ACSPRI Conferences, ACSPRI Social Science Methodology Conference 2010

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The relationship between theory and practice in qualitative inquiry

Stacy M Carter, Claire Hooker

Building: Holme Building
Room: Sutherland Room
Date: 2010-12-02 03:30 PM – 05:00 PM
Last modified: 2010-11-17


This presentation begins with an observation about two key problems in qualitative inquiry at present, both concerning the relationship between theory and method. The first problem we will refer to as theory without method, and the second as method without theory. Theory without method is the pursuit of abstract conceptualisation without grounding in empirical study of the social world. Theory without method researchers tend to de-emphasise methodology, and to privilege grand theorising using extant concepts. Their work thus produces abstracted accounts that may have only a tenuous relation to the experiences, perspectives or actions of social agents. Lacking the fine-grained detail that empirical study produces, this work tends to reproduce existing theories rather than producing new insights. The methodology produced by these writers may be of limited relevance to the practice of research. Theory without method researchers tend to come from disciplines in which theory is valued more than practice. Conversely, method without theory researchers often come from practice-oriented traditions, particularly the professions. Method without theory researchers conduct empirical research, but frequently use qualitative methods as a technical ‘toolkit’, without reference to or understanding of their theoretical and conceptual foundations. They tend to present their work as a collection of ‘facts’, rather than using it to build on existing explanations of the social world. Because they have few conceptual resources to draw on, they tend to produce concrete description; the ‘facts’ that they report thus make a limited contribution to our collective understanding, and their ability to make generalising claims is restricted. We suggest that theory without method and method without theory are equally problematic, and make suggestions regarding some drivers for each in the present academic and professional environment. We will use Pierre Bourdieu, Herbert Blumer and work from the philosophy of social science to suggest two central roles for theory in research practice and provide some examples of these two uses for theory from our own research.