Theory anxiety

Last week I got a phone call from an anxious student.

I get lots of these calls each year. Luckily for me, most problems research students encounter have happened before so processes or tools exist to solve them. I like to think of myself as a mountain guide. All I have to do is help the student to find a form, person, book, website or service which can be used to solve their problem (actually, it’s precisely this kind of work which got me the nick name of ‘Thesis Whisperer’ in the first place).

This student’s problem was difficult and, to be honest, had me kind of stumped. 

This student, let’s call him Bob, is an engineer studying production processes within the transport industry. Specifically he was trying to solve some difficult problems to do with construction, design and safety. Now most studies of this kind use a ‘qualitative’ approach. Qualitative methods, as you are probably aware, usually involve techniques like interviews, observation and the study of documents.

Unfortunately this student is an engineer and trained to solve problems with math – and so are his supervisors.

To his credit, Bob had trained himself in qualitative techniques without much guidance. He did interviews and observed people at work. He devised his own method of taking fieldnotes and used this data to develop a framework. The framework described, in detail, how the production processes worked and where the problems were occurring.

Bob is now fast approaching the end of his thesis, so he duly presented the framework at his completion seminar (a presentation we ask students to do before they submit for examination). As Bob tells it, the panel assessing his presentation were not happy because he didn’t have enough ‘theory’. The panel advised he put off submitting his thesis until he fixed this problem.

Bob found he just couldn’t action this advice. In fact, he had to admit he didn’t even understand what the panel meant by ‘theory’. Hence the phone call to me.

The advice to “add more theory” is, on the face of it, pretty useless. A thesis is not like a petrol tank – you can’t just ‘top it up’ with some missing ingredient. But by the end of the phone call I could kind of understand why the panel gave such confusing advice. I don’t know if you have ever tried it, but it’s terribly difficult to explain what a ‘lack of theory’ in a thesis means.

I hear that scientists have trouble explaining magnetism without resorting to complicated jargon. So it is, I discovered with ‘theory’. I blathered on a bit about theory being a framework or a lens through which you see the world. I talked about how some theories can explain and others can predict. I tried to use feminism, gender and patriarchy as examples of the differences between movements, labels and theories. I told Bob he needed to get ‘above’ the details and stop merely ‘reporting’.

In short, I failed miserably.

Bob was nice about it, but I’m certain I left him even more confused than before. The problem was : I was suddenly confused myself. Somehow I managed to catch a dose of ‘theory anxiety’ off Bob over the phone. If I had such trouble explaining it, did that mean I didn’t understand what ‘theory’ meant either?

I turned, as I usually do, to Twitter for some advice. I was relieved when most of the 50 odd replies I got back were versions of the same things I had already said. It was nice to feel I was with the majority, but  I wasn’t any closer to helping Bob. So I fired up the magic Google machine and discovered two handy papers in, of all places, the organisational management literature. Both are about the role of theory in journal publications; one by Sutton and Staw called “What theory is not” and a follow up / rejoinder by DiMaggio called “Comments on What theory is not”.

[late addition: These links go through RMIT Library. If you can’t access them the full references appear at the end of the post]

Sutton and Staw’s idea was both modest and clever – they aim to explain theory in the negative. First of all they point out that adding more references is not the same as adding more theory. If you include references to other people’s theories you need to explain how they relate to your work and the argument(s) you are trying to make, not, as Sutton and Staw put it, use citations as a “smoke screen”. Staw and Sutton believe that theory should be specific and built (or adapted) for the purpose at hand – not just ‘imported’ into a paper to make it sound more profound.

The second important point Sutton and Staw make is that “data are not theory” – and here they describe Bob’s problem exactly:

“Data describe which empirical patterns were observed and theory explains why empirical patterns were observed or are expected to be observed.”

