just theory, diminutive disdain


One of my co-bloggers created a “just theory” category for last summer – the category has proven popular. But, why “just theory” and not just “theory”? The “just” suggests a certain diminutive disdain for theory, perhaps even suggesting a comparison to the purity, practicality, observability, and truth of empirics and data (and, why not a category for “just data”). A certain disdain, at times, has indeed been the lot of theory. Below, again, from OED:

1820 JEFFERSON Writ. (1830) IV. 325 The misconstructions, interpolations, and *theorizations of..fanatics.

1829 CARLYLE Crit. & Misc. Ess., Novalis (1872) II. 197 A great and original plan, very different..from that of our idle *theorisers and generalizers.

1849 NOAD Electricity (ed. 3) 127 One fact is worth a volume of theorizing.

1854 E. G. HOLLAND Mem. J. Badger 417 Men who have no tendency to speculative theorization.

On a related note – I am co-teaching a theory-building class this semester, and, while we have quite a few Ph.D.-bound masters students in the class, we have also made it a point of emphasis to note that theory should be, and is, highly practical for the practicing manager/consultant as well (pace those wanting to “kiss theory goodbye“), thus hoping to appeal to the other half of the class. The students have been surprisingly eager and ready to understand the vagueries of theory (in part, I am sure, given my co-instructor’s ability to brilliantly teach this). More on the class later – its been an interesting experiment.

Written by teppo

January 24, 2007 at 5:07 pm

Posted in just theory, teppo

5 Responses

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  1. I’ll step forward as the co-blogger who created the category. As co-founder of a blog called “orgtheory,” I’m sure Teppo knows that I don’t belittle theory. What I meant was “stand-alone theory” (as in, no empirical work involved) rather than “mere theory.” Anyway, if it would make you feel better I can create a category called “mere empirics.”



    January 24, 2007 at 8:37 pm

  2. I know ;) – I just picked on the “just” given that it is a prevailing mentality in practice.



    January 24, 2007 at 8:59 pm

  3. You didn’t ask for it, but I did it anyway – “mere empirics” is now a category. We’ll show those snobby data dredgers who’s valued around here.



    January 24, 2007 at 10:53 pm

  4. Well, post-publication its hard to know whether one simply mined their dataset for correlations and potential theoretical explanations (its almost a Cohen et al/garbage-can-type model of research, random matching of problems and solutions), or systematically worked through things…

    Overall, the operating model should be, to roughly paraphrase my advisor’s advisor – “the data is your enemy, and the theory is your friend.”



    January 25, 2007 at 2:02 am

  5. Hmmm… Reminds me of another aphorism floating around grad schools:

    “If you torture the numbers long enough, they will say anything.” Is theory playing the role of the good cop?

    Teppo- I am teaching an undergrad OT class this semester (for the first time!) and I am also working on making it both theory and focused on the world, on practical implications, on theorizing as an indispensable skill.

    Can we talk more by some medium?

    I don’t think I see a teaching category…



    January 25, 2007 at 3:52 pm

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