15 clarifications on the tyranny of ‘theoretical framework’ in Nigerian universities

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In an earlier article titled “The academic nonsense called ‘theoretical framework’ in Nigerian universities“, Moses Ochonu identified the misuse of theoretical framework in academic researches in the humanities, particularly in Nigerian universities. In this article, he clarifies further on that.

I was not making a general statement about the importance or place of theory in academic research. The key phrases were “as practiced in Nigeria” and “in Nigerian universities.” I have seen this problem myself when reading Nigerian dissertations as part of my own research and as part of my external examination for Nigerian universities. Here are the problems:

1. Students are required to adopt a theoretical framework for the research with no justification for why it is necessary or suitable for their topic or research questions.

2. In MOST cases, the choice of theory is arbitrary, a perfunctory exercise with no correlation to the empirical and analytical aspects of the research in question. It can be quite jarring and awkward to encounter this dissonance.

3. In most cases, the theoretical framework is simply an unquestioning appropriation of an existing theory (or theories), instead of a critical engagement with it (them) in light of the insights from the current research. It is like putting a gown on a body that it does not fit but putting it on it anyway without bothering to explain why.

4. In MOST cases, the so-called theoretical framework is an entire chapter, sometimes the longest chapter in the dissertation, drowning out what, if any, original research and analysis exists in the work.

5. In MOST cases, the separate “theoretical framework” chapter or section is redundant and unnecessary because the theoretical discussion can be integrated into the introduction and conclusion or even the literature review section. So the problem is both a structural and epistemological one. In practical terms, it also awkwardly breaks the coherence of the text, hurting its readability.6. In MOST cases, because the “theoretical framework” is a requirement, students simply plagiarize theories previously adopted by others or their supervisors or that they found randomly through internet searches.

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They don’t even bother to reinterpret the theory in their own words and instead simply reproduce the original theoretical postulation. This is because they don’t even understand the theory let alone its relation to their research. They are simply fulfilling a requirement, without which they will not be allowed to defend their dissertation or graduate.

7. All topics do not lend themselves to theorization to the same degree, so requiring all dissertating students to have a theoretical framework is silly. If a work has a strong data/empirical base, is rigorously analyzed, and has a coherent, original argument (or a set of arguments) that is carried through the dissertation, that should suffice. Theory should not be forced on a work simply because you want to make it appear more serious or consequential. Whether the work employs a deductive or inductive approach (moving from the general or axiomatic to the specific or the other way around), rigor and originality are paramount and should trump an artificial, forced theory requirement.

8. All disciplines are not equally theory-inclined. In my field of history for instance, we treasure a solid original research. We treasure a great analysis. We treasure the formulation and demonstration of a compelling argument. All of these do not have to conduce to theorization, and we don’t require it. If a historian feels like theorizing, they may do so but first, they cannot put the theory before the analysis or let it prejudice the analysis, and second, they cannot expect that a theory, no matter how sexy, can make up for bad data, research, analysis, and argumentation.

9. Along those lines, In MOST cases, as practiced in Nigeria, there is no original theorization (and of course no critique of existing theories), which defeats the logic of theoretical scholarship.

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10. The title “theoretical framework” is stifling of original research and original theorization in the Nigerian context because it is an alibi to cover a multitude of scholarly sins. But beyond that, because the adopted “theoretical framework” is considered paradigmatic and infallible (the final word as it were), it prevents or silences any original theoretical contributions the student’s work may throw up. If a work has theoretical implications and original theoretical insights, students should be encouraged to highlight them without being hamstrung by an arbitrarily borrowed “theoretical framework.”

11. If a work has theoretical dimensions or potentials, titles such as “theoretical reflections” or “theoretical insights” or similar ones are more appropriate, for they give the student the permission and flexibility to highlight and boldly showcase the theories or theoretical insights from their work. The rigid and imposed category of “theoretical framework” undermines original theorization. Nigerian academics and students tend to understand “framework” as a box or container that houses their research work, a restrictive space from which their work should not and cannot deviate. “Theoretical framework” is thus counterproductive and restrictive.

12. Requiring a definitive “theoretical framework” at the proposal stage, that is, prior to fieldwork or archival work or engagement with text (depending on the discipline and methodology) constrains the work and predetermines its trajectory. It also diminishes the value of discovery in research, analysis, and argument since a supposedly theoretical paradigm is assumed to supersede whatever insights or theories the data or analysis throws up.

13. In MOST cases, the theoretical framework adopted has two egregious problems: it is outmoded/outdated and it is Eurocentric, explaining a Euro-American phenomena or experience. In some cases the theory is even informed by racist assumptions, conjectures, research, and arguments. I often shake my head when I read dissertations and articles written by Nigerian students and scholars that quote or uncritically adopt theories propounded in the 1940s and 1950s by white people, most of whom are dead and may have been infected by the prejudices of their times. As a student of social theory myself, I know that no respectable academics cite those theories today as they are considered obsolete and as new theoretical approaches have supplanted them. If you must adopt a theoretical framework (I prefer critical engagement with relevant theories), at least pick out current theories with purchase in the global academy and in your specific field today. I also shake my head when I see Nigerian scholars citing theories whose racist genealogies have already been critiqued to death.

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14. In MOST cases, even when the adopted “theoretical framework” is not racist, because it is set in a Euro-American or other foreign contexts, it bears little relevance to our African realities and has the capacity to overdetermine or even colonize the illumination of such realities. The work of decolonizing African knowledge includes theorizing smartly from the right premise and using the tools of scholarly skepticism and criticism to engage theories with experiential, empirical, and scholarly roots elsewhere.

15. A blanket, imposed, rigidly enforced requirement for all students research projects to have a theoretical framework is both stupid and counterproductive, but if a particular research topic lends itself to theorization and theoretical engagement, we have many African theorists in the African humanities and humanistic social sciences to look to: Achille Mbembe, VY Mudimbe, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Archie Mafeje, Oyeronke Oyewumni, Ify Amadiume, Kwesi Wiredu, Nimi Wariboko, Mahmoud Mamdani, Ato Quayson, etc. If we prefer dead theorists, there are also many: Cheikh Anta Diop, Samir Amin, Magema Fuze, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Frantz Fanon, etc.

Professor Moses Ochonu writes from Nashville, the United States

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