Likewise Sutton and Staw caution that “lists of variables or constructs are not theory”: by themselves they do not explain why. I think this is the crux of the panel’s problem with Bob’s framework: it’s a tool which describes or represents the situation without really interpreting it or making meaning. As Staw and Sutton put it: ” A theory must also explain why variables or constructs come about or why they are connected”. Likewise, they go on, a hypothesis is not theory because these are “… concise statements about what is expected to occur, not why it is expected to occur”.

Sutton and Staw include a lively section against theory and ask whether, in fact, we expect too much theorising, which I found enlightening, but might save for another time because I’m working on the assumption Bob needs more theory, not an elaborate argument about why he might not need it at all.

So far so good, but the accompanying commentary article by DiMaggio provided what I think are important additional considerations. DiMaggio points out that there is more than one idea of what Good Theory might be. He offers a couple of different ways of thinking about theory which were new to me and quite exciting (you know, in a nerdy way):

  • Theory as covering law
  • Theory as enlightenment, and
  • Theory as narrative

‘Covering law’ theory is, as DiMaggio puts it, a set of “generalizations that,taken together, describe the world as we see (or measure) it. He points out that Sutton and Staw are implicitly rejecting this type of theory – but I think this is the kind of theory which most scientists are aiming to build (I could be wrong in this because I am not a scientist, so please feel free to correct me in the comments).

Theory as enlightenment is where theory is treated as a ‘surprise machine’ which clears away “conventional notions to make room for artful and exciting insights”. This is the use of theory I myself am attracted to (now I am starting to wonder why…). By contrast ‘theory as narrative’ attempts to provide models for why people (or machines, or cells for that matter) behave the way they do. DiMaggio goes on to suggest that the most successful theorisations are probably hybrids of these types. He also goes on to make some wonderful observations about how theory is taken up (or not) in academic cultures, but I am already 300 words over my post limit of 1000 so I will have to save that for another time too.

So what should Bob do to solve his theory anxiety? Given that he has a framework already I suspect the answer lies in the last point DiMaggio made about models. But I’ll leave that up to him to decide. If you are interested, I strongly recommend these two papers as starting points for thinking about how to use / develop theory in your thesis,  but they should be read with caution for those of you not in the humanities.

Since I still have some teacher anxiety I’m wondering – how useful was this post to you? Do you have any objections, qualifications or extensions to offer? I’d love to hear from you in the comments – always the best part of any Whisperer post!


Sutton, R. I., & Staw, B. M. (1995). What theory is not. Administrative Science Quarterly, 371–384

DiMaggio, P. J. (1995). Comments on“ What theory is not.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 40(3), 391–397

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65 thoughts on “Theory anxiety

  1. strangealliances says:

    This is really helpful. Coming from a science background and now having to engage with educational research, I had found the concept of using a theory to frame my research something that did not come naturally. My previous version of theory or lack of it was similar to Bob’s, so initially it felt as if I were looking for a theory because it was expected.
    I have downloaded that papers from a quick Internet search as the first link would not give me access. They both appear to be free access.

    • ingermewburn says:

      Glad it was helpful, thanks for pointing out the link issue. I cut and paste through my library proxy I think. Can’t work out how not to. If anyone can help it would be appreciated!

  2. PleagleTrainer (@PleagleTrainer) says:

    Hi Inger, I enjoyed reading this post. I have not read Sutton and Shaw, or DiMaggio, but I will. I am a PhD candidate in education, however my background is in law as a legal practitioner and as a teacher in practical legal training (\’PLT\’: the bridging course between the university and admission to the legal profession).

    My training in theory was shaped by a \’technico-rationalist\’ Socratic pedagogy not widely received into education theory. At this stage (I started in March this year) I am intending to undertake a qualitative study concerning a scholarship of teaching in PLT. I am drawing on Bourdieu\’s theoretical tools, De Certeau\’s concept of practices in everyday life, and I am also exploring narrative inquiry as a methodology.

