theory makes us feel stupid


This is the final post in my series on working with theory. It seemed appropriate to use something theoretical to round off:

This post goes back to previous talk about the emotions that surround theory work – and to the notion that you have to be kind to yourself when you are working with theory, particularly if it is new to you. That’s because reading and writing theory is probably going to be hard work. And you will most likely feel a range of theory-related emotions – unease, frustration, occasional elation perhaps.

I’ve been reading a bit of theory lately. Giorgio Agamben to be precise. He gets pretty close to describing my experiences of working with theory.

Agamben says:

The etymology of the word studium goes back to the st- or sp- root indicating a crash, the shock of impact. Studying and stupefying are in this sense akin: those who study are in the situation of people who have received a shock and are stupefied by what has struck them, unable to grasp it and at the same time powerless to leave hold. (64)

Agamben is very interested in this in-between state – knowing that one has been struck but not yet understanding what has happened.

I am sure that we can all think of a time when we have experienced this in-between state. Most of us have probably had an unexpected accident, and it has taken a moment or two to realise what has happened. Think of that moment when you have picked up something very hot. You feel the pain and remove your hand. There is usually a tiny gap in time between removing your hand and the realisation that you have burnt yourself. That’s the in-between.

And, Agamben says, the in-between gap can be lengthy when it has to do with study. There is often a sizeable in-between in between reading and understanding.  It’s possible in that in-between time to choose not to continue. To give up. This theory is just too hard and I’m just going to accept that I can’t get to grips with it. Blow this in-between state of not getting it. I’m out of it, now.

Well, that’s one response.

But Agamben suggests that those who study – that’s us folks – are driven by a desire to know. So, we keep going. We push through the in-between state of stupefaction. As Agamben puts it

But if on the one hand he (sic) is astonished and absorbed, if study is thus essentially a suffering and an undergoing, the messianic legacy it contains drives him (sic), on the other hand, incessantly towards closure. (64)

We want to get past the in-between and so we persist.

But study-produced in-between-ness doesn’t just happen once. By keeping on studying,  we keep on putting ourselves up to be shocked and stupefied, finding ourselves in the in-between of not-knowing and knowing. Agamben suggests the in-between state of stupefaction is characteristic of study per se. It continues. He writes

The scholar, that is, is always “stupid”. This festina lente, this shuttling between bewilderment and lucidity, discovery and loss, between agent and patient, is the rhythm of study. (64)

Oh yes. That’s how I feel a lot of the time. As much time spent in-between as time spent knowing.

Now Agamben has written a lot about study and I’m not going to repeat it here. But it’s helpful to know that he thinks that this in-between-ness is a Good Thing. We learn when we are prepared to put ourselves in the often uncomfortable state of stupidity, he says, when we allow ourselves to be struck by something new, when we are stupefied and wordless in the face of something we don’t expect to encounter.

Agamben describes this in-between-ness as a state of potential. An active state where it is always possible to know more than one does at present. And Agamben knows that this in-between and active state can cause all manner of emotions. He notes for instance

… the sadness of the scholar: nothing is bitterer than a long dwelling in potential. (65)

I’m guessing that most of us can relate to this feeling. If only, if only the meaning of this sentence, this paragraph would become clear.

However, Agamben isn’t all about gloom and the perpetual search for some kind of enlightened state of wisdom. He notes that the scholar can choose to abandon their messianic quest for all encompassing wisdom. They can simply BE in the process, BE in the incessant shuffling between potential and knowing, in the rhythm of study.

In other words, and bringing the conversation back to working with theory, you can decide not to expect that you will get on top of the theory easily and that you will know it all at the start even though you haven’t read it all yet.  You can simply choose to stay in the in-between. Be in the process of coming to an understanding. Abandon the will to know the lot all at once.

Agamben notes, encouragingly, that abandoning is the point where

… study shakes off the sadness that disfigured it, and returns to its truest nature: not work, but inspiration, the nourishment of the soul. (65)

Inspiration. Now that’s something to like. Stop worrying. Sink into the in-between and find the unexpected.

