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Exploring doctoral students' theory choices in education.

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The use of theory, regarded as a set of structured lenses or frameworks through which phenomena can be systematically analysed or explained (Klette, 2012; Johnson & Christensen, 2007), and deemed central to the entire research process, is not without contention. Contentious issues relate to theory as occupying a nebulous position due to its borrowing from the natural sciences for academic legitimacy, and an inherent hegemony that entrenches the status quo (Thomas, 1997; Carr; 2006). Given the link between knowledge production and theory, and that locating a theoretical framework forms a major part of doctoral students’ deliberations, the study sought to explore and understand the process by which doctoral students chose their theories for their doctoral research. A review of the academic literature provided the historical and definitional aspects of theory, some of the contestations about the meanings and uses of theory, and an evaluation of issues as they pertained to particular developments within tertiary education and postgraduate knowledge generation. Although the social sciences have a diverse array of theories to choose from, the literature did not specifically reveal how doctoral students choose theories. Against this background, this qualitative study, which initially adopted an interpretivist case study approach incorporating purposive sampling, was located at the Faculty of Education at a university in South Africa and focused on five doctoral students who completed their doctoral theses in Education, in the period 2006 to 2011. The study asked the key questions, how do doctoral students choose their focal theories for their study, and why do they do so? To explore doctoral students’ theory choices, the study drew on the salient features of two dominant psychological and cognitive theories, viz., the Information Processing Approach and Prospect Theory (Beresford & Sloper, 2008; Payne & Bettman, 2004). The emergent data suggested that for the students in this study, factors like academic context, sociocultural background, intuition, worldviews and knowledge influenced their theory choices. However, several deeper issues emerged which the psychological and cognitive theories of decision-making were inadequate in addressing, particularly issues of power, and the dichotomies of east/west, north/south influences on knowledge generation. Due to the lack of criticality, and the inability of these models to provide a deeper analysis for the why question, the study motivated for the shift to a critical stance, underpinned by the Decolonial Turn, which included an array of positions that viewed coloniality as the problem confronting the modern world (Maldonado-Torres, 2011). The literature on Said’s Postcolonial theoretical views on Orientlalism, Gayatri Spivak on the subaltern, Southern Theory by Connell, and Decolonial Theory by Quijano, Mignolo and Grosfoguel was reviewed, and decolonial theory was used to analyse the data from a critical stance. It is suggested that while insertions from the North and West may continue to determine particular theoretical inclinations and choices of theory on the part of doctoral students in the periphery, an epistemic shift is occurring in the South. This is supported by the observations from the data that, participants tended toward critical, feminist, gender, postcolonial and postmodern theoretical underpinnings, were conscious of the impingement of West/Eurocentricism on their choices and knowledge production, and open to alternate knowledge frameworks. Finally, the concept of epistemic dissonance is proposed as necessary to delink from the status quo, suggesting it as a means to confront our assumptions about culture and history, and re-conceptualize our research in the context of sensitivity to difference, and facilitate a change in consciousness of students towards disrupting particular epistemic gridlocks on theory choices.


Ph. D. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban 2015.


Education -- Research -- Philosophy., Critical theory., Critical pedagogy., Theses -- Education.