    I found two books quite useful for getting my head into qualitative methodology and the relationship to theory as a conceptual framework:

    Maxwell, JA 2005, Qualitative research design: An interactive approach, Sage Publications, Inc.

    Corbin, JM & Strauss, AL 2008, Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory, 3rd edn, Sage Publications, Inc, Thousand Oaks, California.

    The second book is available in Kindle format.

  3. kylie budge says:

    Brilliant post Inger! I’m going to read those 2 papers today. This is very timely for me as I’m wrestling with the theory beast at the moment and have a question: is it possible to elegantly combine 2 or 3 theories in one’s thesis? Or is that madness?

  4. Simon Bailey says:

    I think this is an excellent post. It resonates both with my own struggles during my PhD with questions of what you want to do with theory and how much is enough/too much. I also just had a very stressed out phone call from a friend yesterday, who is about to submit, but was in the middle of a blind panic about the depth of her ‘theory’ chapter. My advice to her was similar to the conclusion I came to with my own thesis – the theory chapter is there to give the reader a set of tools with which to grapple with the remainder of the thesis. I like DiMaggio’s terms, and I think this use of theory, the box of tools, which I have nicked from Foucault, does have elements of each. A rather more destabilising notion is that everything is theory built on theory, that even our most fundamental, primal perceptions of the world are built on a certain narrative of what that world is and who or what we are within it. Certainly all the methods we use in any form of scientific study – whether physical, medical or social – are built upon these layers of theory. I also think this often goes unsaid and perhaps unacknowledged in a lot of academic research.

    • epurser says:

      Really enjoying this conversation, thanks to everyone for it… Just wanted to note in passing though that gosh, I don’t find this notion unsettling at all, I find it utterly liberating to know that I don’t need to be enslaved into anyone’s view of the world – I just need to know that what I am hearing and reading is just that, a story, a way of making sense of what’s going on, and that we see according to what we already know, so with that kind of meta-knowledge, you have choices, and freedom (but also of course huge responsibility to carefully articulate and explain where you’re coming from, rather than just assume everyone observes the ‘same’ phenomena in the semiotic minefield we live in or makes sense of it in the same ways…

    • thesisconfused says:

      Thank you for explaining what the theory chapter is supposed to do in a thesis! I was worried I would end up with a chapter that only “showed off” what I had read.

      There is one thing I don’t quite understand though. If the theory is to provide the reader with the adequate tools for understand the rest of the thesis, then presumably I should have a theory that explains the findings. However, my professors constantly say: “…and then you can critique the theory and say where and how it was wrong.” But it seems a bit strange to ask your reader to cut a board in two and then give her a hammer? Is this a different type of thesis then (a theory-critiquing one), or do they mean that no tools are ever perfect for the job, and so you should point out the (small?) ways in which your theory did not explain the phenomena.

      I don’t know if I have any chance of a reply this late, but I would really appreciate it!

      • c. says:

        I’m doing a masters degree in an interdisciplinary graduate design faculty. We had to read Straw et al in our first year, as part of a research design studio. I come from a social science background. Non-humanities researchers have nothing to fear from reading these. Indeed, for scientists like Bob who are trying to use qualitative methods in a traditionally quantitive discipline, these and other similar articles can really help to make the case for conducting research in this way.

        Think of it this way, [esp. thesisconfused] – ‘theory’ is not a monolithic thing that you either accept carte blanche or reject wholly. Neither is it included in your research to ‘provide the reader with adequate tools to understand…” . It’s there for you, to support your argument. As so many others in the thread point out, theory is both a framing device that supports and structures your research, from problem definition to methods to analysis, and a tool that gives you a springboard, against which to test or investigate your research question.

