Why Not Include Theory?

theoryLast week I wrote a post about how to choose a research method. It received a fair amount of approval on social media, and a very interesting response from @leenie48 from Brisbane, Australia, with a couple of contributions from @DrNomyn. I’ve tidied up our exchange a little; it actually ended up in two threads over several hours, so wasn’t as neat as it seems here. I was travelling and in and out of meetings so undoubtedly didn’t give it the attention it deserved. I couldn’t embed the tweets without tedious repetition, so have typed out most of the discussion; our timelines are accessible if anyone feels the need to verify. Here goes:

EH: Your post suggests one can jump from rq to method choice with no consideration of theory. I disagree.

HK:I teach, and write for, students at different levels. Here in the UK masters’ students in many subjects have to do research with no consideration or knowledge of theory.

EH: Perhaps it might be useful to point out advice is for specific readers. Bit sick of having to explain to new phd students that this kind of advice is not for them!

HK: You’re right, and I am sorry for causing you so much inconvenience. I’ll re-tag all my blog posts, though that will take a while as there’s a sizeable archive.

HK: That seems unnecessarily pejorative. I don’t regard practice-based masters’ research as ‘pretend’, but as a learning opportunity for students. Commissioned research and practice-based research is professional rather than academic. Not wrong, simply different.

EH: Then why not include theory?

HK: I’ve explained why I didn’t include it in my blog post, so I’m not sure what you’re asking here?

And that’s where the discussion ended, with me confused as @leenie48’s question was on the other thread. Having put this into a single conversation, though, for the purposes of this post, it makes more sense. I think @leenie48 was asking why not include theory in masters’ level or practice-based research.

My conversation with @leenie48 might lead the uninitiated reader to believe that theory is a homogeneous ‘thing’. Not so. Theory is multiple and multifaceted. There are formal and informal theories; social and scientific theories; grand and engaged theories; Euro-Western and Southern theories. These are oppositional theory labels; there are also aligned options such as post-colonial and Indigenous theories.

I studied a module on social theory for my MSc in Social Research Methods, and used hermeneutic theory (a grand-ish formal Euro-Western social theory) for my PhD. Yet I don’t think I understood what theory is for, i.e. how it can be used as a lens to help us look at our subjects of study, until well after I’d finished my doctoral work.

If you’re doing academic research, theory can be very useful. Some, like @leenie48, may argue that it is essential. It is certainly a powerful counter when you’re playing the academic game. Yet theory is, like everything, value-laden. At present, in the UK, the French social theorist Bourdieu is so fashionable that the British Sociological Association is often spoken of, tongue in cheek, as the Bourdieu Sociological Association. At the other extreme, social theories from the Southern hemisphere are often ignored or unknown. So I would argue that if we are to include theory, we need to engage with the attributes of the theory or theories on which we wish to draw, and give a rationale for our choice. I find it frustrating that so much of academia seems to regard any use of theory as acceptable as long as there is use of theory, rather than questioning why a particular theory is being used.

This kind of engagement and rationale-building takes time and a certain amount of academic expertise. If you’re doing research for more practical reasons, such as to obtain a masters’ degree, evaluate a service, or assess the training needs of an organisation’s staff, theory is a luxury. These kinds of research are done with minimal resources to achieve specific ends. I don’t think this is, as @leenie48 would have it, ‘pretend research’. For sure it’s not aiming to contribute to the global body of knowledge, but I can see the point in working to discover particular information that will enable certain people to move forward in useful ways.

I have still to tackle two other points raised by @leenie48: the ‘methodology vs method’ question, and the issue of writing for masters’ students vs doctoral students on this blog and elsewhere. So that’s my next two blog posts sorted out then!

2 thoughts on “Why Not Include Theory?

  1. Thanks for sharing this dialogue. I’d say that any kind of research project is based on a certain set of assumptions that when considered more carefully, is part of some theory. So could it be the case of making theory more or less explicit rather than having theory or no theory at all? I like the way you have framed theory as theories with underlying cultural and historical biases. I’m keen to tune in on the unfolding conversation. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Sherrie and thanks for your thoughtful comment. I think your view is certainly arguable, though I would still maintain that making theory explicit takes time and skill and so is a luxury in some quarters. The ‘set of assumptions’ you mention could refer to informal theory, the mostly private, implicit theories developed by practitioners in the course of their work. These are the kinds of assumptions that need to be made explicit to develop a ‘theory of change’, often used as a basis for evaluation research – though that, too, is a time-consuming and complex project. I guess my short answer to your question is ‘yes’! Though I’ll be interested to see what others may have to say.


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