Theory

Jono Bacon in his book about communities (Bacon 2009), comes down heavily on the side of those who favour practice and action, shying away from theory. In doing so, he sides with the dominant cohort of those who favour action over theory. But we need to be careful here about what is meant by the word ‘theory’. Bacon, for all his dislike of theory, is not opposed to reflection.

The word theory can have several different meanings, but in each case it refers to a set of ideas about the way things are that differ depending on the extent of their validity and the way they are validated.

  • Scientific theories are explanatory and predictive. They are validated by experiment and attested by experts. They are generally valid beyond the unique context in which they were tested.
  • Another form of theory acts as the guiding principle on which an activity is based, musical theory, for example. It might be scientifically based, but it is more likely to be based on experience or shared practice or culture or beliefs. Its validity lies in the shared perception that it ‘works’.
  • Then there are the justificatory theories that are constructed to explain or justify a particular state of affairs as in politics or in everyday life. They can be individual or collective. Their validity depends on the extent to which people are convinced by them.
  • Few people would classify advertising as theory, yet advertising is a form of narration that has to do with constructing ways of seeing the world we live in with a view to selling something. As such advertising is increasingly influencing the forms of theory. Even scientific research on which theory is built has to sell itself to get the necessary funding. The validation of advertising as a way of presenting the world depends on the degree of people’s adhesion ┬áto the visions presented, measured in terms of sales. As the strong arm of salesmen, advertising has provoked considerable resistance causing a shift in the nature of advertising. The most effective advertising is now considered to be that which is not seen to sell, but rather takes the form of more or less subtly adjusted ‘visions’ of the way of things.

For those that dislike scientific theory, if they take the time to think it over, it is seen as contrary to experience; it has not been lived but rather constructed. It is seen as separate from us and has a cold, cutting edge that slices through whatever gets in its way. It could be seen to constrain personal experience. One of the amusing quirks of history is that the first uses of the word theory in Greek times referred to an ecstatic pursuit of knowledge, which, when it emerged, brought with it the pleasure of discovery (Russel 1946 – Pg52). One of the possible reasons for the modern-day malaise with theory, as epitomised by science, is the perceived irrelevance of many of the results of research to everyday life. This in turn may be due to differences of perspective and a particularly inaccessible use of language. Another reason for the malaise may be the long-held stance of scientific method setting itself apart from the world in the erroneous belief that only an impartial observer could be scientific. (Prigogine & Stengers 1984).

Scientific theory has its limitations (as do all the forms of theory mentioned above). It is often driven by analysis and as such fails to grasp the larger picture and has difficulty handling complexity. It can never be more than a ‘local’ explanation whose validity is ever only temporary. Scientific theory is often expressed in obscure language and adopts perspectives that are alien to the everyday person. As such, scientific theory is of little direct use as a support for decisions and actions in everyday life. Much debate and a lot of money is spent on trying to make scientific theory more ‘useful’ (i.e. shifting it from scientific theory to the ‘guiding principles’ type of theory). Despite these efforts, the adoption and adaptation of scientific theory in wider society is generally very slow, except in the embodiment of science in technological artefacts.

On the other hand, theory can help give form to what has been or is to be learnt or done, even if it cannot substitute for learning or doing. Theory is not just definitions and terms (Bacon 2009 – Pg17). Potentially it can underscore an overall picture, a diagram, a map, a metaphor or a story that helps understand where we are and what is going on. A theory becomes particularly interesting when it goes beyond the data it deals with and is capable of predicting other things.

See also Practice and Practice, theory and communities.

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