        So the ‘negative’ aspects of a theory i.e. where there is bad fit/contradiction etc with your own research problem (e.g. how you define it or how you analyse your findings) are as significant to the research and argument as a ‘positive’ aspect. You are not simply deconstructing or sawing apart and leaving parts strewn around the shop floor. Nor are you hoping the reader, by which I mean your examiners, will put pieces together for themselves. [thesisconfused – You’re definitely onto this element of theory in the comment you make about tools and fit!]. Explicitly understanding and articulating how, why and where theories fit or don’t is a vital part of constructing your argument and can be very interesting in the context of data analysis. Theory is glue – you use it to strengthen the argument (hey, it’s Friday and the metaphors are waiting for a glass of wine…).

        Theory also helps to make explicit how and from where your own knowledge/methods/analysis derive. They don’t fall from the sky. They are not immanent. They are constructed and construct reality. By playing your work against ‘theory’ you help to bolster your argument/s, and support your definition of the problem, the research question, your methods, findings and analysis and so on. Theory is also part, though not all, of your job to contextualize the research into a larger academic conversation.

        I also think it’s helpful to think of ‘theory’ as a living process that is woven into the entire thesis. You don’t just slap your research onto a monolithic idea at the outset and that’s it. Instead, I think you start with something more fine-grained that helps you make explicit your own assumptions (theory can derive from multiple sources, especially in interdisciplinary work). You then continue to modify and refine your response to the body of theory as you go, especially as you move more deeply into analysing the research findings. Perhaps you discover that there are more holes, or more fit, than you originally believed. (It’s not so much the testing of a hypothesis as the evolution of your research problem). If you’re doing a thesis in a discipline with space for reflective self-analysis, this can be an interesting component of your discussion.

        This is already long but thanks! I just Googled ‘help i have thesis anxiety’ and this is what I got! I’m doing this very thing in my own thesis right now, weaving the theory back into the work to support my key findings and design recommendations. Good luck Bob and everyone.

  5. Alicia says:

    Great post – I am midway through my PhD and this is something I’ve struggled with since day one. I think i might secretly be looking for the theory of life, the universe, and everything! Will definitely check out those refs

  6. Jo LuckJo Luck says:

    Hi Inger, Great post. Relevant and very timely for me as I am teaching a Research Methods class this term. Could you please provide the full reference for the 2 articles you refer too? The links you provided require an RMIT login.

    Thanks Jo

  7. Irene says:

    Thanks for this Inger. I’m getting near the end of my PhD and theory is one of the things I’m struggling with a bit (I have a Physics background and am doing Educational Research). Very timely references (got them through my library).

  8. Waiting says:

    When I started my Phd, I was constantly asked ‘which theory will you be using?’. I felt I had to find one, if only to have an answer to that question. I searched around, found one and wasted six months of my candidature trying to fit my data into it. The best advice given to me is that a theory is there for the benefit of your thesis, not vice versa.

  9. Paula says:

    Thanks for those articles, they are very helpful.

    When my supervisors were throwing around the ‘T’ word at the beginning of my PhD (Jan 2011), they recommended a good book: Theory Construction and Model-Building Skills by James Jaccard and Jacob Jacoby. It was helpful in breaking down what you needed to make your argument clear and valid. It might be a bit redundant at this stage for Bob, but if an early-PhD student is reading this message- go get it! (

    I also came across this article specifically written for marketing academics, yet I think the principles apply elsewhere: A Framework for Conceptual Contribution to Marketing by D.J MacInnis, Journal of Marketing, 2011, Vol.75, p. 136-154.

    Best of luck to Bob!

  10. Jolien says:

    Very helpful blog. I’ve downloaded both essays and will tell my fellow researchers about this blog. I’m glad to have read this at the starting point of my PhD research! Thank you very much for sharing this.

  11. Vicky says:

    Thank you for this great post, I am doing educational research for an EdD and have included a chapter which critiques theory in terms of its value and it’s relation to grounded theory. I found an article by Maggie MacLure (2010) The offence of theory Journal of Education Policy vol 25, No 2. P277-286 rey useful. I like her proposal that theory is useful to stop the “reproduction” of banality. She discusses the awkwardness of theory and how it stutters practice and makes us think about what we do. An article by Thomas (1997) What’s the use of theory? Harvard Educational Review vol 67 no 1. P75- 104 this is also thought provoking.. Maybe not for Bob but anyone else earlier in their journey might what to grapple with this, I still am!

