Science in Christian Perspective



Single Theory Myopia
Jerry Bergman
1306 N. Orleans
Bowling Green, Ohio 43402

From: JASA 36 (December 1984): 237-241.

In the behavioral sciences, and to a lesser extent in the physical sciences, there is a tendency to attempt to explain behavior or events by a single theory. Proposing a single theory to account for a complex phenomenon is often called the Sovereign theory approach, the Simple theory approach or the Unity theory approach (Robertson, 1977). Discipline specialization has also encouraged this view. As Wolfgang and Ferracuti (1967:1) note:

Owing to increasing specialization in the study of human behavior, there has been a lack of integrated scientific theory. All knowledge tends to be unitary, and disciplinary activities are only artifacts required because of man's limited grasp of the universe of ideas.

With field experience in a behavioral science area, one soon finds that all human behavior, such as depression, rarely can be explained or understood by a single theory. Yet, in the history of science, the rule was to do just that. In the area of juvenile delinquency, for example, some researchers have tried to explain almost all delinquency by "labeling theory," others by "differential association theory," still others by "control theory," and still others by Merton's "anomie theory" (Empey, 1982).

The tendency to attribute phenomena to a single cause or one theory is also evident in everyday social relations. We still have a tendency to see one person as "at fault" after a divorce, in spite of the fact that sociological research reveals that this is rarely the case and the laws in most states reflect this. The study of violent behavior has found that many violent crimes are often an interplay between a potential victim and offender. This discovery has resulted in the science of victimology, the study of how the victims' behavior contributes to a dyadic relationship which results in a violent crime. In domestic violence, the victim almost always contributes to some degree to the situation which causes the other person to perpetuate what may become a crime. Especially in domestic violence, it is often a matter of chance who ends up the victim and who the offender.

Many researchers write as if their particular theory totally explains some behavior, such as delinquency and, in essence, argue apologetically in defense of their faith in their pet theory. Few writers, for example, openly acknowledge that, although one theory may explain some types of delinquency for some social classes or groups, no theory explains all types of delinquency. Most researchers, of course, recognize that it is likely that many factors are responsible for complex behavior such as juvenile delinquency, but this is not often stressed. The fact that most theories are partly correct, even if only as a minor cause of delinquency, is often only indirectly mentioned.

Baron and Byrne (1981:9) stress that it is now clear that human social behavior is "far too complex in origin to permit the luxury of simple, unitary explanations." As Shepard (1981:32) concludes:

Events in the physical or social world are generally too complex to be explained by any single [theory].... For this reason scientists are guided by the principle of multiple causation which states that an event occurs as a result of several factors operating in combination. What, for example, causes crime? Cesare Lombroso ... believed that the predisposition to crime was inherited and that criminals could be identified by certain primitive physical traits (large jaws, receding foreheads). Modern criminologists reject Lombroso's (or anyone's) one-factor explanation of crime. They now cite numerous factors that contribute to crime, including extreme permissiveness and freedom; subcultures of violence turned against society; rapid social change and economic development; excessive materialism; hopeless poverty in slums; and overly lax, overly strict, or erratic childrearing practices.

Despite the fact that most of the simple sovereign theories have fallen from favor, their historical importance cannot be overlooked. Most of the classical theories were far too sweeping in scope, actually to such a degree that they were soon found to be very inaccurate. Their legacy is that they rested on an important assumption which has held today: social behavior, like other natural events, is both lawful and predictable.

The History of Some Major Sovereign Theories

Allport, (1968) in a review of the history of social psychology, observed that at one time most researchers tended to subscribe to one of five, simple, sovereign explanations. These were hedonism, egoism, sympathy, imitation, and suggestion.

