Bag of potato crisps

In the world of social science, anthropology, sociology and the like, there are plenty of theories to go around. The spectrum reflects the progress of academia and intellect through the ages as well as trends of the times. Some are now considered out of date, perhaps because they have been disproven or are simply out of fashion. Some are considered more accurate or applicable than others. There are few if any theories in the social sciences considered perfect. All have exceptions. However, this field thrives on shades of gray. It should be expected that its theories will not be in black and white.

Some fail to see the value in using theory. What is the point when they all have a limited scope and are riddled with exceptions? The suggested alternative is to simply preform studies without applying any theory to methodology or analysis. Instead, studies become detailed accounts of specific phenomena. I don’t see a problem with this. However, theories provide the opportunity to put findings and new ideas into a larger framework. This allows the researcher to make comparisons and connections, creating a more complete understanding of the phenomena and the world it is situated in.

The largest issue concerning theory is that there is a tendency to apply a theory to every situation or phenomena one comes across. We build theories up in our minds to be grand, over-arching answers. When the truth is, the world is too diverse for any such thing. If a theory cannot answer all, then it is discarded and then the next one is tried, then the next one, then the next… until we decide theories are pointless altogether. As Marvin Harris puts it, “Explanations of lifestyles are like potatoes chips. People insist on eating them until the whole bag is gone” (pg. vi). Instead we need to recognize and accept the limits of theories while taking advantage of the focused yet wider scope and fresh perspectives theories can provide.

Harris, Marvin. Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches: The riddles of culture. New York: Random House, 1978.


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