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Engaging with postgraduate research: education, childhood & youth
Engaging with postgraduate research: education, childhood & youth

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2.5 Thinking about epistemological positions

In this section you will explore two dominant theoretical positions and locate them in their particular research paradigm.

Activity 6 Personal views about theory and practice links

Timing: Allow approximately 30 minutes

Consider your own professional or chosen research context and write down your thoughts in response to the following questions.

  • What is there to know in your professional context that could potentially be the subject of your research? (Be guided by what you would be interested in finding out).
  • Where might you look in order to investigate it? Why? (Consider whether you think there is a single reality to be identified and measured, or multiple realities that might require unpacking or interpretation).
  • What does your response to the above suggest about how you see the relationship between theory and practice?

Your responses to this activity will hopefully have steered you towards thinking constructively about the role theory can play in your research. The next activity asks you to stand back from your own position as a researcher and consider how researchers are held accountable in terms of their use of theory. What are the expectations of you about why, how and when theory should inform your research?

Activity 7 Theory – practice links

Timing: Allow approximately 1 hour 30 minutes

Go to the link below to review the Teaching and Learning Research Briefing No. 80, ‘Quality criteria for the assessment of education research in different contexts’ (TLRP, 2009). Please note that this article has much broader appeal beyond educational research and is also relevant to postgraduate researchers of other disciplines outside of education.

You do not need to read all of this paper. Instead you should ensure you have sufficient familiarisation with the topic to be able to appreciate the context for the text outlined in the boxes in the briefing. We suggest starting with the introduction (pages 1-2), then reviewing the criteria for judging journal publications (Box 1.1) and the funding of developmental and practice-based research (Box 2.3).

As you read, look for, and make notes on, where ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ are directly referred to, as well as ‘rationale’, ‘conceptual’ and words starting with the stem ‘methodolog...’. Then make notes on the similarities and differences between the criteria in these respects, using the questions below as a guide.

  • In what ways are theory and practice referred to?
  • What do these references suggest to you about expectations of researchers in relation to their use of theory and practice?
  • How are conceptualisation and methodology helpful in making a case for research when publishing in a journal and/or applying for research funding?

You should open the paper in a new tab or window by holding down Ctrl (or Cmd on a Mac) when you click on the link.

Quality criteria for the assessment of education research in different contexts [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]


When researchers publish, there is an audience which expects quality in what they produce. One aspect of this is ensuring that the work relates to previously published work and is building on this. This includes taking ideas and being clear about how they are being used. This involves a researcher making explicit their theoretical position, the meaning they are applying to the use of particular words, and showing how this has led them to apply a certain approach to gathering evidence and/or presenting their research. These points relate to whether research is being presented in a journal (as covered in Box 1.1 of the briefing) or proposed to funders (as covered in Box 2.1 of the briefing).

In your own reading of journal articles, you might already have become aware that papers need not be based on data (called empirical papers) but can also be theoretical position pieces which set out a case and present lines of argument. Both can be said to make original contributions to academic knowledge. Both can also be argued to make contributions to practice knowledge as well. The latter would be particularly expected in publications with a stated practitioner or policymaker audience.

Funders too need to be convinced that the study they are being asked to fund will make a significant and original contribution and will be of high quality. They also need to be convinced that the study proposed does not ignore previously published ideas about theory and practice but will still offer a new approach and insights. They will need to be reassured that the researcher is clear how they are both using theory and contributing to its advancement.