Thinking Theory I: Creswell

Reading Creswell’s instructions on how to determine and incorporate a theory section in qualitative and mixed methods research left me a little…off my game.  

While my background is in political science (arguably a methodologically-obsessed discipline), I have always gravitated towards political theory.  Similarly, my theoretical interests are what have brought me to this program.  The theory, for me, is the starting place.  And it’s the end point.  Rather than deductively placed at the beginning of a research project that sets to prove a hypothesis or inductively developed at the end of an undertaking, I often refer to theoretical perspectives throughout my writing.  Exploring how different ideas interact when read together, observing the ways examples can open new trajectories of thought or illuminate limitations, and crafting bringing old ideas to bear on contemporary politics (or vice versa) are all research moments where I feel comfortable.  Challenged by the content, yes. But comfortable in the process.

That said, Creswell has made me wonder about the value of this approach.  Theory begets theory, but does it do anything else?  Does it provide value that extends beyond the tiny constellation of writers I invoke and an even tinier constellation of other researchers who might be interested in the results of such work.  As I’ve noted previously, the challenge of conducting research that has a purpose that extends beyond feeding my own curiosity is something that causes me some anxiety.  In “The Use of Theory”, Creswell offers a series of “Transformative-Emanicapatory Questions”.  When first reading the chapter, I was able to pass by these questions without too much thought, as I’m fairly certain I won’t be doing the kind of on-the-ground research that would merit such considerations.  However, as I continued through the later chapters and am beginning to sketch out the parameters of my pilot project, I found Creswell’s questions bothering me more than I’d usually care to admit.

A quick aside: My pilot project, as I mentioned in class a few weeks ago engages a new site I haven’t worked on before: wedding photography.  The research I hope to do is primarily concerned with the connection between photography, memory, and narrative.  I plan to explore this connection and interrogate how it has changed with the digitization of photography and, crucially, the album.  Wedding photography is not so much the primary interest, but will serve as a particular genre of photography where memory and narrative feature prominently and digital albums are manifold.  

Creswell’s questions caused me to step back from my plans and consider the utility of my proposed research.  He asks the researcher:

“Did you deliberately search the literature for concerns of diverse groups and issues of discrimination and oppression?” {hmmm….while there are lots of avenues for exploring discrimination and oppression in the wedding industry or, more broadly, the institution of marriage, I don’t know if the taking and circulating of photos is one…}

“Will the data collection process and outcomes benefit the community being studied? {that depends, are wedding photographers and their subjects all that interested in the way they use photographs to establish a narrative of their weddings, their relationships?}

“Will the results help understand and elucidate power relationships? Will the results facilitate social change?” {yes…and no…the results might elucidate our different investments in the photographic image and how we use the process of taking photographs to orchestrate particular comportment towards one another…it might even get at the issue of memory and how we actively invoke practices of framing to ensure particular instances are heralded as our sanctioned memories and other instances go unphotographed and uncriculated, leading to their exclusion from narrative accounts…but does such results gesture toward social change? Unlikely…}

Creswell’s questions have prompted me to grapple with my sense of self as a researcher, my ethical and political commitments.  Is there a politics involved in photography?  And is it a political question worth studying?  Do our narratives and the modes by which we memorialize matter?  To these questions, I can confidently answer yes.  It’s when I move into the particularities of the research I’m proposing that I feel unsure.  I know there is something interesting going on in wedding photography, but is it a worthy site of research.  

Articulating the stakes of my research is something that has always challenged me and, as I move into the unfamiliar territory of a new site of study, I find myself unable to rely on the stakes I’ve turned to previously.  While the aim of Creswell’s chapters on theory and research design may not have been to prompt reflection on the merits of one’s proposed research, his work has sent my down this line of thought.  I don’t have a solid defence for why my research matters, here and now, but I know that going through the difficult process of building that defence is crucial to having the confidence to move on with my work and the ability to present my ideas to diverse audiences.  I look forward to the end result, but the process is going to be a rough one….

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