NUMBER 539 • 30 JUNE • THEORY AND PRACTICE
The influential social psychologist Kurt Lewin has been credited with the maxim: "There is nothing so practical as a good theory’ (Hunt, 1987, p. 4). This assumption provides a basic rationale for this study of group homes. However, this maxim seems to fly in the face of the common wisdom’ in the child and youth care field. Many practitioners in the human services, including child and youth care workers, react almost viscerally in a negative way whenever theory (or anything that even sounds like theory) is presented or discussed. Those who react in such a way appear to hold a belief that the nature of child and youth care work is first and last hands-on, immediate, concrete, and practical. In contrast, theory is often thought to be by its very nature too abstract, irrelevant, generalised and therefore eminently unhelpful for such practical work with individuals in unique situations, Therefore, to maintain not only that theory can be relevant and useful, but that there is nothing more practical than a good theory may call for some explanation.
Lewins provocative statement that ‘there is nothing so practical as a good theory recognizes and articulates the fact that our psychosocial reality as human beings has an inherent suns’ of order and purpose to it. Our everyday social world is constructed by purposive action based in the meanings that objects, processes and other persons have for us, The order within human interaction and human life is founded in the systematic organization and interrelation of such human realities as beliefs, values, ethics, thoughts, intentions, purposes, feelings, actions, behaviours and responses. Identifying and clarifying how these complex entities are systematically inter-connected in human experience is a task for theory building. Having an articulated theoretical framework (i.e. a systematic way of thinking) about these elements and dynamics of human action that is coherent, informative and grounded in actual experience is to possess a powerful tool that can have very practical uses and implications for responding to concrete situations, and the individual and collective actions of others.
A second basic assumption underpinning the approach adopted for this study is the converse of the first, namely: ‘There is nothing so theoretical as good practice’ (Hunt, 1987, p. 30). What this assumption implies is that in order to develop a substantive theory, one must have access to instances of good practice. Thus, an effort was made to select primarily ‘well-functioning’ group homes, recognizing that where the complex work of residential care is being done well, important lessons can be learned about the key elements and processes of the work and the inter-relationships between them. Put another way, this approach holds that work that is consistently being done well is being done in accordance with good theoretical principles, whether or not the practitioners are aware of them or can articulate them. This phenomenon is explored in considerable detail by Polanyi (1958, pp. 49-65) in his explication of ‘tacit knowing’. One everyday example illustrating this point and cited by Polanyi is that ‘the principle by which the cyclist keeps his balance is not generally known’ (Polanyi, 1958, p. 49). He goes on to outline the quite complex physical principles at play when someone achieves the balance necessary to ride a bike, but of which very few bike riders are even aware, except in a tacit manner.
J. P. ANGLIN
Anglin, J. P.(2003) International Journal of Child & Family Welfare. Belgium: Uitgeverij Acco pp.142-143
Hunt, D. E. (1987) Beginning with ourselves: In practice, theory and human affairs. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books. Pp 4, 30
Polanyi, M. (1958) Personal Knowledge: Towards a post-critical philosophy. London: Kegan Paul pp. 49-65