Theory, research and practice (and the use of theory in research practice)

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Given the name of this blog and my use of the Leonardo Da Vinci quote in the side panel, it just came as a bit of a surprise to me that I haven’t really posted before on the inter-relationship of theory, research and practice (the main exception being one on Knowledge into action).  Or maybe it is because the whole blog is implicitly about that very topic, that I’ve never thought to address it explicitly.

The first paragraphs may feel a little random, just got to get (what I think are) relevant thoughts down to see if I can then integrate them at the end.

1) The practice dynamic that I became familiar with in my ‘Systems thinking in practice’ studies (especially TU812) gave me insights into a perspective that sees practice as a dynamic inter-relationship between a practitioner; a framework of ideas (which I guess includes (or maybe equates to) theories); methods (which often embed theories or assumptions about the way the world works); and, the situation.  I learned that it was important not just to be aware of each of the ‘parts’ and the dynamic but aware of the choices I can make between ways of engaging with the situation, which include choices around the framework of ideas and methods.  Research is a form of practice – one that very explicitly sets out to use the framework of ideas and methods to understand (describe or even explain) aspects of the situation

2) I don’t want to go into extensive definitions of the word theory here, because that could get into a whole distraction.  But in the context of the framework of ideas above, I think there is a distinction between

– informal theories – those that I develop intuitively through my experience of the world which I may or may not make explicit to myself or others – they may also get referred to as heuristics or rules of thumb.  So before my recent literature review module, I’d developed ways of searching for literature that seemed to work for me so that was the way I practised.  It was only by reading about different ways of searching for literature that I found out that my way of searching has a name (snowballing), but of other ways of doing it too.

– formal theories – those that I have learned (e.g from a text book) and are commonly used by others in the domain(s) of practice I am part of.  So those could be theories of health promotion; theories of management; theories of policy process; and pertinent to this discussion increasingly theories of research (including methodology) etc.  These formal theories could take various forms, so I include conceptual models and frameworks for example.  Theories themselves are also built on theories or assumptions – assumptions as to the nature of the world (ontology); what constitutes knowledge of the world and how to develop that knowledge (epistemology); sometimes standpoints like feminism or other critical theories concerned with emancipation or what should be the relationship between the researcher and the researched.

Some people don’t like formal theories or making their own informal theories explicit, they think the activity is too, well, theoretical!  But two other quotes come to mind – Lewin’s “there is nothing as practical as a good theory” and Keynes’ “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

3) Research is concerned with theory development and/or theory testing and/or theory refining.  This is an explicit process of drawing on empirical information to develop a theory, checking whether that theory holds in other instances and so on.  As discussed in my last post, the theories are then used in further empirical application and have active research programmes associated with them.  But surely theories aren’t just destined to live in the land of research for ever, that would be a waste – isn’t it more important to understand how they can be applied to make the world better (or simply easier for everyone to understand the messy world and navigate within it).  That’s the difference of focus between theoretical and applied research.

4) When I covered my first PhD module on Public Health, I made a quick excursion into a few papers about applying theory in public health/health promotion practice.  I did it because after being so focused on ‘theory-in-practice’ in my Systems studies, it seemed rather odd to be suddenly faced with the importance of ‘evidence-based practice’.  I wondered if the two co-exist, whether they are different language for the same thing, or whether one should dominate over the other.  I didn’t search forever or even very systematically because of the time available but I did find a couple of editorials  (Green 2000 and Van den Broucke 2012) and an excellent discussion article (Buchanan 1994).  The two editorials both argue for the use of theory as another pillar (alongside evidence) in our quest for effectiveness and also seem to imply that theory-informed practice can sometimes take us into places where there isn’t yet (or couldn’t ever be) enough of what we call evidence.