And being inspired is probably a pretty good thought for the holiday period, where perhaps it might be good to be in-between. To read. To be stupid. And just BE with whatever turns up. And maybe find some inspiration, just when you weren’t expecting it. When you’d given up and were just living with the words.

PS.  Oh yes, and for those people who have asked me for examples of how to write with theory and make it your own, how to work with quotations and explain them in your own words, see above for one of the multitudes of ways this can be done.

Photo by Holger Link on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, Giorgio Agamben, stupidity, theory | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

eight ways to write theory very badly


If you want to be the person who makes their reader sigh and eventually give up when they get to your theoretical ‘bit’, here’s some non-fail writing strategies. Do these and I guarantee your reader will be enervated and/or exasperated:

  1. Don’t explain any of the specific terms you use

Let your reader guess how it is that you understand any of the theoretical terminology you use. Assume that their interpretation will be the same as yours.

2.  Name drop

Make sure you reference truck loads of different theorists. Embroider your text with citations to the widest possible range of people. Don’t explore or use any of them in depth. Paying lip service to multiple theories shows you are widely read, you are up to date, on top of the latest ideas, right?

3. Use loads of secondary material

Assume that the papers that you’ve read about your chosen theorist have it all sewn up. These writers have read the original so why should you bother? It’s always going to be OK to quote the book about x, rather than go to x directly.

4.  Remix the theorist

 Assume that the reader – particularly if they are your thesis examiner and have been chosen for their expertise – has no familiarity with the material. Use loads of quotations interspersed with paraphrased sections and summaries of what the theorist writes. Throw in a few titles of their books and/or papers. Put in as many references and page numbers as you can. Don’t worry if the result is almost incomprehensible because it shows that you’ve read the stuff. Ventriloquism is what it’s about, right?

5. Be tough to read

Well, it’s theory. It’s got to be tough, right? And you had a hard time getting on top of it so why give your reader a break? So, write very long sentences which have lots of modifying clauses and phrases – and the occasional comment in between where another nuance is possible even  if not necesssary – and pack those nominalised multi-syllabled words in because the more the better because theory has to be nouny right? – or perhaps you might throw in the odd bracket or two (see what I’m doing here, bet you can hardly remember where I started). Make every sentence the same lengthy length so you produce a sleep-inducing monotony.

6. Don’t link the theory to your work

Assume that you need to show that you understand every possible interpretation of the theory. So write a long essay early on. Don’t tell the reader why and how you’re going to take a particular angle on the theory, don’t say which ideas are more important than others. The reader will work out what you think when you apply the theory to your data later on.

7. Write like the theorist you are using

Choose style over substance. Perhaps the reader will assume you have deep expertise of the theory you are using if you adopt the same syntax and vocabulary as your theorist. Don’t listen to those people who tell you that you generally need to get to the point where you can explain the theory in your own words before you work on authoring niceties.

And there you go.

Do these seven things in your writing and I guarantee that you will send your examiner or reviewer into a fit of extreme pique or a bout of protracted ennui.

But, I hear you say, there are supposed to be eight bad writing habits and there’s only seven here. Well yes, that’s true. So here’s the final one.

8.  Expect to get on top of writing the theory straight away

Assume that the first time you write with the theory is going to be the final time. Don’t use writing to help you get on top of the theory. Assume that if summary and paraphrase aren’t OK in the final writing, then they aren’t a good way to help you to get to grips with the material. Don’t try out several ways to write the theory in your own words. Don’t spend time thinking about where you just have to use a quotation because the author writes their key point way better than you can. And be very impatient with yourself. Despair quickly. Berate yourself for being hopeless at theory if it seems to go slowly. Attribute any uncertainty you have to some kind of (imposter) syndrome rather than understand your uncertainty is simply about learning.

But seriously. Please, if you find yourself using any of these eight strategies, do tell yourself…

Patter was just joshing about writing theory badly. She wasn’t really telling you to do any of these eight things. She really wants you to know and believe that writing with theory doesn’t have to be like wading through thick mud with lead-lined boots.

And. You can do it.

Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, nominalisation, primary source, reader, secondary source, syntax, theory | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

becoming friends with theory


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.

