The Importance of Theory and Research to Records and Information Management

Article excerpt

Clearly, all practitioners in records and information management are interested in improving the field's current conditions and future prospects, both as a professional and an intellectual discipline. Since part of the definition of a profession is that it has an undergirding body of theoretical knowledge as well as everyday,, practical knowledge, it becomes important to learn more about the value of theory and research to professions generally and to records and information management specifically. In fact, the very future of records and information management as a profession and as a discipline is vitally linked to its ability to expand the field's knowledge base by developing meaningful theory and credible research.

Despite popular usage, "professionalization" has nothing to do with keeping your shoes shined, wearing proper attire, and offering a firm handshake. Rather, professionalization describes the movement over time of an occupation (lower order) toward the coveted status of profession (higher order). Any occupational group can call itself a profession, and some do (e.g., hairdressers, roofers, realtors). There are very few fields, however, that are widely acknowledged as having developed into legitimate professions. In each genuine profession, however, the advancement of theory and research have been central.

THE PROFESSIONAL MODEL

Scholars in the sociology of work have analyzed professions and professionalization for sixty years and have identified the characteristics of established professions. Most approaches to defining a profession list six to eight primary characteristics.1

A core characteristic common to all professions is:

... a systematic body of theory and esoteric, abstract knowledge on which the work is based. Often

... this knowledge base represents the results of scientific research.

... the existence of such a body of knowledge serves as the basis for legitimizing the actions of professionals. The professional's claim to expertise rests upon his presumed mastery of a body of knowledge.2

By definition, then, professions (vs. occupations) must have both abstract, or theoretical, knowledge as well as hands-on practical knowledge, the "how-to-do-it" techniques.

Occupations, on the other hand, have--and need--only practical knowledge and technique. Hairdressers, for example, must follow prescribed technical procedures to do a permanent, but the occupation lacks theories of hairdressing leading to a research-based expansion of its knowledge base. On the other hand, medicine, one of the few fields widely accepted as a profession, requires physicians to have both technical competence and an understanding of the primary chemical, anatomical, and biological theories related to the medical field.

WHAT IS THEORY?

Despite popular impression, theory is an attempt to make matters clearer, not more confusing. Like practitioners in other fields, however, records managers sometimes express a dim view of matters theoretical. Generalizations failing to address a practitioner's specific task in a particular work environment at a particular time ("What I need to do my specific job today where I work") are often dismissed as "mere theory." This reaction suggests a misunderstanding of the nature and role of theory. "Theory" comes from the Greek word theoria meaning "to see," "to look" at something. "Theory," then, means "a way of looking" at related phenomena or facts, such that an overall, or universal, explanation of them is possible.3 "As opposed to practice, [theory is] systematically organized knowledge of relatively high generality.''4

The most practical of practitioners could rightly ask: what good is theory? A few examples of relationships between theory and practice in records and information management may be useful:

* Research into theories about the attitudes and psychology of records creators could lead to techniques that produce more accurate records. …