Five Skills a Good Theorist Must Master
- Clear and Concise Claims. A good theorist must understand the basic process of making a
claim and offering support for that claim. The skill includes being able to formulate concise
statements of position.
- Supporting Claims. Support involves a kind of rhetorical argument: being able to convince
others that are working on the theory that your position is sound and worthwhile. This places
a theorist firmly within the context of other theorists working on similar problems. The
theorist must understand what counts as sufficient proof. Among the powers of support a
good theorist must master are:
- the sense of mastery of a theory. The theorist's work must demonstrate a level of
mastery of the theory within which s/he is working to give them the legitimacy within
their theoretical circle.
- the ability to prove an interpretation of the work of others. When theorists find
themselves interpreting the writing of others, they must know how to weave perspective
into solid interpretation. This is not a skill of finding quotation, although quotation may
contribute. It requires relating positions into a coherent interpretation.
- citing the work of others. Those who agree with you form a part of your context and a
good theorist knows how to marshall their support.
- the pragmatic proof. Often theory is proven by successfully wielding the theory in
insightful ways. The short, concise, application can be a powerful proof.
Identifying and Critiquing Assumptions
- Identifying Assumptions. All theories, because they are systems, leave connections and
concepts unarticulated. The ability to identify these unarticulated assumptions is an essential to
working effectively with theory.
- Proving that the Assumption Fits. Good theorists develop skills at demonstrating the
centrality of particular assumptions to the viability of a theory.
- Critiquing Assumptions. Good theorists are capable of evaluating assumptions. The sort of
evaluation that carries the most power depends on the theory evaluated:
- Consistency/Inconsistency. Formal theories stress that the various assumptions of
theories must be consistent.
- Correct/Incorrect. Mechanistic theories stress that theories are responsible for the
correspondence of their assumptions with the world they describe. Of course,
regardless of the intellectual tradition that molds the theory, empirical statements must
- Meaningful/Worthless. Synthetic theories stress that assumptions must be productive of
interpretation. Assumptions that do not contribute to a theory are good candidates for
Skills in Building and Elaborating
- Extending a theory. Because theory is systematic and involves a perspective on the world, it
is imperialistic. It tries to explain new things. Good theorists always explore the edges of the
theories explanatory power attempting to find new insight beyond the boundary. Of course,
the key to the skill is critically understanding when extensions are legitimate and when
- Filling in a theory. Also because of the systematic and perspectival character of theory, a
theory is never fully dense. There are always relationships within the concepts of a theory that
require clarification and elaboration.
Skills in Organizing Theoretical Work
- Problem/Solution. The dominant organizational strategy in theory is isolating problems in the
theory for attention and seeking a solution for them.
- Question/Answer. Because theories are systematic perspectives they pose their own
questions. Recognizing those questions and seeking answers for them is a key skill.
- Assumption/Critique. Particularly a sound pattern to test a theory.
- Lacuna/Elaboration. Finding the place where a theory is stretched a bit and filling in that
concept is an important skill.
Because a theory is a perspective, a good theorist must understand how to explain that theory to
those who have not mastered its vocabulary and strategies. There is a dilemma here. Using old
words in old ways is required to help people understand a theory; but it also distorts the theory.
Managing this problem is an important skill. Skills of illustration, metaphor and analogy are
Return to the COMM 652 home page