"A fact without a theory is like a ship without a sail.
Is like a boat without a rudder.
Is like a kite without a tail.
A fact without a theory is as sad as sad can be.
But if there's one thing worse in this universe, it's a theory . . . without a fact."
These words sum up how important it is for us to have ways to explain facts and make sense out of them. But even more so, the lyric reiminds us of why it so important to have facts to back up one's theory. For social marketers, social innovators and people who are working with social and mobile technologies for health and social change, the song should become a chant.
All social change efforts involve different actors known by various labels such as audiences, influencers, stakeholders, consumers, suppliers, partners and policymakers. Depending on the actor and the objective of the program, social marketers and change agents may be trying to increase some behaviors (healthy eating, physical activity, recycling), decrease others (tobacco use, risky sexual behaviors, energy use), encourage participation in social change activities (citizen engagement, social mobilization) or gain support for environmental change (adopt policies, redesign physical entities such as automobile safety features or entertainment content). Who is the focus of these activities, and what they are asked to do is largely a function of the framework (or theory of change) that we bring to the task.
Everyone has assumptions and explanations for how and why people think and behave the way they do; these are often referred to as naïve theory or folk psychology. These theories are often rooted in one's culture, and might, for example, present themselves in discussions of whether people will accept voluntary counseling and testing and the provision of antiretroviral therapies for HIV/AIDS, the types of foods they will eat - or not, or how they will conserve energy. Too often these common-sense theories - often posed as 'stories' - lead to program actions rather than a search for the facts. This fact searching or checking may be simply to go out and talk with the people we wish to serve, collect some data in more stuctured ways or run an experiment and see what happens before committing all the time and budget to the 'obvious' approach.
Many social change agents are familiar with the challenges of addressing other people’s cultural beliefs as they relate to health and social behaviors. We need to remind ourselves that we are just as susceptible to the influence of our own 'tribal' and folk theories as we design social change programs and work with partners who may not be of the same ‘tribe.’
This is why many social marketers stress the need to base programs to improve health, social welfare and the environment on empirically-validated models and theories. Stories and case studies have a limited place in moving us closer to understanding and solutions. Data, or facts, is what separates theories from stories and anecdotes. Theories, whether based on common sense, past experience or empirical evidence, create frameworks for our work. Specifically, they serve to:
- explain how or why things are related
- guide us as to what is important to focus on
- suggest what questions we ask
- lead to assumptions about what we should do about the problem
- what types of outcomes we should set
- determine how we measure success
Some people brush aside discussions of theory as something best left to academics. Yet, agreeing on a common approach to thinking about and addressing wicked social and public health problems is a major point of contention when working with partners. Because people often only have only one or two frameworks or theories they use for problem solving, these conversations quickly devolve into the city of Babel or attempts to convince the other side that our POV is the correct one. And the use of the wrong theory to understand a problem and develop strategies to address it is one of the primary sources of program failures.
Those are some of the reasons I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about theory.
So if you want to tell me a story, I prefer one with at least a sprinkling of data on top.