What is “theory”?

A colleague recently emailed me with the question “What do we mean by theory?”

The question is difficult because the word is quite ambiguous.  I think that it is one of those terms where it helps to think of what is being opposed to theory. As J. L. Austin pointed out, many words are contextually defined by what they exclude.  “Theory” is one of them.  There are several oppositions for “theory” in both the scientific and philosophical literature, not to mention casual speech.  This partly accounts for our confusion about it.

1. Theory vs. observation. 

In the philosophy of science, this is the standard meaning of theory.  Observation statements are things like “The water is 5 degrees centigrade.”  Observations are the product of direct experience, measurement, or interaction.  Any kind of statement that goes beyond what is observable is “theoretical:” e.g. “water is H2O”.  On this conception of theory, any scientific paper must be presenting a theory, if it is doing anything more than presenting a table of data or raw interview transcripts.  Notice that both “qualitative” and “quantitative” research produces theory in this sense.  And to report a correlation between two variables is theory, since that there is a correlation is an inference from the data.  This brings us to the second distinction…

2. Theory vs. “mere” correlation.

In scientific work, this contrast is often in play because there is plenty of research that seems to simply fish for correlations.  For instance, we ask whether massage reduces pain, and then go see whether those who receive massages report lower pain. It is not guided by any larger or deeper understanding, that is to say, theory.  Theories would be more systematic or postulate some mechanism that accounts for the correlations.  One might say here: the theory would explain why massage reduces pain.

3. Grand theory vs. middle range theory.

This is a nursing-specific usage.  When people complain about the lack of theory in nursing, this is sometimes what they mean.

4. Theory vs. fact. 

This contrast is common in ordinary speech (at least among English speakers),and I find that it is often in the background of student thinking about theory. The contrast is a bit unsystematic and vague.  Evolution is a theory, my students will say, but gravity is a fact.  That contrast will not support much weight…

5. Theory vs. philosophy.

Science produces theories, philosophy doesn’t.  In this sense, theory is used in something like sense (2) above; it postulates deeper mechanisms.  Also, theory is systematically tested in ways that philosophies are not. Philosophy has a different goal than science. I use something like this distinction when I argue in Nursing Knowledge that grand theories are not theories at all.  They are really philosophies of nursing.

6. Theory vs. practice.

We often invoke this in ordinary speech, and it has a deep resonance in fields like nursing, education, public health, business, etc., where there is an important practice component to the field.

7. Theory vs. Interpretation.

I noted that in sense (1), both qualitative and quantitative research produces “theory.”  Many qualitative researchers will reject this claim and insist that they aim at interpretation, not theory.  In this use, theory is (like sense 2) being thought of as postulating causes, mechanisms, or laws.

The upshot

I’m sure that with a little more creativity we could come up with more.  (Think about what theory means in ethics, for instance.)  The most important point is that these senses are not distinct in our usage.  They tend to get all mashed up.  What counts as theory in one sense doesn’t count in another.  So, for instance, a correlation is theory in sense (1), and probably in sense (7), but not in senses (2) or (3).

So, we need to answer the question “what do we mean by theory?” by another question: what is the context in which we are using “theory,” and what contrast(s) do we intend to draw?

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One Response to “What is “theory”?”

  1. Leatha Trillana Says:

    I really like your writing style, great info , appreciate it for posting : D.

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