The Problem with Theory of Change


If you are working in the fields of development or governance it’s highly likely that you’ve come across the term “theory of change” (ToC). At a conference a couple of weeks ago, while answering some questions, I mentioned that I preferred not to use the term. The comment didn’t go unnoticed by some witty observers on Twitter, and I was surprised by the number of people who came to me afterwards asking why I do not “like” theory of change.

I can see why some people are attracted to the term. First, “change” is a powerful word: it even helps win elections. And when it comes to governance issues, the need for change is almost a consensus. Second, the user of the word “theory” gives scientific verve to the conversation. However, the problem is precisely the appropriateness of its use if one thinks of the word in scientific terms. It seems that people are saying “theory” when they actually mean (at best) “hypothesis”.

We don’t have to go very far to find out what scientific theory actually is. Keeping to information that is just a click away, let’s take one of the definitions reproduced in Wikipedia’s entry for “theory”:

A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment. Such fact-supported theories are not “guesses” but reliable accounts of the real world.

 Or “scientific theory”:

A theory is a good theory if it satisfies two requirements: It must accurately describe a large class of observations on the basis of a model that contains only a few arbitrary elements, and it must make definite predictions about the results of future observations.

 And here’s a rap video on the difference between theory and hypothesis:

Granted, the word “theory” is often used as a synonym of “hypothesis”, and even dictionaries do so. But the problem of this in the context of current usages of “theory of change” is that it masks the difference between what we know and do not know about something, often conveying a false sense of scientific rigor. And, particularly when it comes to issues such as development and governance, it is extremely important to have a clear distinction between well-substantiated explanations and every other color of hypotheses, assumptions, and guesses. In fact, in any field, it is a minimal requirement for the production of knowledge.

So here’s an interesting exercise. Search on the web for the use of “theory of change” combined with terms like “accountability” and “open government.” Find, for yourself, which ones are really “theories of change” or, rather, merely “hunches of change.”

Most likely, people will keep using theory of change indiscriminately until the next flavor of the moment comes up. In the meantime, beware.


Also read: Open Government, Feedback Loops and Semantic Extravaganza