發文作者:Albert Tzeng | 2008/01/31

On The Use of Theories.

In one recent seminar I joined, I couldn’t help noticed that many of the participants basically gave feedback by relating the presentation with some theoretical catchwords without providing any convincing account of how this would help furthering our understanding of the subject matter. Does the introduction of these concepts provide an indispensible angle? Or do they contribute to a greater degree of intellectual clarity? Are they really necessary in the analysis of the presented subject? There seems very limited awareness of these issues.

It was as if these catchy phrases were only cited to show the commentators’ familiarity of many difficult, absurd concepts—a tactic to secure the commentators’ prestige in the community. The whole scenery just reminded me the impression of an ancient tribe where the few gurus who can speak the mystical language were awesomely respected. Here, theories were cited as a symbolic badge, a tool to label ones superior academic training, and consequently, social position.

Let’s come back to the Basic. Why we need theories? How should be theories be used in academic discourse? Among all the accounts I’ve been exposed to, I love the metaphor of ‘map’ most. Yes theory is an intellectual map, an abstracted conceptual representation with reduced degree of details. It provides a conceptual frame in which we can make sense of the empirical world with greater degree of clarity. There’s of course distortion. Actually without a degree of distortion theories can never do any good. And one implication following such conceptualization would be: there could be indefinite possibilities in theorizing one identical thing.

Then, the issue is how many theories we should bring into one academic discussion? I think it’s really like asking how many different maps we should bring: it really depends on what sort of journey we intend to take. Bringing in too many theoretical concepts is just like bringing too many maps in one journey; it could simply be a burden, an intellectual burden.

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Responses

  1. bringing too many maps in one journey could simply be a burden is an interesting point
    but what about maps for different purposes at different timings, e.g. maps of highway routes if long-distance driving then maps of a city metro if parking at the suburb & taking public transit into city centre? (sorry if i seem to talk silly)

  2. quite interesting. I am thinking how the first theory comes into being and what inspires it.

  3. Christine … don\’t worry and actually I agree with you. I myself would bring more than one map in one journey to serve the different needs I might encounter. But the scenerios I described feels more like: throwing a mineral-map to someone who only plan to climb the mountain… 
     
     In fact I think most theories could be RELATED to any subject, but if we do relate too many theories to any given subject without good reason, the chance is that we will end up give birth to one giant , heavily theoretically-laden work which does not add much clarity in our understanding … 

  4. Shenwei.. sorry that I missed your point in the previous reply..
    Well I think theories were there in human\’s mind ever since we start to make sense of the world with \’symbolic mental representation\’.
    Yes if we adopt the loosest sense we may even argue that there were many micro-theories in our language, in many old saying and even in some single phrases ( as long as it construct an abstracted form of symboli representation of what is actually going on in the real world).What we consider as \’real theories\’ are just something similiar with greater degree of sophistication. 

  5. your small essay is a bitter of seriousness than your in-person image. BTW, I am going back to Shanghai, very glad to see you in London, keep in touch anyway!
    Lily


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