I am presenting a seminar tomorrow to PhD students on how I developed my PhD’s theoretical framework. When I agreed to do this workshop last year, I thought this would be fairly easy to do. However, I am finding it difficult to articulate the differences between substantive theory and what I think of as ‘framework theory’, and how to use both in different ways to contextualise your study and build a framework for it. This was, for me, the first and biggest ‘threshold’ (to use Meyer and Land’s term) that I crossed in my own PhD, and it’s a very important one.
There are two main places you tend to use theory in a social sciences PhD (I’d be really interested to hear about the differences between these and PhDs in the natural sciences): in your literature review where you contextualise your study and the rationale for it, and in your theoryology, as I call it, which works at a more ‘meta’ level to discuss how you understand the questions you are researching, how you plan to approach the research, and how you will move from theory to methodology and methods, and on to analysis. You come back to the theory in your conclusion, connecting it to your findings, but it needs to be laid out ahead of this in the earlier chapters.
I have written about writing a literature review, and using the research in the field in a more substantive way to build the context and rationale for your own study, and situate it within your field, so I won’t focus too much on that in this post. Here, I would rather focus on the more difficult-to-articulate issue: the theoretical framework. The reading PhD students almost always start with is the substantive ‘theory’ and research. You need to know what research has been done in your field, what the key issues and questions are, where the field is heading, and where you, coming into that field, can place your own research. But you may well find, if you spend long enough reading the substantive theory and research, that you start going in circles, confirming what you have already found out and slowly getting stuck. This is when you need to take a break. If you know what the lie of the land is, and you have a grasp of the trends, issues and research problems that are being or have been researched, and where the gaps you, you now need to find your question, your project. You should find the topic you want to research, and the focus, from your substantive reading, but you need to hone this to turn it into a lightning rod for all the other research and reading you will do to cling to. In my (albeit limited) experience, moving on to the ‘meta’ stuff at this point helped me to do this.
What do I mean by ‘meta’ stuff? The Free Dictionary defines metatheory as ‘a formal system that describes the structure of some other system, and ‘a theory devised to analyse theoretical systems’. Slightly obscure definitions on their own – theories that can analyse theories sounds like more going round in circles. But I’m going to concentrate on the words ‘formal system’, ‘structure’, and ‘analyse’ because this, for me, is what a theoryology hinges on. What comes after you have focused on one research question your study can explore and answer? You need to design a methodology, and then use appropriate research methods to generate data, and then employ an analytical framework to organise that data. Thereafter, you need tools of analysis to make sense of the data in relation to the theoretical structure you have put together, and the field in which your research is located. All of this is nigh on impossible to do in any coherent, structured and organised way without an organising structure that can hold the project in place and on course. You need, then, a formal system, a structure, that can inform the methods you use, your data generation plans and strategies, and the ways in which you then organise and analyse the data to answer your research question. This formal system is your theoretical or conceptual framework (your theoryology).
But how do you build one? What kind of theory is theoryology-worthy? Theory is a weird word here, and it is often misused. I am sure I misuse it all the time. Often, when we say ‘theory’ we mean ‘other research that has been done in the field that informs how I think about my own research and/or practice’. By metatheory is meant something that, while derived from empirical research and data, is raised a bit further above the empirical to create a more generalised or abstract set of principles that can be applied as a formal organising or structural system in a range of studies. Theoretical frameworks are built out of this kind of theory. You need an abstract, generalised set of principles that you can adapt and apply to your own study, and that will inform what data you choose to generate, and how you then can organise that data and decide on methods of analysis. A helpful way of finding your way to this kind of theory that might be right for your study is to look at what kinds of frameworks or conceptual tools other researchers are using in your field or allied fields.
Finding a framework for your study is essential in the social sciences, certainly. Without an overarching metatheory to organise and analyse your project you may end up generating a mountain of data that you just get lost in because you’re not sure what is important or what is not; you may end up with the wrong kinds of data; or you may write a ‘findings’ chapter that describes rather than analyses the data in relation to the field itself, and the question your are answering, which would leave you in a precarious position, given the pressure on PhDs to make new contributions to knowledge. Don’t be too worried if this process of developing your own framework takes time (I spent most of my second year on mine). In my experience, if you have a solid framework that is chosen well and clear to you, what follows is generally more organised and less fraught on the whole*.
*Of course, all sorts of things can and do go wrong in a PhD, and this is just my experience, but colleagues who have followed this route have found similarly that the data generation and analysis process has been less stressful if they have a clearer sense of what they are looking for, why, and how to look at it.