I regularly teach “Theory in Anthropology,” a required seminar in the history of anthropological theory, and over the past decade have found that undergraduates consistently do not understand how to use theory. Students have a tendency to focus in on their particular research hypothesis (which is good!), doing narrow literature searches and re-applying theories and methodologies that people in that particular field have used. The problem with this approach is that this is not expansive – theory can be used to push boundaries of understanding, which often happens when theory in one particular area is applied to another (and then tested out in the field to see if it does work in explaining a particular social or cultural phenomenon).
We (anthropologists, social scientists, academics, etc.) use theory because it helps us see things that are hidden or less obvious, helps us “predict” possible outcomes or patterns, and helps us ask the right questions in the right way (i.e., methodology). Theory also makes our work interesting to others; while I am interested in a particular happenings in a specific place, theory helps make my work applicable to others working on different topics in different places. For anthropologists in particular, theory should be grounded in empirical reality – things that we see in the fieldsite. Here is a quick “how to” guide on using theory, using a particular example from a student’s interest.
In this case, after seeing extensive media coverage on the high incidence of sexual assault in the military, the student was interested in finding out why this is so (and ways to solve this problem). In talking about the particular issue, we came up with this particular theoretical approach that will serve as her first draft of the theoretical issues involved in this problem.