A colleague has just asked me to give a lecture to new social science research students, on the grounds that I’m “an expert in theory”, and so should be able to instruct students in the finer points of “how to choose a theory for their research”.
Requests like this, I have to admit, cause all of my inner anarchism to bubble to the surface. I want to deliver the entire lecture in front of a banner that reads: N. Pepperell – EXPERT – in theory. Or insist that students take the theoretical equivalent of one of those online tests of political disposition and bring the results with them to the lecture. Or tell students to ignore theory – don’t worry about it – just forget about it completely.
Oh wait – that last one I will actually do. Because the key isn’t the theory: it’s the question.
The research strategies course as it’s currently offered at my university has a very early section titled something like “positioning yourself on a map of social thought”. The students are terrified by it – and rightly so, because it sounds as though they have to draw this massive timeline: Plato – Descartes – Hegel – !!me!!… Some of the earliest readings tell students that they must identify their epistemological and ontological assumptions before they can do anything else – a demand that predictably causes most students to curl up into tight, self-loathing balls in the corner, regreting that they ever made the decision to undertake a research degree.
Some students, of course, will come in well-versed in philosophy or intellectual history. They’ll be quite happy to talk about their intellectual progenitors and their epistemological and ontological assumptions. And they still won’t, as a rule, be any closer to understanding how this relates to social science research than their intimidated and demoralised colleagues whom I’m still trying to coax out of their foetal positions.
So I tend to spend the first few weeks of the course teaching against the assigned materials (I don’t, incidentally, disagree with the fact that these materials have been assigned – they’re actually a productive jumping off point for the discussions I like to have at this stage). The overarching goal – but this will generally take the entire course (and, for some students, substantially beyond it) – is to get students to be centred in their questions. From unpacking the assumptions buried in the questions themselves, students can begin to tease out what their ontological and epistemological assumptions are – this takes some guidance, mainly in the form of getting students to see that other kinds of questions are possible. But this can be approached in the first instance immanently to their projects – which can then make it easier for students to understand whether and how more formal theoretical or philosophical training fits into their research process.
By contrast, starting with “theory” abstracted from a substantive question generally manages to convey the impression that choices among theoretical approaches are somehow aesthetic – essentially random and based on researcher preference, rather than having some determinate relationship to the phenomenon needing to be grasped. It also focusses attention away from what students struggle with the most, which is learning how to ask a good question, and then understanding the implications of the questions they have asked…
The strategy I’m advocating here, of course, is not something I would advocate for all students, in all contexts. It is a response to the need to communicate what are actually some fairly sophisticated theoretical skills to social science students who, due to the vagaries of the Australian higher education system, are unlikely to have, or subsequently receive, extensive formal instruction in theory or philosophy. With more time to explore theoretical traditions in detail, or when working with students where a certain theoretical background can be assumed, these issues can be explored at a more abstract level.
Still, there’s something about communicating the stakes of a theory – grasping that seemingly very abstract texts actually generally do understand themselves to be doing something very practical, very important in real-world terms – that remains important even when you have more luxury to explore formal theoretical approaches in greater detail. Theorists are driven by questions of their own – their theoretical choices motivated by the need to grasp the phenomena they are trying to understand, just as the theoretical choices of novice researchers will also need to be. This is something that I find students often struggle to grasp, even when they enjoy “theory” – that theory generally points to something, is wrestling with something, is not simply some kind of abstract symbolic manipulation undertaken for its own sake, or something that sits in a random, extrinsic relation to its object. This is the conceptual terrain I’ll have in mind in preparing the lecture.
I may still ask for that banner, as well…