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Theory: a user guide

Slippery Fish: Theory, A User Guide.

Information and resources for theorising your research.

What is theory?

Repeatedly we find theory being evoked to cover a range of activities for example it might be used to cover cause and effect quantitative modelling as well as think description of social phenomena. Can you share with us:

  • What do you understand by theory?
  • How have you reached this understanding?
  • Are you aware of others sharing your stance?
  • Within this resource look in particular at what is theory? and at the examples within the interviews. Look to in the case studies too - if there is not yet an example that reflects your approach can you add one?

Theorising about methodology

This suggests a distinction between theory as an explanatory framework and theory of carrying out research. Perhaps the key issue here at the level of methodology is between inductive and deductive approaches but wider issues of ontology and epistemology are also raised. Can you share with us:

  • When does theory come into your methodology?
  • Do you find the terms deductive / inductive useful? Are you aware of aha moments in your research (see the interviews)?
  • Do you find it useful to compare social research to natural science in making sense of theorising?

Is theory and theorising important?

Theory may be described as inevitable (we cannot see the world without a theoretical lens) and / or valuable (without theory we don't have explanatory frameworks. However researchers are sometimes accused of being over theoretical for example obsessed with disciplinary concerns rather than social impact.

  • How does theory help you in your research?
  • Can you think of examples in which theory gives particularly valuable insight? (You might want to look here at the case studies in the book group for examples)
  • Can you think of theory (or perhaps theoretical approaches or orientations) that are overrated?
  • How should theory ‘work’ in practice based fields - you may want to look at ideas of academic and practice competence.

Theory and the discipline and Interdisciplinarity

Often theorists have a reflexive awareness of their discipline or field which helps them see how their ideas fit. Of course for some the discipline knowledge is skewed towards particular voices, the field is not value free. Some see value in cross disciplinary or interdisciplinary approaches:

  • Do you take seriously the idea of a disciplinary body of knowledge?
  • Do you strive to go beyond your discipline (see case studies) ? Why?

Theory and your thesis

Where does theory fit into your research? This is a very harsh question to ask if the questioner does not explain first what he or she thinks theory is. However at least it is a provocative one. So how would you answer it?

  • How does theory inform the way you carry out your research and the frameworks you use for making sense of your data?
  • How are concepts used in your work and do you make a theoretical contribution to conceptual understanding?

What do you need to do to be a good theorist?