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What Is Theory and Why Does It Matter?

Definition and development

Theory may be defined as an attempt to build knowledge on a phenomenon through organized thinking (cited in Miller & Schwartz, p.5). We create theories based on our observation of what happen around us or through research (Miller & Schwartz, p.6). According to Miller and Schwartz, a theory is made up of two major elements: concepts and principles (p.2). Concept means how we perceive and understand things around us (Miller & Schwartz, p.2). Our concepts are largely shaped by how we use language to communicate. On the other hand, principles explain “how concepts relate to one another” (Miller & Schwartz, p.2). Concept building skills develop from an early age when we are gradually learning about our surroundings. Later in life we are able to conceptualize what we have seen even without any physical stimulation. When we have matured in concept development, it becomes easy to discern relationships between these concepts and hence create principles or postulates. Principles are built on assumptions which form the basis on which theories are tested for validity (Miller & Schwartz, p. 4). These assumptions may be based on knowledge of known facts or may be triggered by a “flash of insight” on a previously unknown topic (Miller & Schwartz, p. 7). Further organization of various related principles may lead to the birth of a new theory (Miller & Schwartz, p.4).

After the formulation of a theory, it is subjected to rigorous testing to validate its assumptions. The testing may depend on the scope of the theory. Theories may be broad or narrow in scope. A broad theory is, in most cases complex and may consume a lot of time during evaluation. A narrow theory may only deal on a particular aspect and can take a shorter period. New findings may lead to changes on the old theories (Miller & Schwartz, p. 6).


All the knowledge base in practically every field of study can be traced back to theories formulated and refined over a long period of time. Research in most of these theories has led to the emergence of new professions. In such a case the tenets of the profession is defined by its theories. It is imperative that every professional master the theories that pertain to his/her field. A mastery of the theory enables a professional make informed and independent decisions (Finlayson 2007, p.271).Poor theory may impair sound judgment on critical issues. A poor understanding of theory may also make a professional loose focus and get “taken over”by “outside” theories much to the detriment of his or her profession (Finlayson, 2007, p. 291).

Closely related disciplines may be best distinguished by their theories. Theories in such a scenario, offer clarity in terms of unique aspects of each discipline (Finlayson 2007, p. 297). This serves to eliminate any ambiguity that may arise.

Many professions owe their growth to researches on theories in their fields. Past theories may be revised in light of new findings from these researches. New findings also equip the practioneers with new tactics and confidence that enhance their service delivery (Schwartz and Miller p.14). Proven theories go a long way in so far as recognition and acceptance of a profession is concerned (Miller & Schwartz, p. 14).

According to Miller and Schwartz new researches based on newer theories provide competent professionals with an opportunity to update themselves in order to stay relevant in their fields (p.15). Professionals are encouraged to always keep abreast of research information pertaining to their field (Cited in Miller & Schwartz, p. 15).

Proven theories in most cases act as the benchmark on which future events are predicted (Finlayson 2007, p.291). This is attributed to the fact that our thinking is shaped by such theories.


Finlayson, M. (2007). Why theories matter. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy, 74, 291.

Miller, R.J., & Schwartz, K. ( ). What is theory and why does it matter?

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