Selecting Theoretical Frameworks

Academic theory is an often overlooked part of planning and writing a dissertation, almost always present but frequently playing an active role only in select portions. 

Rather than seeing theory as a check-list requirement that needs to bolted onto a fully-formed idea for an essay or dissertation, we should take some time to select the most appropriate theoretical frameworks so that it can serve to  shape our approach and guide the direction of research.

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Theory in social studies, as opposed to the physical sciences, needs to be understood as a fairly broad term. Theories have explanatory power - the ability to explain why a particular event occurred, as well as often being normative - trying to establish the best or correct way of doing something. 

However some theories also function as perspectives by which we can make sense of world events, particularly in International Relations. Realism and Liberalism especially allow us to assemble broader narratives from world history to provide context to individual issues or developments. We assemble these narratives by using foundational assumptions which help us interpret "real" events.

The United Nations is a useful example that highlights the need for theoretical perspectives. The UN is not a natural physical feature of the landscape but a constructed entity and as such requires interpretation of its role and function. Using foundational realist assumptions, a Realist will broadly interpret the UN as an arena for competing state interests while Liberals will generally view the UN as having its own institutional character and weight based upon their own key liberal assumptions.

While the relevant theoretical perspective can often be chosen on the basis of the approach to the subject, we should keep in mind that we already have our own internal views and opinions that shouldn't be completely ignored when thinking about a major piece of research or academic writing. A committed internationalist may well have trouble writing an entire dissertation through a neo-classical Realist lens for example, or a neo-Marxist may be far more comfortable working within a World System lens rather than a traditional developmental theory lens.

A research project will also frequently require explanatory frameworks as well as the broad theoretical perspectives discussed above. Explanatory frameworks attempts to explain why certain events or social phenomena occur, for example, democratisation theory attempts to provide a thorough explanation of why certain conditions produce democratic transitions and why these transitions tend to occur in groups.

Choosing this kind of explanatory theory requires identifying the key variables in the study and the relationships between those variables. Once you've identified the key variables, your theoretical framework should serve to set the bounds of your research and bring together your variables in a clear understandable manner.

If we want to understand the fragility of civil society and democracy in Nigeria, for example, we can consider our key variables to be the socio-economic conditions, concentrated power amongst elites, security concerns and a tradition of military dictatorships. Working through the literature we find a body of democratic transition theory, of which the strategic approach works best to explain the relationships between our particular variables.

While the number of applicable theories to your chosen topic are likely to be extensive (including many critical theories involving feminist, post-colonial, queer literary and other viewpoints) the key thing to remember when selecting a theory is to make sure it is able to handle all of the particular variables in your chosen topic area. The explanatory power of a theory will diminish considerably if you apply to a situation or topic where it is not able to fully explain the relationships between variables.

Neither is there necessarily a conflict between choosing both a overarching perspective, such as Realism, and a explanatory theoretical framework if your chosen study requires it. In this case however, we must be careful to select perspective and explanatory frameworks that are compatible with each other.


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