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how we produced slippery fish

We discussed theory as a group and the difficulties and opportunities it presented to us. We interviewed other research degree students about their understanding of theory and reported back. We discussed the resources we had used in developing our ideas of social therory too and brainstormed what we thought the resource should contain. These were wirtten up as a guide for sterring the project and even though we changed track this guide remianded a constant. The guide considered

What ‘works’

  • Relatability and timeliness – needed to mesh theory with your data and the questions you are asking about your data
  • Being explicit that a theory provides a ‘lens’ not the truth of a situation, you need to know that the same data could be seen in a different way
  • Explanations that provides guidance but do not intimidate, at times theories fill right, they bring together the way you are looking at something, the 'aha' moments.
  • Models and framework can be theories but you need to defend them as ontologically /epistemologically valid
  • At its best theory can bring together a way of looking and explaining what you are seeing that builds on what others have done

Problems in theorising

  • Few articles on why theory does not work as opposed to why it does – writers think they have to sell theories rather than show uncertainty
  • The idea that there are multiple theories for the same events does not come over
  • Some literature is inaccessible and one difficulty is that some writers change views over time and some theories change over time - just when you think you have got it you lose it
  • the words people use to describe their theories have special meanings, language is always tracking back to shared meanings in ways you do not understand
  • theories are contested in unhelpful ways (so called ‘wars’) - in some fields this is very pronounced
  • people often sign up to the whole package in theory and / or express too much deference,


  • There was a lot out of material already online eg blogs on doing research, papers; ESRC funded research methodology project, examples of excellent articles which did the signposting well, key concepts books, all of which we could ‘curate’.
  • We could benefit from explanations as to how theories have changed over time and the key reasons they have done so; plus reading strategies and key words
  • We could provide stories as to how theories did fit and why such a theory emerged in this context and in this bit of the research
  • We have an opportunity to provoke conversation about theory
  • We can learn to be assertive in relation to theory; neither dismissive nor deferential; we can confidently talk about tensions and not pretend any of it is straightforward
  • There are ways of presenting theory that help us being overly didactic

We were later able to take these ideas and produce a more formal design brief, here. (Note this is a rough document with an early take on the project - it was not intended for wider publication).

Working iteratively

We always intended to work in an interative way but with deifnined actiivties and staging points. In fact we were much more flexible than we had intended for example we made a decision to work on the area of the resource which was less problematic first (the online texts) and to keep the other parts of the development in the background. We experimented with mockups of the resource which enabled us to change tack without being over committed to one line of action. For example we had come up with the metaphor of a journey by sea to describe our engagement with theory but this did not work consistently and we remodeled the sections, albeit the title Slippery Fish remained.