Not long ago I had someone inject into a conversation that the work we had done was “just a theory.” I decided to ask just what the word “theory” meant to him and the response was hardly a surprise – a theory is an idea that is lacks any real backing. It is a subjective, novel thought based on personal opinion. I spent the next fifteen minutes explaining what a theory was and how different theories are used to make sense of observations, lay the groundwork for building a model of behavior and derived from a compounded set of observations through time. Whether or not I actually imparted any meaningful information is questionable, but I did succeed in getting him to understand that our findings were more than anecdotal moments and good guesses about the topic at hand. So there was a degree of success. But it left me thinking that every now and again we need to step back, reexamine what we mean when we say “theory” and think about how to convey it in a setting where the word is at odds with the worldview of the client (internal or external).
In Greek, from which the modern English word “theory” is derived, the word theoria, θεωρία, meant “a looking at, viewing, beholding”, and referring to contemplation and speculation as opposed to action. Theory is especially often contrasted to “practice” (from Greek praxis, πρᾶξις) a concept which is used in a broad way to refer to any activity done for the sake of action, in contrast with theory, which does not need an aim which is an action. This isn’t to say that theory and practice can’t go hand in hand. It is to say that a theory is more than an nifty idea – it is grounded in observable facts that form patterns we can witness and understand, be it how aerodynamics work or in how people shop for butter. Ethnographic work, whether in an academic setting or in private enterprise, guides the work we do and has relevance to the outcomes of that work.
A classical example of the distinction between theoretical and practical uses the discipline of medicine: Medical theory and theorizing involves trying to understand the causes and nature of health and sickness, while the practical side of medicine is trying to make people healthy. These two things are related but can be independent, because it is possible to research health and sickness without curing specific patients, and it is possible to cure a patient without knowing how the cure worked.
In modern science the term “theory” is generally understood to refer to a proposed explanations of phenomena, made in a way consistent with scientific method. Such theories are preferably described in such a way that any scientist in the field is in a position to understand and either provide empirical support or empirically contradict it. A common distinction sometimes made in science is between theories and hypotheses, with the former being considered as satisfactorily tested or proven and the latter used to denote conjectures or proposed descriptions or models which have not yet been tested or proven to the same standard.
Theories are analytical tools for understanding and explaining a given subject. Theorems, on the other hand, are derived deductively from assumptions according to a formal system of rules, sometimes as an end in itself and sometimes as a first step in testing or applying a theory in a concrete situation; theorems are said to be true in the sense that the conclusions of a theorem are logical consequences of the assumptions. Theories are abstract and conceptual, and to this end they are never considered true. Instead, they are supported or challenged by observations in the world. They are “rigorously tentative”, meaning that they are proposed as true but expected to satisfy careful examination to account for the possibility of faulty inference or incorrect observation. Sometimes theories are falsified, meaning that an explicit set of observations contradicts some fundamental assumption or prediction of the theory, but more often theories are revised to conform to new observations, by restricting the class of phenomena the theory applies to or changing the assertions made.
Why does this matter? It matters because the term “theory” is often dismissed by people as simply an idea that is plucked from thin air, with nothing to back it up but a few subjective guesses. We can dismiss a theory if it doesn’t correspond to our view of how the world works. The catch is theory is perfectly acceptable (and perhaps perfectly accepted) when it fits deeper cultural “truths” we want to believe in. Most business people accept gravitational theory without any knowledge of the mathematics behind it, but readily reject social and cultural theories because we, as a culture, reify science and mathematics. It has little or nothing to do with the rigor and/or validity of the observations. Rather it stems from what we choose to believe, independent of the science behind it or any knowledge of how either the deductive or inductive methods of knowledge acquisition work. This means that when we discuss our findings with a development team, a marketing executive, a designer, etc., we need to be able to define the theoretical models we use to encode and decode observations, and we need to clearly distinguish between a theory and an idea. Too often ethnographic work is dismissed as something speculative and subjective. If we want to make a difference, it falls to us to define how we know what we know with conviction.