Trying to Articulate a Theoretical Framework

By js, 15 September, 2008, 1 Comment

One thing that I have found as I work on the proposal is that I feel like I’m chasing my tail.

To articulate our questions, we must have some understanding of our theoretical framework; but to know what our theoretical framework is, we must have a sense of our questions.

I have to keep reminding myself that if I just keep going it will make sense eventually, but that isn’t much of a consolation when I’m in the thick of things.

So what I did was begin with the general topic; what is it that I am interested in? What does the research say about it? What do I believe to be true based on the research? What conclusions have I made based on the literature that I have read? Those conclusions really are not conclusions at all but what they do is lead you to a question that will guide the research. Once one has gone through that process it is much easier to articulate why our research is important; why we should care about it.

Once one has the question, then we have to start thinking about how we will phrase the qeustion and what the different phrasing implies about the research direction, the subjects and the methods we will be using. Because of the population that I will be focusing on and because of the argument that I am making that the population is understudied, then should I “test” out a theory that may ultimately prove to reify hegemony. Is it enough to argue that I will be using a particular methodology because of this danger. What if using that methodology ends up pointing back to the earlier theory?

My focus on a particular population not only fills a research gap but it also represents a political and ethical stance. How does one negotiate that in a proposal?

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  • Jaime Armin Mejía

    Here, you have the chicken or the egg question of origins. Before you can determine which came first, you need to define both as best you can to know the distinguishing features of each. One should eventually serve to explain the other, which is how theories work. But which does which will depend on a thorough understanding of what you’ve got on your hands.

    I cannot offer any example except the one which I experienced long ago when I went about producing my own dissertation. This project involved knowing several serialized literary works written by the same author who at one point, but not initially, created this serial project. These works were complicated by the fact that they were written in different languages, as well as in different genres, yet they had a pair of characters who kept reappearing. While the serialized project generally moved from the past to the present, there wasn’t a strict chronological order to the serial project, nor to how the literary works were published, as the content of each didn’t exactly follow a chronological order.

    Still, there seemed to be a sort of scheme which all these strange works followed, so it took coming up with a theory which could explain, at least to some extent, what this scheme was and how it was working.

    During most of this time, the study of “theory” was only beginning to emerge in English Studies, and I certainly never had an opportunity to take a class in theory because such classes simply didn’t exist. While I some inkling of Marxism, it wasn’t until I read Fredrick Jameson’s The Political Unconscious what I was able to begin discussing literary works politically, as serving or revealing political ideologies. Marxism, though, wasn’t particularly helpful towards understanding how the serialized works by Hinojosa were working or how he produced them or for what purpose. Still, knowing Jameson and the early theoretical work of Terry Eagleton helped conceptually to begin theorizing, as such.

    Hinojosa’s serial project still had to be explained. What I would eventually arrive at as a broad conceptual theory to explain how the serialized works were tied together was by foregrounding three ideas: Land, Family, and Language. That is, I posited that what tied all the serialized works together were these ideas, and that the author used these ideas to conceptualize this grand narrative of the Valley. First, there was this land, then there were these families, who were tied by this langauge. While the lands had been taken away by others whose language differed from the original setttlers’ families, the lands could be recuperated by families who maintained a cultural sense of who they were through the language they used. The language defined not only the people but also the land. It could also be used to distinguish one group of people from another.

    So what started out conceptually as a study or investigation in expanding the American literary canon by introducing multicultural literary works moved towards a theory which involved a political ideology which could explain the project a particular Chicano writer had used to produce what became a rather extended serialized project.

    Breaking and opening up the American literary canon meant opening up histories of this country which had previously been denied much less admitted and legitimized within academia. Opening up the canon also became possible when this writer, Hinojosa, challenged his readers to engage his historically based works which presented a different and alternative history of this particular part of this nation called America.

    Uncovering this once buried history and exposing what had been covered up is what Hinojosa’s project is all about, is what he’s all about. For others to join him in this project, they would have to acknowledge that there is a theoretical connection between the land, its people, and the language or languages they use and have used. This became my theory because I came to find out that it offered a conceptual framework which could explain how his many disconnected serialzed works fit together.

    Arriving at this point of coming up with this conceptual framework of this kind took a great deal of time; it also was a result of taking parts of different previous critical approaches to Hinojosa’s works, most of which missed the grand picture because they lacked a sufficiently wide enough framework which could include and explain everything which Hinojosa and his works were engaging. I nonetheless took a little bit from each and used these bits to build my own grander conceptual framework.

