What is practical and useful?

I was working with a group of people the other day who were engaged in a long-term research project. We came together to share ideas, progress and developments from what each of us was doing in our area of research. One of the themes that began to emerge to shape people’s experience of their discussions together was the perceived difference between theory and practice, or theoreticians and practitioners.

Of course there can be no sharp distinction between people who consider themselves to be practitioners and those who would think of themselves as theoreticians. We all sit more or less comfortably with a different amalgam of theory and practice which is more or less explicitly acknowledged. Nonetheless, clear frustration arose between those who wanted to talk ‘practically’, sometimes about how ‘useful’ what they were doing was or was not, and those who took up these ‘practical’ expressions as a way of further theorising. To over-draw the dynamic, those who might predominantly understand themselves to be practitioners were frustrated that we could not be clearer about what we were trying to achieve and how this would be taken up in a practical way by stakeholders, and why theoreticians always seemed to answer a question with another question. While on the other hand, those who might predominantly think of themselves as theoreticians wondered out loud how it was possible to work without a theory of what one was doing, even if mostly implicit, and counselled against the drive in many contemporary organisations to ‘deliver’ things without stopping to question what things and why.One way of thinking about the dynamic between theory and practice is as a paradox. As we have explored in previous posts, a paradox arises between two mutually exclusive premises that arise both at that the same time – they are self-referencing.  In natural science methods, drawing on Aristotelian logic, there is an attempt to resolve paradoxes, or to avoid them. Formal logic cannot entertain one thing and its opposite at the same time, although the logician Bertrand Russell and the analytic philosopher Quine both demonstrated paradoxes in their work.

Organisational literature which draws on systems theory presents a paradox for managers, but tries to resolve it at the same time by splitting it; managers are said to be able to step outside the organisation of which they are part, design a series of  improvements, then become part of the organisation again which will then play out the improvements which have been designed into the organisation understood as system. They can be first outside the ‘system’ taking an objective view, then inside the system as a subject of the changes. This is presented  in a phased way, first objective, then subject to the changes. It is this kind of thinking that the sociologist Norbert Elias described as using a mystery to explain a mystery. He argued that it is unhelpful to think of social processes as though they were a whole, or a system and to consider ourselves separate from them. As social beings we are always part of the social processes to which we are contributing. We are forming and being formed both at the same time. Elias re-presented the dualism of subjective-objective as the paradox of involvement and detachment. We are, he argued, always involved in what we are doing as social beings, but we can strive to be more detached about our involvement.

The link that we might make with the complexity sciences is that in mathematical form non-linear equations, as demonstrated by fractals for example,  manifest both stability and instability at the same time. They are paradoxically ordered and disordered both at the same time. Similarly, in computer models of complex adaptive systems, global patterning arises from what agents are doing locally with other, contingent agents, but the global patterning constrains how the local agents are able to interact. Local agents are forming and being formed both at the same time.

In returning to the tension in the group of researchers which arose over the discussion of theory and practice,  I am suggesting here that this is an unresolveable paradox.  However, there was a move by some in both camps to try and resolve the tensionarising from the paradox by privileging one pole over the other. Some people who would predominantly identify themselves as theoreticians wanted to agree the theory first as though before action: we need to agree what we’re doing before we do it, and then act. Meanwhile, those who stressed the importance of the practical were presenting practice as though it could stand separate from a theoretical understanding. The suggestion here is that we can know what is ‘practical’ and ‘useful’ without any context – practical and useful then become universal laws, foundational principles which are somehow self-evident. Practical and useful to whom, and in what contexts?

In this post, drawing on insights from the complexity sciences and from sociology, I am arguing that there is no separating theory and practice. There is nothing so practical as a good theory. Dwelling in the paradox of theory and practice is both uncomfortable and potentially transformative.

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