The academic nonsense called ‘theoretical framework’ in Nigerian universities

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By Moses Ochonu

Why do Nigerian universities require ALL academic dissertations in the social sciences and humanities to include a section called “theoretical framework”?

There is no logic or compelling scholarly reason other than the inexplicable Nigerian desire for regimentation, uniformity, and unnecessary complication.

And of course, there is the ego and procedural obsession factor: they made us do this, so now that we’re professors, our students have to do it too.

First of all, what is the point of requiring “theoretical framework” of everyone in the social science and humanities as if all topical explorations have to have theoretical endpoints? Some topics, by their nature, lend themselves to theoretical explorations and reflections. Others don’t and that’s okay. As long as the scholarship is rigorous and has a structuring set of arguments that are borne out by the data, it is fine.

Not all works have to be theoretically informed or make theoretical contributions. In historical scholarship for instance, a good narrative that is framed in a sound argument is what we’re looking for, not forced theoretical discussions.

There are disciplinary differences that make the blanket imposition of the theoretical framework requirement silly. For some disciplines, theory and theoretical framing are integral to their practice.

For others, that is not the case. Literary scholarship, for instance, may be more theoretical than other fields. While requiring students in literary studies to write in the theoretical vocabulary of the field or to engage with consequential theoretical conversations of the field or at least demonstrate some familiarity with these conversations, requiring a history and education student to do the same is stupid.

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And even in the theory-inclined fields, not all topics are theory-laden or require theoretical explorations.

Secondly, theory can never be imposed or should never be imposed. That produces bad scholarship. Requiring students to have a theoretical framework even before they’ve done the research or analyzed their data prejudges the work and imposes a predetermined direction and outcome on the dissertation.

It amounts to doing scholarship backwards. It stifles scholarly innovation and originality. More tragically, requiring a theoretical framework upfront is bad scholarly practice because it disrespects the data and the analysis/arguments that the data supports.

Thirdly, imposing the “theoretical framework” requirement reverses the proper order of the empirical/theoretical dyad. Even in scholarship that lends itself to theoretical reflection and arguments, such theories emanate from the work, from a rigorous distillation of the theoretical implications and insights of the analysis. Imposing theory by choosing some random theory of some random (probably dead) white person defeats the purpose and silences the potential theoretical contributions of the dissertation.

It is during the process of data analysis and the development of the work’s arguments and insights that its theoretical implications and its connections to or divergence from existing theoretical postulations becomes clear, giving the scholar a clear entry point to engage critically with the existing theoretical literature and to highlight the theoretical contributions and insights of the work in relation to existing theories. Proper theorizing flows from compelling analysis of data, not the other way round.

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If a topic has theoretical dimensions, why not simply, as a supervisor, encourage the student to 1) be conscious of the theoretical implications and insights, and 2) highlight these theoretical interventions? Why is a “theoretical framework” section needed? And if you must carve out a section, why not title it “theoretical insights”?

Doing so gives the student the leeway and incentive to actually reflect on and then highlight the work’s theoretical insights (in relation to other theories) instead of blindly dropping the names of some white theorists, whose theories may or may not relate to his work, just to fulfill the requirement of having a so-called theoretical framework? Why do you have to require an arbitrary, mechanical section on theoretical framework?

The result of the current requirement in Nigerian universities is that students who have theoretical statements to make through their work cannot do so because the “theoretical framework” requirement merely demands a mechanical homage to existing theories and neither produces a critical assessment of or engagement with such theories nor a powerful enunciation of the work’s theoretical takeaways. As practiced in Nigeria, the blanket theoretical framework requirement is nothing more than an annoying, one-size-fits-all name dropping exercise that destroys a dissertation’s originality by imposing an awkward theory on it.

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And, by the way, every work has theory that is either explicit or implicit, whether the author chooses to highlight them or not. A perceptive reader can identify and grasp the theoretical implications and insights even without a separate, demarcated “theory” section.

Sometimes the theory is implied in the analysis can be seen, so requiring a section/chapter dedicated to announcing the work’s “theory” is redundant and infantilizes the reader.

The “theoretical framework” requirement also makes a dissertation difficult to read as the transition from the work’s findings and contentions to the “theoretical framework” is often forced, abrupt, and jarring.

Nigeria has so much to offer the world of theory and African scholarship is dripping with potential theoretical contributions, but the arbitrary imposition of a “theoretical framework” requirement kills off or buries such original theoretical contributions by imposing a prepackaged, usually foreign, theory on a work that is chocked full of its own theoretical insights–insights that, if properly distilled and highlighted to stand on their own confident African legs, can revise, challenge, or deepen existing theories.


Professor Moses Ochonu writes from Nashville, United States of America

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