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I am writing a paper which involves references to different theories.

I wonder if you should use an article before, for example "social exchange theory" or not. I searched for it on Google Books and found some publications where the article is omitted and some where it is used.

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    I hadn't heard of [the] social exchange theory before seeing it here, but this NGram clearly suggests it doesn't usually merit the ("status-enhancing"?) definite article. Nor does it usually get referenced (as per Darwin's theory of evolution) using the format the theory of social exchange. Commented Oct 4, 2018 at 17:43
  • (The name makes me think of Transactional Analysis (TA) - a psychoanalytic theory that I have heard of.) Commented Oct 4, 2018 at 17:46

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The problem here is that "theory" can mean different things in different contexts. It can be used to refer to both a very specific and singular idea or explanation (for example: the theory of general relativity), or it can refer to a broad category of thought or study (for example: game theory).

In this case, "social exchange theory" appears to be a case of the latter usage of "theory", referring to a broad category of study, so you would not modify it with "the" in this case.

It can also be said that using "the" in front a theory makes it more definitive, so usage of "the" might be reserved for theories which reach a certain level of acceptance within a given scholarly or scientific community.

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