Putting theory in its place

Especially when we are starting out as researchers, we are confronted with a number of theories about the world and about research. Often these are produced by well-known people. They can be intimidating, difficult to understand, and seemingly way above us.

However, the people who make them are in many ways just like us. They are trying to make sense of the world. 

They have become famous and influential through hard work, brilliant thinking, good writing, good networking, being read and disseminated by the right people, and sometimes by being in the right place at the right time.

Some of us can be like them if we have the ability, the desire or the opportunity, and with the right circumstances.

However, there is nothing sacred about these theories. They are fluid collections of ideas which are by their nature interpretable and negotiable. If they appear bounded, fixed and untouchable it is because of the institutional, academic and sometimes wider politics that make use of them – packaging and monopolising them to build careers, establish status and define disciplines. This does not reduce the value of the theories themselves, but might make them look more fixed than they need to be. The desire to reify theory in the service of disciplinary division of labour can also lead to the artificial segmentation into tightly defined methods in the service of the neoliberal university.

We all therefore need to be reassured that it is not the theories themselves but academic politics that require us to follow them as though they are fixed in their nature and boundaries. Some researchers have no choice but to submit to this politics because of the circumstances in which they find themselves; but they should be aware that it is the politics that requires this and not the theory.

However, in my experience, we sometimes think that there is a politics when there isn’t. We think that we need to follow theories as though they are fixed when in fact they are not. We don’t believe that we will actually get higher grades and more approval if we are able to interpret, adapt and even develop theories to suit our needs.

But we can interpret, adapt and even develop theories to suit our needs. We don’t need to be famous to have our own theories; and our own theories don’t have to be famous. They need to be useful to us – to help us to make sense of the world. We are all free to take from, add to, and make use of other people’s theories – as long as we give full acknowledgement where appropriate. We are all free to theorise.

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