social theory

For the past few months I have been working with academic and student researcher colleagues on a project to produce an online resource about social theory. It has raised design questions but the most interesting aspect of the exercise has been talking to academic colleagues (again academics and research students) about the role of theory in their work. Theory as a concept has always troubled me but through the project I could see how widely this ‘trouble’ was shared, particularly among new researchers. Having someone ask about  theory puts many of us on the defensive. It can easily lead to a guessing game (what is the questioner thinking when he / she uses the word theory?) or game playing (they are going to catch me out as I have not read X, or read but misinterpreted X, or not read Y who refutes X). Further, theory is never going to be straightforward as it gathers together many different assumptions about epistemology, methodology and indeed the purpose of doing social research. The same word, theory, is used to describe anything from cause and effect associations; models of economic behaviour; ethnographic description of social phenomena; justice in hypothetical situations and so on [1].

A second problem with theory is that theorisation, especially inductive theorisation, seems so vague. Nearly everyone we spoke to described experiencing insights (for some best described as ‘aha’ moments) when ‘things fell into place’, for example when several cases of similar behaviour could be grouped under a larger concept or when the relationship between two kinds of actions became clear. However these leaps of the imagination are rarely articulated by academics themselves or indeed by those writing about research methods.  This leaves the new researcher knowing that they have something very important to carry out but little in the way of advice on how to do it. So is there anything that might help in addressing the difficulties that theory seems to raise?

I think there are some core associations about theory that can be articulated [2]. First, theory points to an attempt to abstract something from the data (a model, a rich description or conceptual category) which allows for understanding phenomena in more generalizable or at least more relatable ways. Without theory you are reporting on what is happening in a local context, theorising allows you to see the potential general significance.  People we interviewed  in our project further spoke about their attention to vocabulary when theorising, finding ways to articulate ideas using a very precise and often abstract language.  They were also aware how this language worked within a theoretical tradition, perhaps a discipline tradition but equally a cross disciplinary one.

Second, theory for our interviewees was further concerned with explanation. This does not necessarily mean cause and effect explanation, explanation could as easily be focused on the actions and consequences of actions. Even if we have competing definitions of theory, the task, as our interviewees saw it, was to locate the tradition of theory in which one’s work sits. This is not an ‘anything goes’ approach but rather a requirement to argue for the value and the shortcoming of a tradition.

Third, it is possible to celebrate rather than run away from the idea of subjectivity in the process of theorisation. Social research might be as much art as science but it is a special kind of artistry based upon an intense, the only word I can use I am afraid is, engagement with both literature and data [3] . In my experience it is striking that natural scientists and mathematicians, or a least those who have been interested in reflecting on the process of research in these fields, are not only willing but enthusiastically embrace intuition and indeed the aesthetics of theorisation. As famously expressed by Polanyi [3]

The affirmation of a great scientific theory is in part an expression of delight. The theory has an inarticulate component acclaiming its beauty, and this is essential to the belief that the theory is true. No animal can appreciate the intellectual beauties of science.

I am not sure we would talk about theorisation in the same way in social research, but we could. Perhaps scientists feel more willing to romanticise theory as the popular conception (whether right or wrong) is that their work concerns hard facts and the data they are working with have an objective quality. In contrast in social research the data will always be questioned on ground of reliability, validity or whatever; to admit to subjectivity in theorisation just seems to be one more step in a shaky process.

Through the project we have a better idea about supporting theory but there is still much more to do.

[1] see from the student point of view

Kiley, M. (2015) ‘I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about’: PhD candidates and theory, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 52:1, 52-63.

[2] See several different associations made with theory in Krauze, M. (2016) The meanings of theorizing, The British Journal of Sociology, 67 :  1, 23-29.

[3] Not surprisingly C Wright Mills work on the sociological imagination is offered repeatedly as an example of doing theory, as more recently does Umberto Eco on ‘how to write a thesis’. Good as these contributions are they, perhaps the recurring references to both illustrate the very restricted range of other reported experiences.

[4] Polanyi, M. (1983) Personal Knowledge. Toward A Post-Critical Philosophy, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 133-135.


How to write a thesis

In writing about action research I once borrowed Richard Winter’s metaphor of ‘researcher as detective’ [1]. I should say the parallel for me is with the television detective made familiar to us recently in the UK through Swedish detective series such as the Bridge, the Killing and Wallender. It is the obsession of the TV detective which I think researchers can identify with and the sense that those conducting any investigation should be prepared to follow the trail wherever it leads. Detectives also tend to be socially inept (surely a parallel to academics) but at least in solving the crime they do seem to get some insight into themselves, and this gives them hope for something better or at least the basis for an accommodation with their flaws. The metaphor of research as detective work can be extended, for it is through careful collection of, and attention to, the data that one can reach objective conclusions. Of course not all mysteries, even in thrillers, can be solved but if we recognise that we lack the ability or the data to ‘solve the case’, that too is an objective outcome. Even if the process of investigation on TV (as it is in real life) is frequently flawed – detectives miss what is obvious through their subjectivity and individual failings and they encounter deliberate attempts to subvert their work and may even plant evidence themselves – the point is that we can see the flaws and compare them to the exercise of proper judgment. There is no such thing as objective truth but there is a way of resolving problems based on rational judgment rather than hunch, prejudice and falsification. We know the difference when we see it.

I was thinking of this metaphor of research as detective work in relation to a recent book on doing research, or at least an old book that has been reissued, and in translation, by Umberto Eco [2]. I found the book intriguing as although Eco is well known in academic circles for his work on semiotics – often highly theoretical work – he is better known to the wider public as the author of the novel The Name of the Rose [3], which features an attempt to solve a murder mystery (and later mysteries) in fourteenth century Italy. The plot revolves around the attempts of William, a Franciscan friar, to get to the bottom of goings on in a particular monastery and the ways in which he is thrown off course by false trails and red herrings. Given this rather labyrinthian approach to getting at truth what might Eco make of the process of academic research?

