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Reading, understanding and using theory

Advice for how to understand theoretical texts and engage with them in your academic work.

Why do we read theory?

Theoretical texts are often very dense, difficult to read, and can feel quite abstract or vague in terms of the concepts they discuss. It may even seem as though they are irrelevant to your subject. So why are you encouraged to engage with theory, and why do theoretical texts appear as recommended reading for your module?

Put simply, many academic subjects will have key theories or ‘schools of thought’ that help us to think more deeply about the subject. If you are interested in a particular theoretical perspective you can apply its ideas to your topic. Think of theory as a lens that you look through to bring different aspects of your topic into focus. For example:

  • If you are studying Education and want to apply a Marxist theoretical perspective, you might think about how education systems often reproduce class inequality, or work in favour of the ruling elites to maintain the status quo.
  • If you are thinking about education from a Feminist perspective, you might be interested in gender inequality, or how teaching and curriculums might work to maintain gender norms and enforce the patriarchy.

It might be that your reading list features a book chapter written by a key feminist thinker that doesn’t even refer explicitly to education, or that seems to be irrelevant. Rather than looking for directly relevant information or keywords, as we would if we were reading a journal article on our topic, it might be instead that you are expected to take some of the broader ideas or concepts and apply them to your specific topic. By applying these theories, you will start to think about your subject in deeper, more complex ways.


Think of theory as being like a lens through which you look at a topic; different theories will bring different aspects of your topic into focus. This helps us think more deeply about the subject, and from a range of perspectives. 

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