One of the more famous of these five is hedonism theory, especially as discussed by John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer. Hedonism theory, similar to hedonistic philosophy, is the belief that all behavior is ultimately based on the natural, normal, universal human desire to maximize pleasure and minimize pain (boredom being interpreted as pain). A modern version of this position is exchange theory, which interprets all behavior as a series of exchanges based on the person's assumed advantages or "gain" from making the exchanges. The drive to experience pleasure and avoid pain was a popular way of interpreting human actions because virtually every behavior could be "explained" by the theory quite well. Some behaviors, though, require strained explanations to understand them, such as one gives to others (altruism) only because of an expected payoff, and some normally unrewarding behaviors such as pain were, in cases of inversion, rewarding. A hedonistic world view is the deliberate focus on maximizing personal gain from these exchanges, or the value that pursuit of pleasure is lifes highest purpose (Banowsky, 1969:9).

Another outdated sovereign theory, the power hypothesis, was advocated by Friedrich Nietzsche: all behavior, especially social behavior, stems from the universal desire of human beings to obtain power and thereby increase their power or status, a view usually called egoism. These are only a few of the many theories that researchers argued for years as to the validity of one compared to the others.

In the physical sciences the concept of a single theory has been historically prevalent, causing researchers to ignore other influential factors (Sarton, 1959, Singer, 1959). Geneticists for years have attributed almost all phenotypic variation to random shuffling of genes that occurred in the process of meiosis, and from mutations in the formation of the zygote (Nordenskiold, 1935). McClintock from her research on "Jumping Genes" has introduced another factor which, until recently, was largely ignored, possibly for the reason that valid, acceptable, explanations existed for her data which were interpreted in the single theory myopic orientation as fully adequate.

Many other examples from the physical sciences could be given, such as God, sin, or germs as the cause of disease, a battle which is still not over (Hume, 1947). Even the hereditary vs. environment issue is still with us. While researchers typically acknowledge both as influential, there is a tendency for sociologists to almost totally ignore heredity and likewise sociobiologists to almost totally ignore environment (Montagu, 1980). The creation-evolution controversy is also often dichotomized in the same way (Thurman, 1978). Some creationists assume that every variation extant in nature must have been specifically created, and many evolutionists work under the assumption that the natural world is totally the result of pre-existing natural law, time and chance, rejecting the possibility of intelligent intervention or direction.

The Movement from Sovereign Theories to the Eclectic or Integration Approach

In many fields, early researchers began with many sovereign theories and, as the field developed, they were dropped or modified. Psychology may have advanced beyond sociology in that most psychologists stress that there are a multiplicity of factors which influence the events they study. In the development of schizophrenia, for example, they typically recognize that biological predispositions are influential but that environment and individual factors are also very important.

As there is no single theory to describe the behavior of individuals, likewise no single theory exists that describes the behavior of groups. As Rose (1982:9) stresses:

... it will probably always appear that there are turning points at which processes may move in one direction or another. For the sociologist ... this means that we shall probably never be able to speak with confidence of [for example] the riot process, the disaster process, or the process by which a successful protest is accomplished. Rather, we hope to observe such a variety of episodes that we can say with some confidence that a certain step, if taken, is likely to increase the probability of a next step in one of the several process patterns that we have observed.

For this reason, in the study of social movements, Zurcher (1981:479) stresses that, in order to understand social movements, "an exclusively psychological or an exclusively sociological approach ... is not sufficient. Either of these exclusive orientations tend to lead to simple and sovereign explanations for the behavior of human beings in social movements."

Decision theory has found that for any given behavior there almost always exists many different influences and causative factors (Brown, 1973). These influences vary according to the actor and the individual situation. For some individuals, Factor I may be most important, but others are always influential. For other persons, Factors 1, 11 and III may be somewhat equally important, and for yet others Factor III may be the most important but, again, others are always influential.

Application of Decision Theory

An illustration will help make the above clear. The purchase of an automobile, a common behavior in American society, involves selecting from a wide variety of choices and options. One could purchase an expensive large car, a four-door sedan, a convertible, a station wagon, or some combination of the above. In addition, one could purchase a Plymouth station wagon with or without air conditioning, with or without a radio, etc.

