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Critical Theoretical Research Methods in Education

Edited by Cheryl E. Matias, PhD



In educational research, theory is often narrowly conceived as an epistemological stance that undergirds scholars’ framing of empirical data analysis. Moving beyond empiricism’s limited imagination of theory, this handbook approaches theory as a method for doing theoretical research. The book seeks to address three main questions: (1) How does theory operate as a methodological approach for doing theoretical research? (2) What are the various existing critical theoretical frames that can be utilized as theoretical research methods? (3) How do the insights that theoretical research, rooted in theoretical research methods, contribute understandings of education that non-theoretical research often fails to grasp? While there may be a wide number of ways to do theoretical research, we are focusing on critical theoretical research because we connect such research to emancipatory counter-ideologies. Therefore, it is a political project not presuming itself to be neutral. Drawing from the works of various scholars in subfields of education, this handbook identifies the theoretical methodologies and applications of critical hermeneutics, phenomenology, psychoanalysis, critical theory methods, and semiotics (to name a few). Thus, this handbook seeks to provide the discipline of education new and old ways of engaging theorizing such that we can better understand the educational context of today.



From more traditional qualitative approaches (Denzin, 2010) to more novel approaches like Youth Participatory Action Research (Mirra, Garcia, & Morrell, 2016), educational research continues to expand in its methodological applications. As methodological approaches expand, the hope is that our understanding of the complexities of education deepens. Yet, this recent methodological expansion has been uneven. Backlash against theoretical research methods, including those prominently used in yesteryear’s research on education (e.g., Dewey, 1916; Freire, 1993), has problematically reasserted empiricism as the dominant methodological discourse-practice. Specifically, empiricism continues to push hermeneutics, ontology, phenomenology, critical theory methods, psychoanalysis, and the use of the sociological imagination (Mills, 1959), to name a few, to the margins. This backlash is seen when critical manuscripts, research projects, and tenure dossiers employing theoretical research methods are overlooked, rejected, or rendered “not empirical enough” for recognition, acceptance/publication, or tenure and promotion.


To assuage this backlash, the largest professional educational research organization, the American Educational Research Association, published a 2009 statement promoting what they described as humanities-oriented research, or, in other terms, theoretical research, as a valid approach to educational research. In fact, they even instituted an online label in the annual conference proposal submission process where authors can select “theoretical/conceptual” as their methodology. But despite this public recognition of theoretical research, many education scholars seem increasingly suspicious of what constitutes theoretical research methods in education and skeptical of how it can be applied positively to today’s educational context. This is due in part to the overwhelming absence of theoretical research methodology courses in graduate schools of education. So, unsurprisingly, it is common for authors of theoretical papers to not articulate their methodology, assuming theoretical/conceptual papers cannot apply theory as method, or not knowing how to articulate that type of methodological discourse. To address this void, this edited handbook explicitly details various theoretical research methods and offers examples of how such methods are applied to educational contexts and problems.


To date, there are no theoretical research methods books in education. Therefore, this proposed handbook is novel in its own right for the field. Thus, there is a clear need for a handbook on theoretical research methods in education. This book is an essential handbook that would expand educational research methods courses, perhaps paving the way for courses on theoretical research methodologies, by 1) detailing how various existing theories are in fact methods and 2) demonstrating the application of theoretical research methods in various subfields in education. The main focus of the book is to present a case for theoretical research as method in education by highlighting the following theoretical methods (but not be limited to): critical hermeneutics, ontology, racial psychoanalysis, queer phenomenology, sociological imaginative applications, methodologies of the oppressed, critical theory methods, and semiotics. By presenting these theories as methods, the handbook seeks to provide the discipline of education a creative and critical synthesis of new and old theoretical ways of understanding the educational context.

To be clear, this book is a critique of empiricism. Though some empirical research do utilize a critical sociological imagination that is quite in-step with the ideological offerings found in this book, empiricism is a research ideology that, at times, falls into the trap of either objectivism (where objects exist free of being politically constructed) or subjectivism (where subjectivities exist free of being politically constructed). And although these two may fight one another for dominance, they often unify against critical theoretical research because it challenges the bases of their claims and interests. Also, because critical theoretical research produced through critical theoretical methodologies is situated at the bottom of a research status hierarchy in the academy and elsewhere, “empirically-based” research is given more institutional and structural power. The books aims to reveal this power dynamic while showing how critical theories can be utilized as methodologies for the creation of insightful critical theoretical scholarship in education.  



Since this is a pedagogical methods handbook I have asked contributing authors the following subheadings:

1)         THEORY DESCRIPTION: describe what theory you are using, where does this theory derive from, why is it relevant, what social structure does it critique, why is it necessary in educational research, and how they are employing it methodologically. If offering an amalgamation or fusion of two theories then describe where they both derive from and why must be they fused together to help one critically explore power dynamics in education.

2)         MODELING APPLICATIONS: Apply that theoretical methodology as a method to investigate a topic of their choice. Here are some examples:

a.          how one can use critical hermeneutics as a method to interrupt dominant ideologies that playout in educational leadership

b.         how does critical semiotics as a method help one understand the subjugation of bilingual students

c.          showing how Bakhtin’s literary critique can be applied to pedagogies for media literacy

3)         IMPLICATIONS: describe how this applied theory as method offers something that traditional empirical methods cannot.

·           Abstracts are to be no longer than 400 words and should explain how you will address each of the three outlined sections above. Chapters will have a 6,000-7,000 word limit and must be submitted in APA format as a Word doc.

·           Please email directly to with the subject line “Critical Theoretical Research Methods Abstract Submission.”

·           Please include your name, position/title, and institution in your abstract

·           Please label the file as follows: last name, first name_Proposed Abstract Title

·           Due April 1, 2020

·           Feel free to contact me for any questions about the overall project or your chapter and topic choice at .

·           Below is an estimated timeline of the project.



April 1

Abstracts due

May 1

Notification of Selection

September 1

Chapters due

November 1

Revisions due

December 1

Final Submission

January 2021

Publication Date