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Lockdown in Theory

As I write this piece, today is the 16th day since the lock down in the United Kingdom was announced due to the coronavirus pandemic during 2020. Yesterday I began to read Biesta’s (2020) Educational Research: An unorthodox introduction. I was struck and challenged by the preliminary contents of his first chapter as it made me realise that I may have been locked down in theory, even though, admittedly, like many students and researchers I have often questioned the need for a theory. In fact, one of my articles on madrasah education, had been rejected as it ‘lacked a theoretical perspective’. Only last month, did my colleague and I remind our doctorate student to use theory in their work by saying something along the lines of ‘you’ve got to have a theory’. Thus, comes into existence the perpetuation and introduction of the question of theory into the life and work of researchers.

Imran Mogra
Senior Lecturer in Religious Education and Professional Studies

Posted 07 May 2020

Person sitting and thinking

The purpose of this piece is to encourage you to reflect on the source/s of your theory and to critique the need to position yourself, as a researcher and your research, in a theoretical framework. You will also become aware of the role of theory in research.

Does theory help and hinder?

  • The purpose of a theory is to allow researchers to make sense of the data that they have collected. Is a theory always necessary to make sense of data?
  • Theory can be introduced at the beginning to provide researchers with meaningful ‘frames’ for their research, in the middle to make sense of the data or at end when the questions arise about what the meaning of everything constructed actually is.
  • There are many theories, which pauses challenges and also makes it easy to get lost or even confused. With the proliferation of theories, the question here is not which theory one should use to inform one’s research but also about what one expects theory will ‘do’ in one’s research.
  • Doctoral students and some experienced researchers are often faced with another problem. Biesta, with reference to his previous work, mentions the tendency to either significantly undertheorise or significantly overtheorise one’s research. This raises the question about the right balance when engaging with theory in educational research.  

Thus, theory is indispensable and an inevitable part of research. In view of the above and other considerations, Biesta advocates a pragmatic approach. Briefly, this means that any search for answers should always begin with posing a question ‘What is the problem?’

'Theoretical Fashions' 

One of the advantages of approaching theory in this manner is that it keeps the researcher in control of the research process and does not let it be directed by the latest theoretical ‘fashions’. Profoundly, he suggests that being pragmatic is also helpful in keeping away from ‘confessional’ forms of engagement with a particular theory.

His pragmatic approach is distinguished from the confessional approach to the role of theory. In the latter, a researcher first searches and signs up to a particular theory or theoretical ‘school’ in order to begin the research. This kind of positioning often leads to a kind of confession which produces statements like ‘I am qualitative research’ or ‘I am a post-structural feminist’. Granted that researchers have to start from somewhere and to explain their position, however, according to Biesta, this should not come at a cost of literally taking the position in a confessional way.

He reasons that theories are not positions to occupy, rather they can be understood as tools to work with which allow us to do certain things. Therefore, researchers ought to first ask about the problem which needs addressing, only then should they ask which tool might be useful for addressing the problem.

Objectifying a Theory 

The second issue is that of objectifying a theory. This occurs when one thinks of a theory as being something that a researcher has to confess to. Biesta reminds readers that many theories were developed to address very particular problems. Disconnecting theories from the context in which they were developed and in which they were meaningful runs the risk of making them into a ‘thing’ rather than seeing them as the specific outcomes of very specific processes (p.9). He posits that the objectification of theory can be helpful in mapping out a particular field, however, to disconnect the ‘product’ from the ‘process’ hinders the intelligent use of theory. Therefore, it is important for researchers to understand the origin of their ‘tools’ (theory) to make intelligent use of them. Another danger of disconnecting a theory from it contexts of origin is that the theory might be given a status it never was looking for. There is also a risk of putting ourselves in a position in which we use theory-as-truth rather than as-a-specific-answer-to-a-specific-question (p.11).

Returning to the experience of being locked-down, the engagement with theory in a non-pragmatic way might also make researchers susceptible to theoretical fashions without being able to provide a justification for the particular theory used. This is a kind of locked-down-in-theory. At times, this becomes evident when researchers quickly take recourse to ‘post this and post that’ theories in simplistic ways.

So what does it mean to look pragmatically at theory?

Biesta would suggests that it requires researchers to first ask what a particular theory was developed for. In other words to locate its historical context. Then, the questions about theory in research should always be approached in a pragmatic way, that is, they should be connected to the question ‘What is the problem?’- or, to be more precise: ‘What is the question to which theory is supposed to provide the answer?’ (p.8).

It also means that as a researcher, one should have a clear rationale not only for using theory but also for using a particular theory; otherwise there is a risk of being locked-down within a confessional mind set and approach, often by locating oneself in the preferred theoretical construction of publishers or supervisors. Researchers should first ask what a particular theory is actually supposed to do in, and for their research (p.7).

In doing so, there is a need to be mindful of theory taking control of you and your research. Otherwise, to paraphrase Biesta, it would also indicate that the engagement with theory in our research is being undertaken in an intelligently lockdown manner.    

References: 

Biesta, G. (2020) Educational Research: An unorthodox introduction. London: Bloomsbury.