  12. Juna Tan says:

    Thanks very much. My colleagues and I found it immensely helpful. I forwarded your twit on this to my colleagues this morningbefore I even read your post as it sounded so interesting. A few of them read it and came back with wonderful reviews! Thanks again for the references too!

  13. Francine Morris says:

    I think that was a great post and I’ll be reading both papers. What surprises me however, is how far Bob was allowed to travel on his PhD journey without this ‘lack of theory’ being pointed out by his supervisory team. Surely this is fundamental to his knowledge contribution? I realise it’s good to work this out yourself from journal articles etc. but I do think the supervisory team should step in if not.

  14. Liam Bell says:

    Very interesting post, thank you. I’m just completing my PhD thesis (in Creative Writing) and finding that, more and more, I’m cutting out the theory because it’s too abstract and acts as that ‘smoke screen’ — i.e. stating that this technique is postmodernist rather than demonstrating how it actually works. However, it was pointed out to me that the theory (even if not directly referenced) will always be there in the background, informing my thinking and (crucially) that I could explain how it pertains to my work if asked in the Viva.

    It strikes me that this is the issue for Bob. He has the knowledge and the ‘results’ of his primary research, but maybe not the context that theory provides. Very frustrating, I’d imagine!

    • ingermewburn says:

      I agree – that’s a good analysis of Bob’s problem you’ve put forward there. Thanks

      It’s hard to do a data analysis of this type without some ‘background hum’ of theory … It will inform what you pay attention to; help you determine ‘signal’ from ‘noise’. He may find he needs to go back to the data again and perform different analysis. I hope not, but it’s a distinct possibility.

  15. Ben says:

    I am a historian, so my relationship to theory is a bit different to other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Maybe. Theory can help to explain certain historical phenomena, but in my experience it can also lead researchers into overreliance on abstract metanarratives. Consequently, some evidence becomes marginalised or ignored for the greater good of the chosen theory. Historical writing then becomes a process of simply ‘proving’ that this or that sociologist was right about something. My own preference is to use theory as an entry point or heuristic device that helps to frame or direct a question about some aspect of our past. In the end, most good historians realise that theory is invariably tested and often challenged by the evidence we find. I suppose my point is that theory can become an end in itself for some researchers who are enticed by the prospect of producing research that is ‘backed up’ by a rockstar European theorist. I would tell Bob to review the relevant theoretical literature and ask himself whether his completed research confirms, contradicts, or simply nuances the accepted theories.

  16. Chris says:

    Great post and timely topic. As a PhD student in Education who is wrapping up my first year, I have been struggling with the issue of theory. One of the most frustrating things I have found is the lack of consistency with the terms used in academia. So when we are talking about theory, are we discussing our paradigm/worldview (philosophical based theory) or our theoretical framework that guides our research process? As I move forward in my research design, I will be sure to discuss both as it relates to my topic!

    Several resources that I have found to be beneficial in explaining theory are:

    Leonard, D. C. (2002). Learning theories, A to Z. Westport, Conn.: Oryx Press.

    Merriam, S. (2009). Qualitative research: A guide to design and implementation (Second.). Jossey-Bass Publishers.

    Creswell, J. (2007). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.

  17. Lana says:

    Great post and how lovely to see people’s recommendations. Inger, I am using what I would call feminist theory, but now I am wondering if I am mixing a movement and a theory! But patriarchy theory seems too narrow. I’d love a response if you have a chance?

