In a comment on the job talk thread, I confessed that I struggle to communicate with students what exactly I am looking for when I want them to make explicit their theoretical contribution. My struggle usually comes when students have an interesting case that they want to study and perhaps a field site tied to that. They get tied up in the case itself, rather than using that case to answer larger questions that might contribute something to some subfield of sociology.
I ask them to identify the subfield that they want to contribute to, but I think this is difficult to accomplish as a graduate student, because it’s tough to see how the literature is organized when you haven’t read much. And sometimes, they are so excited and passionate about their case that it’s tough for them to see beyond it. And maybe it’s just me, but when I ask questions about larger questions and contributions their research might make, I elicit more anxiety than insight.
So, my question was not nearly clear enough in the comment thread. I’m not wondering about definitions of theory or applications of theory. Rather, I am wondering if folks have thoughts about how to effectively communicate about theory to students. Do you have a specific process that you have them go through? Do you target a particular literature that you are guessing might be related? Is there a secret key to getting students to that aha! moment when they see the difference between case, data, and theory?