I am working on a scholarly article that attempts to define "theory" in my scholarly field, which is a social science. (My field is information systems, mainly a hybrid between information technology and business management, but my question aims to be generic to the social sciences.) In my quest to distinguish what should be considered "theory" versus what should not be considered "theory", I am inspired by reading various arguments that address the classic demarcation problem of distinguishing science from pseudo-science. Indeed, I am hoping for generic answers about the structure of a demarcation argument not just for theory, but for any controversial concept. For instance, I have examined answers on Philosophy Stack Exchange about the demarcation of mathematics, religion, and experimental philosophy, for example. But my question is not an answer to any of these questions, not even what is or is not "theory", but rather to understand the structural logical elements of a sound argument that aims to demarcate X from not-X.

My current understanding involves the following:

  • Definitions of "theory" (or of many similar concepts) are essentially arbitrary, culturally accepted artifacts of language. There is no absolute, objective definition of such a concept; its definition is what people choose to accept it as. Thus, there will always be controversy surrounding any definition.
  • The goal of a demarcation argument is to persuade readers why a proposed definition should be accepted or should be preferred over alternative definitions.
  • The examination of [almost] universally accepted prototypes, both positive and negative, is key to a demarcation argument. That is, there should be one or more positive prototypes that are [mostly] universally accepted as theory that should be clearly included by the definition and there should be one or more negative prototypes that are [mostly] universally rejected as theory that should be clearly excluded by the definition.
  • The argument must also carefully examine some important, controversial border cases (in my case, some concepts that some people consider theory but others do not) and discuss how the proposed definition classifies such controversial cases. The argument here consists of justifying why cases that are considered to be theory should be considered theory whereas those that are excluded should be excluded.
  • The argument should contrast how competing demarcation criteria would treat such controversial border cases and then argue why the proposed definition or criteria is superior.

I am fully open to these initial ideas being corrected and to learning additional important criteria for a sound demarcation argument that I have not considered.

So, what is or should be the logical structure of a sound demarcation argument?

Although I would appreciate any helpful answers here, because my eventual goal for my question is scholarly publication, I would most appreciate answers to my question that are based on published scholarly material. But, of course, that is not a requirement.

  • Does a demarcation criterion need to have a logical structure? I'm not sure "demarcation" is an "argument" in the first place.
    – Frank
    Feb 20, 2023 at 16:56
  • Do you mean Scientific Vs not-Scientific? Feb 20, 2023 at 17:27
  • "Theory" like most words in natural language has multiple meanings, some of which are precise. In math and logic, a theory is a set of propositions closed under deduction. In science, it is an explanatory framework. In casual conversation, it is often a hypothesis. Feb 20, 2023 at 17:42
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    OK, that's helpful. It would be good to edit the question to clarify that you are exploring the issue of what is a theory in social science. Also, as a side note: a very common mistake people make when they undertake this kind of project is to begin with the presumption that all uses of the word refer to the same thing. Keep in mind the possibility that the word is being used in multiple senses, and that no single demarcation might suffice. Feb 20, 2023 at 19:25
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    @DavidGudeman I've edited the first sentence to emphasize more clearly that I mean theory in the social science context.
    – Tripartio
    Feb 21, 2023 at 9:58

1 Answer 1


Speaking very generally, an account that demarcates or distinguishes X from not-X should make a distinction where a definite real difference exists, and refrain from making a distinction where no definite real difference exists. As Plato put it, it should carve reality at the joints.

It is always possible to make some distinction or other, but a good distinction should follow criteria including the following:

  • Consistency and coherence.
  • Clarity.
  • Simplicity and parsimony.
  • Comprehensiveness and breadth of scope.
  • Explanatory value.
  • Lack of adhocness.
  • Fit with empirical data.
  • Consilience. Ability to shed light on neighbouring theories.
  • Testability.
  • Predictive value.
  • Practical value.

These are, of course, the criteria of a good theory. I take it that your task is to come up with a good theory of what is a theory.

Not all of these will apply in all cases, and in the case of very abstract distinctions, there may be competing demarcations, and the distinction may be somewhat arbitrary and perhaps culturally relative. But at the least, a good demarcation should cover the paradigm cases clearly and should cover borderline cases plausibly. When arguing for the demarcation, the argument should set out how these criteria are met and provide reasons and justifications.

For example, biologists distinguish fish from non-fish. The distinction makes sense, is simple, comprehensive, and has explanatory value, both in terms of how we would recognise a fish and in terms of how fish fit into the biological tree of life. By contrast, classifying animals based on whether they have just broken a flower vase or whether they resemble flies from a distance is adhoc and lacks explanatory or practical value.

  • Well put- that got my vote! Feb 21, 2023 at 21:43

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