Concept of theory in Research methodology

Theories are explanations of a natural or social behavior, event, or phenomenon. More formally, a scientific theory is a system of constructs (concepts) and propositions (relationships between those constructs) that collectively presents a logical, systematic, and coherent explanation of a phenomenon of interest within some assumptions and boundary conditions (Bacharach 1989).

Theories should explain why things happen, rather than just describe or predict.

While understanding theories, it is also important to understand what theory is not. Theory is not data, facts, typologies, taxonomies, or empirical findings. A collection of facts is not a theory, just as a pile of stones is not a house. Likewise, a collection of constructs (e.g., a typology of constructs) is not a theory, because theories must go well beyond constructs to include propositions, explanations, and boundary conditions. Data, facts, and findings operate at the empirical or observational level, while theories operate at a conceptual level and are based on logic rather than observations.

There are many benefits to using theories in research.

  1. Theories provide the underlying logic of the occurrence of natural or social phenomenon by explaining what are the key drivers and key outcomes of the target phenomenon and why, and what underlying processes are responsible driving that phenomenon.
  2. They aid in sense-making by helping us synthesize prior empirical findings within a theoretical framework and reconcile contradictory findings by discovering contingent factors influencing the relationship between two constructs in different studies.
  3. Theories provide guidance for future research by helping identify constructs and relationships that are worthy of further research
  4. Theories can contribute to cumulative knowledge building by bridging gaps between other theories and by causing existing theories to be reevaluated in a new light.

Building Blocks of a Theory

David Whetten (1989) suggests that there are four building blocks of a theory: constructs, propositions, logic, and boundary conditions/assumptions.

  1. Constructs capture the “what” of theories (i.e., what concepts are important for explaining a phenomenon),
  2. propositions capture the “how” (i.e., how are these concepts related to each other),
  3. logic represents the “why” (i.e., why are these concepts related), and
  4. boundary conditions/assumptions examines the “who, when, and where” (i.e., under what circumstances will these concepts and relationships work).

Attributes of a Good Theory

Theories are simplified and often partial explanations of complex social reality. As such, there can be good explanations or poor explanations, and consequently, there can be good theories or poor theories. How can we evaluate the “goodness” of a given theory? Different criteria have been proposed by different researchers, the more important of which are listed below:

Logical consistency: Are the theoretical constructs, propositions, boundary conditions, and assumptions logically consistent with each other? If some of these “building blocks” of a theory are inconsistent with each other (e.g., a theory assumes rationality, but some constructs represent non-rational concepts), then the theory is a poor theory.

Explanatory power: How much does a given theory explain (or predict) reality? Good theories obviously explain the target phenomenon better than rival theories, as often measured by variance explained (R-square) value in regression equations.

Falsifiability: British philosopher Karl Popper stated in the 1940’s that for theories to be valid, they must be falsifiable. Falsifiability ensures that the theory is potentially disprovable, if empirical data does not match with theoretical propositions, which allows for their empirical testing by researchers. In other words, theories cannot be theories unless they can be empirically testable.

Parsimony: Parsimony examines how much of a phenomenon is explained with how few variables. The concept is attributed to 14 th century English logician Father William of Ockham (and hence called “Ockham’s razor” or “Occam’s razor), which states that among competing explanations that sufficiently explain the observed evidence, the simplest theory (i.e., one that uses the smallest number of variables or makes the fewest assumptions) is the best.

Approaches to Theorizing

 The first approach is to build theories inductively based on observed patterns of events or behaviors. Such approach is often called “grounded theory building”, because the theory is grounded in empirical observations. This technique is heavily dependent on the observational and interpretive abilities of the researcher, and the resulting theory may be subjective and non-conformable. 

Furthermore, observing certain patterns of events will not necessarily make a theory, unless the researcher is able to provide consistent explanations for the observed patterns. 

The second approach to theory building is to conduct a bottom-up conceptual analysis to identify different sets of predictors relevant to the phenomenon of interest using a predefined framework. One such framework may be a simple input-process-output framework, where the researcher may look for different categories of inputs, such as individual, organizational, and/or technological factors potentially related to the phenomenon of interest (the output), and describe the underlying processes that link these factors to the target phenomenon. 

This is also an inductive approach that relies heavily on the inductive abilities of the researcher, and interpretation may be biased by researcher’s prior knowledge of the phenomenon being studied. 

The third approach to theorizing is to extend or modify existing theories to explain a new context, such as by extending theories of individual learning to explain organizational learning. While making such an extension, certain concepts, propositions, and/or boundary conditions of the old theory may be retained and others modified to fit the new context. This deductive approach leverages the rich inventory of social science theories developed by prior theoreticians, and is an efficient way of building new theories by building on existing ones.

The fourth approach is to apply existing theories in entirely new contexts by drawing upon the structural similarities between the two contexts. This approach relies on reasoning by analogy, and is probably the most creative way of theorizing using a deductive approach.


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