A few weeks ago, these eight words were enough to catapult me straight into full-on panic mode…

When I say panic mode, I am of course exaggerating a little. However, this suggestion, which was raised in a recent supervision meeting, made me a little uneasy. This is mostly because I have some niggling doubts about employing an ANT approach for the analysis of my data. I am worried that if I choose to go down the road of a pure ANT approach, I may miss some of the more ‘human’ aspects of policy mediation and struggle. The particular policy process that I am researching can be regarded as highly emotive, involving much contestation, debate, argument, mediation and disagreement as well as agreement – after all, to achieve an end result some sort of consensus must be reached, but the process by which this has occurred has been complex. ANT can map all of this complexity and messiness; however, it ignored the role of human consciousness and intent, and cannot explain why particular things happen, or why they don’t.  This concern (and subsequent solution) will form the basis of my next post so I will drop that particular grumble for now and continue with the dilemma of picking a theory…

As you can probably guess, one issue that I have been grappling with lately is whether or not it is good practice to continue to use a theory when you disagree with some of its claims. This concern has been exacerbated by my irrational fear of hard-core social-material theorists, and like my fellow student Dave, I am worried about the consequences of not remaining ‘true’ to the authentic version of the theory that is being applied.

For me, social theory has only really started to come to life now that I have some data and I am trying to work out how to analyse it. It is therefore only in its application that it is beginning to make sense. I think that this is because I can now begin to see ANT concepts come to life within my data; ANT terms appear less abstract and confusing, and are instead taking on a whole new meaning, and to my initial surprise, some are becoming quite useful (but not all). However, I am pretty sure that this is a less than ideal way to go about applying social theory to research, and in a sense I may be working backwards.

As research students, we often hear that a theoretical framework, or research paradigm, should shape our research design, including the way in which data is collected as well as analysed and understood. However, it often doesn’t work out like this (and it certainly hasn’t within my research!). There is a lot of pressure on doctoral students to ‘pick a theory’ (see my colleague Michele’s recent post on ‘Theory Shopping’) and to try to find ways to tie it in with the phenomena that they want to research. However, the following characteristics of doctoral research can make this a difficult process:

  • Your research questions can change: the focus of your research shifts over time… Linking this with a suitable lens can be tricky when you’re not exactly sure what it is that you’re trying to look at
  • You discover new social theory as you go along, some of which may appear much more appealing than your original choice
  • The number of different activities and tasks which make up doctoral research and development are vast, overlap, and usually don’t work out exactly as planned: reviewing relevant literature, reading around the topic, research design, securing access to participants, data collection, data analysis, article writing, presenting at conferences, seminar and conference organising, the odd bit of teaching and marking…. This list is endless. Locating an adequate amount of time to devote to reading and understanding enough social theory to justify a choice is near impossible!

So my questions are, what if, following data collection, you come to realise that your chosen theoretical framework may be more restrictive than enlightening? What if there is a better theory out there for you and your research and you just haven’t come across it yet? Should you just ignore them and stubbornly continue with your chosen framework, oblivious to the fact that there is a whole other world of exciting ideas and perhaps more suitable theories out there?

This is the stage that I was at a few weeks ago. But I have now decided exactly how I would like to use ANT, and picked out the concepts that I find most useful. I have combined these with elements from another social theory, which help to illuminate the areas of my research that ANT ignores. Essentially, I am cherry-picking the concepts and ideas that best describe and explain the phenomena that I am researching – I will write more about this in my next blog post.

But this does make me wonder, should a good knowledge of social theory be deemed essential for being accepted as a doctoral student in Social Sciences? Or should we be more open about the uncertainty, confusion and concerns that surround the processes of choosing the most suitable theoretical framework and then applying it? Perhaps we should admit that it’s not the end of the world to change, adapt and improve your theoretical framework in line with the shifting focus of your research questions and on discovering something you didn’t quite expect in your data.

The process of choosing and applying social theory is not straight forward – I wish I had known this at the start!


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