Five Skills a Good Theorist Must
Five Skills a Good Theorist Must Master
- Clear and Concise Claims. A good
theorist must understand the basic process of making a claim and offering
support for that claim. The skill includes being able to formulate concise
statements of position.
- Supporting Claims. Support involves
a kind of rhetorical argument: being able to convince others that are
working on the theory that your position is sound and worthwhile. This
places a theorist firmly within the context of other theorists working on
similar problems. The theorist must understand what counts as sufficient
proof. Among the powers of support a good theorist must master
- the sense of mastery of a theory. The theorist's
work must demonstrate a level of mastery of the theory within which s/he
is working to give them the legitimacy within their theoretical
- the ability to prove an interpretation of the work
of others. When theorists find themselves interpreting the writing of
others, they must know how to weave perspective into solid
interpretation. This is not a skill of finding quotation, although
quotation may contribute. It requires relating positions into a coherent
- citing the work of others. Those who agree with you
form a part of your context and a good theorist knows how to marshall
- the pragmatic proof. Often theory is proven by
successfully wielding the theory in insightful ways. The short, concise,
application can be a powerful proof.
Identifying and Critiquing Assumptions
- Identifying Assumptions. All
theories, because they are systems, leave connections and concepts
unarticulated. The ability to identify these unarticulated assumptions is
an essential to working effectively with theory.
- Proving that the Assumption Fits.
Good theorists develop skills at demonstrating the centrality of particular
assumptions to the viability of a theory.
- Critiquing Assumptions. Good
theorists are capable of evaluating assumptions. The sort of evaluation
that carries the most power depends on the theory evaluated:
- Consistency/Inconsistency. Formal theories stress
that the various assumptions of theories must be consistent.
- Correct/Incorrect. Mechanistic theories stress
that theories are responsible for the correspondence of their
assumptions with the world they describe. Of course, regardless of the
intellectual tradition that molds the theory, empirical statements must
- Meaningful/Worthless. Synthetic theories stress
that assumptions must be productive of interpretation. Assumptions that
do not contribute to a theory are good candidates for Ockam's
Skills in Building and Elaborating
- Extending a theory. Because theory
is systematic and involves a perspective on the world, it is imperialistic.
It tries to explain new things. Good theorists always explore the edges of
the theories explanatory power attempting to find new insight beyond the
boundary. Of course, the key to the skill is critically understanding when
extensions are legitimate and when overreaching.
- Filling in a theory. Also because of
the systematic and perspectival character of theory, a theory is never
fully dense. There are always relationships within the concepts of a theory
that require clarification and elaboration.
Skills in Organizing Theoretical Work
- Problem/Solution. The dominant
organizational strategy in theory is isolating problems in the theory for
attention and seeking a solution for them.
- Question/Answer. Because theories
are systematic perspectives they pose their own questions. Recognizing
those questions and seeking answers for them is a key skill.
- Assumption/Critique. Particularly a
sound pattern to test a theory.
- Lacuna/Elaboration. Finding the
place where a theory is stretched a bit and filling in that concept is an
Because a theory is a perspective, a good theorist must
understand how to explain that theory to those who have not mastered its
vocabulary and strategies. There is a dilemma here. Using old words in old ways
is required to help people understand a theory; but it also distorts the
theory. Managing this problem is an important skill. Skills of illustration,
metaphor and analogy are particularly important.