What is surprising about Eco’s book is that he offers a fairly conservative view of the research, stressing quite traditional notions of reliability and rigour. He has no truck with the idea of the thesis as a literary work (to summarise a thesis is written in a ‘metalanguage’, if you want to write a poem write a poem, if you want to write a commentary on poetry, write a thesis). The process is described above all as a painstaking one and this picture is intensified as Eco was writing in a pre Internet age so that the researcher is expected to transcribe relevant passages from the literature (rather than cut and paste), manually retype successive versions of the thesis and indeed expend much energy in tracking down documentary data in situ rather than search over the Internet [4]. The book is a reminder of how just far technology has changed the nature of academic study and while never a techno enthusiast myself it left me quite enthusiastic about the consequences of technology for research.

Eco is interested in literature and the painstaking review of literature. Key to the process are index cards with careful notes, including notes on relevance and small transcriptions, with colour coding to link entries in terms of their functions in the final dissertation or report. I think this is very helpful advice as many researchers are simply too cavalier when dealing with what they have read, preferring impressionistic reading to careful analysis. Indeed like others I find it increasingly useful to think about literature as data and use similar techniques of ‘data reduction’ and thematic organisations as I would for interview or other data I am collecting. Engaging with literature is hard mental work and very time consuming as Eco makes clear. In passing here, Eco is very good on photocopying (today he would be talking about downloading) and the way that this can give you the impression that you are ‘possessing’ the text, even if you do not read it. As researchers we always needs to think what is the meaning of this text for our research question. Reading requires discrimination, or picking out what is relevant, for, as Eco says, you might underline certain ideas but if you underline everything this is equivalent to not underlining anything at all. Eco is also severe about relying on secondary sources and wants us to access works in the original which means in their original language where this is possible – at least we should give it a try.

Eco is strict on standards of scholarship. He gives a very good example of how a ‘scientific’ study of radio stations differs from an impressionistic ‘survey’. It is important to be clear about the object of the research, for example asking whether you are looking at Japanese Zen philosophy or, say, the roles of Japanese Zen philosophy in countercultural movements in USA. This seems obvious but is a really important point and I often see education researchers confused as to whether they are, say, studying the impact of technology on learning or interpretations of the impact of technology. These are not the same thing. He is truly lyrical about referencing in a way that few of us are – perhaps in part because today we know how easy it is to locate even an inexact or incomplete reference using a search engine. You get the impression he enjoys the process of research for its own sake. He loves libraries and here [p57] is a nice bit too about librarians (excuse the gendered language):

You must consider that the librarian (if not overworked or neurotic) is happy when he can demonstrate two things: the quality of his memory and erudition and the richness of is library, especially if it is small. The more isolated and disregarded the library the more the librarian is consumed with sorrow for its underestimation. The person who asks for help makes the librarian happy.

Of course the reason why people will read Eco’s ‘How to Write a Thesis’ is that he has an authority as an academic which rubs off in the text. When he says keep careful records you know he is talking from experience rather than making a hypothetical suggestion; he is passing on the wisdom of practice. Sometimes this pays rich dividends. For example he talks first hand of tricks of the memory in a way that would not be covered in most research methods books. Telling a sceptical reviewer (a certain Sr Placido) that he could remember the exact location of a quote he had used in his own thesis, Eco recalls [pxxv] that

I find it (the book), open it once again with a certain trepidation, look for the equally feted page, which I find with its beautiful exclamation point in the margin. I show the page to Placido and then I read him the excerpt that has helped me so much. I read it, I read it again and I am astonished. The Abbot Vallet had never formulated the idea that I attributed to him; that is to say he never made the connection that seemed so brilliant to me, a connection between the theory of judgements on the theory of beauty.

Vallet wrote something else. Stimulated in some mysterious way by what he was saying. I made the connection myself and, and as I identified the idea with the text I was underlining, I attributed it Vallet. And for more than twenty years I had been grateful to the old abbot for something he had never given me. I had produced the magic key on my own.

Eco returns to this later, and not surprisingly he tells the story of the Abbott Vallet very well.

In spite of his warnings to the contrary Eco has the occasional rhetorical flourish. For example I was delighted to see how you might criticise a text for being, in presentation rather than viewpoint, petty bourgeois (though sadly a better translation here would probably be ‘twee’). I would have liked more of Eco’s own practice and I would also have liked him to have a more open attitude to experimental ideas about the writing and presentation of work. From a different research tradition I invariably recommend those wanting to start writing a thesis to find a problem or issue that really bothers them, one that they must find the answer to, and concerning something they want to try to change it or show how it could be changed. There is quite a lot too in Eco about the Italian context both in higher education and the political climate of the day. I found this interesting as by coincidence I was living for a while in Italy about the time the original book was published, but otherwise I might have been put off. Some will focus too on Eco’s humanities background, and consider it has nothing to do with empirical social research and miss the interdisciplinary implications. But the overriding message of the book is that research takes time, a lot of time, and persistence and I do not think this always comes over in manuals for doing social research or at least fails to comes across with the same authority. I take it as an argument for slow research which remains relevant even if we live in a ‘fast’ age.

[1] Winter R. (1989) Learning From Experience: Principles and Practice in Action-Research, London: The Falmer Press,.

[2] Eco U. (2015) How to Write a Thesis, MA: MIT Press.

[3] Eco U. (1983) The Name of the Rose, California, USA: Harcourt.

[4] In one example Eco says that to study James Joyce you might have to visit the archive in the University of Buffalo in New York. To my surprise this is still true – you cannot access the James Joyce collection over the internet.