Five meanings of theory … and counting

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Academics argue about everything. One of my favourite essays (written by Richard Edwards) is devoted to a critique of the word ‘and’ when used in teaching ‘and’ learning.  Edwards demonstrates how the hardworking ‘and’, a word that usually lurks in the shadows, is capable of misleading. After Edwards, ‘and’ is no longer able to hide behind its sticky anonymity. It’s hardly surprising then that a word like ‘theory’ (not what theory does but what theory is) is hotly contested.

Here are at least five different meanings. A theory is:

A generalizing or explanatory model. Theory tries to distil a range of specific findings or observations into general propositions that explain these findings.

The ‘thinking side’ of practice. Especially in the applied side of the social sciences (such as teaching and social work), theory or ‘theorising’ means thinking and reflecting on practice. It is sometimes called ‘reflective practice’. This has also been called ‘personal theory’ or ‘practical theory’. When people talk about this ‘personal theory’ they mean conjectures, personal thoughts and insights that help people to make sense of the practical world. Many people suggest that in practical fields (such as teaching, nursing or social work) the enhancement of this practical theorisation, coming from our own experience, is what professional development should ultimately be about. The idea is not new: the Greeks had words for this kind of practical theory: phronesis and techne.

A developing body of explanation. Here theory means the broadening bodies of knowledge developing in particular fields. A body of knowledge may be wide, as for example in ‘management theory’ or ‘learning theory’, or tight, based around a particular set of ideas, as for example in ‘Piagetian theory’.

Scientific theory. Theory here is modelled on the idea of theory in the natural sciences. It may ultimately exist in the form of ideas formally expressed in a series of statements. With these statements you are able to predict and explain. As social science progresses it seems less hopeful of discovering this kind of theory.

Grand Theory. ‘Grand Theory’ is a term used mockingly by the great sociologist Wright Mills (1959) to describe social scientists’ expectation that their disciplines should attempt to build systematic theory of ‘the nature of man and society’ (p 23). The theories of Marx and Freud are examples. Wright Mills saw this effort as an obstacle to progress in the human sciences. I take it as given that Grand Theory is not what is generally wanted in social and educational research nowadays. You certainly will not be aiming to develop Grand Theory in your own research, though you may use Grand Theory as a framework or stimulus for it.

Thomas, G. (2011) The meanings of theory, British Educational Research Association online resource. 

Thomas is anti-theory seeing it as a means of limiting what is permitted to count as knowledge by fixing, controlling, setting up boundaries, prohibitions and privileges. It was some time ago I first read Thomas and I must admit that I was not particularly sympathetic to his ideas. (bell hooks writes a essay that I have entitled: one night a theory saved my life). We need theory to make sense of the world, we can observe correlation – theory is what allows us to make sense of what we observe. But in his readable and well argued text “Education and Theory: Strangers in Paradigms’ Thomas views theory in education as antagonistic to pluralism in ideas. When social researchers are committed to theory,  they are committed to allowing the generative dance of ideas proliferating to be sacrificed in favour of orderliness.

Re-reading Thomas again over these last few weeks, I have warmed to him. That is, I understand his position differently. I am inclined to agree. If I belong to a theoretical camp, it is the ‘anything goes’ camp.   What is needed in educational research is more ad hocery, more thought experiments, more diversity.  Theory closes down discussion, limiting the breadth and depth of our view.

Far better I say to let the Otherness of the Other bloom.


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