in Analysis

The theory that theory doesn’t work

One night I read a book about building theories. Nope, I did not build a new theory after reading it, but at least it made me write again. So how about discussing “theory” in a national paper?

Here is how it looked, as published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

University of Missouri’s Memorial Union

COLUMBIA, Missouri—For many industry people, theory and practice don’t mix. Outside the school, you will often hear the cliché that something is “good only in theory.”

I have heard this as a journalist. What you learned in school, I was told, was different from how things worked on the news beat.

This disdain for the theoretical among people focusing on what’s practical is a surprise to me, especially now that I am a student again.

A theory is a set of statements about the relationships between concepts. Theories not only help explain things but also predict outcomes.

In our everyday routines, we make our own theories.

We avoid a particular road during rush hour. We know there is a relationship between the time of day and traffic jams based on personal experiences.

We pick a restaurant with lots of people, theorizing that having lots of customers means the food is good.

It is the same principle behind the theories we come across in books.

In one of my research projects, I wanted to test the assumption that the Internet displaced traditional media like television and newspapers.

The claim is that as people’s use of the Internet increases, their use of traditional media decreases. This understandably worries traditional news organizations.

I turned to two theories to better understand the issue.

Maxwell McCombs’ relative constancy theory says resources allocated to the media, such as time and money, are finite, so if a new technology gets a share of the pie, the slices for the existing technologies become smaller.

John Dimmick’s niche theory also says that no two mediums can occupy the same niche; if both mediums serve the same uses, only one will survive for that particular niche.

These theories guided my research. From them, I deduced some expectations (or what we call hypotheses). For example, that Internet use drives down the use of other traditional media.

But theories are meant to be tested. That’s why it is important that we apply theory to practice.

To test these theories, I used data from the literacy surveys of the National Statistics Office. These surveys asked respondents to report their use of each medium, like newspapers, radio, television and the Internet, among others.

I compared media uses reported in 2003 and 2008.

What my analysis showed is that, consistent with the two theories, the resources allocated to Internet use increased in 2008 compared to 2003. The resources allocated to radio and newspapers decreased.

However, the resources allocated to television—and even moviegoing—increased in 2008 compared to 2003.

Does this prove the theories wrong? Not really.

It points to a need to reformulate the theories. What I think my findings showed is that while a new medium might displace the resources allocated to old mediums, some of these displaced resources get redistributed to mediums that survive.

We reformulate our theories even in our everyday lives.

We eat in that restaurant filled with people and find out the food is not really that good. It is actually the cheap price that drives traffic.

We drive on Edsa outside rush hour, but still get caught in a jam, and realize that the Ortigas malls are holding sales. Then we realize that the volume of cars, and not just the time of day, is the culprit.

When we find that something is “good only in theory,” then we might have been using the wrong theory after all. Or maybe we need to reformulate the theory—even create our own theory—to better guide our behavior.

Theories are helpful not only because they provide tentative explanations. They are helpful because they make us think.

They work if we make them work.

(The author is a Fulbright scholar and a Ph.D. candidate at Missouri School of Journalism. He is scheduled to present the results of his Internet displacement study at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference in Chicago in August. If you have questions, or want to know more about the paper, e-mail

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