How to Name and Claim Your Theoretical Approach

Since I launched Liberate Your Research, one thing is now more clear to me than ever before. Radical scholars, especially interdisciplinary activist scholars, face disproportionate levels of overwhelm and anxiety in academia.

Lacking go-to theories, or theoretical blueprints, contributes to these challenges.

Compounding matters, fields like Cultural Studies, Ethnic Studies, and/or Gender Studies often lack training in how to claim and name your theoretical approach and interventions.

The struggle to name and claim our ideas can lead to confusion over where our interventions begin or end. Even worse, we second guess our ideas, over-anticipating and internalizing our readers’ potential critiques.

Over time, these issues can foster what many of us experience as imposter syndrome, or the sense that just maybe, I have nothing to say after all.

To name and claim my theoretical approach, I developed this strategy:

First, I give my theoretical approach a name of my own that draws upon my own life experiences and activism, not only other academic theories. For example, in my book, Arab America, I name my approach, Diasporic Arab Feminist Critique.

Second, I clarify why I am bringing these concepts (diasporic, Arab, feminist, critique) together and how they relate to each other. In Arab America, I write that Diasporic Arab Feminist Critique is an analytical tool kit that helps me critique heteropatriarhcy among Arab communities without reifying Orientalism (page 249).

When  I started writing Arab America, I believed I had nothing new to say because I was applying existing approaches that did not align with my own research, life commitments, and ways of seeing the world. I ended up believing that I didn’t know how to analyze research material, that there was something wrong with me.

By making up my own name for my approach, it turned out I had a lot to say about my research. That was when my writing began to flow.

Here’s what you can do to name and claim your approach:

(1) Stop giving your power away by putting other people’s ideas on a pedestal and granting them more value than your own.

(2) Integrate what you already know with the frameworks you are learning from the university.

(3) Embrace the idea that everyone has a theory and that “theory” is just another word for how you approach the task of analyzing the world.

(4) Claim your own life experiences, cultural sensibilities, and the knowledge that comes from your communities as fundamental to your theoretical approach.

(5) Make stuff up! Boldly, and unapologetically, make up a name for your approach, give it a name, and then step by step, spoonfeed what it means to your reader.

(6)Contact me to learn more about how you can Liberate Your Research.

Nadine Naber

Nadine Naber is professor of gender and women’s studies and global Asian studies, and interim director of the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author and/or co-editor of five books, including Arab America: Gender, Cultural Politics, and Activism (NYU Press, 2012) and Color of Violence (Duke University Press, 2016). She is a TEDx speaker, board member of the Arab American Action Network, co-founder of Mamas Activating Movements for Abolition and Solidarity, founder of Liberate Your Research, founder of the Arab American Cultural Center, and co-founder of the Arab and Muslim American Studies Program (University of Michigan). Nadine is a Public Voices fellow, columnist for the Chicago Reporter, recipient of the American Studies Association Carl Bode-Norman Holmes Pearson Lifetime Achievement Prize and the YWCA's Y-Women's Leadership Award.

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