Researching education, learning and community: building theory

Photograph: Chaos Theory by Soter Mulé. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence.

Researching education, learning and community: building theory. In this piece we examine the process of generating theory. We ask ‘what is theory?’ We also look at the process of analysis, integration and imagination. For the last of these we pay special attention to the work of C. Wright Mills.

Contents: introduction · what is theory? · models · analysis · integration · imagination · conclusion · further reading and references · how to cite this piece.

As part of our efforts as researchers we have to ‘code’ the material we have gained; and try to bridge the gap between claims and evidence via the use of warrants and qualifications. In this piece we examine the process of generating theory. This leads to an obvious question.

What is theory?

Traditionally theory is often set against something called ‘practice’. Practice in this sense can be approached as the act of doing something. ‘Theory’, crudely, can portrayed as abstract ideas about some thing or phenomenon. Thus, for many workers and informal educators, theory is what you learn in college and then apply to the situations you find in your work. The result is practice. In a similar way, community educators may talk of, for example, the failure of a group they have worked with to practice what they have learnt. In this ‘theory’ tends to be put on a pedestal. From theory can be derived general principles (or rules). These in turn can be applied to the problems of practice. Theory is ‘real’ knowledge while practice is the application of that knowledge to solve problems. In many ways, this is a legacy of Aristotle and his threefold classification of disciplines as theoretical, productive or practical.

Implicit within this are notions of thoroughness or of system. In this sense a theory can be seen as an attempt to bind together in a systematic fashion the knowledge one has of some particular aspect of the world of experience (in Honderich 1995; 2004). This binding together is seen as bringing with it:

  • explanatory power; and
  • the ability to make predictions.

In other words, it helps us to make sense of phenomenon; and to say what it is likely to happen if the same relationship applies. We might look at the functioning of a group, for example, and, after examining the situation make predictions about what may happen using, for example, Tuckman’s theory (or model) of group development – forming, storming, norming, performing.

A classic form of this approach to theory is the notion of hypothetico-deductive systems. Deduction involves beginning with a set of theories or a theory. From these are derived hypotheses. In turn these hypotheses are tested via prediction and observation. Hypotheses, predictions and testing can be seen at the heart of this approach.

  • Explanation is a matter of showing how thing happened because of the laws of the theory.
  • Prediction is a matter of showing how things will happen in accordance with the laws of the theory. (Honderich 1995)

Successful theories in this light are those that can bind or connect togetherinformation from many different (and often disparate) areas. They bring out the relationships between things.

Deduction can be set against induction. Induction begins from particular observations from which empirical generalizations are made. These generalizations, in turn, can form the basis for theory building. They are then turned into hypotheses and tested – and the circle moves on.

This is the classical view of science – but it has not gone unchallenged – for example in the work of Thomas Kuhn. We could argue that the actual practices of scientists differ from this model. The way we generate hypothesis can extraordinarily haphazard. Rather than seeing ‘theory’ as the ‘narrow province of “variables” through which the empirical problem is focused, and in terms of which the data or evidence are ultimately explained’ (Layder 1993: 14; 2005), we can approach it in a more informal way. In this sense theories can be seen as ‘networks’ or ‘integrated clusterings’ of concepts, propositions and world views (ibid.: 15). They are ‘rather more than simple specifications of the way in which two variables relate to each other in the empirical world’ (op cit.). Understanding theory in this way, argues Layder, is helps to redirect our attention to the fact that theory construction in social research is always undertaken against the background of more general, underlying, assumptions. They are not grand systems of ideas that cover, in one move, a whole area of experience, but ‘sets of theoretical models which are given empirical meaning only inasmuch as they can be applied directly to certain limited areas of empirical reality’ (Honderich 1995).


At this point it is useful just to make a short diversion to the notion of ‘model’. Sometimes people get models and theories mixed up. As Cohen and Manion (1994: 16; 2000) comment, both can be seen as explanatory devices or schemes that have a broadly conceptual framework. However, models tend to be characterized by the use of analogies or metaphors to give a more visual or graphic representation. Their task is to simplify phenomenon as an aid to explanation and conceptualization. The process of simplification gives rise to a second characteristic often associated with models – that they operate at a more general level.