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what’s a framework? – as in, conceptual or theoretical framework


Whenever people talk about concepts or theory, they usually add on another word – framework. And ‘framework’ can be as confusing as the concept or theory word that goes before it. (Check this recent post for the difference between concept and theory.)

So what does this ‘framework’ actually mean?

It’s actually easiest to think about a frame, as we all know what one is. And then the work that the frame does.

So… Think of a house. A house usually has a frame, often built of wood or steel. This frame is a skeleton around which the rest of the house is built. The frame provides a basic structure – houses built using the same frame might vary a lot, but they still follow the same underpinning design and logics.

A house built around a frame has been pre-planned. The frame makes the plan solid. A planned house differs from a house where rooms are just added on higgledy-piggledy. That’s because the plan has a kind of logic about where things go – the bathroom here, the bedrooms there.

The layout has been designed with a particular kind of everyday life in mind. Thus, most houses – and their frames – support multiple zones of activity and there’s a pleasing flow from one area to another.

The house frame also provides stability. The frame stops the house wobbling about, keeps the roof in one piece.

Thinking about a house frame then prompts us to think about structure, stability, flow, zones of activity.

There are other kinds of frames too that are helpful to research thinking.

A picture frame is something that you put around the outside of something – the frame creates a border, differentiating what’s inside the frame from what’s outside. The frame gives the whole a finished appearance.

The picture frame has particular component parts – a rim, and a front and back cover. So the frame is a kind of solid casing which stops the contents moving about. It also allows the whole – picture and frame – to be hung, stored, stacked for instance – it completes the package.

Thinking about the picture frame also generates some helpful ideas – borders, solidity, parts which fit together, portability, wholeness.

These things – structure, stability, flow, zones of activity, borders, solidity, parts, portability, wholeness – are essentially what a conceptual or theoretical framework does for research and a thesis. A conceptual or theoretical framework provides:

  • a structure that is used to design a study, generate data and analyse it
  • borders which allow you to say what is included and what is not
  • a basis for connecting to other research, for example comparing the results generated by your framework with others
  • a linked set of parts, ideas which guide the writing and help to create the red thread of argument and
  • a potentially re-usable approach which can be duplicated with other topics and/or data.

A conceptual or theoretical framework is therefore, as you can see, a big component of what gives coherence and focus to a research project and the subsequent thesis/report/papers. It’s no wonder that supervisors are anxious that PhDers get one.

But.. there’s always a but… Different disciplines and different supervisors have different ideas about when you need to build your conceptual or theoretical framework. Different topics and different methodologies also lend themselves to different temporalities.

There are three common approaches to timing the framework, conceptual or theoretical. These are:

  1. the framework grows organically with the research – the benefit of this approach is that the framework is bespoke to the particular topic and data. One risk with this approach is that the research ends up being more like a higgledy-piggledy house that is retro-fitted with a framework that perhaps doesn’t quite work. Or that you end up with a framing which is clearly OK, but where you haven’t got quite the data you need to make it hang together and flow.
  2. you arrive at a framework somewhere in the middle of the project, when you have enough data to know what is needed but not so much that you are committed to the higgle and piggle. The benefit with this approach is that you have time to consider what might work best for your particular topic and you can make sure that you do generate the necessary data. The risks include generating at least some data which doesn’t fit and being distracted from the actual data you are generating by the continued pressure to arrive at a suitable framework.
  3. the conceptual or theoretical framework is developed at the outset of the project and is used to guide data generation as well as the subsequent analysis and writing. Two benefits of this approach are that you make sure that you have the kind of data that you need, and you have a very clear approach to analysis. A risk is that the early framing eliminates important information and becomes as much a set of blinkers as it does a support.

It is really important to consider these timing possibilities at the start of your research. If you are a doctoral researcher it’s good to talk early with your supervisor about these timing possibilities, with their attendant benefits and risks.

And do hang onto the fact that constructing a house frame or picture frame takes time and planning. A frame can’t be constructed in a flash. Regardless of when you do it, whether its made up from theory or concepts, you may have to have several goes before you get the right framing structure for your very specific work.

