Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Theory as a Verb

A new paper by Ryan Quinn and Monica Worline offers us an opportunity to reflect on the verb "to theorize". The paper, "Enabling Courageous Collective Action: Conversations from United Airlines Flight 93" (Organization Science, Vol. 19, No. 4, July–August 2008, pp. 497–516), uses the phrase "we theorize that" about a dozen times. But this happens in at least two different ways. First, there are statements in which Quinn and Worline "theorize" about particular cases:

We theorize that one difference between the conditions aboard Flight 93 and those described in the Mann Gulch fire has to do with the resources available to the participants. (504)

... we theorize that the people aboard Flight 93 had mutable and dynamic resources (Feldman 2004), such as extra time, a constrained common fate, and a way to contact people outside of the situation for information, which the smokejumpers at Mann Gulch or the people aboard the other flights on 9/11/01 did not have. (505)

Second, there are statements of a more general kind:

We theorize that, when people receive sanction from others who play relevant and important roles in their life narratives, it helps them manage the emotions of extreme duress through mutual connection with another (Dutton and Heaphy 2003) and through validation of one’s identity (Weick 1995). (505)

... theorize that people require narratives as a basis for courageous collective action, and the first involves reestablishing personal narratives. (506)

Even these last two statements are different in an important sense: the second theorizes about courageous collective action (their object), while the first theorizes about how people handle extreme duress (a more general notion).

I don't have a fully worked out reaction to this use of "to theorize", but something seems wrong here to me. (I'm sure examples can be found in other papers.) Are Quinn and Worline doing the same thing, or even similar things, every time they "theorize"? Or are they not, perhaps, in some cases actually "speculating", "noticing", "observing", "concluding", "interpreting", "hypothesizing", or even just "thinking" or "believing". (As in "we think that...", "we believe that...") I find it especially odd that they describe themselves as "theorizing" when pointing to differences between one case and another. The other two cases do seem to cast "theorizing" as the activity of developing general statements about a phenomenon (here "courageous collective action").

One interesting use of "we theorize that" can be found here:

We theorize that a fragile trust forming among the passengers, bolstered by a vote, would have been critical aboard Flight 93, because attacking multiple armed men with control of an airplane is a risky, interdependent activity. (508)

They do not say, "We believe that fragile trust was critical aboard Flight 93," rather, they "theorize that" it would have been critical. This means they are not offering a claim that can be tested by looking at details of the case. What they are saying is that, regardless of particulars, what they know about collective action forces them to conclude that trust must (or just may?) have been involved.

Theorizing, in the sense used here, seems to be something like looking at the world in a theory-laden way, drawing conclusions about the object of study, not drawing general conclusions about the type of object under study.

I'll probably write more about this soon (perhaps to eat crow). If any one has any ideas, I'm all ears.


Jonathan said...

In these cases I personally would say, "We hypothesize that..." Or "We conjecture that..." Theory can mean hypothesis in the sense of "My theory is that the television causes obesity."

That's a little different from theory in the "high theory" sense of the term.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Yes, I suspect that Q&W dissolve the distinction between "conjecturing", "theorizing" and, say, "demonstrating".

ChrisC said...

I consciously try to avoid this kind of terminology (theorizing, utilizing etc). It seems a little too academic (as in stuffy) and my writing already suffers enough of that.

I have found that the best writing is clear, succinct and uses simple wording: this is as true of Gould and Medawar as it is of Orwell. Writing parseable science is hard enough without forcing readers through linguistic corkscrews :-)

Thomas Basbøll said...

I think "theorizing" has its uses (we can utilize "theorizing" in some contexts). The problem here, I think, is that the word isn't being used to mean something specific, but to mean something like "we make the academically legitimate point that..."

The word "theorize" has an aura, if you will, which you are right to call "stuffy". When we really do theorize it is very difficult to enter the conversation. That's why it should be used sparingly. It should not be used just to keep people from engaging with the point you are making.

Thomas Basbøll said...

That is, the difficulty of entering a truly theoretical discussion is justified. We should avoid the appearance that ordinary matters of fact are difficult to discuss.