Theory fright – part one


Lots of doctoral researchers worry about the Th word, Theory. When said aloud, you can often hear the capital T. It must be important. Theory.

And perhaps because of the capital T, the question “What’s your theoretical framework?” can reduce doctoral researchers to a state of near panic.

Now, theory is a term which often gets mixed up with another scary word – concept. Sometimes people use them interchangeably. Or they bracket the two together in a way that suggests there is a difference – as in “What’s your conceptual or theoretical framework?” – but then don’t explain what the difference is.  Nor do they say whether it’s better to have a theoretical or a conceptual framework!

Doctoral researchers frequently worry that they don’t yet have what’s required – Theory and/or framework – or they worry that they don’t have a good enough grasp of the theory or framework they have. They are concerned that they will be found out, found wanting. Or they worry that they have made the wrong theoretical choice and someone will notice.

If you worry about Theory, strap yourself in now, because we’re going to talk about theory for the rest of this post. And the next one.

You see, the first thing in countering theory fright is to understand what a theory is.

A theory is just a way of explaining, of saying how things relate to each other, why they are the way that they are, and how they relate to other things.

Explaining, that’s not so terrifying. Most of us use theories all the time in our everyday lives as we make sense of the world. And we use concepts too. Let me take a pretty prosaic example – a seat belt.

As we all know, a seat belt is a couple of straps. They fasten around your body to stop you lurching forward when the car stops suddenly.  The term seat belt is a kind of shorthand; we can generally say seat belt to someone without having to explain what it is.

Now a seat belt is also a concept – it was something a designer dreamt up and was probably even initially called ‘a new concept’ in car safety.

But if you wanted to explain how a seat belt actually worked, you’d draw on some theory. You might say for example that your body keeps going forward even after the car has stopped. And you could make this statement more Theory-like by referring to something more general and abstract like, say, the work energy principle and conservation laws. These two theories draw on and link together multiple concepts – work, energy, power and conservation.

Here’s another example – textwork/identitywork. This term is something Barbara and I literally cobbled together to save us having to consistently explain one of our key ideas about academic writing. We used textwork/identitywork in our books as shorthand to stand for the idea that scholars form a scholarly ‘identity’ – who they are and what they stand for – through their writing. So textwork/identitywork is a concept.

But when we wanted to explain the concept, to say how and why it is that writing is a way of forming an identity, and how and why writing is framed and limited, then we had to turn to theory. More than one theory as it happens. We had to bring theories together in ways that made sense of our textwork/identitywork concept. We had to draw on theory about identity, and theory about text.

And if you were to go back through our books – and I’m not suggesting that you do – but you would see that, while we consistently use the idea of textwork/identitywork, we have different ways of theorising it. In fact we’ve used three different theories in three different books to explain the one concept.

Now, before you say that we were just indecisive, let me say in our defence that we used different theories to highlight different aspects of the concept textwork/identitywork. If we were talking to doctoral researchers about why academic writing was the way it was, doctoral researchers who weren’t familiar with social science, we often used ‘communities of practice’. The theory of communities of practice draws attention to what people do and who they are within discipline communities. Sometimes we used the idea of discourse to connect writers and writing with questions of subjectivity, power and knowledge. But if we wanted to emphasise the capacity of the writer to make decisions about their writing, we chose to talk about identity theory which focuses on the writer, text and audience. Depending on who we were talking to, and what we were trying to do, we drew on different theoretical resources.

Theory. Horses for courses.

And just to make things even more complicated, it’s important to recognise that not all theory is the same. Theories are of different orders, and they have different status.

Let’s go back to the seat belt.

Let’s say that the theory that explained the seatbelt was the work energy principle; this is a ‘little’ theory which is part of a much bigger theoretical framework. This ‘little’ theory is generally agreed by the scholarly scientific community as the best explanation possible for particular, observable phenomena – bodies continuing forward after the car stops.

And it is an explanation, a theory, that hasn’t yet been replaced by a better one. ( I’m anticipating that someone is going to tell me in the comments of the debates about Newtonian physics, and that’d be all good because it would support the notion that theories aren’t writ in stone, they can change. Theories are plausible explanations that we accept at the moment.)

But when we get to very complex phenomena, where bigger and more ambitious explanations are needed, theories are often highly contested. There is no agreement about the best approach. People think of examples that don’t fit the theory. Theoretical explanations are, we might say, partial.

So if we were to examine a theory about the nature of reality – string theory for instance – we would find an explanation which doesn’t cover all circumstances and isn’t accepted as being good enough. String theory is still being worked on, worked over and worked out – and may at some point be abandoned altogether for simply not having enough explanatory capacity.

And in social science and the humanities, theory is generally of this less agreed kind – it is contested and partial. That’s because people and social life are complex. And because of this complexity, scholars have invented a variety of theories to explain social phenomena, to explain the world. Different disciplines can have very different takes on the same thing. So, it’s not at all unusual to find, in the social sciences and humanities, theories being subject to debate, development and change.

And because a theory used in research might be one of the many possible, doctoral researchers usually have to discuss their approach to theory, and write about theoretical debates, in their thesis. They may even, as Barbara and I did, use more than one theory at a time, or choose a partial theory despite its limitations.

The important thing is not to see theory as Theory – something mysterious, something arcane, beyond the understanding of most people.

A theory is just a particular explanation with a history and loads of applications. Theory is simply the best we can do with the data we have in hand.

It is of course important to think about what you are trying to explain and why it is important to explain. What difference does it make to your research and your claim to a knowledge contribution to have a good theory to offer?

And on that question, I’ll leave off till the next post.