Applying the decision theory to this situation, we would conclude that the explanation of why a person purchases a car is not made on the basis of one theory (e.g. an automobile purchase is for the purpose of obtaining a means to transport the owner from one place to another or is the result of the purchaser being socialized into a certain lifestyle). Purchasing an automobile would always involve several motivations-although some may be far more important than others. It is possible to find the most common motivations, which may in time change in statistical frequency. In a certain period of American history the most common reason, but not the only reason, for certain persons for purchasing a car may be to achieve status. In other periods, such as after a gasoline shortage, other factors may become more important such as concerns about gas mileage or economy. Elements which may be important include:

1. Specific automobile environment, i.e., if a person was raised around Chrysler products and his or her first few cars were Mopars, the person may feel "brand loyalty" to this line, and therefore continue to purchase them. Of course, within this broad motivation, one could purchase a Plymouth Horizon or a Chrysler Le Baron---considerably different automobiles. Thus, again, this factor will account for only part of the behavior which we could entitle "automobile brand or type purchasing motivation."

2. Experience with a certain brand name of car. If a person owned a Ford and experienced problems with either the car, the dealer, or both, in the future he or she may be influenced to purchase another type of car.

3. Chance factors, i.e., one may simply happen to live near a Chevrolet dealer, have a friend who sells Plyinouths, or notice a car for sale which, for some reason (like past experiences) "catches one's eye."

4. Rational considerations including price, engineering innovations such as front wheel drive, gas mileage, use of an electronic ignition system. Also, in this group are reputation for endurance, body appearance and other factors.

The above may seem obvious, but when the same principle is applied to sociology, psychology or the other behavioral sciences, ironically it meets with much resistance. For example, Merton's theory of anomie undoubtedly is an important factor in much lower and some middle class crime but does not, contrary to the claims of its supporters, explain all crime for all classes and ail individuals. Cohen's theory of a "contra-culture" or the existence of subcultures in which crime is a response to frustration in achieving respectability and satisfaction of social and ego needs within the dominant society is likewise important, especially with certain individuals in the lower classes. Instead of endeavoring to determine which theory best explains juvenile delinquency, it would be much more functional to delineate those factors which explain crime and, specifically, which factors seem to be important with which elements. One theory may explain crime among the lower class, high I.Q. population and another why talented but frustrated individuals are prone to crime. Our goal then, would be to delineate all or most of the many factors which influence juvenile delinquency or crime in general, and endeavor to understand exactly what they successfully explain. Since decision theory specifies that we look for many factors, our concern becomes looking for several different explanations instead of one. In other words, "there is more than one way to skin a cat," and, as Leo Roster wrote, "If an explanation relies on a single cause, it is surely wrong," (Shepard, 1981:32).

Admittedly, efforts to examine behavior from several vantage points has not always been fully successful. But, as Wolfgang and Ferracuti (1967:xx) stress:

Although the history of efforts to promote interdisciplinary cooperation in the behavioral sciences has not been blessed with outstanding success, we firmly believe the efforts should continue. Our own experience has led us to be more than ever convinced that when the notions of one discipline are subjected
to the sharp edge of critical comment by another discipline, the fuzzy layers of impression, inadequate methodology, incomplete theoretical models, and non-operational hypotheses are quickly cut from core ideas that might be better reconstructed with integrated tools.

Applications of the above theory will undoubtedly help us avoid many of the pointless discussions that are commonly found in the behavioral sciences which are reminiscent of some of the theological arguments of the middle ages. Indeed, there are many similarities between pro and con discussions of, for example, Merton's theory of anomie and pro and con discussions of the pre-millennial, post-millennial and a-millennial theological positions in Christian eschatology. This is not to say that discussion and debate is not important, but the debate should help us understand specifically to what group of people and under what conditions a theory applies, and not only whether the theory is valid or invalid. Undoubtedly, almost all theories which purport to explain juvenile delinquency have some, even if only limited, validity.


