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Saturday, May 7, 2011

I Have This Material I am Interested In, So Now What Theory Should I Use?

Here's a kind of funny question. Suppose one is interested in some specific set of materials. The music of Morton Feldman. The poetry of Federico GarcĂ­a Lorca. Ancient Minoan archeology. How children learn their first language.

It cannot be a question of writing a left-hand column of theoretical approaches and a right hand column of research materials, and then just finding a good match. First of all, there will be a methodology already entrenched in a field. Archeologists already do things in a certain way. for example. Secondly, the kind of research problems one is interested in are inherent to the materials, in some sense. If the wrong theoretical questions are asked, then the original source interest of the materials can fade away.

If you haven't asked the theoretical questions yet, it is as though you hadn't thought about your materials as an intellectual. If you don't have a theoretical approach that is your own, that is part of your own intellectual identity, then you will just be applying a theory because a professor told you too. That is perfectly fine for a Graduate Seminar, because that is a purely academic exercise. It is harder as a professional scholar to use a theory you don't really believe in.

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You can use theory as a heuristic, or as part of your intellectual identity. In the first case, you are not professing literal belief in the theory, but using it because you think it usefully illuminates the text. In the second case, there is more of an exisential commitment.

5 comments:

Andrew Shields said...

The idea of "using" a theory is perhaps what misleads many people. Ideally, you should *have* a theory or set of theories about the objects of your research.

Shedding Khawatir said...

How do you define theory exactly? I feel as though my discipline/method means I am committed to a particular epistemology which has a number of general types of theory connected to it, but not to a particular theorist. This is where I often find it difficult, as I am expected to bring in particular ideas from particular people to inform my analysis, but I don't want to just quote the parts I like from them at random when they fit my data (which I've seen done). At the same time, using the entirety of their theory often doesn't fit either.

Jonathan said...

Your discipline might be encouraging you to be less rigorous that you want to be. One thing is the actual methodology of your actual research, another is the window dressing that you might want to use to seem theoretical (quoting random theorists where they fit).

profacero said...

I never liked the idea of "applying" "theory" to an object of research, so I am sort of with Andrew on this one. I am using critical race theory to shed some light on a novel, but I am not using it like a machine to feed the novel into and come out with an interpretation.

Shedding Khawatir said...

I think the root of my problem is that I don't want to have theory as "window dressing" as you describe it (because what's the point then?) nor do I want to use it like a machine, as in Profacero's example. To me it seems that those are false and easy ways out, and doing something inbetween is (at least for me) hard. However, you are currently giving very good advice on theory that is helping me, so please continue :-)