A Caveat to the Use of Theory

I must add a caveat to my last post.  I use theory in a pragmatic instrumentalist way, not in an absolute way.  Theory does have limits, an “everything in moderation” idea.  Alex Kosulin explained the potential problems when theory becomes over extrapolated in his 1992 Introduction to Vygotsky’s Thought and Language*

Tracing the evolution of psychoanalysis, reflexology, Gestaltism, and personalism, (Vygotsky) revealed a uniform pattern to their development, an aggressive expansion in a desperate attempt to attain methodological hegemony.  The first stage in the development of each of these systems is an empirical discovery that proves to be important for the revision of the existing views concerning some specific behavioral or mental phenomena.  In the second stage . . .the initial discovery acquires a conceptual form, which expands so as to come to bear on related problems of psychology.  Even at this stage the ties between the conceptual form and the underlying empirical discovery are eroded.  The third stage is marked by the transformation of the conceptual form into an abstract explanatory principle applicable to any problem within the given discipline.  The discipline is captured by this expanding explanatory principle. . . .At the fourth stage the explanatory principle disengages itself from the subject matter of psychology and becomes a general methodology . . . at which point, Vygotsky observed – it usually collapses under the weight of its enormous explanatory claims.

In other words; theoretical contexts are important and abstraction and extrapolation has its limits.

*Kozulin, A. (1992). Vygotsky in Context, in A. Kozulin (Ed.) Though and Language: Cambridge MA, MIT Press.

Scanning Horizons: The Need for Theory in Practice

I believe that practice requires theory at a greater level than has generally been recognized in the past.  One point of view to substantiate this claim is test validity as I have previously discussed here, here, and here.  Theory is the starting point when discussing substantive and structural aspects of validity.  Also, because theory and measurement constructs are closely related, and because of a unified view of construct validity, theory (and hermeneutics) touches all aspects of validity and measurement.  Consider a practical example from my previous work in disability support services.

I was lucky enough to working for an organization as they were initiating supported employment services for the first time.  I believe the impetus for supported employment was rooted in discrimination.  Many people who were quite capability of holding down a job were forced to work in sheltered workshop settings and they proved to be very successful when given half an opportunity.  However, there was little analysis about what was going on at a deeper theoretical level.  When supported employment began serving cliental with more challenging support needs, the rate of growth and successful decreased.

I now believe that supported employment is about participation in economic activity and providing a level of accommodation that allows full participation by all individuals.  The measures needed are measures of participation, accommodation that are needed, and accommodations delivered.  Instead most descriptions of supported employment are just that, descriptions of what supported employment looks like, not how it functions.  Consider how the Department of Labor defines supported employment:

Supported employment facilitates competitive work in integrated work settings for individuals with the most severe disabilities (i.e. psychiatric, mental retardation, learning disabilities, traumatic brain injury) for whom competitive employment has not traditionally occurred, and who, because of the nature and severity of their disability, need ongoing support services in order to perform their job. Supported employment provides assistance such as job coaches, transportation, assistive technology, specialized job training, and individually tailored supervision.  DOL

This provides a description of what supported employment and supported workers look like, but it does not describe how services function to enable individuals to participate in the economy.

In order to develop a functional understanding of practice, theory is necessary. Once you define things in functional relationships, it’s possible to develop relevant measures and to use experimental methods to get to the bottom of functional relationships and improve the processes involved.