Bringing ideas to life

Theorists and their theories – who picks who?

Published in Latest Posts, Theory by Cristina Costa on May 30, 2016

image by Jake Bouma

image by Jake Bouma

It’s been a long time now since I have been thinking about this. So I thought that I might as well blog about it, and see if I am or not alone in thinking this way. I often wonder what leads theorists to develop a given theory. And even more so, what leads other researchers to ‘choose’ one theory over the other. It is not uncommon to hear that so and so is a Foucauldian, a Habermasian or a Honnethian, to name a few. This is the same as saying he/she is a follower of… It denotes a kind of theoretical distinction – a peculiar way of perceiving the world – and therefore his/her contribution to research.

One can argue that theories serve both to problematise and explain given phenomena, and that researchers apply different theories to different contexts. Yet, theories tend to be more versatile than that and can often transverse not only different contexts but also disciplines. Theoretical plasticity is nothing new to the social sciences. It is also a trait that binds us to other disciplines. Yet, more often than not, I find that researchers have a preference for one theory/theorist over another. I am no different here, but I often wonder if others become attached to a theory/theorist, for the same reasons I do.

In this vein, one could argue that I am a Bourdieuian. Yet, I don’t think I am only a Bourdieuian because I apply his theories to my research. I feel I am also a Bourdieuian because I understand it deeply ‘under my skin’ … if this makes any sense? I can relate to Bourdieu’s personal background and his educational trajectory. And I am thankful that he provided me with vocabulary that allows me to explain some of my experiences and of those of whom I study. But he was not the first theorist I could relate to nor has he been the last one, but so far he has been the one with a longer lasting effect. His concepts are always in the back of my mind and, as a friend of mine once told me, I ‘wear’ them as a pair of glasses that allows me to explain or be alerted to many of my experiences.

The first theorist I encountered and with whom I also developed a great affinity was Simone de Beauvoir. Her essays provided me with much reassurance of who I was and wanted to be. It was liberating. What is worth noting is that her theories too were a reflection of her own life experiences. The same could be said of Foucault or Luhmann, and of many others, I am sure. So my question is, what happens first, the theorist or the theory? Perhaps it is neither of the two. Perhaps, it is in the space between ideas and experiences that new theory are developed and theorists ‘are born’. Be that as it may, what it ‘proves’ to me, is that we can all be theorists and develop theory, and this is what I aspire to do with my students next academic year in the Societal Change and Education module.

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About the author /


Cristina is Associate Professor in Digital Education and Society in the Department of Education and Childhood, University of the West of England, Bristol, UK. After completing a degree in Modern Languages and Literatures, Cristina worked as an EFL teacher in the Portuguese Navy. During that period she developed an interest in Learning Technologies and completed an MPhil in Educational Technologies at the University of Lisbon, Portugal. In 2007 she moved to the UK to take up a post in the field of Learning and Research Technologies at the University of Salford. In February 2013 she completed her PhD study on The participatory web in the context of academic research: landscapes of change and conflicts. From March 2013 to March 2018 she worked as a Lecturer in Digital Education at the University of Strathclyde. She was named Learning Technologist of the Year 2010 by the Association for Learning Technology (ALT).


  1. Avatar
    Olga Campbell-Thomson

    Who picks who? Cristina, this is an important and timely question. I have been struggling with similar issues lately, as I have been invariably locating my thinking on a range of issues within Foucault’s productive model of conceptualisation of social activity. I think that it is this versatility of Foucault’s thinking that allows multiple applications of his thinking tools to the analysis of social world. In my individual case, it is also my familiarity and understanding (I think) of Foucault’s work. Perhaps, there is also a sense of loyalty to Foucault’s texts, which I have diligently read. And yet, all these attempts to rationalise my choice of Foucault do not address your query Why Foucault (and not, for instance, Bourdieu, whom I have been reading with almost the same degree of diligence as I read Foucault).

    When it all started, the choices were many. I remember well those days of my Doctoral pre-dissertation reading in the Rylands library of the University of Manchester. There were plenty of theories and theorists, and I spent months navigating through volumes of brilliant thinking on all the matters of social existence. I let all these theorists go but could not part with Foucault. Foucault’s theorising on the process of the constitution of the subject (as a philosophical category) grasped me; his conceptual tools organised my own thinking and framed the dissertation project (theory as method?). I think this happened because the theorising frame was fit for the purpose of my investigation and, after that, it was the lasting interest in material which still remained ‘unused’. It is also a ‘short cut’ in many instances, simply because my internalisation of Foucault’s texts has already taken place. Unfortunately, my recent attempts to engage with Bourdieu, Hegel, Wenger and a few other fascinating thinkers do not reach the same level of commitment that was possible during the years of Doctoral studies.

    Thank you for a very interesting and thought-provoking post. I am glad I am not alone struggling to understand my infatuation with one thinker amidst so many.

    • Avatar
      Cristina Costa

      Hi Olga, sorry I did not reply before. I meant to.

      Thanks for your comments. I can totally resonate with them. You also touched on another aspect that I have been struggling with lately, that of not reaching the same level of commitment with regards to other theorists. I also think that, in my case, this is due to time. Deep reading practices are not possible as often as I would like. Recently I have been trying to engage with the work of Honneth which I find appropriate and to some extent complimentary to the work of Bourdieu. Yet, every time I sit down to read I feel a bit guilty that I could be using that time to write or do anything else that shows that I have been working. Yet, reading is so necessary as is time for thinking, but I guess this days most of us can’t afford – or are not given – that type of headspace to think things through / digest information, and I find that to be a real pity.

      And that is why sometimes I wish we could have a space to think aloud with other people interested in similar questions/topics…

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