Setting theory to work in history of education

Roland Sintos Coloma (Department of Teacher Education, Northern Kentucky University, Highland Heights, Kentucky, USA)

History of Education Review

ISSN: 0819-8691

Publication date: 4 June 2018



The purpose of this paper is to analyze the relationship between theory and history, or more specifically the role and use of theory in the field of history of education. It will explore the following questions: What is theory, and what is it for? How do historians and, in particular, historians of education construe and use theory? And how do they respond to openly theoretical work? The author poses these questions in light of ongoing discussions in the field of history of education regarding the role, relevance, and utility of theory in historical research, analysis, and narratives.


The explicit use of theory in historical research is not altogether new, tracing an intellectual genealogy since the mid-1800s when disciplinary boundaries among academic fields were not so rigidly defined, developed and regulated. The paper analyzes three books that are geographically located in North America (USA), Australia, Europe (Great Britain) and Asia (India), thereby offering a transnational view of the use of theory in history of education. It also examines how historians of education respond to explicitly theoretical work by analyzing, as a case study, a 2011 special issue in History of Education Quarterly.


First, the paper delineates theory as a multidimensional concept and practice with varying and competing meanings and interpretations. Second, it examines three book-length historical studies of education that employ theoretical frameworks drawing from cultural, feminist poststructuralist and postcolonial approaches. The author’s analysis of these manuscripts reveals that historians of education who explicitly engage with theory pursue their research in reflexive, disruptive and generative modes. Lastly, it utilizes a recent scholarly exchange as a case study of how some historians of education respond to theoretically informed work. It highlights three lenses – reading with insistence, for resistance, and beyond – to understand the responses to the author’s paper on Foucault and poststructuralism.


Setting theory to work has a fundamentally transformative role to play in our thinking, writing and teaching as scholars, educators and students and in the productive re-imagining of history of education.



Coloma, R. (2018), "Setting theory to work in history of education", History of Education Review, Vol. 47 No. 1, pp. 40-53.

Download as .RIS



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited

Please note you might not have access to this content

You may be able to access this content by login via Shibboleth, Open Athens or with your Emerald account.
If you would like to contact us about accessing this content, click the button and fill out the form.
To rent this content from Deepdyve, please click the button.