Now much of what we have talked about in relation to looking at data – and coding it could be described as analysis. That is to say it has involved a process of naming and categorizing. We try to map the data we have: to develop core categories and from there to sort out sub categories. We follow a process of trying to break things down; to divide something that is apparently complex into relatively simple elements. The first step in the process of analysis, as Hammersley and Atkinson (1982: 178; 2004) have pointed out is ‘a careful reading of the data collected up to that point, in order to gain a thorough familiarity with it’. At this stage, they go on to say, ‘the aim is to use the data to think with’.

Now part of this process of categorizing is trying to decide where the boundaries of one element finishes and another begins. It also involves working out whether further variations fall under this heading or that. In the end we may end up with a sort of hierarchy of categories that looks like a picture of an organizational tree – with this sub-category answerable to that and so on.

In making these linkages there is a form of theorizing – we are seeking to connect this with that. In other words, we look for patterns. At the same time we should be on the lookout for anything that is unusual or stands out; whether there are any conflicts and contradictions between the various results we have.

In arriving at these categories we may well be picking up on words or phrases used by participants in our research. Others may be ‘observer-identified’ – they may flow from our reading of the situation as researchers. To make that reading though, we have to draw on our own repertoire of ideas and images – and to this extent our reading of a situation or naming of elements will always carry in it some theorizing; some vestiges of the theoretical and value frameworks within which we operate. (Gadamer would call this the tradition that we inhabit).

So we begin to make links, to see clusterings. At this point ‘the concepts will not be well-defined elements of an explicit theory. Rather they will take the form of “sensitizing concepts” (Blumer 1954)’ (Hammersley and Atkinson 1983: 179; 2004). Such sensitizing concepts can be an important starting point. ‘They are the germ of the emerging theory, and they provide the focus for further data collection’ (ibid.: 180).

As we get various analytical categories, we can then try to build or fit them into a theoretical scheme – we begin to integrate ideas.


For Strauss (1987: 170), ‘the most difficult skill to learn to “how to make everything come together” – how to integrate one’s separate, if cumulative, analyses. Put crudely theorizing involves connecting up the various elements involved in our research. However, many textbooks on research have little or anything to say about this area. Part of the issue here is that many texts are more focused around hypo-deductive approaches – and hence theory-testing (and revising) rather than the generation of fresh ideas (as, for example, with regard to ‘grounded’ and qualitative research). Part of the problem, I suspect, is that to theorize inevitably involves appealing to a wider system of ideas – or tradition of thought in Gadamer’s terms. The way we approach the phenomenon we are exploring will be inscribed and influenced by our theoretical, moral and political dispositions.


All of this then begs the question ‘how do ideas come?’ As C Wright Mills (1959) put it:

How is the imagination spurred to put all the images and facts together, to make images relevant and lend meanings to facts?

He answers that he does not think he can really answer that; all he can do is talk about the general conditions and a few simple techniques which seem to increase his chances of coming out with something. The sociological imagination, he reminds us, in considerable part consists of the capacity to shift from one perspective to another. It can be cultivated but involves a great deal of routine work – graft.

This shifting of perspective is something that Delamont (1993: 161; 2001) picks up on. She claims that much of the force of qualitative argument comes from drawing attention to contrasts and highlighting paradoxes to make the audience look afresh at social phenomenon. In other words, we are encouraging readers to challenge the taken for granted. A classic approach here is to set out our assumptions e.g. by exploring the ‘most obvious’ or ‘commonsense’ explanation. this can then be contrasted with the picture of ‘reality’ that we take from our particular interpretation of the data. This involves, according to Mills (1959: 211) ‘a playfulness of mind back of such combining as well as a truly fierce drive to make sense of the world’. These are two things that the technician lacks, he claims.

Mills comes up with a number of practical suggestions as to how the (sociological) imagination may be stimulated.

1. The rearranging of the file. This simple and concrete move is one way to invite imagination – according to Mills.

You simply dump out heretofore disconnected folders, mixing up their contents, and then re-sort them. You try to do it in a more or less relaxed way… Of course you will have in mind the several problems on which you are actively working, but you will also try to be passively receptive to unforeseen and unplanned linkages. (ibid.: 212)

2. An attitude of playfulness towards the words and phrases with which various issues are defined. Use a Thesaurus, look up synonyms for each of your key terms in dictionaries or in technical texts.

