What Theory is Not

Robert I. Sutton; Barry M. Staw, Administrative Science Quarterly, Dec 23, 2015
Commentary by Stephen Downes

Useful post from 1995 that every aspiring writer should read. It outlines five things theories are not (education writers should especially take note), offers a solid definition of a theory, and offers several arguments against theories. Here are the things theories are not:

  • References are not theory - "authors need to explicate which concepts and causal arguments are adopted from cited sources...";
  • Data are not theory - "observed patterns... rarely constitute causal explanations";
  • Lists of variables or constructs are not theories - "a theory must also explain why lists of variables or constructs come about or why they are connected";
  • Diagrams are not theory - "they rarely explain why the proposed connections will be observed";
  • Hypotheses (or predictions) are not theory - they "are statements about what is expected to opccur, not why it is expected to occur."

So what is a theory. Here is their proposal: "theory is the answer to queries of why. Theory is about the connections among phenomena, a story about why acts, events, structure and thoughts occur. Theory emphasizes the nature of causal relationships, identifying what comes first as well as the timing of such events."

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