MELANIE WALKER PGR METHODOLOGY SEMINAR 21 JUNE 2011
Theory (a logical collection of concepts)
Gary Thomas: ‘don’t feel alone if theory perplexes you’.
Theory is a black hole, a sink, a swamp!
I don’t agree – theory and concepts help in asking significant questions and approaching research imaginatively and rigorously.
Examiners often complain that a study has not located the work theoretically, or that it is conceptually ‘thin’.
Theory has the potential to shed light on circumstances/problems/issues/challenges that are taken for granted; a resource to look critically at the social world and develop your own interpretations, insights , and ideas; it can rouse and provoke.
Stephen Ball: ‘Perhaps as educational researchers we need to appreciate better the work that theory does’ – as conceptual toolbox, means of analysis and system of reflexivity for understanding how we produce knowledge.
‘ I have also suggested the importance of the violence that theory does...its role in challenging conservative orthodoxies and closure, parsimony, and simplicity, that is, the role of theory in retaining some sense of the obduracy and complexity of the social. Much of what passes for educational research is hasty, presumptive and immodest. We constantly overestimate our grasp on the social world and under estimate our role in its management’. (2010)
But it can close down thinking as well (is thinking what we do; do we need to call it concepts and theory?). It can marginalise practices – the operationalisation of the abstract as lesser. (see Gary Thomas)
Theories and concepts can be oppressive e.g. see Linda Tuhiwai Smith (1999) on ‘decolonizing methodologies’ (e.g. in some forms of anthropology, but also any research which ‘others’) but theory can also ‘protect’ and ‘empower’ – by recovering and claiming/owning research (also see R W Connell on theory from the South and Cole and O’ Riley in Thomson and Walker, 2010)
Normative concepts (values-based and ethical), for example, justice, equality, human rights............
Some popular theorists in educational research: Habermas, Foucault, Bernstein, Bourdieu, Sen, Lave and Wenger, Archer, Gardner.....
Theory is generally understood to refer to a proposed explanation or developing body of explanation of empirical data or ideas made in a way consistent with rigour in research methods, and connects to other research using the same theoretical approach. It can be understood as a body of interconnected propositions about how a portion of the social world operates’ (Kidder, 1981). Theories arrange sets of concepts to define and explain some phenomenon Theory need not dictate or over-determine decisions made in the field.
But ‘grand theory’ claims to be able to build a systematic account of people and society (Marx would be a grand theorist of capitalism and social class)
A concept is ‘more modest’ than a theory – it is a building block for a theory/theorising; it is a definition/distillation/a description of a general idea created by abstracting, drawing away, or removing the uncommon characteristic or characteristics from several particular ideas. The remaining common characteristic is that which is similar to all of the different individuals. For example, the abstract general idea or concept that is designated by the word "red" is that characteristic which is common to apples, cherries, and blood. Or Paul Willis’s construct of ‘the lads’ who have certain characteristics in common (attitudes to schooling, aspirations, shared humour). Taken up by Sue Jackson as ‘laddettes’ in her research on girls.
Concepts are signposts, traffic lights , and distinguishable features in the landscape. (Su, Nixon and Adamson)
An example: ‘teacher culture’
Hargreaves (1994) and his description of four forms of teacher culture: individualism, collaboration, contrived collegiality, and balkanisation. In the first form, the culture is one of independence and autonomy and even isolation. In the second, teachers are cooperative and collaborative, with good personal interaction, teamwork and open communication. This collegiality contrasts with the third culture in which norms for behaviour and collaboration are imposed from above (‘management’) and can be maintained only by external pressure. The final form of ‘culture’, labelled ‘balkanisation’, occurs when groups and sub-groups develop within a school or other organisation. There may be collaboration within these enclaves but not across them. If a research project is looking at the climate or ethos of an organisation such as a school, then one of more elements of Hargreaves’ four forms of culture may be identifiable. This can be an aid to understanding and could influence practice/action. The the use of Hargreaves’ in reflecting on new data can be a way of linking a study to previous work. In other words, the ‘theory’ again acts as a bridge or link between disparate studies, rather like a metaphor, which literally means ‘to carry or transfer across’. (from BERA)
The ‘work’ that theories and concepts do
Theories and concepts influence the questions we ask and the methodologies and methods we adopt – theories, concepts, RQs, data methods and analysis should all be aligned. It helps us do good research
Theory is about: seeing links; generalising; abstracting ideas from your data and offering explanations (not just descriptions); connecting your own findings with that of others; having insight (Gary Thomas).
