Of mushrooms and theory

The worlds of evaluation and research synthesis are peppered with talk of theory. Sometimes we grasp for it before actually conducting research, but all too often retrospectively to provide a veneer of credibility. Are we simply unconvinced of the merits of theory? Or afraid of what this hydra-headed beast might unleash? Or simply unsure of how to use it?

For the moment, let’s just consider the first – and use food to help think it through. How could we infer how a fine mushroom risotto was cooked simply by tasting it? As with all research, we’re there ‘after the event’ but need to understand what has gone on so that we have a basis for making decisions in the future. The age-old issue arises – what we can perceive (or measure) and what we are trying to understand are some way apart. But theory provides the bridge, albeit pock-marked and incomplete, that enables us to understand that clumped rice grains will only be inadequately coated in olive oil (= inconsistent texture) and hurriedly-added tepid stock does nothing for taste. Theory is no magic bullet, but through careful and critical application we can begin to build understanding of what went on – some might even say we get to the nub of things, the ‘generative mechanisms’. Some might also say that theory (the bridge between what we can perceive and ‘what is actually going on’) is only as strong as the critical community that challenges and refines that theory. I would agree with them.