Research hacks #22: Come to terms with a new theory or thinker by using an ‘assumptions pyramid’

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

After a few posts on planning and presenting research findings, it’s time to return to the core of the research process: understanding, ordering and refining ideas. Let’s think of a particular research scenario: you have to come to terms with a new theory in your discipline. This is a phase of research that can sometimes feel overwhelming. The first book you read seems incredibly persuasive and just plain common sense, and you find yourself thinking “of course this is the way it is”. Then you begin to read critiques of the position and you find these, also, very persuasive: “what a dumb and dangerous theory it is!” With each new tome you digest, your attitude to the theory yo-yos once again, and you are left drowning in a sea of texts with no idea in which direction you ought to be swimming.

One way to avoid being blown to and fro as you come to terms with a new theory or philosophy in your area is to spend a few minutes drawing up an “assumptions pyramid” for it.

The assumptions pyramid is a tool that will help you to appreciate the theory more roundly, in its own terms, and come to your own opinion about it rather than hanging on to the coat tails of the eulogy or demolition job you have read. The principle is a simple one:

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

  • In the top-most triangle of the pyramid, write an explicit position that the theory holds (or an abbreviation if the position is too complex to write out in full). Try to find something as central to the theory as you can. It must be clear, explicit and unambiguous.
  • Then ask yourself: what is it necessary to assume or believe in order to hold that position? Use the following categories to help you. What must I think about
    • the way the world is (ontology)
    • what human beings are and should be (anthropology)
    • what it means to live a good life (ethics)
    • how society should be organized and governed (politics)
  • Write each necessary assumption in the second row down of the pyramid. If you find more than three, continue off to the right of the pyramid.
  • Now take each of these necessary assumptions and repeat the exercise for them: ask yourself what it is necessary to assume or believe in order to hold those assumptions.
  • Keep repeating this exercise, moving down the levels of the pyramid, until you reach the theory’s axioms: positions that cannot be proven either way but simply require commitment on the basis of an intuition.
  • Then consider the whole pyramid and ask yourself:
    • Are the assumptions reasonable?
    • What might motivate the assumptions?
    • Does the position reasonably follow from the assumptions?
    • Might those same assumptions plausibly lead to different positions?
    • Might the position be equally well supported by different or even opposing assumptions?


How do you go about analysing a new theory or philosophical position in your research?
CC Image courtesy of Nancepants on Flickr.

Sign up for my blog updates and never miss a post.