It was the Buchanan article I looked back on this morning.  He takes us back to the distinctions of Aristotle and the origin of the word praxis which I came across in my systems studies.  Buchanan highlights that Aristotle distinguished three types of human experience and associated each of them with different types of knowledge (theoretical knowledge; practical reason and technical skills).  He only focuses on two in the paper:

  • Theoria – refers to “the experience of events that are absolute, invariant, eternal and universal” (p. 278).  The related knowledge is called episteme (theoretical knowledge) which is “concerned with the order and structure of the natural universe”(p.278).  This is pretty much what natural modern science looks for now – with theories that are testable, generalisable into laws (this drug will work for this type of person with this kind of condition in xx% of cases)
  • Praxis – refers to “the changing, variable and contingent relationships in the socio-historical domain” (p.278).  The related knowledge is phronesis (practical reason).  Buchanan notes that knowledge regarding this type of experience roughly equates to what we call wisdom today.  In the flux of events and ideas of everyday life “Practical reason is the ability t0 recognize, acknowledge, pick out and respond to the singular salient features of a complex and unique situation” (p.279).

Buchanan draws on a distinction between human practice and natural processes to highlight that they need different types of research, different kinds of theories and different ways of relating to practice.  To help praxis, we don’t need universal laws, we need theories that help sensitise us to salient elements of a situation to help us understand its richness (Buchanan cites the work of Blumer here and the idea of sensitising concepts which got me through my masters research project) (also this links wonderfully over to the use of systems approaches along with diagramming and their use in a systemic inquiry that helps us to learn about a situation.).  If this is the type of theories we need then research needs to be more about developing practical reason – increasing the ways in which practitioners are sensitized to understanding and then taking action in that messy world.


So, now I am going to get myself into a bit of linguistic gymnastics – what does this mean for me as a research practitioner – i.e. someone engaged in the practice of research.  Research practice draws on methodology (a THEORY of how research should proceed) but I have a choice as to whether to see different methodologies as ‘laws’ or ‘rules’ (this methodology should be followed precisely to come up with an answer to question x) or whether I see methodology as supporting my practical reason (what can I learn if I use this methodology as a way of sensitising me to situation y).  The second orientation allows too for a more pragmatic ‘mix’ of complementary strategies (as discussed in Ormston et al 2014).

But it isn’t just methodologies that get used in research, other theories can too – in fact even if I am not conscious of it, other theories and standpoints are always impacting on the way I perceive a situation.  I once read a great article (Skelcher and Sullivan 2009) that demonstrated theory-driven approaches to analysing – in this case – collaborative performance.  And more recently, Katikireddi et al (2014) used different theories of the policy process as theoretical lenses to help give insights into the development of minimum unit price of alcohol in Scotland.  It’s almost like these authors have used these theories to guide their analysis and write-up of data gathered say through a case study approach.


Buchanan, D.R. (1994), Reflections on the relationship between theory and practice. Health Education Research, 9(3), pp.273–283.

Green, J. (2000), The role of theory in evidence-based health promotion practice. Health Education Research, 15(2), pp.125–129.

Katikireddi, S.V., Hilton, S., Bonell, C. and Bond, L. (2014), Understanding the Development of Minimum Unit Pricing of Alcohol in Scotland: a qualitative study of the policy process. PloS ONE, 9(3), p.e91185.

Ormston, R., Spencer, L., Barnard, M. and Snape, D. (2014), The foundations of qualitative research. In Ritchie, J., Lewis J., McNaughton Nicholls, C. and Ormston, R. (Editors), Qualitative Research Practice: A Guide for Social Science Students and Researchers. Second Edition., London, UK: Sage Publications, pp. 1–25.

Skelcher, C. and Sullivan, H. (2008), Theory-driven approaches to analysing collaborative performance. Public Management Review, 10(6), pp.751–771.

Van den Broucke, S. (2012), Theory-informed health promotion: seeing the bigger picture by looking at the details. Health Promotion International, 27(2), pp.143–147.

One thought on “Theory, research and practice (and the use of theory in research practice)

  1. Note to self – out of intrigue just read a few blogs and wikipedia re: the third type of human experience that Aristotle described, but Buchanan didn’t include in his paper. Few points:
    – elsewhere people refer to three types of human ‘activity’ (rather than experience)
    – the other type of human activity is poiesis. It is more about craft skills involved in producing something. The related form of knowledge is poietical or technical knowledge – it is kind of like ‘know-how’ or skill.

    So to quote the wikipedia entry on praxis:
    “Aristotle held that there were three basic activities of man: theoria, poiesis and praxis. There corresponded to these kinds of activity three types of knowledge: theoretical, to which the end goal was truth; poietical, to which the end goal was production; and practical, to which the end goal was action.”

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