Theory and Research


Theory has an important role in research and is an essential ally for the researcher.

What is Theory?

  • Social theory was defined as “ a system of interconnected abstractions or ideas that condenses and organizes knowledge about the social world”.
  • A principle of good theory is parsimony. Parsimony means simpler is better. A parsimonious theory has minimal complexity, with no redundant or excess elements. Pasimony says a more powerfult theory does more with less, and the less complex of two equally convincing theories is better.
  • Almost all research involves some theory, so the question is less whether you should use theory than how you should use it.

Social Theory Versus Ideology

The distinction between ideology and theory has implications for how a person concducts research. A researcher can never test and show an ideology to be true or false. By contrat, a researcher can test a scientific theory or parts of it and whow them to be false.
Social scientific theories are empirically testable, and they are constantly evolving.

The Parts of Theory


Concepts are the building blocks of theory.
A concept is an idea expressed as a symbol or in words.
Natural science concepts are often expressed in symbolic forms, such as Greek letters. Most social science concepts are expressed as words.

Concepts have two parts: a symbol (word or term) and a definition.
Social science concepts form a specialized language, or jargon.
Apstract consepts refer to aspects of the world we do not directly experience.
Social theory requires well defined concepts. The definition helps to link theory with research.

Concept Clusters

Concepts are rarely used in isolation. Rather, they form interconnected groups, or concept clusters.
Theories contain collections of associated concepts that are consistent and mutually reinforcing. Together, they form a web of meaning.


  • Some concepts are simple; they have only one dimension and vary along a single continuum. Others are complex; they have multiple dimensions or many subparts.
  • Classifications are partway between a single, simple concept and a theory.
  • The ideal type is a well known classification. Ideal types are pure, abstract models that define the essence of the phenomenon in question.
  • Another type of classification is the typology, or taxonomy, in which a researcher combines two or more unidimensional, simple concepts, such that the intersection of simple concepts forms new concepts.


  • Some concepts are highly abstract, some are at a middle level of abstraction, and some are at a concrete level.
  • Theories with many abstract concepts apply to a wider range of social phenomena than those with concrete concepts and have broader scope.
  • The least abstract is an empirical generalization.
  • Thinking explicitly about a theory’s scope will make it stronger and allow the researcher to communicate it more clearly to others.


Concepts contain built in assumptions, statements about the nature of things that are not observable or testable.


  • Theories contain concepts, their definition, and assumptions.
  • Theories specify how concepts relate to one another.
  • Theories tell us whether concepts are related and, if they are, how they relate to each other.
  • Theories state why the relationship does or does not exist.
  • Many theories make a causal statement, or a proposition, about the expected relation among variables.
  • A proposition is a theoretical statement that specifies the connection between two or more variables, informing us how variation in one concept is accounted for by variation in another”.
  • When a researcher empirically tests or evaluates a relationship, it is called a hypothesis.
  • A social theory also contains a causal mechanism, or reason, for a relationship.
  • A social theory also contains a causal mechanism, or reason, for a relationship. A causal mechanism is a statement of how thing work.
  • Propositions do not exist in isolation; they are part of a web of interconnected concepts, assumptions, relationships, and causal mechanisms.

The aspect of theory

Theory can be baffling because it comes in so many forms.
We can categorize a theory by

  • The direction of reasoning
  • The level of social reality that it explains
  • Whether it is formal or substantive
  • The formal of explanation it employs
  • The overall framework of assumptions and concepts in which it is embedded

Direction of Theorizing

Researchers approach the building and testing of theory from two directions. Some begin with abstract thinking. They logically connect the ideas in theory to concrete evidence, and then test the ideas against the evidence. Others begin with specific observations of empirical evidence. On the basis of evidence, they generalize and build toward increasingly abstract idea.


In a deductive approach, the researcher begins with an abstract, logical relationship among concepts, then move toward concrete empirical evidence.
Idea—>evidence ( seem like positivist)


The researcher begins with detailed observations of the world and move toward more abstract generalizations and ideas.
Evidence—> idea ( seem like relativist)
Many researchers who adopt an inductive approach use grounded theory. Grounded theory is part of an inductive approach in which a researcher builds ideas and theoretical generalizations based on closely examining and creatively thinking about the data. A researcher creates grounded theory out of a process of trying to explain, interpret, and render meaning from data.

Level of Theory

Social theories can be divided into three broad grouping by the level of social reality with Which they deal.

Micro-level theory
Micro-level theory deals with small slices of time, space, or numbers of people. The concepts are usually not very abstract.

Meso-level theory
Meso-level theory attempts to link macro and micro levels or to operate at an intermediate level.
Theories of organizations, social movements, or communities are often at this level.

Macro-level theory
Macro level theory concerns the operation of larger aggregates such as social institutions, entire cultural systems, and whole societies. It uses more concepts that are abstract.

Focus of Theory

We can distinguish substantive from formal theory.

  • Substantive theory is developed for a specific area of social concern, such as delinquent gangs, strike, divorce, or race relations.
  • Formal theory is developed for a broad conceptual area in general theory such as deviance, socialization, or power.

Forms of Explanation

Prediction and Explanation

A theory’s primary purpose is to explain.
There are two meanings or uses of the term explanation.
Researchers focus on theoretical explanation, a logical argument that tells why something occurs.
The second type of explanation, ordinary explanation, makes something clear or describes something in a way that illustrates it and makes it intelligible.

Prediction is a statement that something will occur. It is easy to predict than to explain, and an explanation has more logical power than prediction because good explanations also predict.

An explanation rarely predicts more than one outcome, but the same outcome may be predicted by opposing explanations.

