September 07, 2020

Connecting the Dots II: Linking Theory with Research, Revisited

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

Last year, I wrote about the connections between theory and research. It’s very tempting for the first-time student researcher to come up with a research topic and either ignore theories about the topic, or have difficulty integrating theories with their research question or their findings. Theories may seem abstract and sometimes difficult to grasp, while research is concrete and its results sometimes easier to digest. Connecting the two takes practice.

In last year’s post, I noted:

Theories inform the researcher before a study is undertaken as well as the reader before learning of the author’s findings. Theories provide a context within which the research can be understood.... we might consider [research]…. part of an ongoing theoretical conversation.

As a system of ideas, theories are created in conversation with research. This means that theory helps the researcher formulate their research question, the guiding question that a researcher wants to answer. Likewise, theory is modified and details are added after the findings of research are analyzed.

Research can be time consuming—and expensive—so before getting started it makes sense to see if anyone else has asked the same question, what the answer(s) to that question was, and how their findings shaped the theoretical conversation. This is how we accumulate knowledge as a discipline: we share our findings and contribute these findings to the theoretical conversations taking place.

I recently wrote about Josh Seim’s ethnographic research on ambulance workers in his book Bandage, Sort, and Hustle, which does an excellent job of connecting theory with his research. Seim focuses quite a bit on populations in poverty, and he describes how the ambulance is partly a mechanism of social control, occasionally used to remove people considered disruptive from public spaces. His work is informed by sociologist Loïc Wacquant’s macro-level discussion of the role of the state as both punitive and protective (see pages 14-15 of Bandage, Sort, and Hustle for the complete discussion).

While Seim lays out Wacquant’s ideas and draws connections with his own, he mentions an important difference between his findings and Wacquant’s:

This kind of framework tends to direct our attention away from the front lines. It glosses over the face-to-face interactions between suffering populations and the workers they interact with in welfare offices, courtrooms, homeless shelters, community clinics, and related spaces. Indeed, people are not passively arrested, hospitalized, or fed by the policies of an ambidextrous state. Others actively arrest, hospitalize, and feed them. People on the front lines do the actual labor of classifying, assisting, and punishing subjects, be they patients, inmates, or some other human category to be processed (p. 15).

Here, Seim isn’t saying that Wacquant is “wrong”—he is saying that there is a missing piece of the puzzle, which Seim's research uncovers. By adding this additional micro-level piece to Wacquant’s macro-level analysis, we get a fuller picture of the process through which disempowered people encounter institutions, such as health care and law enforcement.

Seim goes on to highlight the work of other ethnographers who look at the micro-level interactions between workers and institutions to draw connections with his own. He observes: “Studies in this vein tend to neglect the intricate forces that influence frontline labor from above,” and his research aims to fill these gaps (p. 16).

Through his review of the research of others and examination of theory, Seim proposes a theoretical concept of his own, that “the frontline regulation of urban suffering [is] a labor process (p. 17).” He connects this theoretical concept to Marx’s discussion of labor and production, continuing a centuries-old conversation about work and inequalities.

By connecting the dots between classic and contemporary theory, the research of others, and his own research, Seim’s work encapsulates the way that knowledge is produced and ideas are grounded in empirical observations. He starts by becoming familiar with the work of others to see what they have learned, and then he explores how his study can further inform their findings to broaden how we understand what he describes as “frontline governance of urban suffering” (p. 18).

Connecting theory and research isn’t always easy for new researchers, but it is essential for understanding sociological phenomenon more deeply.

For more on how Josh Seim’s book connects theory with his research, listen to the podcast here:

Josh Seim Theory and Research



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