Applying theory

The sense-making about how to write continues. A colleague asked one of my students where the reference to theory was in her data chapter. She had presented good extracts and said good things about them in the right style – thoughtful, critical, even good thick description in the way she connected them to other parts of her data. So what did he mean by asking for the theory?

I don’t think that this means putting in more literature review. This should have been largely taken care of in other chapters (or sections in shorter articles). Indeed, what we don’t want is yet more literature at the beginning of data chapters. There should be brief introduction to themes being presented (which should also have been explained, in terms of how they grow out of analysis, in the methodology chapter or section).

So I try and see what this means in my own writing. I’ve now at last got past the introduction and into the first data chapter. Now, today, I begin to get it.

I’ve got an autoethnographic reconstruction about catching taxis in Tehrán. I’ve presented is at a piece of data – appropriately indented as a separated block of text – so that I can now stand back and talk about it.

What I note about this instance of experience is that it’s a communal taxi where passengers are getting in and out and negotiating destinations, the fare, saying where they want to get out, and also talking about all sorts of other things. The taxi driver is highly professional even to the extent of occasionally asking passengers to re-arrange seating so that women don’t have to sit between men. And so on. It’s an excellent example of small culture form­ation on the go.

Well, mentioning the small culture form­ation on the go is already referring to theory – my theory about how the intercultural is negotiated everywhere on an everyday basis. I take this back to Max Weber and social action theory. Of course, here, in this chapter, I don’t need to bring back literature reference to Max Weber. I’ve already done that.

But there’s another really important layer. I have also theorised, back in my theoretical framework (or whatever one wants to call it), that combatting culture shock is all about trying to get rid of an unconscious Orientalist grand narrative, brought from my upbringing, that blocks understanding with neo-racist prejudice.

So, what is really important about the taxi experience is that it gets me straight into finding all sorts of threads. One is about understanding the nature of professionalism, that I take into my work, not just then, working as an English teacher, but into my life since. This relates to another theoretical point about the backwards and forwards nature of interculturality, which I also have to mention quickly. Another is something to do with language learning and being myself in this hurly-burly of interaction. This will lead to more theory about language learning that I have to remember to pick up later.

But there is still more to be said. It’s not just because I have to refer even more to theory. It’s because pushing myself to do so takes me to even more layers of understanding. Why is it the case that the taxi experience pushes the Orientalist grand narrative out of the picture? It’s something to do with the force of the event itself. Something to do with there being no time, in the urgency of waving down, getting in and then out of taxis, to be concocting silly essentialist theories about ‘collectivism’ and ‘individualism’. This is what I now need to develop. And I really hadn’t thought of this before!

I do though also need to think about balance. As I go, dealing with instances of data and interconnecting them in thick description, I’m developing a discussion that relates the data and the theory. But I mustn’t pause too much. I have to move on quickly to the next instance of data. As I ago, I’m also collecting instances of theoretical development – hopefully even changing the understanding of the theory – grounding it in the data. Then I will collect all of this together in the final implications chapter, where I will look back and work out what it all means.

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