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.


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.

Scary -ologies

I think all PhD students – all academics – have been there: to the place where they are confronted with an -ology and asked to explain it only to find that while it makes sense (sort of) in their heads, it doesn’t make any sense in actual words. I’ve been there, so many times. I’m still there with some of these -ologies. I call them my ‘scary -ologies’.

There are the big ones – ‘epistemology’; ‘ontology’ – I still can’t really explain these in small, clear soundbites (or even longer, less clear phrases) without confusing myself and others. This is frustrating because in the quietness of my mind I do feel like I sort of know what they mean. But please don’t ask me to use them is a sentence. I can tell you, probably not completely correctly, that epistemology has to do with knowledge and knowing, and ontology has to do with being. But that’s not very helpful if you are new to these terms or trying to get a handle on them yourself. Sorry. I could cite some online dictionary definitions (some of which are actually quite helpful) but the best way to get to grips with any -ology or tough concept is to find examples you can use to explain them, or ways to break them down into simpler, easier terms. I thought I’d share my examples and self-explanations on these two bigger and more scary -ologies.

Epistemology, at its most simple, is the study of knowledge – its scope and also its limits and validity. It is also defined as a branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the origins, nature and so forth of knowledge – it is often called a ‘theory of knowledge’.  I think this is where I usually come unstuck in my own understanding of what it is and how to explain it to myself in less dictionaried terms. I’ll come back to this though. Ontology is defined, generally, as a ‘theory of being’, or or theory about the nature of being and what kinds of things exist and why.  I tend to get stuck when people start referring to these things as ‘theories’ about other things. [Theoryology is another scary -ology for me (so scary I made it into an ology).]

I have tried, then, not to be put off my the word ‘theory’ which in my mind signals other notions like ‘grand’, ‘impenetrable’, ‘will take months of reading to work out’ and so on. I have tried to look rather at what these ‘ologies’ are about. Epistemology is about knowledge, and what we can know and how we can know it and what the limits of that knowledge and knowing are or could be. As an example: we can ask whether something we know, like the world being roughly spherical in shape,  is justified. We can say ‘yes, it is justified to know that’. We can also ask how or why that knowledge is justified or true, and in response we could posit evidence drawn from physics, geography, astronomy and so on. You can ask these questions about the nature of many different kinds of knowledge, and that for me (right now anyway) is epistemology – this kind of inquiry and thinking process around what I think I know and why I think I can know it or not.

Ontology is about being and this -ology is more tricky for me to get my head around. I try to understand it in relation to my work or my research. For example, I research pedagogy and what lecturers and students do in relationship in classrooms in order to teach and learn and come to know and so on. A big part of teaching and learning is a process of becoming – you need to become, for example, a lecturer or teacher; it’s not something you just are. It’s a process. In the same way, students need to become lawyers or accountants or physicists – these are ontological as well as epistemological processes because they involve not just knowledge and knowing but also personal and metaphysical traits as well. So, ontology, then, would involve questioning these processes, and the nature of them and what is happening and what that means. I’m not sure I’m right about this – -ologies can make even the most sure-footed researcher doubtful (and I’m not all that sure-footed anyway). But I am very willing to be corrected.

There are other scary -ologies I will get to in my next post – tune in next week – but for now my advice would be to work on the concepts that scare you by finding simple examples or stories to try and contextualise and explain them, all the better if you can do so in the context of your own research. Turning them into stories and examples takes some of their power to scare you and render you speechless in the face of ‘Do you know what X means?’-type questions. And half the battle with concepts and -ologies is getting them under our control rather than being too much under theirs :-).


Notes: the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy online has a very useful entry on epistemology.