Citation: Baines, L. A. (2005, February 9). Theory and anti-theory. Teachers College Record. www.tcrecord.org.
Theory and anti-theory
In 2004, the Nobel Prize in physics went to scientists Gross, Politzer, and Wilczek for their discovery of the forces that help atoms adhere. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of their discovery is that it could lead to the formulation of a grand, unifying theory of everything.
Personally, I'd settle for a theory of something. Anything.
A few years ago at a job interview, a member of the search committee asked me, "What is your theoretical perspective?"
At the time, I wasn’t sure how to respond. I thought she might want to make sure that I had been keeping up with literature in the field, so I offered summaries and opinions about several recent studies.
"And so, what is your theoretical perspective?" she repeated.
"I'm trying to formulate one," I said.
Needless to say, this response was not the one she was seeking. The interview was quickly terminated and I was sent home.
At my current institution, a committee has been formed to create a new way of assessing a faculty member’s scholarly activity, an instrument that is not supposed to rely upon "bean counting," or merely summing the number of publications and presentations and the dollar amount of grants. In the committee's initial draft, they suggested that a professor's research should be judged on quality—not quantity. They decided that one indicator of quality was the extent to which a piece of research is grounded in a well-defined theoretical perspective.
While I can clearly articulate the area of research that I have been mining for the last twelve years, my theoretical perspective is still a work in progress.
Oh, I have entertained grandiose ideas from time to time, but I have never reached the point where I felt I had accumulated sufficient evidence to forge a theoretical perspective all my own. Nor am I comfortable enough with the theories of others to become a full chartered member in their club. In fact, the only theory that has resonance for me at the moment is that an over-reliance on theory can get in the way of good research.
In education, the big theory du jour is constructivism. Constructivists are supposed to act as student-centered, guides on the side who create communities of eager learners in their classrooms. As a theory, constructivism has laudatory aims, but in practice it has frequently proven to be impotent, impractical, and illogical. Whether constructivists like it or not, there are times when the teacher as dictator-sage can be far more effective than the teacher as warm-and-fuzzy facilitator. For example, when a medical student is helping perform a quadruple-bypass on the heart of a patient, and asks, “Should I cut here?” the supervising doctor should probably not say, “If you think that’s a good place to cut.”
I used to get into all sorts of arguments about the universality of the big theory approach with a friend who was a staunch constructivist. After he retired from his position as tenured professor of English, he took a teaching position at an urban middle school. Although he had hoped to affirm the viability of constructivism during his stint at the middle school, two months into the job, he quit. He told me that his class was pure chaos. “Constructivism still works,” he insisted, “if only the students would cooperate!”
The big theory approach is attractive because the complexities of the environment are reduced to a predefined set of inputs. Big theory usually relies upon deductive reasoning, moving from the general (the theory) towards an affirmation or rejection of the specific (the experiment). Granted, deduction is a worthy process, but it is not the only path to knowledge. Inductive reasoning (moving from the specific to the general), trial and error (also known as“playing around”), and observation are legitimate approaches that require no preformulated big theory.
An example of inductive reasoning is the moment when Ben Franklin decided to see what might happen when he flew a kite in the midst of a thunderstorm. Franklin had been thinking about the fluidity of “electric fire” for years, so he walked into the middle of a thunderstorm one evening, hoisted a kite from the safety of a shed, and observed the ensuing sparks.
An example of trial and error is Alexander Fleming’s attempt to find a serum for the flu. Fleming played around with several substances until he discovered that the mold growing on a slide containing infectious bacteria had created a bacteria-free zone. Eventually, the discovery led to the development of penicillin.
Perhaps one of the most notable examples of not going into the field with an already-established big theory, is Jane Goodall’s groundbreaking work on the behavior of chimpanzees. Before being recruited to work in Tanzania by Louis Leakey, Goodall had studied to be a secretary. Only after fourteen or so years of daily observation in the field did Goodall write her first book In theShadow of Man (1971).
These days in higher education, the deductive, big theory approach has become de rigeur. Admitting to no fully functioning theoretical perspective is always risky, but especially when promotion or a job is on the line. The dominance of the deductive, big theory approach has found its way into professional conferences and calls for manuscripts. Most major conferences now require presenters to elucidate the theoretical framework upon which their work is based as part of a proposal.
Uncomfortable with this development, I have tried to find venues that might still have some space on the program for those of us still trying to find answers. Eventually, I found a conference with the theme of “qualitative research.” After I began reading the fine print, however, I discovered that the organizers of the conference would only consider proposals that articulated the “theoretical assumptions and conceptual bases underlying their research.”
I keep wondering what Daniel Boorstin would think about the preeminence of big theory. Boorstin, who died at age 89, had no credentials nor any theoretical grounding in history, yet he became one of the country’s most esteemed historians. He won the Pulitzer Prize, the Parkman Prize, and the Bancroft Prize; served as Director of the National Museum of American History, Senior Historian of the Smithsonian Institution, and The twelfth Librarian of Congress! Boorstin wrote, “I have observed that the world has suffered far less from ignorance than from pretensions to knowledge. It is not skeptics or explorers but fanatics and ideologues who menace decency and progress.”
I’m not against theory, but cramming reality into preformatted boxes so that theories remain intact has become a popular, unethical, and anti-intellectual pastime among some researchers. Theory should help illuminate reality, not supplant it. After all, isn’t that why they call it theory?