Do you ever feel like you “can’t write theory”?
If so, you’re not alone.
Most of my workshop participants say that “writing theory” makes them feel:
tortured | overwhelmed | stuck | in chaos | like an imposter
But it’s not you! It’s what Barbara Christian affirmed decades ago—that dominant disciplinary structures distinguish between analytics that deserve to be counted as “real theory” and those that deserve to be devalued. Since intersectional scholarship necessitates crafting innovative interdisciplinary frameworks, many of us will, at one point or another, bump up against the devaluing of our analytics.
In How to Name and Claim your Theoretical Approach, I showed how giving our theoretical/analytical framework a name of it’s own (such as “diasporic Arab feminist critique”) can help us work through oppressive thoughts such as, “I have nothing new to say” or “I am not a real scholar.”
Here, I share the steps I use to write out my approach after I’ve named it.
- I use first-person voice
- I write at the level of emerging ideas
- I clarify the connections between the concepts that make up my theoretical/analytical approach
Use First-Person Voice
Before writing a research proposal, essay, or book, I use a first-person voice to define the assumptions I hold about the main concepts I bring to my project. After all, a theoretical framework is merely a concept or set of concepts I bring together to help me understand my research topic or thematic.
For example, if my theoretical framework is “activist mothering for prison abolition,” I ask myself:
What assumptions do I hold about activist mothering and abolition?
I think through how I personally (or collectively) define and conceptualize “activism,” “mothering” and “prison abolition.” I cite the scholarship and activism I am building upon while affirming my specific and intentional uses of these concepts. If I need to write in the third-person, I revise it after I’ve affirmed my ideas.
Write at the Level of Emerging Ideas
Rather than writing in a voice that asserts a claim (i.e. Activist mothering is a powerful force for abolishing prisons), I write to clarify the assumptions I hold about my concepts (i.e. I assume that activist mothering can operate as a powerful force for abolishing prisons). By treating my concepts as emerging rather than established, I write what I assume might be possible if I were to use this concept (i.e. activist mothering) to guide my analysis. These phrases help me write at the level of emerging ideas:
- I assume that “activist mothering” is…
- I bring “activism” and “mothering” together because I consider…
- I expect “activist mothering” to…
- The concept of “activist mothering” allows me to focus on…
Clarify the connections between concepts
Dr. Suad Joseph’s invaluable trainings in the art of proposal writing taught me the power of legitimizing and explaining my approach. I implement this by showing why and how I bring particular concepts together and I explain what it does for my larger research project to do so.
I use these questions to guide me:
- Why do I define my concepts in this particular way?
- Why did I bring this particular set of concepts together (i.e. activist mothering and abolition)?
- What do the assumptions I hold about my concept(s) allow me to understand about my larger research question or thematic?
- How do I think activist mothering might relate to prison abolition?
- If I were to explore prison abolition through the concept of activist mothering, what might that allow me to understand?
- Why do I think activist mothering is a useful concept for understanding prison abolition?
- What does my conceptualization of “activist mothering” do in relation to what I’m trying to understand?
Here is what writing on the level of emerging ideas while elucidating why I use particular concepts might look like:
I assume that activist mothering is a form of reproductive labor that contributes to social change. This conceptualization allows me to pay attention to how feminized forms of activist labor such as care work contribute to prison abolition. It also allows me to pay attention to forms of activist labor that have been obscured by the dominance of masculinized forms of labor such as political speeches.
There is no single strategy for ‘writing theory.” But I believe all of us are already well resourced to affirm our own analytics.