By Claire Aitchison
The analogy that choosing theory is like op-shopping came up years ago in a writing circle and it has stayed with me ever since. I shall elaborate.
In Australia, ‘op shops’ or ‘opportunity shops’ are charity shops that sell second-hand clothes. Not everyone likes op shopping. Some people prefer wholly new outfits, others make their own gear. In general, however, op shops are a great place to get affordable stuff. But you do have to choose carefully. Not everything there is good value … in fact, some op shops carry a lot of junk. Nevertheless, for the discerning shopper, they represent a good way to go: there is a wide range of pre-loved, pre-tested outfits ready for you to try on. There are all sorts and sizes and shapes and designs. Op shops don’t subscribe to particular brands or labels. You can discover well-known, familiar labels, even exclusive labels, but also obscure and un-branded items. Also, because op shops are generally quite affordable, if you make an error or change your mind, it doesn’t matter too much – you simply give it back and it gets recycled again.
Occasionally you do come across something that’s almost new; that seems hardly to have been taken out of the cupboard before finding itself in the op shop seeking a new owner. One wonders why it has been rejected. Surely, originally, someone thought it was just the right thing, before realising it simply wasn’t suitable. Perhaps it didn’t match anything else in their wardrobe. Or perhaps, on closer inspection, it wasn’t quite what they thought it was. Sometimes the product is faulty; but most likely, when they brought it home from the shop and in the privacy of their own home when they had time to look and think carefully, they found it just wasn’t right for them after all. Luckily op shops give you the opportunity for guilt-free rejection. The item has value, but not to you.
Some items are so well used that they might look a bit tired and tatty, old-fashioned and past their use-by date. However, if you look closely, they may still have some value – perhaps, for example, when mixed with something new so as to contrast the styles or maybe it’s a matter of choosing the right accessories? For the right occasion, despite being old-fashioned, this item might be just the ticket.
An op shop allows you to try on endless numbers of outfits – to mix and match across styles and eras, to experiment and test out unusual combinations, to dig out long-forgotten trends, styles and fashions. To compare the latest and the oldest, the brightest and the lacklustre. What looks shocking on one person or in one era, looks great on and in another. Mostly, one doesn’t really know until one tries it on and gives it a test run. It can be useful to get an opinion from someone else to see if they think the outfit suits you, if it goes well with the stuff you’ve already selected.
I spoke with my doctoral student today and she was having trouble with theory. Although she started off browsing freely, she’d narrowed the field to choosing between a small group of theorists. She’d been toying around with the usual suspects – Bourdieu and Foucault. There was some pressure for her to settle on Foucault since others thought that suited the story she should tell. And there is an argument that Bourdieu and Foucault go well together. But she was resisting, saying that everybody uses Bourdieu and she just didn’t think it was the right match. And anyhow she was sick of Bourdieu, she was looking for something new.
I thought of the op shop and suggested she think about how these two might work together – that she try choosing one for the main outfit and see how the second theorist could complement that. We talked about her purpose – what did she want from these theories/theorists; where could she go with them? How did she imagine they could work together to achieve her objectives? But mostly we agreed the answer would come from trying on the theories, by actually writing the story of the data and then seeing where, if, and how, those theories would apply. Perhaps she might be surprised to find they fit well – or perhaps she’ll return them to the rack and keep looking a while longer.
Would anyone like to share their experience of trying on theories/theorists?
PS In keeping with the idea that everything new is old, Cally Guerin drew my attention to this co-authored article and its reference to the idea of ‘trying on’ different voices as a strategy used by student writers in the process of becoming authorial.
Guerin, C. & M. Picard (2012) Try it on: Voice, concordancing and test-matching in doctoral writing International Journal of Educational Integrity 8(2).
Sara Cotterall said:
I absolutely love the “op shop” analogy. I hadn’t heard it before and am surprised how far you were able to go with it.
I think it should be ‘shelved’ along with Kamler and Thomson’s dinner party analogy for the literature review.
What a creative community this is!
thanks Sara 🙂
John Sunderland said:
Hi I’m a doctoral student in the writing up phase and I have found that I began and have largely stuck to one approach, that of phenomenology, at least for most of my studies (practice based photography) that it has proved useful, but what has happened is a increasing move toward post structural work, notably Deleuze. There is also a side dish of cognitive psychology. This means I have ended up with a three pronged theoretical approach, each quite different. Phenomenology offers a sense based egocentric viewpoint, that opens up the mechanisms of experience, cognitive psychology helps partially to understand how mechanisms work on the conscious and the post structural approach places this in multiple systems, or frameworks in the wider world. It is difficult to hold all this together and here is what I found most interesting. I was very lucky to find a social anthropologist who also drew heavily on all these areas, without this I think the theory would of remained limiting on the project. So for me it is not choose one over the other but the mix up of theories with each aspect of the thesis relating to an aspect of the research, with cross over. The key was in finding similar theorists who have also done this that relate to my research, otherwise I think I would of foundered. This is perhaps particular to those doing practice based research. As I write up now, the relative theories grow or diminish in relevance, some may not be particularly evident in the final work, but without them I wouldn’t of followed the paths I did.
I hope that explains what has happened and is happening to me and can be related to. I wonder if this kind of mixing is common?
Thank you for your great description of working with theory – I especially like your reflection on how the theories ‘grow or diminish in relevance …’ and whether or not they find a place in the thesis, their part in the journey is crucial. That fluidity is a wonderful aspect of this engagement with theory: both a delight and a frustration at different times in the process. Sounds like you have mastered the art of managing the challenge. Best wishes, Claire
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