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Posted in academic writing, coherence, conceptual, flow, framework, theory | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

theory fright – part two


Theory is explanation. Last post I suggested that this understanding might help to reduce fear of theory. This week, another piece in the fright reduction puzzle.

Something else that might help reduce fear of theory is the understanding that not every piece of research uses theory. But all research, regardless of its aims and objectives and its discipline, works with key concepts. And key concepts have to hang together coherently. As a framework. A conceptual framework.

Let me give you an example.

Imagine you want to research, say, how to publish a journal article – oh, hang on that’s me, let me start again. Imagine I want to research how to publish a journal article. I would have to work with concepts. I might want to see academic publishing as an asynchronous conversation. That’s a concept I’d need to explain as it’s not the only way to understand publishing. But following that, I could see a journal article as a contribution to a conversation. That second idea is easier to grasp once you get the first one.

So now I am working with two concepts – academic publishing as conversation and the journal article as one contribution to it. These two complementary concepts make a very simple framework that I can use to design my research on academic publishing. And I can also use it to underpin some writing that I want to do on how to write a journal article.

Right, but what kind of research am I designing? Here’s the rub.

If my research is simply to look at how many contributions there have been to a particular academic conversation – let’s say I’m interested in papers that are written about open access publishing – then I probably don’t need anything other than the two linked concepts I’ve outlined. Or if want to look at what kind of empirical work has been done on open access publishing and what methods have been used, I still don’t necessarily need anything more than this initial conceptual framework.

But if I decide that I want to look at rejections in open access publishing then I could decide that I need to theorise the notion of ‘a conversation’, explaining who gets to speak and who doesn’t and why. I might then call on the theorisation of a ‘discourse community’. A discourse community has norms, conventions, border keeping practices and so on. Alternatively, if I decided to look at the economics of open access publishing then I might turn to political theory related to public and scholarly good compared to profit-making. Or, if I chose to look at how peer review might work differently in open access publishing, I could call on ethical theory in order to ground a conversation about new norms of academic writing-related behaviour.

So you see, while we all research with concepts and a conceptual framework, not all research question explicitly uses theory. Whether we use explanatory theory or not is in part related to the purpose of the research  – are we interested in ‘what works’ or ‘what is’ – or are we trying to understand why something is the way that it is?

I recently saw a really clear example of a turn to theory in order to understand something – it was in the journal Teaching in Higher Education. The author, Jon Nixon, begins his paper, ‘Becoming ourselves’( 2018)  by recounting a particular interaction which took place in an interview.

In the course of conducting the study I interviewed a number of teachers and students, but the comment of one teacher in particular has stayed with me over the years. ‘It’s not just that expectations need raising ’ argued this teacher,‘ It’s that our pupils need to see that they can achieve’. Then the interviewee added:‘ There’s some sort of subtle difference there I think.’ (p. 902)

Nixon goes on to say that he has ‘pondered’ for a long time on what that subtle difference might be. He writes that the teacher’s statement raises a ‘fundamental pedagogical question: how to translate aspiration into functioning capability?

I’m sure that Nixon’s question resonates with many of us. I’m sure Nixon is not the only one to ponder over teaching in under and postgraduate classrooms.

But then Nixon goes on to say…

I have found Martha C. Nussbaum’s work particularly helpful in thinking through –and working through –that question. Her specification of what she terms the ten ‘central capabilities’ has in the past provided me with a very helpful framework, not withstanding what some would see as its colonialist and/or universalist bias (criticisms that Nussbaum robustly counters). (See Nussbaum 2000, 78–80; 2011, 33–4). Hans-Georg Gadamer’s later work on ‘applied hermeneutics’ has also provided me with some hugely important insights into what he calls ‘the primacy of the question’ in the development of understanding both within the humanities and more generally. More recently I have come across Paul Gibbs’s (2017) work on happiness and contentment, which has helped me approach the question from some interestingly dierent angles. (p. 902-3)

The paper goes on with Nixon explaining his take on Gibbs which he then brings to the question of pedagogy, and students’ ambitions.

