Theory: Seeking a Plain English Explanation

By Metcalfe, Mike | JITTA : Journal of Information Technology Theory and Application, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Theory: Seeking a Plain English Explanation


Metcalfe, Mike, JITTA : Journal of Information Technology Theory and Application


ABSTRACT

Why theory, what does theory add to human inquiry? There have been literately hundreds of attempts to explain the word 'theory', many of which are either incomprehensible or in conflict with each other. It would be easy for a new researcher to fail to appreciate the centrality of theory in good quality relevant research. Is it time to stop defining what theory is and focus more on what it does for research? This paper revisits the numerous and conflicting definitions of 'theory' to search for a plain English statement of why relevant and convincing research needs theory. An explanation is suggested which is then used to review an unusual research report. Calls for more or improved theories in IS seem misguided until we are clear of the role of theory in research.

INTRODUCTION: A PERSPECTIVE

Some words, like 'critical' have become so overused and abused by a wide range of disciplines that now the word cannot be used without an accompanying clarification. In medicine 'critical' means 'near death', in engineering it means 'exact', in nuclear physics it means 'unstable', in lay use it means 'negativity', to a social theorist it often means 'criticism of society on behalf of the disempowered' and to literature scholars it means 'critique'.

AN EXPLANATORY ARGUMENT

This paper will argue that the same has become true of the word 'theory' because it means too many different things to too many people. The word, not the concept it was meant to convey, has become a multi-headed hydra; a mythical beast. Interpretations of what is theory include, 'an explanation why', 'a plausible 3-tupla T(PS)=, from an infinite number of 3-tuplas', a hypothesis' or 'a law' to a scientist, 'ideally or hopefully' to a practitioner, 'a knowledge claim or an argument' to an epistemologist, 'an ideology' to a Marxist, a 'perspective' to a systems thinker, 'the interrelationship between the notation of music and performance practice' to a musician, 'a verb not a noun' to Karl Weick, 'policy' to a bureaucrat, and 'an explanation how to structure' to a designer. To make matters worse 'theory as an explanation why' and 'theory as in-theory (theoretically)' have become conjoint twins.

SUPPORTING EVIDENCE

The historical meaning of words may not be usefiil to define their current or common usage, however it may help unweave historically embedded meanings in the modern usages. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED, 2nded, 1991) starts its extensive presentation of the history of the usage of the word 'theory' with the ancient Greek word 'theor' meaning a spectator, one who travels in order to see things. This is linked to one meaning of 'theory' as a body of theors sent by a State to perform some religious rite. This embedded meaning is related to the modern meaning of 'theory' as a sight or spectacle. While this meaning is not in common usage it links theory to the empirical sciences. The embedded metaphor of science is sight. It is also of interest to those systems thinkers who see a theory as reflecting an intellectual frame or a perspective on some phenomenon under study.

The next word used in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) with the same root is 'Theorem', which it defines as (paraphrasing):

speculation, theory, a proposition to be proved, a universal or general proposition or statement, not self evident (not axiom) but demonstrable by argument, by necessary reasoning; in mathematics a proposition embodying merely something to be proved, distinguished from a problem which is something to be done.

From this it seems possible to tease out three initial embedded meanings in the word 'theory'. First it is a proposition, a conjecture to be proved... demonstrable by argument... something to be proved. This corresponds with the epistemologist view of theory; namely, that theory is like an argument. This will be revisited later. Mention of universal or general propositions hints at the issue of generalizability. …

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