Monday, January 8, 2018

Starting with Theory

By: Bach Mai Dolly Nguyen
Assistant Professor of Higher Education and Student Affairs
Lewis and Clark College 

Progressive change. Social change. Transformative change. These are a few of the labels of change that serve as the ending point found in the conclusions of many higher education manuscripts. But, what does that change look like? Feel like? How is it defined? And, how do we measure that it has been achieved? These are difficult questions because the parameters of change are boundless, existing in countless iterations within the imaginaries of all who care to ruminate on the possibility of progress. In Rojas’ (2017) conceptualization of approaches to social theory, he offers one way through which change may be measured:
The translation of theoretical ideas into research agendas requires a link between the concepts that motivate theory (social class) and the specific things that can be measured (income or occupation). The practice of social research isn’t what happens after you learn some theory. It is what motivates the theory, tests the theory, and is framed by the theory. Theories, cases, and evidence mutually create each other (p. xxiii).

Put another way, change can be measured by examining the moment(s) when theory and research intersect, or what Rojas (2017) calls “the point of contact between theories and empirical data” (p. xxii). It goes without saying that theory is broadly imbedded in research, as most journals call for a theoretical framework in publication submissions. Viewed as specific “points of contact,” the notion of theory, as it is largely applied now, pivots away from instances when theory and research brush up against each other, to the precise locations where they do (or should) meet face-to-face.

What are those locations? In the research process, the subject of whether theory guides the design, analysis, or writing aspects of the study is often called into question. However, the more fruitful question is: how can theory be applicable to just one, or only two, of those aspects of the research process? Applying theory to only the written component of research, for example, would seem to be the actualization of fitting a square peg into a round hole. Personally guilty of attempting to retroactively apply theory to a completed study design, I acknowledge that it is possible to find an almost seamless match between theory and research—oval peg, round hole. However, starting a research project with theory, allowing it to guide the iterations of design, to imbed itself within the analyses, and to organically become part and parcel with what is written about the study represents a wholly different form of research. This approach to research focuses on how the roots of inequality are maintained and manifested, centering the lens for understanding those inequities at the heart of studies, and allowing research questions to critically consider how empirical work contributes to the mitigation of that inequality. As hooks (2000) advises, “Everything we do in life is rooted in theory. Whether we consciously explore the reasons we have a particular perspective or take a particular action there is also an underlying system shaping thought and practice” (p. 19). As it is in life, research—in its entirety—is rooted in theory and put together, give life to how social change moves from abstraction to measured.

As a field that sits at the axis of other disciplines (e.g. sociology, social psychology, policy), higher education scholars are privy to an abundance of theories from which to build and contribute knowledge. There is ripe opportunity, then, for the field to deeply consider how a spectrum of theoretical lenses can advance, challenge, and modify research in postsecondary education. With greater commitment, or a recommitment, to examining the “points of contact” between theory and research, higher education scholarship may better understand, measure, and achieve the change that it has so aptly envisioned.


Hooks, B. (2000). Feminism is for everybody: Passionate politics. London, United Kingdom:
Pluto Press.

Rojas, F. (2017). Theory from the working sociologist. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

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