Some years ago I had someone interject 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, plain and simple. It is subjective, a novel thought based on personal opinion and observation, but lacking numbers to back it up. I spent the next fifteen minutes explaining what a theory, in my interpretation, 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. Fortunately, I succeeded in getting him to understand that our findings were more than anecdotal moments and good guesses about the topic at hand. 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 classic 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. This obviously holds true when applied to business. 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. 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 people accept gravitational theory without any knowledge of the mathematics behind it, but readily reject social and cultural theories. 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. But it also means that we need to engage people and get buy in for the simple truth that methodological rigor matters when developing marketing strategies.