    • Jo VanEvery says:

      The term “feminist theory” does get used. In fact, there are many feminist theories, patriarchy being one of them. There have been numerous attempts to taxonomies those theories, which some find helpful (but I have found can also lead into misrepresentations. See Katie King Travels in Feminist Theory for an argument about these taxonomies.) in general as you progress you will need to be clearer about which specific feminist theory you are using

  18. berlinickerin says:

    Coming from a background of German literary studies there was method but not much theory during my ma. Reading and discussing my way through theory in a very, very interdisziplinary graduate programme now, I was kind of on the fence. Because there seemed to be those who started with a rigid theory and then fit in their data, and those who happily ignored theory. In the end I also decided that I needed theory as that tool box, so my readers will understand where I want to go and what the heck I am talking about. To that end I ended up creating Frankenstein’s monster by combining quite a few theories of my field/s. We’ll see what my supervisors say. ;D

  19. Andrew Charles says:

    To take a stab at answering your question: The kinds of theory scientists produce fit into both the ‘covering law’ and the ‘narrative’ categories of di Maggio’s framework (seems to me that ‘enlightenment’ is just a special case of a narrative that is really neat). Let me use ocean processes as an example. On the one hand you have a set of physical ‘laws’ governing the flow of matter and energy. Built on top of these laws are narratives that describe how processes like El Nino work.

  20. Maree Kimberley says:

    Thanks so much for this post! I live in fear of the dreaded question – who are your theorists? – because I don’t know, and I don’t know because (like Bob) I don’t “get” theory. This has given me a great starting point that will hopefully put me on the right track.

    • jovanevery1 says:

      If it helpsi cold not answer this question until I was almost done. as Inger points out, theory helps you make meaning from the data. It is crucial to interpretation (whether you make that explicit or not). As such, sometimes you don’t quite know what theory you are going to prioritize until you have a lot of data and analysis. Of course you read things and those theories influence our hypotheses (whether you call them that or not) but you may not really firm it up until you are ready to write a conclusion. Then you go back and revise the early chapters to match. The linear narrative of the final product is NOT the order in which things are done/decided.

  21. Melanie Reaves says:

    I haven’t had time to read all the posts so I apologize if this repeats what anyone else has said. I agree with PleagleTrainer (especially the book recommendations) as it sounds to me like Bob has taken a grounded theory approach in which you build theory from the data and then conduct a thorough review of literature within the field to compare where the new theory is situated. It’s not that the researcher goes into the study completely blind (I guarantee you Bob had a theory even if he didn’t know the name of it). However, you stay open as you analyze the data to see what it is saying and then theorize a framework. Not that Wikipedia is always the most reliable but it does give a basic overview of this approach that might be a good starting place:

  22. jovanevery1 says:

    Great post Inger. One important point is that for a PhD you MUST articulate that theory at some point even if a you can proceed quite well with it humming in the background, as the comment immediately preceding mine points out. This is one of the hoops you need to jump through. Trying to get it out of the way before you do your analysis might not be appropriate though. Even though the theory chapter comes near the beginning of the thesis doesn’t mean you write it before you collect data and do the analysis.

  23. Amanda says:

    Thank you for this post. It is incredibly timely for me! I’ve been struggling to write my theory chapter and had no idea where to start. These references are a great starting point. I think you make a good point that there are really no hard and fast rules about this but more of a conversation. That makes me feel a bit better about not knowing the “way” it should be done.

  24. John Postill says:

    A very interesting blog post and set of comments, many thanks Inger et al. What I find missing in the conversation so far is the notion of *theoretical concepts* (in the plural).

    Researchers working across the social sciences and humanities don’t only work with theories, but also with a conceptual vocabulary of varied origin that we apply to a given research question or set of empirical materials. For example, as a sociocultural anthropologist, when I theorised my research findings on internet activism in suburban Kuala Lumpur following fieldwork there, I borrowed concepts from different theories (e.g. Bourdieu’s field theory, Turner’s social drama theory, Giddens’ structuration theory, etc.) as well as fashioning one or two concepts of my own to help shed light on my data – i.e. to come up with a theory of local internet activism that explained my findings.