    So, I had to know all the literary works, as published in two different languages, as well as know as many of the critical articles that I could get my hands on and which sought to explain some of these works individually or collectively. I had to know these primary and secondary works well and had to use them to advance my own project of explaining how Hinojosa’s serialized project worked as a serialized project which sought to uncover a buried history of south Texas as well as seeking to break up the English- and Anglo-only American literary canon.

    So, how does one protect one’s identity? What constructs one’s identity? Who’s in the best position to protect the identity of Texas Mexicans from the Valley and south Texas? Who, in the past, has been in the forefront of defending our cultural identity? Eventually, I came to believe what I think Hinojosa was advancing, which is that the answer to these questions lies with the land, families, and the language. When any of these are threatened, we are in jeapardy of losing it all.

    When I arrived on the scene, there were both literary works as well as critical articles about these works, critical articles which was in part based on some theoretical assumptions which never quite captured a growing serial project in two languages. Both the chicken and the egg were there at the scene, and as time passed, I had to try to theorize how the serial works were being put together by the author. Eventually, I would have to know both works and critical works intimately. On the backside, I also had to learn what I could about the buried history which the mainstream had covered up. This is where knowing the history of Texas Mexicans and Mexican Americans became crucial to my project. The historical works by David Montejano and Arnoldo de Leon, among others, became crucial, particularly Montejano’s because his work was mainly about Valley history, which coincidentally paralleled what Hinjosa had been doing for years and years before Montejano’s book came out. Once Tejano history as well as treatments of Tejano culture began being published, many of the gaps began being filled in. They were all working together, and what I would eventually conclude was that this triple idea of “land, family, and language” were key to understanding not just Hinojosa’s serial project but also Tejano buried history.

    In no small sense, then, this key of land, family, and language became my theory. I would eventually out-do all the previously published critical articles and would come to know Hinojosa better than he himself knew what he was doing with his serial project. This was a theory of identity which was wide enough to capture all the variations which Hinojosa would creatively come up with in his fiction and which could also explain the history which came to be produced by the literary critics and the historians.

    When I finished my dissertation, though, Hinojosa’s serial project had not ended, so there are about three works which my dissertation didn’t cover. I still nevertheless believe that my theory could explain subsequent literary texts. My theory, I think, is still that good. But that’s my ego talking. The proof is in the pudding, and I would have to analyze in writing these latter works to show I’m write.

    I think you have a similar situation. You’ve arrived on the scene, and certain works and genres are in place, and there are also critical articles based on certain theoretical approaches. You’ll have to figure out which of these critical approaches work, how far they work, if they work at all, and then you’ll have to decide what to take from them to construct how your targeted works in specific genres [blogs] are working. You also seem to have taken it upon yourself to engage the idea of identity and how it’s both constructed or kept from being constructed.

    I didn’t know what to make of the scene I’d arrived upon when I landed there, but I did know that something was going on and that some things needed explaining.

    Obviously, there are rhetorical issues involved here in your scene, just as there were with the scene I’d arrived upon years ago. Texts are created with a purpose for a particular audience, and they reflect and respond to on-going conversations as they enter these conversations with particular kinds of audiences.

    One critic said that Hinojosa engages in satire, but this explanation only explains part of what he’s doing because he also has to use irony. Rhetorically, he must use these kinds of figurative approaches in his narratives because of the audiences he’s attempting to reach. While he can and does use straight literary narrative approaches to tell his stories, he also has to use irony and therefore satire to challenge his readers to more deeply see the motivations which cause some people like Anglos to act as they’ve acted, historically, politically, socially. Texas Mexicans and Mexicans also need to be challenged in this respect to shake their self-satisfied understandings of the status quo. Perhaps only by using figurative language which has double meanings can people’s sensibilities be rocked sufficiently to get it through their thick skulls that something’s been buried and needs being unearthed. By using irony, though, he’s able to challenge only a select few made up of people who are smart enough to see the irony’s double-meaning, leaving those who can’t with their literal readings which in turn can only leave them highly puzzled and suspicious that something’s just happened under their very noses. There are countless examples of this in Hinojosa’s works.

    “True” Valley folks, especially Valley Texas Mexicans, know what Hinojosa’s doing. They have that honor and that advantage, again, because they are tied to the land, its families, and especially its language. The theory is instinctual and comes quite naturally to them, to us. Right? Gringos be damned!

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