This is a fairly common derogatory phrase in the UK – meaning whatever is being talked about is somehow irrelevant to real life and of no real consequence. ( I am not sure how current it is in other countries).
I was constantly irritated when this phrase was used by non-academics (and I’ve even heard academics use it) to imply that “theory” has nothing to do with reality and practice, and is some esoteric practice devoid of practical content. But academics may be just as much to blame for the prevalence of this idea that “theory” is detached from reality, as the following incident shows.
I recently sent out an appeal to some academic friends and colleagues for collaboration on a very relatively small project, but one of immense practical significance.
Since 1998 and the first “Comprehensive Spending Review” the UK’s New Labour government has been experimenting with medium-term, or multi-year, budgeting. One of the principle aims of this experiment is to establish more stable financial planning for government and pubic service bodies over more than one year.
This is not entirely novel, in that since the mid-1960s UK governments have annually published Budgets which included notional forecasts for years 2 and 3 in advance. The difference with the new ‘spending review’ process is that these future years are supposed to be taken seriously and be actually fixed in advance.
So I proposed a simple analytical exercise: given that in the new system the 2nd year (at least) was supposed to be fixed in each Spending Review how much did year 2 vary from the supposed budget, compared to year 2 under the old system (covering 10 years of each).
The implications of such an analysis are potentially huge – not just because the UK government claims their system makes a real difference to how public money is spent, but because governments around the globe have shown interest in this experiment and in many cases will spend a lot of time and resources trying to emulate it because it supposedly “works”.
So imagine my amazement when I get the following response from a senior academic: “This sounds far too applied to me. Can’t see any theoretical contribution emerging, which would get it into a decent journal, although there is an accounting element to it. This is not what we do ……”
I now have somewhat more sympathy with those who talk about “purely academic” concerns. The fate of billions of pounds of public spending, and the consequences for millions of people, in the UK alone, is apparently “too applied” for these august colleagues. The global interest in this UK experiment in multi-year budgeting “would not get into a decent journal” – as if this were the sole purpose of academic research.
This attitude could be blamed on the pernicious effects of things like the “Research Assessment Exercise” (RAE) in the UK but the truth is that far too many academics adopt this aversion to anything remotely practical without any external compulsion. A few years ago a very senior academic in the Public Administration told me that we – academics – have no place advising policy-makers and practitioners on what to do, as our sole role was to develop theory.
It is a sad state of affairs, especially in “applied” academic areas like business, management and public administration, that such a ludicrous division between theory and practice can be supported. Don’t misunderstand – I think theory development is important. But I think it it needs two crucial links to reality: (1) it needs to be tested against real world evidence and (2) it also needs to lead to relevant practical conclusions.