Theory: What, Why, How?

Chaitanya Mishra

Chaitanya Mishra

Theory is not something that is opposed to “practical”. It is not something that is fluffy, up-in-the-air or on the clouds, far away, and unseen. It is not something that can be avoided, however much one might wish to. It is necessarily implicated in how we view and explain the social (or any other) world—not only while doing Sociology but also in daily life. Does everything “have a theory”? You bet. Is theory something that very difficult to engage in? No, it is not that difficult. It calls attention, principally, to view a social attribute (including quantitative ones such as ratio, proportion, rate, etc.), relationship, category, process, etc. within a more encompassing historical-structural framework and process.        

  1. Theory as (a) perspective and as (b) explanation: Perspective is mostly what we have been teaching. Examples. A perspective, however, is not a theory as such. Perspectives tell us how to distinctively view a class of problems and not why a problem took shape the way it did. Examples. Explanation and perspective, on the other hand, are also mutually related: That is why a perspective is also called a meta theory, i.e. theory of theory. Social theories, on the other hand, are explanations of socially substantive issues or problems. (Note that when we say problems, we primarily mean intellectual and not social problems.) Social theories, if not all theories, often develop an explanation in close proximity with a perspective. For example, the rise and fall of all specific modes of production take place within a perspective that valorizes historical materialist dialectics and contradiction. As such, transition from and to capitalism, illustratively, has a historical-causal explanation. But so do transitions to and from all other modes of production. In this sense, historical dialectical materialism is the perspective within which the Marxist explanation of transitions to and from specific modes of production—including to and from capitalism–takes place.Additional examples from the structural-functionalist, agency-centered, etc. perspectives. The perspective a researcher adopts often directs the researcher not only to particular substantive areas but also to particular forms of explanation. In essence, there is a strong correspondence between the perspective adopted, the set of variables brought into an explanatory equation, and a substantive problem explained. DiscussExamples: Correspondence between functionalist, agency-centered, etc. perspectives and theories.
  2. Theory as generalization: A movement from particular to general. The idiographic and the nomothetic debate. Literature, Anthropology, Regional Studies, “Oriental Studies,” and, to a certain extent, History versus generalizing social sciences, e.g. sociology, political science, economics, etc. Also, on the idiographic league, “British exceptionalism,” “American exceptionalism”, as also the “uniqueness”or “essentialism” of specific caste, gender, ethnic, class, “racial”, regional, etc. groups. The nomothetic argument, on the other hand, is this: Is it better to gain knowledge about a particular social event, attribute, relation, category, process, etc. or a class of events, attribute (including quantitative attribute such as ratio, proportion, rate, etc.),relation, category, process, etc.? Is a social event, etc. completely distinctive from the rest? Or is it similar to at least some others, or does it fall into a more general pattern? Should the rise of democracy in Nepal during the 2007 best be explained in terms that are unique to 2007 Nepal or can democracy in 2007 Nepal partially be explained by learning about the antecedents of the rise of democracy in other countries and at other times? Are there some general causes, i.e. theories, of democracy going beyond that in 2007 Nepal? Can the two sets of data and conclusion—the more general and“universal” (in a world-historical sense)—and those relating specifically to Nepal be brought together, intertwined, and mutually validated? (Discuss the contrast between the universal and the world-historical.) Can theorization on the rise of democracy in Nepal contribute to revalidate and enrich the more encompassing theories of democracy? The intent, of course, is to learn from world-historical theory of democracy in order to reaffirm or further refine it.
  3. Induction, deduction, abstraction, and scope of theory: Induction, deduction, and level of abstraction–all speak of the level or “extent” of generalization we think we can legitimately afford out of a particular piece of research. Can a particular research finding or conclusion generalized universally? To specific world-historical scene? To a particular world region or country or sub-region? Or to a population from which a sample has been studied within a particular settlement? Now, the larger the scope of a theory the more powerful it is—inasmuch as it can explain a highly encompassing structure and a long historical time. But such theories are extremely difficult to come up with. In addition, it is not easy to “translate” highly encompassing macro theories to micro settings.
  4. Theory as something testable: Theory is not something that you assert. It is something that you continually attempt to prove (or, better yet, and since Karl Popper, disprove). A theory therefore, has to have empirical referents that you can define, conceptualize, categorize, mutually relate and, possibly, put into a cause-effect sequence. (Discuss the notion and types of definition, concepts and conceptualization, categories and categorization, and co- relation and causal relation.)A theoretical statement, as such, has to be put forward in a testable manner, You cannot often test abstract theories or generalizations directly; you have to test them by means of the empirical referents of the concepts implicated in a theoretical statement.
  5. Theory as something public: A scientific theory cannot be a secret or private knowledge. Because critique and refutation is built into a scientific intellectual enterprise. Sorcery may be knowledge, but it is not scientific knowledge for very many reasons. One reason is that it is a secret knowledge and it cannot, therefore, be publicly verified and refuted. Criticism of a piece of knowledge or theory is possible only if the knowledge or theory is public that is, at least in principle, knowable to all those who wish and can to learn it.
  6. Finally, thinking sociologically, researching and theorizing: An account of a village or settlement and the nature of its society, relations, class structure, ethnicity, marriage and family systems, etc. is not Socio-logy. Sociology is principally an intellectual dialog among those who write, largely remaining within the discipline called Sociology (which itself changes historically), accounts of society and it attributes, relations, etc. Sociology necessary implicates dialog with writers who have written similar accounts in other places and at other times. In addition, does everything under the sun ‘have Sociology” implicated within it? Absolutely. As I have written before, the social is everywhere. A sociologist has to cultivate a vantage point ora vision that transforms all things, including buildings, chairs and tables and, of course, birth and death; water and soil; knowledge, consciousness, and emotion; etc., as social-historical products.

(Notes for Presentation, Research Methodology Training Workshop for Teachers, organized by the Central Department of Sociology, Tribhuvan University at Kirtipur, Kathmandu, June 26, 2016)



One response

  1. We look at a social phenomenon through the lens of a theory and get a clear understanding of its functioning. Or in trying to understand a social activity/process/happening, we do research and studies and find out that the particular subject of our scrutiny is governed by a social theory. In doing so, we have neatly arranged our knowledge and studies on a given subject and also proved once again the theory through its aptness in binding our research.

    This is what I learned from the post.

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