There are three things about Nixon’s introduction that are notable. Nixon

  • makes his need for theory very clear. He wants to understand something that he hasn’t been able to let go of. It’s nagged at him, so he turns to theory to help make sense of it. This is not theory for its own sake. This is calling on theory for a specific reason.
  • makes very explicit the thing that he needs to explain. The ‘problem’ that he wants to answer is expressed crisply, briefly, and in a way that makes sense to the reader (well it did to me and I hope to you too)
  • indicates that the theory he is going to use isn’t his only choice – he has considered others. He wants to use Gibb because, he suggests, it offers something new and interesting.

These three points are very important. It is very helpful for a reader to know why theory is being used and to what ends. It also helps if they are assured at the start that the writer is using theory as a resource to think with, and they have made a conscious choice about what the particular theory they have chosen will do.

Three things. Need, problem, a deliberate choice.

That’s a good lesson for all of us I think. Be clear about when and why to turn to theory.

Now, not everyone is as clear as Nixon about why they are working with theory. You and I can be forgiven for thinking that sometimes people work with theory for its own sake.

But usually the issue we have with theoretical texts comes because writing with theory is hard. And the complexity and difficulty of writing with theory might also be related to theory fright.

And hey – that’s my next post.  Another take on theory fright. Writing.

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Posted in academic writing, aims, explanation, research decisions, research question, theory | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

theory fright – part one

sam-rudkin-millichamp-619630-unsplash.jpgLots of doctoral researchers worry about the Th word, Theory. When said aloud, you can often hear the capital T. It must be important. Theory.

And perhaps because of the capital T, the question “What’s your theoretical framework?” can reduce doctoral researchers to a state of near panic.

Now, theory is a term which often gets mixed up with another scary word – concept. Sometimes people use them interchangeably. Or they bracket the two together in a way that suggests there is a difference – as in “What’s your conceptual or theoretical framework?” – but then don’t explain what the difference is.  Nor do they say whether it’s better to have a theoretical or a conceptual framework!

Doctoral researchers frequently worry that they don’t yet have what’s required – Theory and/or framework – or they worry that they don’t have a good enough grasp of the theory or framework they have. They are concerned that they will be found out, found wanting. Or they worry that they have made the wrong theoretical choice and someone will notice.

If you worry about Theory, strap yourself in now, because we’re going to talk about theory for the rest of this post. And the next one.

You see, the first thing in countering theory fright is to understand what a theory is.

A theory is just a way of explaining, of saying how things relate to each other, why they are the way that they are, and how they relate to other things.

Explaining, that’s not so terrifying. Most of us use theories all the time in our everyday lives as we make sense of the world. And we use concepts too. Let me take a pretty prosaic example – a seat belt.

As we all know, a seat belt is a couple of straps. They fasten around your body to stop you lurching forward when the car stops suddenly.  The term seat belt is a kind of shorthand; we can generally say seat belt to someone without having to explain what it is.

Now a seat belt is also a concept – it was something a designer dreamt up and was probably even initially called ‘a new concept’ in car safety.

But if you wanted to explain how a seat belt actually worked, you’d draw on some theory. You might say for example that your body keeps going forward even after the car has stopped. And you could make this statement more Theory-like by referring to something more general and abstract like, say, the work energy principle and conservation laws. These two theories draw on and link together multiple concepts – work, energy, power and conservation.

Here’s another example – textwork/identitywork. This term is something Barbara and I literally cobbled together to save us having to consistently explain one of our key ideas about academic writing. We used textwork/identitywork in our books as shorthand to stand for the idea that scholars form a scholarly ‘identity’ – who they are and what they stand for – through their writing. So textwork/identitywork is a concept.

But when we wanted to explain the concept, to say how and why it is that writing is a way of forming an identity, and how and why writing is framed and limited, then we had to turn to theory. More than one theory as it happens. We had to bring theories together in ways that made sense of our textwork/identitywork concept. We had to draw on theory about identity, and theory about text.

And if you were to go back through our books – and I’m not suggesting that you do – but you would see that, while we consistently use the idea of textwork/identitywork, we have different ways of theorising it. In fact we’ve used three different theories in three different books to explain the one concept.