Gary Thomas: : ‘It is about your ability to suggest meaningful explanations concerning your findings and how these fit in with the other research your have reviewed. How does it all fit together. How can ideas be drawn together and links made? What insights can you come up with? What explanations can you offer? ‘In doing this , in theorising, you are showing that you are more than a copy typist – rather, you are analysing and synthesising and already constructing potential explanations for your forthcoming findings’. So theory is not something you do only at the end of your dissertation but is part of your research process. We need a conceptual framework to make sense of our data and to move it beyond description.
Concepts and theories/theorisation speak to our data, and our data speaks back.
Would you prefer the language of thinking rather than the language of theory and concepts?
But we can move from an idea or problem to concepts – we need not have the concepts in place from the outset. For example Feng Su’s doctoral study of Chinese students in the UK.
Concepts can run out of explanatory power – e.g.. ‘governance’ and ‘knowledge’ in relation to Europeanization (see Dale and Robertson, 2009)
Supervisors, peers, researchers (in the literatures) are arguably crucial for this journey.
The same concept can be interpreted differently depending on the underlying theory: three examples - justice; curriculum; power.
Justice and fairness
Sen’s story of which child should be given the flute – plural reasons for justice and how resources should be distributed:
The child who made it (entitlement to enyoy what one has produced oneself)
The child who knows how to play it (human fulfilment)
The child with no other toys (removal of poverty)
Curriculum and knowledge
Critical theory –ideology, reproduction, capitalist relations, power relations, inequalities, ‘correspondence’, hidden curriculum, hegemony. RQ: In what ways does the curriculum reproduce social and political inequalities?
Post structuralism – social construction, web of power/knowledge, discourse, multiple truths, standpoints, agency. RQ: In what ways does the curriculum marginalize and exclude particular individuals and group identities and hence reproduce recognitional inequalities?
Social realism –objective and accurate knowledge, cognitive interests, internal knowledge interests. RQ: In what ways is the curriculum comprised of knowledge that is rigorous and worthwhile both intrinsically and instrumentally?
(in Gewirtz and Cribb)
Power and T heory (with a capital T)
Jean Barr’s study of Headway project in Glasgow 1979-1981 (aligns concepts, theories and methods)
Reappraisal of Marxist-feminist concepts of (unpaid) domestic labour and caring for young children and power (‘victimhood’)
‘ Reproducing labour power’ denied women’s agency and voices and blurred who was speaking (Barr or the women); the women were objects not co-subjects.
Imperfect theory: blinds spots (Wagner)
Theory generally has limits for explaining your fieldwork data; you may need to seek alternative explanations or an expansion of the theory or conceptual framework.
Theory and data should be in a dialectical ‘conversation’ – we need to be reflexive researchers.
Bev Skeggs: ‘It is when different audiences are introduced and respond that challenges over the legitimacy of knowledge are produced. Many theorists do not try to hear or see anything other than from where they are located’. (in Barr, 2010)
Linda Alcoff’s ‘public theorist’ - theory building is not located solely in the academy but in and through wider public arenas where ideas can be tested dialogically to produce better, more rigorous knowledge.
Your own research
What is the conceptual frame or hook of your research? What are the frames you like, who else is using them and how? What research question has emerged/is emerging from this framing? How do the concepts shape your research questions, the data collected, the analysis and the interpretation? How do others use theory in your field and what have you learned from this? Are concepts and theories generative for you, or do they shut down your thinking?
If theory also constructs the doctoral scholar and their commitments, how is your scholarly trajectory being shaped (what you are doing, have done, and will do)?
How are you, or how will you, engage different audiences or publics in your research project as a process of theory building?