Connecting with theory

My current ‘non-research’ reading list – I alternate between fiction and non-fiction

I have spent the past 20 years in the public sector focussing on Plain English writing. Stepping back into academia, it feels like everyone is speaking a different language. Nearly six months into my PhD candidature there are still moments when I feel completely out of my depth.

There are theorists that I have heard of at best, but never read, and theoretical concepts that I have no grasp of at all. However, I am starting to notice my vocabulary expanding and I am making connections between the theories I am studying and what I am reading for pleasure.

I recently finished Austin Channing Brown’s (2018) I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. Rather than delve into the many lessons that white people like me can take from this book, I want to touch on how it helped me to understand the reading I was doing for my PhD.

For my methodology I was reading a book on action research by Stringer (2007) in which he quoted Foucault (1972 and 1984). Foucault is one of those theorists that I have heard of but never read before. In my reading of Stringer’s references to Foucault, I felt he was speaking to the racial justice issues raised by Brown.

Foucault suggests that humans are subject to oppression not only because of the large-scale systems of control and authority but also due to the accepted practices that are enacted in daily life, sometimes unconsciously. Rewards (promotion, acceptance, funding) go to those who can influence or reinforce the established systems and policies. To overcome this bias, we need to open ourselves up to diverse perspectives. These points are still being made by Brown nearly 50 years later.

Another connection I made between Brown’s book and my research was on actor-network theory. In reflecting on the June 2015 killing of nine black parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by a white supremacist Brown (2018:154) states,

“I’ve never stepped foot in Mother Emanuel, the loving nickname for that Charleston church. I don’t know any of the congregation members, and I had never heard the name of its beloved pastor, or of any of the people killed that night. And yet, despite the geographical gap, it felt as if my own home church had been violated”.

This geographical gap was collapsed because of the network of the church, a connection to people with similar beliefs and practices. Latour (1996) explains that networks remove the tyranny of distance or proximity, enabling human and non-human entities to connect with each other although far apart. It enables us to think of the global as local. Brown shared a connection with terror in this situation but the theory can be used to explain many different relationships.

I have a lot more reading to do before I can clearly articulate the theoretical framework for my PhD. Progress feels slow at times but each bit of reading, and writing, helps me to clarify what does and does not work in the context of my research.

*Edit: After writing this post I became aware of the allegations of child sexual abuse and general colonialist approach of Foucault These alleged actions are reprehensible. However, as described by Stringer (2017), his work suggested an understanding of social inequality that felt relevant today but is a stark contrast to the behaviour indicated in the accusations.

Reference and reading list

Brown, A.C. (2018) I’m still here: Black dignity in a world made for whiteness, Random House, USA.

Foucault, M. (1972) The archaeology of knowledge, Random House, New York.

Foucault, M. (1984) in Rabinow, P. (ed.) The Foucault reader, Penguin, Harmondsworth UK.

Latour, B. (1996) “On actor-network theory: A few clarifications”, Soziale Welt, 47(4), 369-381. Retrieved 12 May 2021 from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40878163.

Stringer, E.T. (2007) Action research, Third edition, Sage Publications Inc, Los Angeles.

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