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On the role of theory, researcher accountability and translation

Wendy Freeman comments on my post on the role of theory:

I think that in this sense theory distances people from the way that others view a particular event or book or technology or …. Viewing everyday practice through a particular theoretical lens is exciting because it gives depth to what we see, but trying to communicate that to others is a challenge. We lack a common language. Is this another social dimension to learning? Developing a shared way of looking at something? Of course, it’s called different things, shared beliefs, shared understanding, shared language, or shared theoretical frameworks.

Right on the point. Going further into theoretical explanations gives depth to the phenomenon you study, but it also deepens the gap between you as a researcher and others (people in general, people you study, other researchers who happen to go deep into other theories).

It is also about choices to whom you are accountable as a researcher. You have to satisfy your research community, taking care of theories, rigor and transparency. But going to far into that has risks of disconnecting with the reality and doing research just for the sake of intellectual curiosity.

For me research is about impact. Of course, intellectual curiosity, contribution to a theory and rigor should be there, but for me my own research makes sense only if it makes a difference in the lives of people. People who may or may not understand the language of theory.

Researchers make their own choices about that. Some would choose hunting for treasures deep in the theory land and let others bring it back to the world just because this enables them to go further. Others would take extra effort not to bring it back (at all or during the study time), out of ethical concerns (do you have a right to change the way indigenous people live with all your ideas on how things could be different?) or methodological consideration (keeping distance helps to avoid “polluting your data”*). I guess I belong to another group, those who feel that bringing it back is part of the research itself.

I’m not the first one to bring it up (and the researcher in me says that I should dig out references to “earlier work” :). It’s only now I’m starting to articulate** my implicit beliefs in researcher’s accountability to the broader community than his or her research peers, the responsibility to bring the research results back from the theory land to where most people live, either by translating them into everyday words, teaching the language of theory or even involving them as co-researchers…

*Although the concern is reasonable, I hate this expression.

** Heavily influenced by conversations at AOIR, especially those with Terri Senft, Annette Markham, Abby Goodrum and kat jungnickel.

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Archived version of this entry is available at http://blog.mathemagenic.com/2005/10/19.html#a1699; comments are here.

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