Now, before you say that we were just indecisive, let me say in our defence that we used different theories to highlight different aspects of the concept textwork/identitywork. If we were talking to doctoral researchers about why academic writing was the way it was, doctoral researchers who weren’t familiar with social science, we often used ‘communities of practice’. The theory of communities of practice draws attention to what people do and who they are within discipline communities. Sometimes we used the idea of discourse to connect writers and writing with questions of subjectivity, power and knowledge. But if we wanted to emphasise the capacity of the writer to make decisions about their writing, we chose to talk about identity theory which focuses on the writer, text and audience. Depending on who we were talking to, and what we were trying to do, we drew on different theoretical resources.

Theory. Horses for courses.

And just to make things even more complicated, it’s important to recognise that not all theory is the same. Theories are of different orders, and they have different status.

Let’s go back to the seat belt.


Let’s say that the theory that explained the seatbelt was the work energy principle; this is a ‘little’ theory which is part of a much bigger theoretical framework. This ‘little’ theory is generally agreed by the scholarly scientific community as the best explanation possible for particular, observable phenomena – bodies continuing forward after the car stops.

And it is an explanation, a theory, that hasn’t yet been replaced by a better one. ( I’m anticipating that someone is going to tell me in the comments of the debates about Newtonian physics, and that’d be all good because it would support the notion that theories aren’t writ in stone, they can change. Theories are plausible explanations that we accept at the moment.)

But when we get to very complex phenomena, where bigger and more ambitious explanations are needed, theories are often highly contested. There is no agreement about the best approach. People think of examples that don’t fit the theory. Theoretical explanations are, we might say, partial.

So if we were to examine a theory about the nature of reality – string theory for instance – we would find an explanation which doesn’t cover all circumstances and isn’t accepted as being good enough. String theory is still being worked on, worked over and worked out – and may at some point be abandoned altogether for simply not having enough explanatory capacity.

And in social science and the humanities, theory is generally of this less agreed kind – it is contested and partial. That’s because people and social life are complex. And because of this complexity, scholars have invented a variety of theories to explain social phenomena, to explain the world. Different disciplines can have very different takes on the same thing. So, it’s not at all unusual to find, in the social sciences and humanities, theories being subject to debate, development and change.

And because a theory used in research might be one of the many possible, doctoral researchers usually have to discuss their approach to theory, and write about theoretical debates, in their thesis. They may even, as Barbara and I did, use more than one theory at a time, or choose a partial theory despite its limitations.

The important thing is not to see theory as Theory – something mysterious, something arcane, beyond the understanding of most people.

A theory is just a particular explanation with a history and loads of applications. Theory is simply the best we can do with the data we have in hand.

It is of course important to think about what you are trying to explain and why it is important to explain. What difference does it make to your research and your claim to a knowledge contribution to have a good theory to offer?

And on that question, I’ll leave off till the next post.

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getting to grips with ‘the paragraph’


I was recently asked how I felt about paragraphs. “Well you know, all the feels” I might have replied. But I didn’t, largely because I don’t usually think about the paragraph. The question made me wonder whether I take the paragraph for granted.

Paragraphs sit way below my consciousness a lot of the time. But paragraph awareness rises to the surface when I am reading something where the writer doesn’t appear know what the paragraph is. I pay attention to paragraphs when I expect to see them and they aren’t there. I notice their absence rather than their presence.

A caveat. I don’t expect to see a paragraph if I am reading a text intended to break the conventional academic prose mould. Something that is written evocatively, or as a montage or as prose poetry or as a stream of consciousness. It would be silly to expect deliberately ‘artful’ prose to follow the same conventions as your ‘standard’ academic English. Nor do I expect to see paragraphs of a uniform length. Paragraphs can be of varying lengths, even, on occasions, single sentences.

But I am always jolted when I see a page – or more – of academic writing that isn’t broken up somehow. Broken up into, yes, paragraphs.

So what is it about the mega-paragraph that alarms me?

Well, it’s not simply that it’s easier for the reader -me – to engage with the writer’s ideas if the prose is subdivided.  That’s certainly true. But I also get concerned because I have come to associate the monster paragraph, particularly in academic writing, with a muddle of ideas.