    Here’s the rub: had I gone into the field with ‘a theory’ and sought to apply it to the data, I would have done violence to my variegated set of findings. So in typical anthropological mode, I opted for a post-fieldwork theorising exercise that drew from a diverse but compatible (or so I hoped!) set of concepts.

    I like to think of it a ground-up, creative process of selection in which you try out different concepts until you end up with a set of concepts that will work for the particular problem or data at hand. Rather like building a wall in the country with oddly shaped stones.

    John Postill, RMIT Melbourne

  25. lovefortified says:

    This is a timely post for me as well. I have been struggling doing an interdisciplinary MEd. on transgender health barriers, education, and activism. Two main challenges: I have been in the writing process for years and out of classes (i.e. disconnected from theory) and also, I have not really found theory to be useful. It has functioned like Charlie Brown’s teacher “wanh wanh wanh” – no real meaning or utility. I think this is partly because I am an activist. I feel like it is more important to tell you statistics of how many people experience barriers and statistically what barriers they face and provide narrative accounts of people talking about how.barriers impact them. I can reflect upon these aspects and surmise recommendations for policy and implore people to act. But if I am asked to expound on my theorists etc. it is like my brain just doesn’t compute it. Not sure how I fix that.

    • mac says:

      Perhaps it is more useful to think of theory less in terms of ‘having theorists’ than as theory as both a tool and another step in your critical evaluation of the problem. First off, why is existing theory NOT useful? What models of (healthcare/education) create barriers? Or, what models of gender create barriers in healthcare? Or, how is education framed within healthcare delivery? etc etc This is part of your research and should relate directly to the specific question you ask. Use that question as your guidepost to the theory – you can leave the extras for the next degree.

      Consider asking yourself: Which theory fails? Why? Who gets left out? How are you going to remedy this within a specific issue (health/education/barriers)? Then, weave this into your argument, to move beyond ‘feeling’ an alternative approach is important. In my experience, using your own position as an activist is a valid approach, depending on how you situate this and provided you handle this correctly in your methodology. In being an activist, you too have ‘a theory’ about a reality/problem. Make this explicit and I’ll bet much will follow. Ask yourself, what are your assumptions? Why do you believe what you do? Why not believe? What evidence do you have that you are correct? Where do you draw this conclusion from? What other professional or academic research supports your approach? There is theory embedded in your own stance as activist, which in this kind of research may feel more personal but I think we all bring our stuff to bear on our work.

      I can see that you would apply ‘theory’ in a few ways to this kind of research: 1. framing your problem (how you’ve defined the research question, how you’ve contextualized it), 2. why you’ve picked which statistics you’ve picked and why/how you’re using them, 3. why narrative accounts are necessary and what elements of those accounts you’re using and why, 4. why you are using that data to argue for your recs. In this way, there is some methodology in this latter part, but this is theory too.

      • lovefortified says:

        Much appreciated on the response. I think another part of the issue is a feeling that my theory has to be tidy, like one or two theorists max, when in reality my thinking about the problem comes heavily from multiple traditions. All good questions you’ve posed. Lots to think about.


  26. Anonymous says:

    My question is: how should one apply theory POST data collection. In Bobs case his thesis was near complete. How would a person add theory at this stage?

  27. Julie Currie says:

    It seems that sutton and shaw are highlighting the importance of answering “but why?” (Just from this post, I haven’t read the papers yet) which is exactly what I was telling my second yr lab students (physics) was missing from their reports. I might just have to tell them to read this post!

  28. S. P. Kayongo says:

    Hi Inger, I am just mesmerized by how powerful sharing can be! Look at me for example, benefiting from your blog and the comments it generated in its more than five years of existence! I cannot say my theory-phobia has completely been cured but I sure am better than I were before interfacing with this page.
    Thanks a lot!

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