Theory as a lens, tool, or musical instrument?

How to work with theory in research is something I am often asked about. It is still one of the things I find hardest.

Intro to literary theory
Theory as a lens from Leonie Krieger

We often here people talking about theory as a lens – kind of like a microscope or telescope that enables you to ‘see’ things you couldn’t otherwise see.

We look ‘through’ the theory at data or the world.

We also hear of theory as a tool – something you use, or put to work.

These are both metaphors of theory use. I find them both helpful in some ways, but increasingly I am troubled by them. Recently a colleague of mine David Kellogg mentioned an alternative – theory as musical instrument – which I found fascinating.

David has kindly written this post in which he explains this idea a bit more, giving extra background on metaphors and language. After David’s post I will offer a few of my own thoughts as to why I think theory as musical instrument is such an exciting and useful metaphor.

David Kellogg | Sangmyung University -
David is Assistant Professor of English Education, Sangmyung University.

David’s thoughts on metaphors for working with theory

At a recent Summer School, Nick presented us with the following bit of data, written by a child who feeds using a tube (rather than orally). Nick shared it to show how amazing things can happen despite challenges in life – in this case, challenges associated with tube-feeding.

Everybody, with the possible exception of the child, realized that this sentence means a great deal more than it intends; it was a long moment before the presenter could continue [Nick: I get rather emotional]. I too am somewhat susceptible to tears, and to distract myself, I found myself looking rather carefully at the spelling of ‘favrote’. I decided that it was not a deliberate pun—on the past tense of “eat”. It was only a misspelling based on the typical pronunciation, in Australian English, of the word “ate” when it is not being stressed. It sounds a lot like “it”.

So there is a sense in which all language use is really metaphor, because you are asking something (some sounding or some spelling) to stand for something else (the wording of a meaning, or the meaning of a wording, depending on whether you are doing the speaking or the listening). But after a few years, a child has done so much of this that it loses its novelty, and it will only regain it when the child learns foreign languages. This loss of novelty occurs at the lexical level as well; very few of us, listening to someone speaking of how to run a business, imagine that this is a metaphor of a footrace and few of us would be surprised to learn that “run a business” is much more common than “run a race”. [Nick: this makes me realise how saturated our everyday communication is with metaphors!]

When the child begins to learn school language, one of the hardest nuts to crack (so to speak) is to recognize that there are grammatical metaphors—that teachers often take meanings which by rights ought to be worded as verb phrases, like “to grow”, and manufacture abstract pseudo-entities, like “growth”. They do this in order to measure them, construe them as subjects, and discuss them as if they were objects you could hold at arms-length in the palm of your hand and examine through a magnifying glass. In high school, these grammatical metaphors become marked with Latin and Greek: “speed” is replaced by “velocity”. Anytime you have some less canonical wording replacing a more typical one, we can rightfully speak of a metaphor.

Now imagine a conference… we are likely to hear phrases like “In this paper, I will use Vygotsky’s theory as a lens to excavate the layers of formation of moral imagining in First Nations adolescents” or “The cultural historical tool kit allows us a wide range of instruments for examining emergent agency in toddlers.” 

If we have the temerity to propose that metaphors like this would actually sound better the other way around, with the lens used to examine and the tool kit used for excavation, we are rightly accused of pedantry and faux naïvete. We are not naïve: the metaphors have long since lost their novelty, the meaning of “lens” no longer has much to do with seeing, and “tool” is just as likely to be used on an idea as on a material situational setting. The metaphor has been naturalized (like running a business).

But what do we do when lenses grow too foggy to function heuristically, and tools are too blunt to cut our way through the withered vines that block new theoretical modeling? We make up new metaphors, at once weirder and more apt. 

And how does this happen? A personal example. While I was complaining about the overuse of “lens” and “tool” at the summer school, it suddenly occurred to me to consider a class in jazz music I have been asked to teach as a lens or a tool for fresh thinking about my own subject, linguistics. Riffing, I suggested that we could sharpen our metaphorical tools by thinking of theory as a musical instrument: a traditional tool with indefinite creative potential that is sometimes, and in this instance, better served by improvisation than composition.

Nick has asked me to write about the background of this metaphor. As far as I can tell, there isn’t any: it’s another instance of improvisation, although like most improvisations that stick it has doubtless been done before. Moreover, I suppose that strictly speaking musical instruments are not really metaphors for theory, because they form an integral part of music theory itself. They are synecdoches: a part that is a metonym for the whole. 

There is another way to make metaphors dangerous again, should we wish to. Un-do them: rise to the concrete, and de-metaphorize them. Even small children know that that grammatical metaphor can go different ways: “because” can be reconstrued concretely as a process “to cause” or more abstractly as an entity, “causation.” 

This child whose favrote [sic] room is the kitchen is acquiring the potential to say “my favor-ate place” and collapse in a dessert of sweet giggling and knowing laughter.

Nick’s reflections on David’s idea: theory as a musical instrument

Jacqueline du Pré interview: 'You must have spontaneity and too much study  destroys that' | Gramophone
Jacqueline du Pré playing the cello

The thing that bothers me about theory as a lens, is that it can be a bit passive, and a bit pre-determined. By passive, I mean (thinking literally about the metaphor!), that if I switch from one pair of goggles to another, what I see changes, but I don’t have to do the looking any differently. The lens does the work for me. That doesn’t feel right to me when thinking about how theory works in analysis.

I also am wary of the risk that using theory as a lens closes off on possibilities, and sort of pre-determines the answer. Imagine, say, Foucault’s theory of power was like a pair of green goggles. I put them on: whoa! everything is green! Yes, but that was always going to be the case if you look through green lens.

Looking Through The Green Sunglasses On The Liberty Bridge In.. Stock  Photo, Picture And Royalty Free Image. Image 105233815.
Will the wearer see anything other than green?

What about theory as a tool? Better, maybe, because at least this implies some active effort on behalf of the tool user. I also like the idea that tools are designed and most valuable for particular purposes: a hammer is great for banging in nails, less good if you want to saw through a log. Same with theory – the match between theory and purpose is really important. But I also think of the power tools – the electric screwdriver. They are there to save us effort. That is not how I understand working with theory. Theory doesn’t make analysis easier. Doesn’t save us effort.

So why do I like the theory as musical instrument metaphor better?

I like David’s improvised metaphor because:

  1. It points to both effort but also creativity in the act of working with theory. Just like the musician performs a piece that does not ‘live’ in the instrument, so the researcher offers something beyond the theory itself.
  2. It points to the need to practice – musicians learn their scales, breathing techniques, bowing techniques, etc. You don’t just pick up an instrument and produce glorious tone and melody. Same with theory: it takes effort, practice, work. Working with theory is something you (can) get better at.
  3. It retains the idea of ‘match’: if you want to create a sustained, low-pitched melody, a snare drum might be less useful than a cello. Same with theory: what do you want to be able to do? That may, in part, govern the relevance of one theory or another
  4. Finally, it suggests that the quality of the outcome is not built-in. Yes, some musical instruments are ‘better’ than others. But, you could give me the world’s best viola and I’d still make only a mediocre sound with it at best. It is not the instrument itself, or the player alone, but the combination of both that creates a good sound. Same with theory: any value theory brings to research lies not fixed in the theory itself, nor in the researcher alone, but in how the two come together – metaphorically how the researcher plays the theory.

What do you think?

What metaphors have you come across for using theory?

Which ones work best for you, why?

1 thought on “Theory as a lens, tool, or musical instrument?

  1. Glenn Runnalls

    The lens metaphor, by emphasizing the eye / brain can take us away from the practice of theory as saying, doing, relating.


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