The relation between theory and practice

What is the relevance of theory when it comes to policy-formation and management questions? Take forest management as an example. Do policy makers in forest management pick and choose from a variety of positions or do they adhere strictly to one theory about how the forest should be managed? This is in a way an empirical issue, but could be discussed in a non-empirical way as well. To analyze the issue non-empirically we could proceed in one of the following two ways: either we could hypothetically take one stance and see what follows from that (e.g., say that there is a close relation between theory and practice, how can we account for that and what would be the – theoretical as well as practical – consequences); or we could make it a normative issue (how ought this relation optimally be?). Reflecting upon questions as these, it could be interesting to know that in environmental philosophy there has recently been a strong suggestion that we should minimize the gap between theory and practice. Shifting the focus from value theoretical issues towards practical real-world problems – as these environmental pragmatists has suggested – could look progressive, but what are they sacrificing? Why do we need theory in the first place? These issues could be widely extended (e.g., think about the state of emergence which the global climate change poses and the corollary need for immediate action).


10 Responses to “The relation between theory and practice”

  1. Jacob Says:

    Interesting post but I think the push to merge theory and practice overlooks two critical issues. Namely theory is typically born out of academic research which is grounded in observation of “the real world” but is honed and refined in an academic setting, apart from day to day vagaries. I think this distance and seclusion, to an extent, is required for the perfection of an idea. It also encourages (though doesn’t always bring about) a sort of psychological removal from the situation. If one were to more closely link theory and practice it would, in my mind, beg the question: “Is the theory driving the practice? Or are the practices shaping the theory?” We need this distance to ensure we are making management decisions based on science and not science decisions based on our current management strategies.

    The second point is simply an observation I’ve made while working with both scientists or engineers and the folks with “boots on the ground” who implement or put together the engineering designs. They don’t really get along that well, usually. Merging the researcher (science) with the technician (practice) may generate more conflict than you’d expect.

  2. Karen Says:

    Theory is essential is providing an analytical explanation of empirical observations and can be a useful tool for systematizing patterns of thinking.
    Theory is based on collective and agreed upon examinations of data. In the epistemic sense, theory is peer reviewed and built upon consensus which brings forth relevance with brevity and succinctness. In that sense, theory can provide a simple and logical basis from which correspondingly logical solutions can be derived. However theories are theories simply for the fact that they are open to conjecture until proven.
    For example the *theory* of global warming has instigated a pandemonious outcry of alarm in which leading authorities can manipulate for their governing control and power, not to mention profit gain.

    So what is the relevance of theory when it comes to policy-formation and management questions?
    Theory can be useful in illustrating the general consenus of a given subject, ie climate change, and aid in subsequent managerial and political decision making processes. But being theoretical, it is always open to conjecture whereby parties may not subscribe to the stated theorum, ie the USA, as the content is open for debate.

  3. Tobias Abrahamsson Says:

    I want to distinguish between two different kinds of theory: one type of theory relates to management of physical things and economies and can in some sense be tested empirically. This is theory-of-practice: how to best water the trees, which types of subsidies that have best effect, etc.

    The other kind of theory, that I find in the recommended articles, deals with more profound issues, such as the relationship between human beings and nature. This type of theory will also have practical implications, but is not related to practice in a direct sense.

    I think bringing theory-of-practice and practice closer together is a good thing. Finding best practices means that theories need to be tested in the field. Now, I don’t think forestry policymakers always pick best available technology, for political reasons or other reasons. However, I feel that it’s their job to strive to. Theory-of-practice developed in the ivory tower of academia might not actually be the best practice in local conditions, so it’s important to take opinions of those who “work in the field” seriously.

    With regards to the other type of theory, which deals with the relationship between humans and nature, I welcome a change towards bringing theory and practice closer together as this forces both to become more explicit in expressing their world-view. Theorists will have to consider practical implications of their thoughts, and practicalists will have to consider and make explicit which kinds of theories they’re (consciously or not) carrying with them.

    Making experiments to test theories of sustainability science (which involves complex interactions between social and natural systems) is difficult, and I think the best we can hope for is a Habermasian-style collective rationality to test our world-views. In the end, a deliberative process of finding world-views may lead to innovations in theory-of-practice, as well as political upbacking for certain types of theory-of-practice.

  4. Hana Says:

    The notion that theory is not important to change, but rather a jumping-off point toward more practical approaches, misses the idea that theories are usually derived from concrete observation. Theories inform practice; providing a framework for empirical approaches by identifying patterns and potentially causal relationships among opinions and actions.

    One need not eschew practical approaches in favor of preserving the theoretical–they are not mutually-exclusive. That is, it doesn’t need to be a trade-off between the seemingly all-encompassing theoretical realm and more practical approaches. Rather than see action as a shift in focus away from theory, I see it as an application of theory. Perhaps this is merely focusing on semantics, but narrowing the focus of theory to apply it to solving an environmental problem does not imply a shift away from that theory, but rather, a natural progression–a way to keep the theory in check, to see if it can still be relevantly applied to current issues. In this way, theory and practice have a reciprocal relationship, with practice informing theory as well. Of course, in practice, this can create a potential hazardous loop of confusion.

