Can you say something about the “theory chapter”?


I’ve been asked about writing a theory chapter. But should I say anything? I feel a bit iffy about the very idea.

What to do? Take your own advice here. Write for ten minutes about a theory chapter. Write about why you find this topic difficult. Write about anything to do with theory and chapters so you get into the right head space. At the end of writing for ten you’ll know whether you have anything to say, or not.

OK, here goes.

Well, this is not the only time I’ve been asked about theory chapters. The topic comes up pretty regularly in workshops and courses. So there is a theory chapter issue, at least for some people. And it’d be rude not to at least have a go, wouldn’t it?

Reasons to write anything about a theory chapter. Or not to, and be cheerful about it.

A lot of people won’t understand the” theory chapter” as A Thing at all, let alone a problem. That’s because a lot of disciplines don’t use “theory” in the way that this question does. I imagine someone in Philosophy, or someone doing a theoretical inquiry in Politics, looking at this question and being mystified. Not to mention someone in some of the Sciences. For different reasons, the “theory chapter” is a non-issue for many people.

When a discipline does talk about theory as A Thing to write a chapter about, theory is often conflated with “conceptual”. So people talk about having a theoretical or conceptual framework. I’d have to write a lot about theory and concept first before getting to the chapter question. Then I’d have no room in a blog post to say anything else. Maybe it ‘d be enough to just refer people back to these old posts?

Must do better. Here goes. Some people don’t have A Theory, but Theories – multiples. And perhaps these are theories from different disciplines. Constructing a new or underused multi/trans theoretical approach, and showing what it can/can’t do, is a significant contribution. If innovative use of theory is one of your anticipated contributions, then you’d have to set that up early. You’d need to say at the very start that your thesis will use a novel combination of theories, and you’d have to justify this. Create the warrant for your novel theoretical approach by saying what is going to be helpful, insightful, productive, generative about the theory/ies.

But hang on – maybe I need to start off differently. Maybe I need to say that you do heaps of reading during a doctorate, and some of it is obviously about theory, but most things have an implied theory. Theory versus non theory is problematic. Oh that’s a rabbit hole. Better not go down there in a thousand words or so.

Maybe I should talk about where theory fits with the other categories of literatures, as dodgy as those categories are. OK. If you read” theory” (aargh), then some of your reading will be texts about the theory. Then you’ll read texts that apply the theory, and maybe apply it to your topic or topics like yours. But you also have to read the theory itself, you can’t rely on other people’s interpretations. In fact, you have to read your chosen theory/ies a lot, so that you know it/them really intimately and can talk about it/them in your own words. And by the end probably talk about it/them in your sleep.

I’m straying away again. Let me refocus this and try the question head on. Yes, some people have a theory chapter. In an IMRAD thesis the singleton “theory chapter” usually comes before the literatures and the methodology chapters. The “theory” is separated out from the texts that are about your substantive topic.

Now, even if it’s not uncommon to have a singleton theory chapter, there are occasions when you might be able to combine this theory stuff with other literatures. Oh dear, of course you could have one chapter with both theory/ies and literature, depending on what kind of meta-commentary you use to explain the way you’ve presented your material. And there might be literatures about your topic using your theory which you could use to segue between the two sections. But you can also use the explanation of the theory in conjunction with explanations of the context or policy. So there aren’t really a set of rules here. It’s an “it depends” situation.

That’s probably not as helpful as I’d like to be. It’d be easier to say that most often the theory talk comes pretty early on. Let’s not talk about a chapter per se. How about this? If it’s important for the examiner to understand how theory/ies was/were used in the research, this needs to come close to the beginning of the thesis. So the theory talk comes in the introduction, or soon after.

But of course it’s more complex than that. As soon as I write “early” I can think of instances where that’s not the case… action researchers for instance wouldn’t necessarily talk theory early as their dissertations, unlike most others, are chronological and organised to show the learning that happens through cycles. So action researchers might come to a theoretical position later in their research and it’s appropriate to put it later.

Ah. But. A lot of people don’t start with a chosen theory at all, they come to it as they are working out how to make more sense of their analysis. But they present the theory near the start of the thesis because they aren’t writing about the “journey”, as most often their thesis is a final text about where they are at the end. But because they do end up with a theory (or combination) they generally then use their newly arrived at theoretical lens to rewrite their literatures work and report their methods.

But how to deal with the way that some people talk about a theoretical “framework”? I guess the intention of framework is to say that the research project is designed using a particular theory. So you use the theory to sort out the who, what and how of your research problem. And the theory comes into the analysis and discussion too (As long as you didn’t do something tautological – I designed this project around x and look I found x. Or something that meant you ignored data that didn’t neatly fit with your theory.) Well, some people use theory as a framework and I guess I can’t ignore this – and they would explain this framing early in the thesis. Early.

But … Should I just say what I do? I don’t actually see theory as a framework. Even though I’ve tried to explain what’s meant by framework somewhere else on the blog. I see theory as something that helps you to think and explain. So theory is a kind of thinking toolkit. My thinking about theory-as-toolkit came from reading Foucault early on in my own PhD and the metaphor helped me – it bumped theory off its pedestal and said that if the theory isn’t useful than don’t use it. Don’t idolise it. Don’t fetishise it. The old if-you-only-have-a-hammer-then-you-can-only-bash-nails-in cliche. Theory isn’t one size fits all. Often, your favorite theory isn’t appropriate for every design or explanatory job. Or the theory you started out with may not be the one you finish with.

So back to the question. What about the theory chapter? Well, I don’t know about a chapter per se, but because I want the examiner or reader to know my thinking toolkit, I would always explain my approach at the start. And because I don’t separate out theory from the ologies (epistemology or ontology), these always come together either in the introduction or close to next up. So I’d be saying what’s the problem I want to research and why. Then… What’s my approach to it – that’s the theory and ologies… What have other people said about my problem and how have I used this, How I did my project, what stuff have I ended up with – and so on.

Whew. That was more like forty minutes brain dumping not ten. And I have no really easy answer at the end. I think the theory chapter question is very complicated. But maybe this collection of perspectives might provide a starting point for supervisor discussion…