What Is a Theory

There is considerable debate about how we should conceptualize 'theory' and the meaning of the term 'theory' is 'extraordinarily disunified and elastic' (Jay, 1998: 18). Its etymology can be traced back to the classical Greek word theoria suggesting a visually-based contemplation of the world from afar. Theories are thus what Einstein called 'free creations of the human mind'. In this sense, we all indulge in theorizing when we speculate about why something occurred. Imagine the following exchange:

Robin: But why did Tony Blair support the Americans in the war against Iraq?

Kathy: Well, I have a theory about that. All this talk about weapons of mass destruction - it's just a diversionary tactic. What you need to understand is that the war is really about oil. George Bush is, after all, a Texan and . . .

Whether or not we would be convinced by Kathy's theory, it is apparent that theory and explanation are closely associated in ordinary language.

Moreover, theories are open to judgements about whether they do indeed provide or allow sound explanations. Are Kathy's claims more than speculative fantasy? How do we judge? One answer is that we must see whether the theory fits the 'facts' of the case but this is not as straightforward as it might seem. For a start, we are faced with the problem of deciding which 'facts' count. George Bush is a Texan, but to what extent does this 'fact' provide evidence for the claim that the war against Iraq is really about oil? More generally, separating 'theory' from 'fact', as we shall see, gets us into all sorts of philosophical hot water.

Kathy's theory relates to a particular historical event and many scientists, and some social scientists, would not count it as a theory at all. For them, theoretical understandings must be built upon well-founded scientific laws. And scientific laws are universal propositions about phenomena in the (natural) world based on the careful observation and measurement of these phenomena. Boyle's law states that 'for a fixed mass of gas at a constant temperature, the product of pressure and volume is constant', and it is accepted as a scientific law because it is supported by empirical evidence and expresses a constant order. History, on this account, is atheoretical - some would say anti-theoretical - because historians generally shun a search for constant order and lack sound standards for 'testing' their speculative theories. In science, theories provide frameworks that help us to make sense of the world in terms of scientific laws. And the most famous of these theories, such as Einstein's theories of special and general relativity, subsume other theories and their laws, creating a hierarchy of theories of increasing generality or abstraction. When we think about 'theory', however, we must recognize that what counts as a theory varies among different academic traditions.

While Kathy's 'theory' is directed at the explanation of a particular event, we also commonly talk about theories in a more generic sense. In everyday speech, the term 'theory' is frequently contrasted with 'practice'. For example, something may be said to be 'true in theory but not in practice'. Theory, in this sense, tells us what we might expect to happen, whereas practice (or experience) encourages a sceptical attitude to such expectations. As a popular understanding of theory, this view owes much to science and is clearly reflected in the way that physical geographers in particular tend to think of theory. Three features of what I will call the traditional scientific view of theory are evident even from this brief example. First, theory is distinct from, but can be related to, practice; second, theories yield predictions (and explanations); and third, theories can be judged true (or false). These interrelated features require elaboration in order to introduce some of the questions facing scientists who hold this view of theory. Since scientists have attempted to assert hegemonic power over what is to count as a theory, and since physical geographers often claim to be earth scientists, I want to open up the discussion by turning first to understandings of theory in physical geography. These understandings were once common across geography as a whole, but today have been challenged by newer ones.

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