Causal Explanation

  • Causal explanation is used when the relationship is one of cause and effect. This is the most common type of explanation.
  • We need three things to establish causality: temporal order, association, and the elimination of plausible alternatives.
  • The temporal order condition means that a cause must come before an effect.
  • A researcher also needs an association for causality. Two phenomena are associated if they occur together in a patterned way or appear to act together.
  • If a researcher cannot find an association, a causal relationship is unlikely. This is why researchers attempt to find correlations and other measures of association. Yet, a researcher can often find an association without causality. The associateion eliminates potential causes that are not associated, but it can not definitely identify a cause.
  • Eliminating alternatives means that a researcher interested in causality needs to show that the effect is due to the causal variable and not to something else. It is also called no spuriousness because an apparent causal relationship that is actually due to an alternative but unrecognized cause is called a spurious relationship.
  • Researcher can observe temporal order and associations. They can not observe the elimination of alternatives.
  • A researcher tries to eliminate major alternative explanations in two ways: through built in design controls and by measuring potential hidden causes.
  • Researchers also try to eliminatate alternative by measuring possible alternative causes. This is common in survey research and is called controlling for another variable. Researcher s use statistical techniques to learn whether the causal variable or something else operates on the effect variable.

Diagrams of causal relations among variables. At minimum, you need a cause and an effect for a causal relationship.
Researchers express theories in words, pictures, or both. They often draw diagrams of the causal relations to present a simplified picture of a relationship and see it at a glance. Such symbolic representations supplement verbal descriptions of causal relations and convey complex information. They are a shorthand way to show theoretical relations.
Relationships between variables can be positive or negative. Researchers imply a positive relationship if they say nothing. A positive relationship means that a higher value on the causal variable goes with a higher value on the effect variable. A negative relationship means that a higher value on the causal variable goes with a lower value on the effect variable.
In a diagrams, a plus sign (+) signifies a positive relationship and a negative sign (-) signifies a negative relationship.

Structural Explanation

It is similar to a wheel with spokes form a central idea or a spider web in which each stand forms part of the whole.
A structural explanation is used with functional and pattern theories.
A researcher making a structural explanation uses a set of interconnected assumptions, concepts, and relationships.
Instead of causal statement, the researcher uses metaphor or analogies so that relationships “make sense.” The concepts and relations within a theory form a mutually reinforcing system.
In structural explanations, a researcher specifies a sequence of phases or identifies essential parts that form an interlocked whole.
There are several types of structural explanations.

One type is network theory. A network theorist says that a behavior or social relationship occurs when certain patterns of interaction take place, when aspects of social relations overlap in time or space, or when relationships follow a developmental sequence.

Structural explanation is also used in functional theory. Functional theorists explain an event by locating it within a larger, ongoing, balanced social system.
The researchers explain something by identifying its function within a larger system or the need it fulfills for the system.

Interpretive Explanation

  • The purpose of interpretive explanation is to foster understanding.
  • The interpretive theorist attempts to discover the meaning of an event or practice by placing it within specific social context.
  • The researchers try to comprehend or mentally grasp the operation of the social world, as well as get a feel for something or to see the world as another person does.

Theoretical Frameworks

Many researchers use middle range theory. Middle range theories are slightly more abstract than empirical generalizations or specific hypotheses.
We can organize the terms about theory by the degree of abstraction.
From the most concrete to the most abstract are empirical generalizations, middle range theories, and frameworks.

A theoretical framework (also called a paradigm or theoretical system) is more abstract than a formal or substantive theory.

When researchers conduct a study, they primarily use middle range theory and empirical generalization. They rarely use a theoretical framework directly in empirical research.

The frameworks are orientations or sweeping ways of looking at the social world. They provide collections of assumptions, concepts, and forms of explanation.
Theory within the same framework share assumptions and major concepts.

Orientation toward reality

Two set of assumptions about the nature of reality are social constructionist and essentialist.


Social constructionist assumptions tend to go with interpretative explanations, fit with the symbolic interaction framework and some kinds of conflict theory, and be used by researchers who work with qualitative data.
What people see and experience is socially constructed.


Essentialist assumptions tend to with causal or network explanations and are the found in exchange, structural functional, and some kinds of conflict theories. Researchers who use them tend to work with quantitative data.
Everything is measurable
The researcher can take a slice of time (a snapshot).
What you see is what you get

The dynamic duo

Researchers who attempt to proceed without theory may waste time collecting useless data. They find themselves adrift as they attempt to design or conduct empirical research.

Theory frames how we look at and think about a topic. It gives us concepts, provides basic assumptions, directs us to the important questions, and suggests ways for us to make sense of data.
Theory enables us to connect a single study to the immense base of knowledge to which other researchers contribute. Theory help a researcher see the forest instead of just a single tree.
Theory increases a researcher’s awareness of interconnections and of the broader significance of data.
Theory does not remain fixed over time; it is provisional and open to revision.
The scientific community expands and alters theories based on empirical results.
Researchers who adopt a more deductive approach use theory to guide the design of a study and the interpretation of results. They refute, extend, or modify the theory based on the basis of results.
Researchers adopting an inductive approach follow a slightly different process. Inductive theorizing begins with a few assumptions and broad orienting concepts. Theory develops from the group up as the researcher gathers and analyze the data. Theory emerges slowly concept by concept and proposition by proposition in a specific area.

Theory does not remain fixed over time; it is provisional and open to revision.

Positivist Interpretive
Deductive Inductive
Causal Explanation Interpretive Explanation
Essentialist Constructionist
Quantitative Qualitative
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