PhD research: Views on the relationship between theory and application or practice

A theory is a systematic organization of knowledge which can be applied to solving problems (Stam, 1996, 2007).  A theory, like a recipe, provides a series of statements for formulation of a problem, and can indicate methods to measure the outcomes or application of the theory.  While theories are used to structure the work of researchers in conducting studies, practitioners use theory in response to observation and formulation of a problem in actual practice settings.  The focus on practical uses and outcomes to the use of theory in psychology is identified by Stam (2007), in a recommendation that theory should address significant practical problems to explain complex phenomena.  Creswell (2009) identifies a pragmatic worldview in which application is the primary focus of using theory.  The use of theory by practitioners is distinguished from the examination of theory in research in Question 1, where the uses of theory are discussed.  Instrumentalism and realism focus on how scientists and social scientists view theory and how theory is used for both discovery and validation.  In social science and science, instrumentalism focuses on discovery, and realism focuses on validation of theory (Cacioppo, Semin, & Berntson, 2004).  Realism provides a theoretical orientation where preexisting theory is validated.  Instrumentalism provides a theoretical orientation focused on theories as tools or devices for discovery.  Both approaches are used in social science.  While one provides a recipe against which outcomes are compared, instrumentalism allows practitioners to provide solutions where the theory becomes a tool for implementation (Cacioppo, Semin, & Berntson, 2004).

How can a theory guide or inform practice/application?

Practical applications is not about therapy.  It is about using psychology theory in practical settings.  One practical setting is therapy.  Other practical settings are assessment, testing, business, law, the military, education, and so on. I would say that use of theory is determined through requirements and recommendations of specific institutions and settings as well as the needs of their clients and patients.  Practitioners, including therapists and clinicians, are called upon to use theory in terms of dealing in a more effective way with clients or within particular settings, or with new populations.  Along with providing a framework, the application of a theory should have expected outcomes.  Part of the usefulness of a theory is based on its predictive ability, to predict outcomes of specific treatments and therapies (Stam, 2007; Wacker, 1999).

Grand theories, the larger theories which guide the practice of psychologists, provide a general theoretical background for psychology.  These theories include behavioral, cognitive, and development theories.  Mini theories can be useful in specific settings and populations when interpreting a specific behavior or set of behaviors (Creswell, 2009).  Some theories can be more readily integrated into practice frameworks.  A factor in implementing a theory is the accessibility of the theory.  Some theories can be applied to address widely appearing phenomena.  For example, Vgotsky’s theories of proximal development, which address phenomena that occur in a wide variety of learning environments, are applied in many teaching settings.  Theory can be used to provide a context for interpreting behaviors, and for generating alternative approaches for new settings or populations (Rappoport, 2004).

Theories which become accepted as forming the basis for practices are often disseminated through documents and recommendations, from professional organizations, institutions, and other bodies, through ‘best practice’ documents and recommendations, such as those by the APA.  The practical application of accepted theories within subsets of psychological practice have been disseminated through documents, best practices which incorporate theory in best practice documents.   Often these are found in institutions and produced by professional organizations to guide the conduct of member professionals. Manuals and training provide ways to guide established interventions.

What are the issues involved in converting theory into practice?

In psychology, theory focuses on explaining human behavior, and providing a framework for analysis of behaviors and actions (Stam, 2007).  In social science, theory is applied to look at human behaviors, in contrast to science which often focuses on the examination of unchanging phenomena.  Humans exhibit specific behaviors and intentional actions which can change or determine outcomes of the application of theory.  Also, practitioners can also act with intention, or from prior established behaviors or perspectives, which can also affect outcomes of applied theories.  Stam (1996, 2007) identifies reflexivity as an issue in the use of theory within psychology.  Reflexivity states that psychologists make judgments about activities around them in two ways, as psychologists, but also as potential participants.  Thus, the level of involvement of a therapist in the setting can potentially affect outcomes of theories.  This can include issues such as gender, ethnicity, or status in therapeutic interventions or in work with clients. Unclear.

As a way for a practitioner to focus their practice, they may claim particular theoretical orientations, such as cognitive or behavioral (Connors, 2011).  Practitioners may work with only one theoretical orientation.   They may also perform integrative practice, integrate theoretical orientation, and work within more than one theory.  How adaptable a theory is can be indicated by the types of settings in which it can be implemented.  Examples of settings include therapeutic encounters between therapists and patients, and between professionals and patients in programs within group home or institutional settings.  Areas of practice include family therapy, psychotherapy, and social work.  These areas are clinical work.  Other “areas” are education and organizational work.

The big question in this section is “why is it difficult to use theories in practical settings?”  One reason is, any theory only explains a small part of a person’s behavior, and it is the person’s behavior as a whole that has to be addressed.



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