As part of some research I’ve been a part of I’ve recently had the opportunity to do a bit of reading and chatting about the special role of theorizing in research. For some context, Jess, Shawn and I have been spending the past 1/2 a year or so talking about different ways to examine the use of web archives, mostly by looking at links on the web that point at web archives. If you are interested we’re talking about some of this next week as part of RESAW2021 (which is free and entirely online).
Part of this work has been trying to generate a set of categories of use that we’ve been observing in our data. We started out with a predefined set of categories that were derived from our own previous research and reading. We started looking for evidence of these categories in our link data. But we found over the course of doing this work and talking about it that what we were actually engaged in wasn’t really developing a theory per se but theorizing. Recognizing the difference was extremely helpful (thanks Jess!)
Jess introduced us to a couple texts that were very helpful in helping me distinguish how theorizing is related to theory. Interestingly they also connected with some previous work I’ve been doing in the classroom. I just wanted to note these papers here for Future Me, with a few notes.
Hammond, M. (2018). “An interesting paper but not sufficiently theoretical”: What does theorising in social research look like?: Methodological Innovations. https://doi.org/10.1177/2059799118787756
Swedberg, R. (2012). Theorizing in sociology and social science: Turning to the context of discovery. Theory and Society, 41(1), 1–40. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11186-011-9161-5
The Hammond paper was the gateway to the Swedberg, but I read them the other way around. It didn’t matter too much because both papers are about the role of theorizing in research, and how it’s related to but distinct from research involving a theory. If you read them definitely read the Hammond first because its shorter, and sets things up nicely for the deeper dive that Swedberg provides.
Hammond reviews the literature around theorizing (which includes Swedberg) and also discusses some interviews he conducted with researchers at his university to better understand the role of theory in their work. These first person accounts were helpful because they highlighted the degree of uncertainty and anxiety that researchers felt around their use of theory. Hammond and his participants noted the connection to Grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967), and the role of reflexivity in qualitative methods more generally. But he suggests that a broader discussion of theorizing takes it out of the realm of what happens when asking specific research questions, and into the exploratory work that needs to happen before.
Hammond’s basic point is that theorizing is the search for explanations, not the explanation itself. It is the process of identifying ‘patterns and regularities’ that can sometimes lead to hypothesis and theory. The Swedberg piece does many things, but its basic point is that this theorizing work is crucial for theory, and that it’s not really talked about enough. The premium is on the theory, but that we are often left in the dark about how that theory was generated, because all the focus goes into the verification of that theory.
Swedberg has this idea of the prestudy which is work that happens before a theory is expressed, and tested/verified. The prestudy is empirical work that is creative and aimed at making a discovery. He draws quite a bit on Peirce’s idea of abductive reasoning, or the practice of guessing right. He pushes back on the idea that empirical data should only be collected in the context of theory justification, and that data is extremely valuable in exploratory work.
In addition to Peirce, Swedberg also draws on Wittgenstein’s philosophy of “Don’t think but look!” which highlights how existing concepts (theories) can actually be a barrier to insight. Sometimes simply restating phenomena without using the name of the concept can unlock important insights into processes and practices. He also mentions (Bachelard:1984?) “epistemological obstacles” to theorizing such as managing data when theorizing, and overly reliance on existing theory instead of engaging in theorizing.
I’ve definitely experienced the managing data problem as we’ve been looking at links to web archives at multiple levels of abstraction, and how to keep them organized for recall without overly prescribing what they signify. He also cites (Mills:2000?) quite a bit who stressed that researchers should strive to be their own theorist in addition to being their own methodologist–and that theorizing can be learned. One method he suggested for gaining insight and bypassing existing theories is to dump out all the data (folders in his case) and to sort them again, to get to know the data again.
Swedberg’s idea of the prestudy is compelling I think because in part it is a call for there to be more writing about the prestudy so that we can learn how to theorize. This reminds me a bit of what I really liked about Law (2004) which examines the messy and difficult to contain sites where social science work actually gets done. If we don’t know where our ideas come from how will be able to recognize what they contain, and what they might be missing?
For Swedberg theorizing can be neatly summarized as:
- Observing and choosing something to investigate
- Naming the central concept(s)
- Building* out a theory (metaphors, comparisons, diagrams)
- Completing the tentative theory
The goal of theorizing is to build heuristic tools, tools that are unpolished, a bit messy, fit to purpose and non-formalized rather than definitive explanations.
… concepts should primarily be used as heuristic tools at the stage of theorizing, that is, to discover something new, and not to block the discovery process by forcing some interesting observation into some bland category. Insisting on exact operational definitions is usually not helpful at this stage. According to a well-known formulation, concepts should at this stage be seen as sensitizing and not as definitive.
I’m just grateful to have learned about this connection between theorizing and some elements of pragmatic philosophy that I’ve been drawn to for some time … and also to have some new people to read: Mills and Bachelard. Practical advice for theorizing, and how to do it, is especially important when starting new projects, and it seems like an essential ingredient for staying happy and productive as a researcher. Research is hard work, but it also has an element of intuitive play that seems to get undervalued in the shapes of many scholarly outputs.