On the use of theories in research

Daniel Gile


In ESP research, theories have operational functions, in particular providing a coherent mental construct to account for and predict certain parts of reality which can be tested and confirmed, falsified or shown to have weaknesses so that improvements can be made. Theories also guide researchers’ thoughts along certain lines when considering the phenomenon at hand - and thus may prevent them from taking other directions which might be just as productive if not more productive, as LAP scholars correctly point out. Theories can also be invoked as a statement explaining what school(s) of thought the author identifies with or feels close to. However, if the author of a thesis or a dissertation announces that his/her work has something to do with a theory, the usual expectation is that the work will indeed relate to the theory in a meaningful way, not be neutral to it. For instance, the approach taken could be clearly be identified as relating to this particular theory, or the author’s research question could be clearly related to it. For instance, if an author announces s/he is working within ESIT’s Interpretive theory (AKA théorie du sens), it makes sense that s/he would be trying to show that deverbalization occurs (the stripping away of the linguistic ‘envelope’ from the ST as to be able to reformulate the intended message on the sole basis of the intended meaning of the author). However, if said researcher devotes his/her work to a comparison between the ST and the TT on a linguistic basis, the reference to Interpretive theory is meaningless. Similarly, if an author announces that s/he will take up a historical translation event under the foreignization vs. domestication question and goes on to offer a narrative description of the event without addressing the foreignization vs. domestication issue, the reference to the theoretical framework is meaningless. This does not necessarily deprive a work of its analytical, factual, methodological or other value, but it does reflect a weakness in the author’s grasp of how various components of research come together in scholarly work. When assessing doctoral dissertations, such a weakness may lead members of a doctoral committee to doubts about giving the candidate a qualification to guide other young scholars’ work.

            Students working on their thesis or dissertation would do well to remember that explicit theories are not mandatory in research, and that if they are mentioned as relevant to their work, they have got to make sure relevance is shown. Once they have finished their work, they can read it again and ask themselves whether it is clear that this particular theory directed their questions and action in a certain direction and whether they could not have conducted the same research without the theory. If the latter is the case, they should think twice about keeping the reference to it as the conceptual framework in their study.