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Theory, Policy, Practice

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Created: September 17, 1999
Latest update: July 30, 2003
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Site Teaching Modules Jeanne's Lecture Notes on Theory, Policy, Practice

Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, September 1999; July 2003.
"Fair use" encouraged.

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  1. Explain the relationship of theory to policy and to practice. Why did we insist that you consider the relationship also in the reverse direction: practice to policy to theory?

    We would like you to recognize that although we are dealing with the same issues at each level, as we move from theory to practice we are dealing with increasing detail, increasing focus on specific people and specific situations. As we move from practice to theory we are increasing the critical distance between the problem and our thoughts about it. Policy is less in-your-face and personal than telling someone they are not qualified for benefits when they are there, in pain, in need of those benefits. Policy is written in calm, quiet rooms with no one hurt by that policy in plain view. We increase the critical distance from the real-world problem once again as we move from policy to theory. Theory describes the interrelationships between the many factors contributing to the problem and being manipulated to handle the problem. But it does so in the relative calm of a professional, legislative, or academic site, where the problem is not present in all its face-to-face drama.

  2. Want to explore further? What does moving a discussion from the practice level to a policy or theoretical level accomplish for discourse?

    We would also like you to consider Marlene's suggestion in class, that as practice shows that theory and/or policy are not working effectively in present practice, that should be recognized as feedback to rewrite the policy and theory to make them more effective. But those engaged in practice are rarely those who rewrite policy, let alone theory. Consider alcohol and drug rehabilitation programs. Those who provide the actual services in the support groups and through direct contact are rarely those who write the policy. We hope that greater emphasis on the pattern in levels of interaction over these issues will lead us to a greater readiness to include the practitioners in our policy and our theoretical discussions.

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    Jeanne's Notes on Theory, Policy, Practice
    Sample E-Mail Answers to Exercise 1: Theory/Policy/Practice

    Sample E-Mails

    The following e-mails illustrate students' expression of the theory, policy, practice pattern in their own words:

    Bobby Berglund, off by now to law school, wrote on September 2, 1999:

    In answering your question to summarize Theory, Policy, and Practice, I would do so as follows. Theory is the ideas of what you would like to see done. Policy is the way that you intend to do this. Practice is actually doing it.

    Well put in plain English, and succinct. jeanne

    Dang Cao, now with an M.A. in educationm wrote on September 3, 1999:

    Theory, policy and practice or practice, policy and theory from the basic pattern for translating our ideas about taking care of our society. Pattern by which we go from an idea to an action or from an action to an idea. Agencies are a branch of our government to help put our ideas into practice.

    Good inclusion of explanation of government's role. jeanne

    Dang Cao wrote again on September 4, 1999:

    This is an example of Dang Cao and me working together to produce an answer that gave some details that ought to help everyone understand. I framed the answer with his words as much as possible, editing where he needed help to extend the ideas. I WILL NOT DO THIS WITH EVERY E-MAIL FOR THE OBVIOUS REASON THAT I DO NOT HAVE THE TIME. BUT I WILL POST AN OCCASIONAL COMBINED EFFORT LIKE THIS SO THAT YOU CAN USE THE INFORMATION. jeanne

    1. Explain the relationship of theory to policy and to practice. Why did we insist that you consider the relationship also in the reverse direction: practice to policy to theory?

      Let's use for example the theory of communism or socialism as a theory of society. In such a society everyone should be equal. From that principle of equality one moves to policy or plans to implement the equality. The policies will be different in communist and socialist societies, for the theories are different. Then you have the practice where the theory has been put into action. The relationship between the levels: each level, first policy, then practice, is more directly linked to the actual social setting in which the problem occurs at the practical level.

      The reverse is also true. Practice to Policy and to Theory. We address the structure from this perspective because from practice to policy provides more social distance from the problem, and to move from policy to theory provides even more social distance so that we can generalize and look for broad principles to guide us.

      The patterns of theory to policy to practice, and then back, from practice to policy to theory, are analagous to deductive and inductive reasoning, for either way alters our social distance to the problem at an application level. Either way we approach this structural pattern results in our altering our distance from the actual problem so that we can describe a local experience, caught within the social context, in terms of an experience that can be generalized, either at the institutional level by referring to policy, or at the even more general level by including theory for explanatory and predictive power.

    2. Want to explore further? What does moving a discussion from the practice level to a policy or theoretical level accomplish for discourse?

      Moving a discussion from the practice level to policy or theoretical levels enables us to discuss the major issues involved and deal with the general solutions and predictions. Moving a discussion from the theoretical level to policy and practice levels enables us to see the inadequacies of our theory in dealing with the administering agency or with actual clients, providing feedback to refine the theory.

      This pattern recalls deduction, constructung an idea from parts to a whole. One can deduce an idea from many cases of practice to form a policy or theory. Induction would start with the theory and policy declarations to determine what they suggested for actual practice.

    Tina Juen, off for a Ph.D in counseling work, wrote on September 4, 1999:

    "Most theories start off with excellent promises in mind. Unfortunately, by the time the policy pot is cooked up, then put into practice by the agencies and developed to implement theory, it's lost it's flavor.

    Colorful way to describe the structural pattern of theory to policy to practice and back. jeanne

    Donna Wood, an artist, wrote on September 4, 1999:

    Here is what, I believe, that I understand about theory -- policy, and practice - I have chosen the FDA as my subject.

    Farmer's need chemical assistance to grow better crops (pesticides) [practical level].  The Food & Drug Administration approves which pesticides will be used before the farmers can spray [theory and research level]. [and then dictates rules on how much, how often, where, and appoints people to police it. - policy level]

    Good that you moved to a completely different kind of agency from focus of our list of agencies. And good recognition of the different levels. jeanne

    Marybeth wrote on September 6:

    "I understand theory to be what most us believe, what we want to see happen, while policy is the way we would intend to have those things carried out, and practice would be the way we continually put our beliefs and intentions to work.  I think the reason you wanted us to consider the relationship in reverse was to show us how those theories and policies are not effectively solving the problems.

    "I think moving the discussion from the practice level to a policy or theoretical level shows that since the theory and policy are not working by practice, those theories and policies should be reconsidered and new policies and theories should developed, preferably by those who are doing the practicing and not by those in the offices pushing paper and pens and who very rarely see those theories and policies in practice."