This simple habit will prod you to elaborate the terms of the problem and hence to define them less wordily and more precisely. For only if you know the several meanings which might be given to terms or phrases can you select the exact ones with which you want to work (ibid.)

3. Casting into types. Many of the general notions that we come upon can be cast into types. ‘A new classification is the usual beginning of fruitful developments’ (ibid.: 213).

The skill to make up types and then to search for the conditions and consequences of each type will, in short, become an automatic procedure with you. rather than rest content with existing classifications, in particular, common-sense ones, you will search for their common denominators and for differentiating factors within and between them. Good types require that the criteria of classification be explicit and systematic. To make them so you must develop the habit of cross classification. (ibid)

4. Often you get the best insights by considering extremes. This entails thinking the opposite of that with which you are concerned.

The hardest thing in the world is to study one object; when you try to contrast objects, you get a better grip on the materials and you can then sort out the dimensions in terms of which the comparisons are made. You will find that shuttling between attention to these dimensions and to the concrete types is very illuminating. (ibid.: 214)

5. Inverting your sense of proportion. The release of imagination, says Mills, can sometimes be achieved by deliberately inverting your sense of proportion.

If something seems very minute, imagine it to be simply enormous, and ask yourself: What difference might that make? And vice versa, for gigantic phenomenon.

6. Get a comparative grip on the materials. looking for comparable cases gives you leads. Look for similar events and phenomenon – and this may come from some surprising sources. Look at what is happening in parallel situations; turn to history.

7. Recognize themes by looking at what becomes repeated within different topics. In your study will explore different topics. Running through these may well be different themes – key ideas or conceptions or distinctions. In looking at the topics we may begin to see a pattern or something that is repeating. Often the key to unlocking this is to consider order. As we look at the various topics we can see that it may be helpful to consider this before that – and so on.

You will recognize these themes because they keep insisting upon being dragged in into all sorts of topics and perhaps you will feel they are mere repetitions. And sometimes they are!

We may add our own ideas to these.

8. Diagrams and pictures. Certainly one that I find of great help – especially where am I trying to work out the connections between things is to use a diagrams and pictures. Here we may lace the various elements and then try to draw lines between those that connect; or to arrange them in some order; or to place one element closer to another. Theory is concerned with inter-linkage and this is an obvious way of dramatizing that.

9. Playing with metaphors. This is really an extension of (2) and (4). The playfulness can be applied not just to comparative forms but to parallel forms. We may use a metaphor to make sense of an experience or activity.


Whatever the approach to theory making and research we take, according to Delamont (1992, 2001) – whether we work from the top-down i.e. from grand theory to the local; or bottom-up from the data – it is of fundamental importance that we are honest:

There is always a temptation to ignore the incidents or comments that do not support the general argument that is developing. Thinking about such ‘negative’ findings and interrogating them, may lead to refining the initial theoretical position, or may reveal that the negative incident is a genuinely isolated exception that ‘proves’ the initial rule. (Delamont 1992: 160)

Generating theory can be a messy and long-winded business with all sorts of false turns. Short cuts often compromise. However, the struggle can often take us toward better explanation – and at least some possibility of making predictions.

Further reading and references

Cohen, Louis and Manion, Lawrence (1994), Research Methods in Education 4e, London: Routledge.

Cohen, Louis, Manion, Lawrence and Morrison, Keith (2000), Research Methods in Education 5e, London: Routledge.

Delamont, S. (1992; 2001) Fieldwork in Educational Settings. Methods, pitfalls and perspectives, London: Routledge Falmer.

Hammersley, M. and Atkinson, P. (1983; 2004) Ethnography. Principles in practice, London: Routledge.

Hondrich, T. (1995, 2004) The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford: University of Oxford Press.

Kuhn, T. (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Layder, D. (1993) New Strategies in Social Research, Cambridge: Polity.

Layder, D. (2005) Understanding Social Theory 2e, London: Sage.

Mills, C Wright (1959) The Sociological Imagination, New York: Oxford University Press.

Strauss, A. L. (1987) Qualitative Analysis for Social Scientists, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Acknowledgements: Photograph: Chaos Theory by Soter Mulé.  Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons  Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence.

How to cite this article: Smith, Mark K. (1999). ‘Building theory’, the encyclopedia of informal education, [ Retrieved: insert date].

© Mark K. Smith 1999

Last Updated on October 18, 2019 by