Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Craft of Theorizing

Every Monday afternoon, I moderate an informal colloquium about the craft of research. This week we talked about about how to do a literature review (see this post for some thoughts on that subject). One of the participants suggested that we talk about theorizing next week, so I thought I would some spend some time this morning thinking about the practical side of that often rather abstract activity.

Theorizing is the art of developing a general position on a specific topic. Your theory should establish a connection between the empirical setting you are interested in and other settings of the same kind; it should therefore also establish a connection between your research and the research of your peers. Theorizing and reviewing the literature are therefore quite related activities.

Theory is not concerned with what actually happens in the field of practice we study; it is concerned with what we expect to happen. As our knowledge of what actually happens in specific organizations grows, our expectations of what generally happens in organizations change. Theorizing is the reflective process by which that change is made explicit and by which it is raised as a theme for discussion.

My favourite definition of theory is Pierre Bourdieu's: a theory is a "programme of perception". Theorizing, then, is the act of re-programming your perceptual apparatus. When you theorize, you are consciously transforming your way of looking at the world. Just as planning is not just a matter of intending to do something in the future, merely thinking about your subject does not constitute theorizing. You are theorizing when you are developing (sometimes just tweaking) your programme of perception.

Theorizing is a craft to the extent that your expectations are available to you to handle and manipulate. Your expectations are the material that you shape (craftily) when theorizing. Working with theory therefore has a distinct feel and what you feel when you theorize is a change in your expectations. You feel that the next time you look at your empirical data, you will see it differently. You will notice something new.


Robert said...

"(see this post for some thoughts on that subject)"

Which post?

Thomas said...

Sorry about that. Forgot to link it. Fixed now. Thanks for the headsup.