There is something funny about how the word “theory” is used in the social sciences, and especially the humanities.
One hears of attempts to “theorize” gender, or power, or postcoloniality, or the erotic, and anything else one can think of. Shelves full of college books hold the label “theory.” One often reads of Person X’s attempt to theorize Y. As in, Lacan’s or Girard’s theories of desire, Foucault’s theory of power; Saussure’s theory of the sign; Geertz’s theory of culture; Lukacs’s theory of commodity fetishism; Butler’s theory of gender; Said’s theory of orientalism, and so on.
But in each of these cases, the word “theory” can be replaced with “idea” or “description” or “account” without loss, as far as I can see.
It would appear that the term “theory” is used merely to grant arbitrary prestige to the idea in question. The conclusion is that anyone in an institutionally powerful position (access to publication, institutional prestige) who writes a few sentences about topic X instantly becomes X’s “theorist.” All ideas, good or bad, true or false, demonstrable or merely speculative are instantly described as “theories.”
Fine then, if we want to use the term “theory” for “ideas about something,” let’s at least recognize the distinction between what is traditionally described as a theory in the academy.
The normal requirements for a set of ideas to be called a “theory,” as in Darwin’s theory of evolution or Einstein’s theory of relativity are, at minimum, descriptive and explanatory adequacy, with a search to provide predictive power.
When a descriptive account, a model, adequately accounts for all available facts on the topic, it achieves explanatory adequacy. When it can make predictions whose accuracy can then be confirmed, it achieves predictive power.
Hence, the model for planetary motion can be shown to accurately describe the known data on planetary movement within our solar system, and can successfully predict the position of the moon next Wednesday, and the rotation of the earth for the next year. Our models for weather are less successful, but they have a high enough success at predictive power that we still watch the news each morning to decide whether to bring an umbrella. The predictions delivered are not always as precise as we would like, but they are certainly more accurate than anyone could have made a century ago. So here are two examples of strong theories that achieve some level of explanatory adequacy and predictive power, and are thus viable “theories.”
When it comes to the social sciences, there is nothing even approaching this. Theory of democracy? Theory of power? Theory of sexuality? Predictions of events or behavior? An increase in accuracy over time? Are we verifiably better at describing desire, power, gender, or democracy than we were a century ago, or a millenium ago?
There is no rigorous description that comes close to being able to account in precise terms for the known phenomena in a given area. This is compensated for, justifiably, by using vaguer terms, since precise ones (in the sense that a biologist would understand precision) don’t get us anywhere. But then we have nothing like a “theory” of anything, we have only a vague sense of something. As one can see on the pages of Nature or Science, the leading science journals, we can’t even describe insect behavior accurately in any real theoretical sense. Human behavior, infinitely more complex, is not even a pipe dream for the current state of knowledge.
Being unable to provide even a descriptive model, a predictive one is far beyond our hopes. It’s hard to imagine what that would even look like. A theory of power would attempt to rigorously summarize all human interactions in which people are being controlled against their will or according to the will of others. Not one of these terms (power, control, will) is nearly precise enough to go beyond this vague formulation. There is nothing like a model where input X produces output Y. Or output Y is fully accounted for by mechanisms A, B, and C.
So we can certainly hope to provide adequate formulations of human phenomena in this general sense. But this is nothing approaching what one would call a “theory” of power, and the same is true for other topics.
If the social sciences and humanities want to continue to describe their activities as the ongoing “theorization” of human affairs, we can call them “weak theories,” in the technical sense meaning “ideas discussed in the social sciences,” reserving the notion of “strong theories,” beyond the purview of the social sciences, for the technical sense of “rigorous descriptive and predictive models discussed in the hard sciences.”