EVALUATING THEORY

EVALUATING THEORY

French philosopher André Gide wrote, “No theory is good unless it permits, not

rest, but the greatest work. No theory is good except on condition that one uses it

to go on beyond” (quoted in Andrews, Biggs, and Seidel, 1996, p. 66). In other

words, good theory pushes, advances, improves the social world. There are some

specific ways, however, to judge the value of the many theories we will study in

this book.

When evaluating postpositivist theory, we need to ask these questions:

1. How well does it explain the event, behavior, or relationship of interest?

2. How well does it predict future events, behaviors, or relationships?

3. How testable is it? In other words, is it specific enough in its assertions that it

can be systematically supported or rejected based on empirical observation?

4. How parsimonious is it? In other words, is it the simplest explanation possible

of the phenomenon in question? Some call this elegance. Keep in mind that

communication theories generally tend to lack parsimony. In fact, one of the

reasons many social scientists avoid the study of communication is that

communication phenomena are hard to explain parsimoniously.

5. How practical or useful is it? If the goals of postpositivist theory are explanation,

prediction, and control, how much assistance toward these ends is

provided by the theory?

When evaluating hermeneutic theory, we need to ask these questions:

1. How much new or fresh insight into the event, behavior, or relationship of

interest does it offer? In other words, how much does it advance our

understanding?

2. How well does it clarify the values inherent in the interpretation, not only

those embedded in the phenomenon of interest, but those of the researcher or

theorist?

3. How much support does it generate among members of the scholarly community

also investigating the phenomenon of interest?

4. How much aesthetic appeal does it have? In other words, does it enthuse or

inspire its adherents?

When evaluating critical theory, we need to ask the same questions we do of hermeneutic

theory, but we must add a fifth:

5. How useful is the critique of the status quo? In other words, does it provide enough

understanding of elite power so that power can be effectively challenged?

Does the theory enable individuals to oppose elite definitions of the social world?

When evaluating normative theory, we need to ask the following questions:

1. How stable and definitive are the ideal standards of operation against which

the media system (or its parts) under study will be measured?

2. What, and how powerful, are the economic, social, cultural, and political realities

surrounding the actual operation of a system (or its parts) that must be

considered in evaluating that performance?

3. How much support does it generate among members of the scholarly community

also investigating a specific media system (or its parts)?

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