Do we need theory?

Of late, I have been having a lot of conversations with people in the nonprofit sector. And one clear divide I am noticing is between those who ‘do’ stuff and those who ‘think’ about stuff and theorize about it. The assumption is that those who can, do and those who don’t, teach. You may have heard this cliché many times over. But is it true? And is it valid? Are all practitioners, heroes; who just show up, to sacrifice their time, energy, reputations and sometimes, their lives just based on how they ‘feel,’ or are they also operating on a model of the world that seems coherent and a narrative of how things work – in other words, a ‘theory.’ I think all of us theorize, to some extent and theorizing is an essential part of the meaning making process.

CW Mills
CW Mills. Source :Sociology.about.com

So, what is theory? It is nothing but a general explanation for a phenomenon at hand, using language and ideas that are mutually agreed upon. In various disciplines, the conventions are particular to that discipline, so theorizing is done in a particular way. For instance, in ‘pure’ sciences, such as Physics or Chemistry, empirically testing a theory is the gold-standard, while in Social Sciences, where such experimentation is not possible – you can’t dissect living people or go back in history to perform a certain thought experiment, with someone who is dead – theorizing happens in other ways[i].

Broadly speaking, one can theorize based on one’s methodological orientation – i.e., if one is a ‘positivist[ii]’, i.e., whether one believes in just empirical data and what it ‘tells us’ about the phenomenon being studied. On the other hand, there are those who theorize normatively, i.e., considering the value frameworks involved. While the philosophical debates about what constitutes ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’ are complex and I cannot explain them fully here, suffice it to say that knowledge is nothing but ‘agreement’ among competent people.

While grand-theories of the kind that Talcott Parsons and others came up with may not help you understand your own immediate life or your surroundings, other kinds of theorizing; based on sociological analysis of your immediate life may actually be very beneficial. This ‘grand-theory’ is a universalizing effort to understand the whole world or a big portion of it, through one or two key ideas or concepts. One can see this in play when uses words such as ‘reason’ or ‘rationality’ or Enlightenment thinking to understand the lack of democracy in the Middle East, for example. Is it helpful? I am not too sure. And C Wright Mills, the celebrated Sociologist was suspicious of it. Instead, he called for greater ‘empirical based’ theorizing, based on observing the particulars of each case/ society and theorizing for that particular case, while drawing out some general principles[iii].

And this brings me to the important point – why do we need theory and those who theorize, i.e., professors and ‘thinkers’? Wouldn’t just practice based work and tacit knowledge of the phenomenon or industry, be enough? The answer is, no.  I think we need theory for the following three reasons. There are many others, but for now; these three will suffice.

  • It helps us go beyond the immediate situation and help learn general principles, that may be applied in other situations
  • It helps build a body of knowledge, so others can apply it to build an understanding of their world
  • It advances human thinking and our ‘knowledge’ of our own selves and the world around us

So, the next time some hustler, who knows nothing about the field of study/ work you are engaged in tells you that you are wasting time, producing knowledge or ‘learning’ the theories, you know what to tell him/her.

We need hustlers, but we also need theorists. The world would be much poorer without either of them!

[i] For more see Sendberg – http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11186-011-9161-5

[ii] http://press.anu.edu.au//cotm/mobile_devices/ch07s02.html

[iii] See The Sociological Imagination ( CW Mills, 1959) for more.

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