What’s a Theory?

Over the course of your academic career at Champlain College, you’ll hear professors and peers talk about theory and about looking at phenomena theoretically. Often, the word theory is accompanied by the words lens or framework. This can be confusing at first if one has been thinking of theory as essentially a blueprint for practice—a definitive description of the way things are. That’s how theory is often understood in the culture at large: a description that can be proven true or false. The following introduces a more complex, nuanced understanding of theory that we apply to college-level learning.

To begin, the word theory means one thing in the hard sciences, another thing in philosophy, and so forth. Albert Einstein’s groundbreaking Theory of Relativity was/is held to different standards of proof than, say, Sigmund Freud’s theories about human psychology. Einstein was a physicist; Freud was a psychologist. They were operating within separate disciplines, and those disciplines were, and remain, focused on different things and even define what is known in different ways. This is one reason why contrasting definitions of theory often trip us up when we use them in another context, or think that that one definition from that one context is the only one that exists.

When talking about learning, teaching, and knowledge making (our context here in the Core), a theory is a way to describe something by using a particular set of understandings, a particular epistemology (or way of knowing). To theorize something is to purposefully apply a way of knowing, in order to try to make sense of that thing. That’s where the lens/framework language usually kicks in; theory understood in these terms asks us to look at something in a particular way, from a particular theoretical perspective, within a certain framework of understandings, often focusing on specific aspects of the thing under examination. Theorizing is a process we all engage in constantly, but almost always unconsciously. In the Core, when we talk about theorizing, we mostly want to teach you how to use epistemologies and make meanings consciously, and to be aware of the process and its implications.

So, a theory is a way to describe something by consciously, purposefully using an epistemology. To theorize is to describe a certain way, taking into account the system of knowledge making that you’re using in building that description.

More Key Terms and Big Ideas
Understanding the Concept of Identity
Habitus—Norms, in Other Words