    In the example of forest management, with the idea of minimizing the gap between theory and practice, we need not shift the focus away from theory. Instead, I see it as shifting theory into action.

  5. Kent Says:

    Theory may be the result of concrete observation, but in the process of becoming a theory observations become diluted so that they can be an all-encompassing idea. Researchers need more time spent on the ground studying the context their theory is applied to – through practice- so they can custom-fit they theory into a management plan.

    Though, in the current traditions which sees
    division between researchers, technicians, government officers business owners and communities practice proves to be very difficult in the development of a management plan. Better cooperation is pertinent, which is where democracy comes in. Forums, town meetings, and other social interaction are necessary for theory (which is necessary for an initial starting point) to be re-concentrated to fit the unique local environment such as culture, economy, politics.

    For example, what is generally accepted as sustainable forest management comes from the Forest Principles agreed on in Rio in 1992. However the fine tuning of forest management has since been argued upon because each forest is part of a different cultural, political, economic environment.

    If researchers spent more time in town meetings and democratic cooperation could be improved perhaps solutions concerning the environment could come faster.

  6. Jamalya Says:

    The relation between theory and practice is very important as without theoretical knowldege it is impossible to use the skills in practice and make right decisions. In the currently occuring global issues we definetely need to minimize the existing gap between theory and practice. The issue indeed need to be viewed from the theoretical prospectives with following, coming solutions implemented in practice with general efforts. Theory always gives deeper understanding and allows to view the problems from different perspectives which leads to decision-making. Of course, there are limitations in the relationship as well as sometimes maybe the gaps between theory and practice can bring to a prolonged duration of decision-making process. In relation of currently existing problems, without understanding the basics of it, without knowing the case in depth, it is always more difficult in practice come to the right decision and solve the problem which causes the delays in decision-making process.

  7. ChiaSui Says:

    In order to respond the question that why there is a gap between theory and practice, it is necessary to examine the constructing process of theory. I agree that theory is a “product” of academic ivory tower. Every research has its own “hypothesis” and “optimal situation” and this setting sometimes reflects researchers’ subjective point of view. In short, there is no research free of value. So, how can an empirical research results be applied as a universal rule?

    This is how I interpret how “the gap” emerges. However, with this view in mind, it is pessimistic that nothing can be changed if the construction process remained status quo. For this, I believe the only solution resembles the point mentioned in the blog: “environmental philosophy” should be used to bridge the practice (reality) and theory (ivory tower). People should always keep in mind how their researches affect the world in reality. For this, I always believe the experience how socialist gained from field research is valuable to truly bridge the gap. Again, the world the too complex, when scientists try to simplified it or down-scaling it, they cannot avoid losing some characters that only appear to view the world as a whole.

  8. Tyler Adkins Says:

    Theory can, and sometimes does, play an important role in the day-to-day decision-making processes of actors, especially in the business and political worlds. All one has to do is consider the influence Keynes had on policy-makers in the post-war era, or the consequences of unfettered neo-conservatism during the Bush Administration.

    Theory plays an important part in academia when used to help understand the core tenets of the world we live in (who, what where, when, why, how, etc.). In taking a step back and viewing the world through a tinted lens, we are able to see what previously went unnoticed. A clearer understanding of “what is” increases the likelihood of successfully obtaining “what should be”. Understanding climate change science, for example, makes it more likely that we will find a way to adapt our behavior to prevent it, or at least predict likely risk so as to mitigate the consequences. It doesn’t ensure anything, but merely improves our chances.

    Differing theoretical perspectives serve to strengthen this connection as we work through various avenues and methods to understand the same questions. So while theory has the potential, and often is, relegated to university campuses and think tanks, the knowledge and understanding derived from it plays an essential role in the policy-making process.

  9. Kristín Rut Says:

    I see the relationship between theory in practice partly as Tobias’ 2nd type of relationship, the communication between humans and the environment, but it is also the relationship between humans that are different in status and living conditions. The later relationship effects how work is done in the practice in the nature, so the impact goes through a feedback cycle of cause and effect that once again reminds us of how every system is connected to another, human systems or ecological systems. This is visible in the various literature that we have read during the course and in previous courses and is the very core problem of sustainability science. In theory about the north-south divide it may be true that in the north we can spend x billions on parfume every year while in the south there is need for only a half of that amount to secure that women can give birth safely, and if that money would be provided they would be safed (an example presented in Johan’s lecture). But adding to the theory the problematics of practice and global impact on the individual freedom, many individuals in the south would choose not to put the little money that they have on improving their health or their children’s health but buy parfume instead. This happens every day because our systems are connected, the north and south are not different worlds, we live in one world.

  10. Vera Says:

    Theory is a very important, it gives us the comprehension about what was happened, is happening and could happen. Though it takes a lot of time to achieve the results, to check the rightness of the suggestions but the proof that we get will allow to choose the best solution to the studied issue. There were enough cases were short-term goal decisions were taken and the consequences it causes are still there and affected many actors. The example could be the total bog reclamation during soviet times in order to achieve the development in rural areas and to plant maize without taking into consideration the climatic conditions and the aftereffects like CO2 emissions and fires on the former peat lands.

    If to try to come to more practical issues, to my mind, the precautionary principle should be chosen. And still the decision should be well thought and taking into account system interrelations.

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