“Nothing is so practical as a good theory.”
- Kurt Lewin, social psychologist and Action Researcher
What is theory?
Theory is that insight for guiding educated guesses across complex and shifting conditions, a road map, or the central lens for policy and decision making. Theory is background intelligence, the logic system that tells us what to do and why we are doing it, in any given situation. Tell me why, and I’ll then understand what I need to do. Simply, it’s the ruling premise of anything: person, place, philosophy, artifact, time period, culture. Understand it, and you have the key to predicting its workings, history, and effects. And in relationship to other concepts, an added plus.
Then why does the term sound so forbidding, abstract, nonessential, or difficult?
It shouldn’t be, because theory is “high concept” or theme, detailed as a holistic explanation of why things are, how they work, (or are designed to work), and how they can be expected to operate into the future, making theory immeasurably valuable as predictive as well as descriptive. “Theory of mind” tells us how to read people’s thinking in order to know what to expect they will do as an outcome, and more important, why. Theory of negotiation formulates the purpose of deal-making, as in MGA, the Mutual Gains Approach. Theory of second-best deals with suboptimal systems or system parts to make decisions about how to upgrade effectiveness in a factory, economy, or organization. As engineer W. Edwards Deming drew the equation, “Rational behavior requires theory.”
Still – what is the problem people have with the theoretical? Why is the term so off-putting rather than instantly welcome?
Theory is comprehensive and systematic …so it’s not enough to explain one event or condition (“I have a theory about why everyone is so depressed today….”). It must explain not just one occurrence but a whole series, and how each event relates to others as well as the larger environment. Gravity, for instance, in Newton’s theory. Evolution explains the origins of life and species development and diversification over time. Quantum mechanics does the math to explain motion and interaction at the subatomic level, far from the intuitive physics experienced in daily life. Creative problem-solving theory outlines the way ideas can be generated and selected by groups (primarily) to evolve optimal potentials that can produce workable solutions.
The best sense of theoretical isn’t speculative – it’s comprehensive intelligence, systematically worked out to describe and explain how and why things operate.
In another domain, detective fiction looks for a theory to explain how the crime was committed, and by whom, through absorbing clues that make sense within a larger view that will include all important persons, motives, and incidents. Reviewing the narrative or action, the reader must work to construct and test this theory in parallel with the detective’s speculations and investigations, while forming his own ideas that might vary from the detective’s. The crime theory provides the handle (grip, focus) that affords the ability to see what fits as well as what doesn’t belong in the solution universe. Within the crime scene and world of motives and characters, the story weaves a matrix to understand the dynamics of the total system. In this sense, theory is the discovered mind of any black box that can be reverse- engineered to crack the case.
Design theory acts like a well-conceived theme in bringing to life an environment. It allows the artist to make optimal decisions for any aspect of that design, because it instantly tells you if things fit in or fail to fit. Assuming a solid understanding of what you are trying to construct, and for what purpose, creates strategy and tactics. If it’s a midcentury modern house, then Tudor detailing is out. Good artistic direction operates by design theory that knows one style from another. Does any given style or action fit into the theme? Theory is useful to answering yes or no, seeing direction and where to go next, discerning if it’s on or off-track, working backwards from the mind of the design. If you want a positive vision of the future, lose the dark dystopian spikey designs from Disneyland Paris; if not, then fine. Without a good working theory, there is no strategy, no battle plan. That means no way of relating stock buys, marketing moves, career direction, college choice, even time management must be informed in some way about what you want to accomplish in a day, a month, a year, or, as BF Skinner wanted to plan his life, the next ten years.
In business, it’s not even enough to know your objective – you need theory to give you a working strategy and the tactics to work forward. The company directive to “increase profits 20%” sounds good – but directives aren’t directions. How will this happen, and how will it affect every other part of the system? Is this a short-time goal that will act adversely against longer-term values, relationships, and objectives? The adage of social science rules the dynamics of any system: you can’t just change one thing. What must be measured against this 20% gain? That depends on your theory of profitability versus success. If the goal is not just profits but long-term value (as Disneyland proved to create in 1955), this theory approach requires strategies divergent from the most common quarterly guidance to cut costs, decrease risk, and tune up productivity. And what you measure is what you get more of.
In the study of culture, this adage couldn’t be more on the mark. Culture is a master matrix of thousands of systems—run by a basic checklist of values. Looking at it piecemeal won’t yield any insight. It is the master idea that drives story-telling. All parts relate to a major subject and theme, giving a design template for generating ideas and processing information. Cultural analysts (like us) ask basic questions devised to elicit answers to clarify: What is jewelry for? Marriage, children, work, money, time, energy, profit, change, belief? The research answers demonstrate the essence and power of theory—the thinking framework behind understanding where any culture has been, what it wants, and where it is headed led by its cultural credo, its value DNA.
There are simply too many facts, choices, agendas, purposes, and goals active at any point to make sense of any of the big picture. That means we need ways to clarify the big themes that make sense of the detail, to clarify the larger purpose. Academic approaches tend to make things more complex, not more clearly simple. We need a theory of culture to do that: arriving at organizing principles to sort out “unrelated” material to profile meaning, purpose, and direction, in culture at large as well as in design and creativity. The alternative is random file folders without links or logic. We have plenty of those already.