and relevant as possible. Taking some time, throughout your research process, to make notes on what that argument is shaping up to be is a useful way of keeping yourself on track with your research aims, and spinning that golden thread as you go.

 

Lost and found and lost again: searching for your ‘question’

A mentor suggested last year that you know you are ready to hand in your thesis when you have found the question you are trying to answer. If that is so then sadly I am still not ready to hand in my final thesis, but I think I’m close. Last year, when I was trying to get my head around my theory/conceptual framework chapter, which just felt HUGE at the time, I drew this picture in my research journal: spiral image PhD

I was trying to think about how I wanted to structure the chapter so that I could take the reader logically from the starting point, through the various concepts and tools, to the point at which the next chapter needed to start. (I didn’t know what that chapter was going to say at this point so it was a slightly abstract exercise). This spiral was helpful, to a point, but it is actually more helpful to me now in terms of thinking about the process of trying to find the question I am asking and trying to answer.

The way I see it now is that the PhD is a version of being lost and found and then lost and then found, except that you get lost from and find yourself in progressively different places as you go. This is particularly so when it comes to the Research Question; that elusive little bugger that keeps slipping away from you just when you think you have finally managed to pin it down in a sentence (or eight). I can look back a bit from where I stand now and see that I have been moving in slowly decreasing spirals towards this elusive Question I am trying to answer. The more I write and think and scribble, the closer I get. It started as a very hesitant and not entirely crisp and clear thing in the proposal, and then disappeared for a while while I was busy getting lost in mountains of theory that took a while to make sense of. Then I found it again but it looked a little different – less vague and a little more grown up and also not exactly what I started out asking in the proposal. Then I started writing the theory chapter and by the end of that process the Question had wandered away again. When it came back, after I started drafting my methodology chapter and was busy collecting my data, it was even more grown up, dressed in sharper clothes, looking more confident. I managed to hold onto it for a longer period of time, but by the time I had finished transcribing all my notes and videos and organising all my data, it had left me again. It returned when I drafted the two chapters on my case studies, even more grown up and much more neatly groomed. I was profoundly happy to see it again, and to recognise it as an almost-there version of what my study is trying to answer.

Now I am revising all the chapters I have written thus far and am trying to find conclusions and an introduction in all of this. It’s gone, again. But I am a lot less panicked about this than I was when my Question first started wandering off without leaving a note as to where it had gone and when it would be back. I know it will be back, and probably soon. I hope soon. The spirals have gotten shorter and my focus has sharpened as I have gone round and round, and each time my Question wanders off and and comes back I am in a different place in this process, and I see things a little more clearly. I suppose if I could go back and give 2nd year PhD-me a hug and a piece of advice it would be to say this: don’t despair. Your Question will come back, and it will make more sense and be clearer when it does. You just have to be patient, and trust that this process will take you where you need to go. In an adaptation of the words said by the ghostly voice in Field of Dreams, ‘If you write it, it will come’.