becoming friends with theory

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I’m currently reading some theory that I’ve not read before. It’s in a field associated with mine, but the two areas are rarely brought together. I’m reading because I am wondering whether there is something in this new theoretical resource that might be helpful to my work. And this is how writing with theory usually starts. With reading.

Some theory reading is done early in the PhD. In some disciplines and for some types of research, a theoretical framework is developed as part of the proposal. And some doctoral studies are all about theoretical development and so all of the reading done early on, and later, is theory.

But when you start reading new theory, as I am doing now, it is often hard work. It’s hard for three key reasons.

  • Connection

As everything is new, you have nothing much to hang the theory onto. You have to find ways to connect the new theory with something  – empirical or theoretical – that you already know. It is this connection that will help you make sense of the new line of thinking.

The benefit of finding a connection with ‘your own stuff’ underpins the advice often given to PhDers –  first look at some papers in your field which use the theory, then go to the theoretical texts themselves. Or PhDers are advised to get one of those “Big Theorist for Dummies” books which make the connections for you, as well as translating key ideas into more accessible terms.

This is good advice, but there is a caveat. When you read other people’s versions of the theory you are interested in, you are reading their interpretations. They make connections with their stuff, not yours. So their interpretations may seem to range from very helpful to highly idiosyncratic to way-off-piste. Some of them will be clearly relevant, and some not so much. Don’t give up if the connection is not immediately obvious – just keep looking until you find the papers that chime for you.

And when you do go to the actual source – the primary theoretical writings – it is good to use your own interpretations of the material you read first and reflect back on the ways that the theory has been used by others. Your evaluation of their approach may lead to you taking a different tack – and this will then be one of your contributions.

  •  New language and ideas

Any theory that is new to you is bound to introduce new terms that you haven’t heard before. The new terminology is precisely the reason you are reading the theory – each term encapsulates a particular mesh of concepts/ideas. Some of the new language may even be drawn from other theories, so you are actually encountering not one new theory, but quite possibly a whole new family tree of thinking/theorising.

New ideas take time to absorb. You can’t bring a complex theory into your way of thinking and talking straight away. You have to live with it. Become familiar. While you are doing this, you might have to develop a bit of a glossary that you can keep handy while you are reading, so that you don’t get tripped up by a term and idea you haven’t yet conquered.

And that newness means that some of the language and ideas might feel a bit peculiar or pretentious at first. I am sure many of us have had the experience of saying particular words aloud for the first time and feeling a bit silly – particularly if we aren’t sure how they are pronounced.

But familiarity and slowness are the keys here. Taking the time necessary to work through the new material pays off.

And writing, in your own words, what you think the theory means, and then what it means for your work, can be a very helpful step in the process of becoming friends with theory.

  • Difficulty

It is often hard at the outset to pick the difference between theoretical texts that are well written but difficult to read because they are new to you, and theoretical texts that are difficult because they are badly written.

It is very easy to dismiss theoretical writing as obscure, obtuse jargon, rather than as text which has precise terms for particular ideas. It is equally easy to dismiss a text which requires you to read slowly as something deliberately dense. It is also easy to dismiss work in translation as being badly written when in reality it comes from a different tradition of academic writing than the one you are used to.

Unfortunately, the reality is that there is theoretical writing out there which is obtuse and hard to follow. So poorly written, yes. Sometimes. But equally, some of it isn’t. Good theoretical writing doesn’t stay hard to grasp. The difficulty in good theoretical writing arises from its complexity and novelty. The more you read it, and use it, and make it your own, the more comfortable the reading becomes.

And do remember that encountering new theory isn’t confined to the PhD. Dealing with connection, newness and difficulty is exactly what I’m doing now in my new reading. Wondering how it’s relevant, and how to write with the new stuff is also on my mind. This is the ongoing work of scholarship. Theory is us.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, reading, theory and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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