An eclectic approach, using psychological, sociological and biological insight, will probably produce explanations closer to reality. It is for this reason that, instead of assuming that the Freudian view of human behavior is the "correct" view and explains all behavior, almost all psychotherapists use an eclectic approach (apply the technique or theory which seems to work best to help a specific patient). Likewise, sociologists, educators and others should be fully cognizant that the "one theory approach" is not reality, and the real world of human behavior requires an eclectic explanation.

As Rose ( 19 8 2: 11 ) stresses,

Recognizing social 'reality' as an infinitely complex matter, to classify that reality into a finite number of types is to do violence to the radical individuality of each unit of sociological analysis: each person, each group, in our case, each episode. If we are looking, then, for the set of types that corresponds to the delineation that exists in reality, we shall look forever in vain.

A step in the direction of looking at reality from several theoretical perspectives in unison has been taken by sociologists to unify the three basic prespectives in sociology, the conflict, functionalist and interactionist approaches. As Shepard (1981:15-16) notes:

Which theoretical perspective-functionalism or conflict theory-is best? Neither; there is no one best theory. Each of these perspectives sheds light on certain aspects of social life. The advantages of one theory are the disadvantages of the other. Functionalism explains much of the consensus, stability, and cooperation within a society. Conflict theory explains much of the constraint, conflict, and change. Since each theory has captured an essential side of society's nature, their combination or synthesis is a reasonable next step.

Some attempts to combine functionalism and conflict theory have already been made (Dahrendorf, 1958; van de Berghe, 1963). One of the most promising is the attempt to specify the conditions under which conflict and cooperation occur. Gerhard Lenski (1966) contends that people cooperate-even share the fruits Of their labors-when scarcity threatens their survival. But conflict, competition and constraint are likely to occur when there is more than enough for everyone. Thus as a society moves from a subsistence economy to an affluent one, conflict, competition, and constraint increase.

This is reflecting itself in more and more fields of study. Lasswell and Lasswell (1982:161) note that in mate selection theory, process theory has won out. Process theory says that there "can be no single-principle approach, but instead there are many factors that determine marital choice."

Such a multiple theory approach needs to be applied to all of the sciences, both physical and social, to fully understand the complexities of reality. Our goal should be, as Wolfgang and Ferracuti (1967:2-3) emphasize:

... whether our knowledge of human behavior increases through the efforts of individuals in separate disciplines working alone or through the efforts of multi- or interdisciplinary teams, integration of past and present knowledge and theory should be considered a sine qua non of these efforts.

We use the term 'integration' because we are suggesting that it means something different from interdisciplinary collaboration. Integration in this context means bringing together empirical data, relative to the same phenomenon, that have been collected by independent disciplines and interpreted within their limited parameters of orientation so that an analytical synthesis becomes minimally the combination of the parts and maximally a new perspective.

Theological Implications

Studying the creation obviously gives insight into the mind of the Creator. The concept of dual revelation, i.e. God reveals Himself through both the scriptures and His creation, also illustrates the concept of multiple causation.

Problems associated with the various interpretations of scripture have given rise to the science of hermeneutics. In that the same God wrote the Bible as created the laws of behavior, we would expect similarities as is true of any authorship. As it is clear that a multi-level of interpretation of the behavior world is necessary for complete understanding, thus the multi-level interpretation of the scriptures and Christianity as a whole is necessary for a full understanding of the faith.

For example, this principle has been expressed by theologians in the interpretative rule of Biblical exegesis that prophecy has a major and a minor fulfillment. Further, it is understood that Christ taught in parables so that the general concept could easily be conveyed and applied to a wide variety of situations. The literal usefulness of, or application of, the literal situation is often very limited. An example is Matthew 5:20, where Christ said that a person should take the log out of one's own eye before attempting to remove the splinter from an associate's eye. Entire volumes have been written on this scripture, focusing on such concepts as xenophobia, ethnocentrism, verstehen (Max Weber), the concept of Cooley's "looking glass self," etc. Theological disputes often occur when a very limited or single interpretation of a scripture or a set of related scriptural passages is imposed. Our goal should be to sort out the many interpretations and endeavor to apply the concept of multi-interpreta tion to fully understand the passages' meaning and proper intent.


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