Approaches to developing a conceptual paper
So you’ve chosen a general topic, and have narrowed the scope of your research interest. You’ve done the introductory reading, and have selected the two or three theories that are most influential on your thinking. But when it comes time to articulate the theoretical contribution of your study, you start to struggle.
You’re not alone – many of us, particularly early career researchers, find theory development especially challenging. And it’s not only within the field of childhood media studies but also across disciplines. As previously discussed, it may be that scholars encounter similar problems because there is no one way to develop theory. Generating new theory is multi-faceted and complex – whether we’re looking to link work across disciplines, bridge existing theories in new and interesting ways, update theory for the digital age or broaden the scope of our thinking.
Creating new knowledge happens by building upon carefully chosen sources of information. Like the literature review process, developing a theoretical paper requires a systematic approach. However, as opposed to the ‘gap-spotting’ method of a literature review, advancing theory requires challenging and updating the status quo of the knowledge base. I will now outline some of the processes that may serve to stimulate theoretical innovation.
1. Summarise and synthesise
When undertaking a project without empirical data, conceptual clarity and logical coherence are ever more paramount. As this multi-step process will show, analytical rigour is a prerequisite for high-level theorising. After having identified the key theories and concepts related to your research interest, it could be a useful exercise to not only create a brief summary but also to justify the selection by outlining the claims, grounds, and warrants of the selected theoretical arguments:
Claims: What is the explicit thesis?
Grounds: What reasoning is employed?
Warrants: What are the presuppositions that link grounds to claims? What assumptions need to be challenged?
By marshalling logical and epistemological evidence, you are building the foundations for a convincing argument. Furthermore, by explicating the steps of the theoretical argument and delineating the conceptual underpinnings, you may be more apt to discover the commonalities between perspectives – which will enable you to construct an innovative conceptualisation.
2. Draw theoretical connections
Upon completion of the previous step, you may come to realise that a particular theory is incomplete and that an additional theory is needed to ‘bridge the gap’, or address a shortcoming in the literature. This is often the objective of a literature review, but with regard to theory-building, identifying omissions can enhance a holistic understanding of the phenomenon. As a result, you may be better positioned to integrate theory in a new way by coherently linking piecemeal concepts across diverse bodies of literature. The theoretical linkage allows you to build a case for your theoretical statement.
As you think of your own topic in relation to children’s media research, you might want to ask yourself what tradition it fits into, and whether or not you can identify how one concept links to another. For example, this may include research that shows how children learn digital skills to connect with friends online and studies about upward social comparison on social networking sites. Your theoretical linkage would help you advance the argument that increased social media use may be connected to lower self-esteem.
The first step in simplifying this process is synthesising what is already known with what is new, so it would be useful to develop a network of theories or a visualisation of their connections. In Unlocked potential: open-access tools to jump-start the literature review process, I review some digital tools for both constructing and visualising citation networks in order to identify the most influential works in your field (with a specific emphasis on open-access articles).
3. Update existing theories
Many classic theoretical canons in child development emerged in the late 20th century, but since then, real innovation has occurred. As a network of scholars, it is our responsibility to craft new and improved conceptualisations in an evolving and complex world. The media industry is particularly fast-changing, so existing theories are likely to be refined in order to reflect the contemporary landscape. The challenge becomes making pre-digital work relevant to the current context or proposing new alternatives that remedy the alleged theoretical deficiencies. As you’re selecting classic texts, ask yourself why you are reading this now, and why it is of current interest to scholars in the field. This may generate questions that not only revitalise old discussions but also advance current conversations and stimulate new debates.
4. Reconcile tensions within and between theories
As I’ve just described, generating a new theory can be the result of synthesising and updating existing theoretical insights, or drawing connections between disparate ideas. However, after careful conceptual mapping, you may reach a ‘stop’ sign when you arrive at the ‘intersection’ of two or more ideas. The paradigms may be incommensurate, and therefore it may not be possible to integrate. For example, Bourdieu’s and Foucault’s approaches to power can appear to be irreconcilable on account of clashing epistemologies. In order to effect a productive theoretical encounter between incommensurate paradigms, you have to get creative!
Because social science is often constructed as a matter of logic (or as a method following specific procedures), the creative aspect is not often acknowledged. However, in addition to precise definitions and rigorous, analytical thinking, the use of creative techniques may bring the added benefit of being able to reconcile existing tensions.
The generation of new theory could be based on new empirical data, leading you away from previously held ideas and into new terrain. There are also several tools that focus on breaking new ground, from borrowing and blending, to abduction, to the use of metaphors and analogies (which has always helped me to not only reroute the abstract to a more concrete, accessible realm but also provide theoretical unity and coherence).
Theory-building can be a daunting process, but hopefully, this blog post provides a few ideas for breaking it down into a more manageable task. Much research in the field of children’s media studies has shown an emphasis on empirical data, but don’t be held back by a (perceived) lack of attention to theory building. There are many benefits to adding theory as a device in your researcher’s toolkit, not least of which is providing a clearer direction for future research in our field.
Dr. Miriam Rahali is a Visiting Researcher at the Department of Media and Communications, LSE. In addition to media, her interests include children, gender, and consumer behaviour. Miriam holds an undergraduate degree from Columbia University, New York, a Master’s degree in Special Education, and a PhD from LSE. She has worked on inclusive education in various roles within academia and the third sector.