As a frequent reader of theses and academic papers, I understand that an over-inflated paragraph isn’t usually the result of a writing problem. It’s not that writers don’t know the basic principles of composition. That they haven’t a clue what a paragraph is. Well, yes, occasionally that might be the case. But more often than not, the swollen and distended paragraph comes from a writer who doesn’t quite know what they are trying to say.

The elongated paragraph very often signals a writer not yet able to choreograph the development of an overall idea. We might say that lengthy paragraph writers have a thinking-writing – not a technical-writing – problem.

Puffed up paragraph writers have got all of their stuff together, but they don’t yet know which of the bits they’ve accumulated are more important than others. They don’t yet know what order the bits should come in. They can’t construct the steps which lead the reader through their argument. They have no red thread, as my Nordic colleagues would say.

And it’s each one of the steps which should constitute each one of the paragraphs. Every separate paragraph is a move towards the overall idea.

The most common way to think about the paragraphs used in academic argument is to see them as made up of three elements:

  • A sentence at or near the beginning which presents the step in the argument. This is often called a topic sentence because it states what the paragraph is about – its ‘topic’.
  • A set of sentences which explain, evidence and qualify the topic. As the very orthodox  Strunk and White put it, He (sic) may make the meaning of the topic sentence clearer by restating it in other forms, by defining its terms, by denying the converse, by giving illustrations or specific instances; he may establish it by proofs; or he may develop it by showing its implications and consequences. In a long paragraph, he may carry out several of these processes.
  • A final sentence which re-emphasises the topic in some way, often through a consequence, and which leads on to the next step.

Now, if you google ‘paragraph’, you’ll find lots of different mnemonics for these three elements, all of them designed to help writers with the conventional academic paragraph. I quite like the acronym MEAL – I’ve found it helpful for anyone who doesn’t ‘get’ the paragraph:

  • Main idea: A sentence which introduces the concrete claim made in the paragraph
  • Evidence: Support for the claim made as the main idea
  • Analysis: Explanation and evaluation of the evidence for the claim
  • Link back/Lead out: Conclusion of the idea and preparation for the next step

But, as I said, there’s lots of ways to talk about paragraphs, and you need to find the one that makes most sense for you. And I’ll repeat the caveat here too – not all types of academic writing use this kind of paragraphing – it is a very ‘English’, read white Western, way of thinking about academic argumentation.

However, paragraphing is important for many of us. Academic readers expect to see them. So that makes them something to consider. But for me, the first point of knowing about paragraphing is not about mnemonics, but about the writing.  You see, we writers can use our understandings of the paragraph to help refine both our drafting and revising.

Because the paragraph is a lens through which to manage the thinking-writing, the development of ideas, it can be very helpful to:

  • Use topic sentences to plan a section of writing

Rather than simply writing a bullet point list of the ‘stuff’ you are doing to write about, use topic sentences as your outline. This may mean that you have to generate a bullet list first, and then turn it into topic sentences. And in turn, this may mean that you have to do some re-ordering. And you may find yourself sub-dividing some bullet points into smaller points and sentences. Hooray. It is at the very point where you subdivide a bullet point that you lessen the risk of writing giant, muddled, page long paragraphs your reader can’t make head nor tail of. And once you have the topic sentence of each paragraph sorted, you can then write your paragraphs according to the MEAL moves – or not.

  • Use topic sentences to revise your draft

List the topic sentences that you have already written in your draft. The start of each paragraph. Once you’ve got them listed you can see whether they are in the right order and/or whether any steps are missing. Do the topic sentences in themselves make a coherent and logical argument? What needs to be done to make the steps in the argument work? This process is sometimes called making a reverse outline.

Just in case you do find yourself writing pages of stuff without any paragraphs, you might like to try these two strategies to see if they help. Stop and topic sentence. Or read through and extract the topic sentences as a check.

Do that and readers like me won’t be aware of your paragraphs when they read your revised writing.

Photo by Wim Arys on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, argument, drafting, outline, outline by sentences, Outline move, paragraph, revision, revision strategy, topic sentence | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment