Theory Matters

When theory is so often assumed to be abstract or located solely in the realm of ideas, to talk of theory as material and mattering may seem off the wall. However, I want to argue that theory cannot only be a matter of significance and representation but is also one of substance and intervention. I wish to suggest that a view of theory as only being a matter of significance and representation already emerges from a set of ontological and epistemological assumptions of separation that are taken to be foundational, when this need not be the case. Separating meaning and matter, significance and substance, representing and doing, ideas and the real, theory and practice, is only one way of enacting being-in-the-world. Drawing upon what variously might be termed sociomaterialist, performative or post-human positions, I want to suggest that it is possible to re-enact theory as a matter-ing practice – of substance and significance.

What I am suggesting is that there is way of enacting theory as intervention, which is concrete, taking us closer to what is occurring rather than abstracting and moving us further from it. The assumption of separation divides theory from practice, whereas I am suggesting that theory can matter by being entangled with the material as a practice. Educational theory cannot be separate from practice, but is itself the effect of practices, of different ways of being-in-the-world, including, of course, practices which separate theory from practice.

The discourse of theory and practice frames so much educational discourse and public discourses more generally. It is a discourse that has been deployed to many effects. For some, it is a point of critique of educational research that it is over-theorised and full of jargon – technical language in other areas – and fails to engage with, inform or make a difference to educational practice. This is despite contrary evidence that much educational research is under-theorised. On this latter reading, it is the lack of, rather than too much, theory that results in limited impact emerging from educational research.

Thomas’ (2007) work has alerted us to the many meanings of theory in education, derived in particular from ancient Greek philosophy. However, the notion that theory is separate from the realm of practice is a persistent one. It often results in naïve empiricism and routinised behaviours, despite attempts to develop more reflective, action research, evidence-informed, or phronetic orientations to practice. One partial result of this separation has been the undermining of the notion of expertise and authority in educational research and the highly questionable notion that practitioner research somehow has an ‘authentic’ value when contrasted to the more sophisticated theoretical explorations of certain expert researchers. In the world of education research, unlike that of surgery, it seems at times like the work of the novice is more prized than that of the expert as somehow more authentic.

We can readily see how the discourses of theory and practice can result in a seesaw or tug of war between the two. If theory is the problem, then practice becomes the answer and practical knowing is given greater value. With this comes the valuing of practitioners’ knowing, which could be considered a non-necessary extension of the argument. While we might value research practitioners’ knowing in and about research it is less clear why we should uncritically value teacher practitioners’ knowing in and about research? I would prefer to engage with teachers’ practical knowing about teaching than their knowing about research.

There is a tendency therefore to position theory as out of touch with the ‘real’ and to privilege practice at the expense of theory. However, this is tied into a particular representationalist epistemology, in which the word and the thing, meaning and matter, object and subject, practice and theory, are clearly separated. Within this epistemological position, a gap is assumed between matter and meaning which is taken as foundational and unquestionable. This gap then has to be filled through representations, with all the problems and philosophical traditions associated with such approaches. In other words, the edifice of epistemology and the questions of how well the world has been represented in theory produces the very gap between theory and practice, meaning and matter, subject and object that it enacts as a problematic. The attempts to conjoin meaning and matter, theory and practice already presuppose and reproduce their separation precisely in order that they can be conjoined.

Drawing upon aspects of the work emerging from writers such as Judith Butler, Donna Harraway, Ian Hacking, Bruno Latour and Karen Barad, there is an alternative performative position, which does not assume the separation of theory from practice and the focus on representation. Such performative approaches reposition the notions of theory and practice as material and materialising practices. In other words, theory matters and is practical. The traces of this view can be found in, for instance, pragmatist philosophy and the work of Heidegger.

The position put forward here may appear counter-intuitive given the strength of the hegemonic practices of representation. However, it also suggests that the theory question in education is not only about which theories we mobilise, but also about which approach to theory mobilises us. While this position is not new in education, it has never really taken hold. This may be in part because much of education is precisely representational in its assumptions and practices, focussed on the development of the human subject and their cognitive acquisition of ideas. In other words, education is assumed to enact primarily learning as representation, representing objects to subjects. Without the separation of matter and meaning, there is no rationale for much of educational practice as we know it.

In layperson’s terms, I am expanding on the old adage that there is nothing as practical as a good theory. Inevitably it is not as simple as this for we need to unlearn certain ingrained habits of representation in order to enact theory differently. Alternative enactments of theory can also still be subject and recouped to a representationalist epistemology. Whether theory can escape this recoupment is obviously something that matters. Whether it matters enough to make a difference we will see.

Richard Edwards

For further elaboration of the argument, see R. Edwards (2012) ‘Theory matters: representation and experimentation in education’, Education Philosophy and Theory, 44, 5: 522-34.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.