The utility of a theory depends upon its ontogenetic state, or degree of maturation, at a particular point in time. Content and structure can change along three axes: completeness, development and integration (Box 2). Completeness refers to the inclusion of items on the roster of theory components in Box 1, keeping in mind that components can be added. Development refers to the refinement of components; they should be better worked out over time. Integration is indicated by increasingly well articulated connections among the components.
Why Theory Change is Important
"Failure to recognize how theory changes or indeed, that theory changes at all can be an impediment to furthering understanding and integration" (Pickett, Kolasa and Jones 1994:86). Immature theories lack components and integrating links. An immature theory may be prematurely rejected or entirely ignored when it is subjected to an over-designed test or heavily negative (non-constructive) criticism at an early developmental stage.
Ontogeny and Testing
Early in its development, a theory might not allow appropriate tests of its validity. Without a specified framework, tests may encourage or discourage further development, but are quite meaningless. Even with a clear framework, strong theories can fail to predict behavior. At this point, intervening variables should be tested before throwing the baby out with the bath water. This process is a continual integration of related constructs, theories and paradigms, beholden to logical empirical consistency.
Scope And Refutation
Broad-scoped, well-developed theories are less easily refuted by only a few failures, since other variables and theories may be integrated to save the theory. Finer scale theories may be refuted by fewer cases of failure, due to fewer possible intervening processes, and less possibility of subdivision.
Conceptual constructs may be refined as a result of expansion of observable phenomena (externally), or logical or conceptual changes (internally). Application of theory requires an awareness of the ontogenetic status and development of the conceptual constructs.
How Theories Change: Theory Assembly, Development, Maturity
As theory develops, it becomes more and more complete, by the addition and refinement of theoretical notions, constructs, derived constructs, and structure. Figure 9 shows both increase in the number and refinement of components as theory matures. At first the emphasis is on the addition of components. By the consolidating stage of theory development all of the components are in place. Subsequently, refinement of components is what is emphasized. The refinement of components marks a second stage in the development of theory.
The stages of maturation shown in Figure 9 and summarized in Box 3 can be thought of as an idealized developmental sequence. Theory change is actually often haphazard, reflecting an amalgam of different empirical pursuits and different subtheories, and in some instances more complex or highly derived components arise before simpler ones. Drawing on other theories for components may also result in transfer problems, where those components acquire different meanings and interpretations in their new context. Nonetheless, the key idea is that the jobs a theory is able to do depend upon its stage of maturity, i.e. the richness of its roster of theoretical components and their refinement.
As a theory begins to take shape and to be used it often becomes clear that existing components must be replaced or refined. Theory may emerge from pre-theoretic notions by adding components, without showing much refinement. At the consolidating stage basic conceptual components are refined, empirical content is refined and expanded, derived conceptual components are added and refined, and the theoretical framework and structure begin to become apparent. Measures of component refinement include exactitude, empirical certainty, applicability and derivativeness.
Exactitude reflects the explicitness of the components of theory, how clearly assumptions are stated, the completeness of the stated domain, and the specificity and manner of presentation of the derived conceptual components. Clarity of terminology is a key aspect of exactitude. Because words can sometimes have more than one meaning (for example a word's common versus its scientific usage) confusion regarding terminology often occurs. One should therefore clearly and explicitly state the meanings of terminology that are critical to a theory. Imprecise words usually mean muddled thoughts. If you are unable to state what you mean explicitly, then the odds are good that you do not really have a firm grasp on what it is that you are trying to say. Perhaps you are dealing with the ineffable.
Empirical certainty reflects the degree to which facts and empirical generalizations are confirmed and evaluated, as well as the manner in which this is done.
Applicability centers largely on translation modes. The applicability of a theory refers to how well the derived conceptual components are applied to observable phenomena. The translation modes help to link derived and empirical components.
Derivativeness requires that the individual components and their relationships be analyzed. Here analysis refers to the working out of the implications of the components. Just as a theory develops via a dialog between the theory and the world it is designed to provide an understanding of, theories also develop through a dialog between the components of theory. This dialog will come from analysis of theoretical components and the refinement of theoretical concepts. Clarification of the components of a theory usually leads to the revision of the relationships between components. Internal consistency is a hallmark of mature theory.
In mature theories, components are well developed, well integrated and provide completeness (see Box 2). Complete theories have well-defined basic conceptual constructs and derived conceptual devices, as well as well-delineated domains, with internal structure and empirical content, allowing the development of hypotheses that can be confirmed or rejected. Confirmed mature theory has developed through prior phases of pre-theory, intuition, consolidation and empirical-interaction (see Box 3). Such theories come to represent the particular historical time periods within which they have developed.
Methodological Tools in the Development of Theory
A number of the methodological tools available to develop and refine conceptual constructs are listed in Figure 4. Diversity of scholarship is directly related to the diversity in the backgrounds and personalities of the investigators, as discussed below under the environments of theory. The role of fundamental questions was discussed at the beginning of this section. Lateral thinking is a form of educable creative intelligence presented most clearly by de Bono (1990a). It is particularly useful when coupled with the methodological skill of volitionally shifting one's mode of thinking, the most well known examples being those in de Bono's (1990b) six-thinking-hats idiom (Appendix). But this methodological skill, so ably promoted by de Bono, is useful within all of the `tool' boxes in Figure 4.
Development of the Practice and the Practitioner: A Note on Skill Acquisition and Techniques
Though this essay is primarily concerned with methods in the development of theory, a note on some prerequisites for utilizing the methods is pertinent. Several important points can be made. (1) Group effort and diverse collaboration is essential. Mead (1964:265-266) discusses the central role of small `clusters' of interacting individuals in the evolution of ideas and the importance of "creating the conditions in which the appropriately gifted can actually make a contribution..." rather than searching out and relying upon individual leaders. De Bono's (1990b) thinking hats technique (see Appendix) can improve group communication dynamics and productivity. (2) Creativity, imagination and lateral thinking should be encouraged. (3) Taboos or prejudices about proper communication modes should be discarded if it is in the interest of furthering theory. For example, the narrative form is poorly suited to describing networks of interactions in ecosystems. Graphical representations have multiple advantages (see Table 3). Foremost among these is the skilled reader's ability to see a nearly simultaneous analytic and synthetic understanding of the system portrayed. Though descriptive diagrams/ illuminations are not traditional forms of communication in most schools of anthropology their use is recommended because of the heuristic advantages they confer. This means that practitioners are held responsible for developing their skill in reading and communicating in new, possibly unconventional modes.Other examples are humor, cartoons, and satire.