Social Theory as a Transformative Force

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David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva:

“Social theory is a powerful means for transforming norms, beliefs, and cultural practices. Important ideas can profoundly alter the way we see ourselves and our reality, and conduct our lives.

Five ways theory achieves this exceptional potency:

1. Establishing a conceptual and contextual frame. Theory acts as a device that subtly focuses attention on particular phenomena or meanings while obscuring others. As with a new lens, a new theory allows one to see the world in ways never before imagined.

2. Shaping expectations of cause and effect. Theories help shape common expectations of causality, sequence, and relational importance. By attributing causality, theories have the potential to create the very phenomena they propose to explain.

3. Transmitting a system of values. Social theory is infused with values. Every social theory facilitates the pursuit of some, but not all, courses of action. We would be better off to abandon the myth of value-free science, and to accept theoretical work as a very human enterprise.

4. Creating a group-building language. The invitation to inquiry makes theory an actual shaper of society. Knowledge of a social system can be used to change the system itself. This phenomenon, made possible through language, invites us to actively participate in the creation of our world by generating compelling theories about what is good, just, and desirable in social existence.

5. Extending visions of possibility or constraint. Theories gain their generative capacity by extending visions that expand our sense of the possible. Theories designed to empower organized social systems will tend to have a greater effect than theories of human constraint. The vision becomes a common vision to the extent that it ignites the imaginations, hopes and passions of others through the articulation of ideals which lend meaning and significance to everyday life.” (