Levels of Theory

From Sustainability Methods

In short: This entry structures 'Theory' and how its levels relate to each other.

Theory is at the heart of science. Scientists come up with theories, test them, confirm them, falsify them, derive them from observation - theories are one of the staples of science. Hence, many scientists love discussing theories. Within the following lines, I want to show you a conceptualisation of different levels of theory, building on examples and common definitions of the respective terms.

When reading a book about inequalities, I was at some point getting the feeling that this different forms of inequalities were like an enumeration to me. While each and every one of these inequality had a clear footing in reality, they felt more like a composite of examples of inequality. What was lacking to me was a more general level of thinking about inequality. Hence I derived a system of levels within theory, which I will present here. As the quoted definitions highlight, there is often not one single understanding for these terms despite their utter importance in scientific discourse.


'Theory' is not so much the first level as it is the general idea of the following terms. Theory is defined as a "systematic ideational structure of broad scope, conceived by the human imagination, that encompasses a family of empirical (experiential) laws regarding regularities existing in objects and events, both observed and posited. A scientific theory is a structure suggested by these laws and is devised to explain them in a scientifically rational manner." (Britannica). Wikipedia understands it as "an explanation of an aspect of the natural world that can be repeatedly tested and verified in accordance with the scientific method, using accepted protocols of observation, measurement, and evaluation of results." Theories can be tested either through experiments or through principles of abductive reasoning. An example of a theory would be the theory of evolution, which has been tested empirically and abductively so often that we came to call it accepted knowledge on how this part of the world works. In theory, however, this theory could be rejected, and a recent epigenetic renaissance in Lamarkism proves that such theories are continuously explored.

1st Level: Concept

Most commonly, 'Concepts' are understood as mental representations of the world. Wikipedia defines them as "abstract ideas or general notions that occur in the mind, in speech, or in thought. They are understood to be the fundamental building blocks of thoughts and beliefs". According to Merriam-Webster, a concept is "an abstract or generic idea generalized from particular instances". Concepts are the highest unit of theoretical thought. Our mind develops concepts to make sense of more specific elements of the world, such as the concept of 'nations' that helps subsume different groups of people and enables us to speak about these on a more generalized level. Other examples are Reason, Logic or Justice, which are abstract ideas of how a variety of elements from the world may be aligned, and related to each other. Philosophy is most relevant for this level of theory, and it is most relevant to generalisable knowledge.

2nd Level: Paradigm

In scientific discourse, the term 'Paradigm' was coined by Kuhn in the 1960s. Kuhn described scientific paradigms as "universally recognized scientific achievements that, for a time, provide model problems and solutions for a community of practitioners". A paradigm includes the concepts and theories, laws and thought patterns, generalizations and assumptions, and basically guidelines and standards on how to conduct research in the respective scientific school or discipline (Merriam-Webster, Wikipedia). Kuhn called the successive transition from one paradigm to the next the maturation process of science. You may have heard the term 'Paradigmenwechsel' in German public discourse - it means that everthing that was assumed about a field of knowledge is questioned and re-developed. The emergence of sustainability itself may be seen as such a paradigm shift because it changed the way we think about scientific and societal sub-systems. In this regard, paradigms are composites or connections of several concepts: sustainability connects topics such as justice and equality, livelihoods, resources and other things, and by doing so influences the way we think about, work with and research these topics. Gender equality is another example, which consists of two combined concepts. Paradigms make concepts graspable. Not everybody is a philosopher, but paradigms can represent and encompass the large narratives that build and drive societies and cultures. Paradigms are thus more tangible, yet with enough blurriness to keep you thinking.

3rd Level: Framework

A 'Framework' is a real or conceptual basic structure that supports or guides practical applications (Merriam-Webster, whatis.com). Frameworks pave the road to connect paradigms to the real world. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals are an example, or the Ostrom framework. Frameworks imply, explore or test causality between their single elements or have the explicit focus to make paradigms applicable in planning and management. Hence frameworks link science to the real world.

The bottom levels

The 4th level are Cases. Cases are simply the bread and butter of empirical work, allowing us to apply frameworks. On the 5th level you have actors. Actors are diverse, may be together part of institutions, and thus typically have identities, knowledge - ideally - and -finally - they act. No actor is an island. Actors are connected and interacting through actor-networks. Lastly, actors are non-static, they are are changeable in space and time.

The different Levels of Theory. Source: own

Now many discussions you see and hear start on one level. You have the occasional discussion about sustainability. Somebody says: „to me it is about justice“, so you find yourself on the concept level. Then suddenly somebody says „but what about the vegan Amish“, and you go down quite some levels to the cases. Within the debate, you make a jump from a very high to a very low level. This often creates confection and unconnectedness in the debates. All world religions revolve around paradigms. Take the Holy Trinity or the Four Noble Truths, which are paradigms, but then find their way into frameworks, for instance through the Ten Commandments or the Noble Eightfold Path. These were ideas about early frameworks, but one could have a hard time to take such frameworks all to literal, since they are more guidelines than actual rules, just as in Pirates of the Caribbean.

Within science, it is quite good to understand where you have the strongest footing. Few today are philosophers, many work with the conceptual linkages of paradigms, and even more utilise the applied power of frameworks. It is good to locate not only yourself, but also the level on which a discussion is running, or jumping. Paradigms and Frameworks often get taxed by a lack of clarity on the conceptual level. Only by verbalising these problems, we shall be able to move our theoretical thinking forward to this end.

The authors of this entry are Henrik von Wehrden and Christopher Franz.