What Comprises a Theory

There are several different opinions about what a theory is.  Gelso (2006) states relationships between variables.  As quoted by Wacker (1999), Shubik states that theory is abstract.  Wacker states that trial and error, and not systematic investigation, find theory.  According to other authors, whom I agree with in Part 3 of this question, a theory clearly shows how it is measured.  I think that theory is important as a framework for analysis, and that theory should answer basic common questions a researcher will address, such as who, what, when, where, and why.  Measurable aspects of a theory come from research and data.  One aspect of a theory that can be measured is specific data.  Another aspect of measurement is relationships between data that can be observed and described.  Wacker states as one description of theory that theory can be thought as relationships among units observed empirically.  Also connected to the idea of measurability, Wacker states that an objective of sound theory is an explanation of “how and why specific relationships lead to specific events” (Wacker, 1999).

According to Harlow (2008) theory is not a fixed or universal idea, but evokes a set of constructs, or a determining law.  Stam (2007) states that modern psychology features a wide range of uses of the term ‘theory’, aligned in varying degrees with how the term is used in scientific explanation.  Stam notes that development of theory in psychology is related to the ways methods have been formulated and dispersed within the discipline.  I think that more empirical approaches allow for the building of theories from a set of observed phenomena, whereas theories taken from concepts are usually approached through testing of the theory and related hypotheses.

Views of what comprises a theory. Stam (2007) describes three views of what a theory is.  These views include the following:  theories are reducible to observables (reductionism), used as instruments to do things in the world (instrumentalism), or are statements about things that really exist (realism).  These three “theories about theories” have had influence on the development of theory in scientific thought (Stam, 2007).  Of the three, Stam (2007, 2010) identifies reductionism, along with determinism, as factors to understand theory development in psychology.  Reductionism focuses on observable phenomena.  It attempts to reduce all parts of a phenomenon to simpler parts.  Reductionism also includes systematic attempts to describe and explain phenomena, and distinguish if the phenomena are purely physical, and whether it is possible to account for the phenomena in the context of scientific theory (Stam, 2007).  Linked to reductionism, determinism is seen to account for outcomes of theories; “hard” determinism states that for one set of conditions there is only one possible outcome.  Both reductionism and determinism represent ways to delimit description of phenomena.  The view of instrumentalism is that theory is an instrument in understanding the world.  The usefulness of a theory is based on its effectiveness in predicting phenomena, and not how the theory describes objective reality.  While instrumentalism focuses on existing phenomena, realism in scientific theory focuses on finding “unobservables” beyond what is seen, and finding knowledge that can be applied beyond theory, although theory is used to ground the knowledge (Cacioppo, Semin, & Berntson, 2004).  Another feature of scientific realism is that when multiple explanations exist for a phenomenon, realism stated that only one of several hypotheses and theories can be true.  In terms of scientific realism, features such as theoretical specification, differentiation, warfare, and parsimony, are all seen as part of good theory as defined by Gelso (2006).  In contrast to realism, instrumentalism presents somewhat of an anti-realist view.  It regards theories as tools, devices, or instruments allowing scientists to move from a set of statements to predicted observations.  Instrumentalism focuses on discovery, and realism focuses on validation of theory to a greater extent (Cacioppo, Semin, & Berntson, 2004).  Instrumentalism sees good theory as a product of integration, but to the detriment of precision featured in realism.  All three views of theory concur that theory should addresses significant practical problems to explain complex phenomena (Stam, 2007).

All three views have been incorporated in various ways within psychological theory.  Of the three, Cacioppo, Semin, and Bertson (2004) identify scientific realism and instrumentalism as having influenced mainstream psychological thought towards theory.  The incorporation of these views into psychological theory arose out of the need for building valid theories like those seen in science and the discipline of psychology has adapted features promoted as part of good scientific theory, such as internal consistency, integration, and delimitation (Gelso, 2006).  According to scientific instrumentalism, theories are predictions of observations that answer questions (Stam, 2007, 2010). Within the discipline of psychology, instrumentalism is more process-driven and focuses on finding useful theoretical structures for localized phenomena (Cacioppo, Semin, & Berntson, 2004).  Of reductionism, psychology recently proposed the ideas of a non-reductive materialism (Stam, 2007).  In other words, materialism allows that some features are not able to be reduced to physical properties.  Stam (2007) gives examples of such nonphysical properties as informational, functional, linguistic, cultural, as well as mental.  Theory in psychology has taken the need to account for unobservable phenomena such as properties listed by Stam, and the need for observation to formulate theory.  A use of these three views, which both takes into account the ways in which they can provide theoretical rigor, while accommodating for unobservable phenomena and the testing of alternative hypotheses, is a way in which I would use these theoretical views on theory.  I would avoid the literalism of strict reductionism and determinism, and consider non observable phenomena as part of my theory development.  As identified by Cacioppo, Semin, and Berntman (2004), the challenge facing the advancement of theory in psychology is the role of realism and instrumentalism, integrating features of both to guide theory building.

Scientific theory versus other types of theories. A scientific theory has been tested repeatedly and it is correct for all observed results.  According to Gelso (2006), a common theory is a guess.  Overall, extremely broad theories are not scientifically useful.  Broad theories do not generate research that tests their validity.  Gelso (2006) states that more useful are mini-theories.  These mini-theories may be parts of the broader systems, or they may be theoretical statements that are separate from existing systems.  Mini-theories stand by themselves.  Even mini-theories appearing to stand alone often are connected at a general level to broader theories (Gelso, 2006).  This concept corresponds to Creswell’s (2009) description of differing levels of theories: micro-level theories provide explanation of small areas of inquiry, while macro-level provide explanations for social practices, or extends to whole societies.  A theory is a series of constructions, which hypothesis says share a relationship.  Theories vary in their levels of abstraction, objectivity, realism, perspective, and formality.  A theory states hypothesized relationships among variables.  From this viewpoint, I understand, there is a theory behind virtually all research.  In other words, variables in scientific research must relate to one another.  Informal theories are those that are not stated explicitly.  Scientists must make their theories scientific, or explicit, and test them with empirical research (Gelso, 2006).

How a theory and hypotheses are related. Some researchers state theories are interconnected hypothesis (Creswell, 2009).  Researchers state theories within a research proposal as a series of hypothesis, or use if-statements to describe a problem.  For some researchers, a tested positive hypothesis will contribute to theory and become theory.  Gelso (2006) summarizes the relation between theory and hypothesis as the following: in general, theories contain theoretical propositions, and hypotheses are drawn from these.  Hypotheses are more formulated than propositions.  Also, hypotheses are what are tested in the research process (Gelso, 2006).  Usually, hypotheses are drawn from propositions, which are drawn from theory.

In the case of empirical research, one researcher may go through a theory building process which begins with observations (De Vaus, 2001).  Theory building involves observation as the first step, using inductive reasoning to build a theory from observations.  Theory testing involves deductive reasoning processes, and begins at an abstract level, ending at the empirical level.  In theory testing, one uses theory to guide observations and what steps to take in research.  Each process culminates in the development of propositions, although hypothesis testing as described by Gelso (2006), which begins with comparing one proposition from a theory to many others, takes place in the process of theory testing.

In general, however, I think hypotheses serve as a vital connection between theory and data, and attempt to reconcile data with theory.  The relationship between theory and hypothesis is a point of debate.  As theories come in different types, it is challenging to know when the label of theory can be applied to a hypothesis (Stam, 2010).  In the social sciences, which does not rely upon mathematical models to the extent of science, there is no one precise point at which an observation or hypothesis can be labeled a theory.  Stam (2010) provides the example of functionalism, which does not require that one knows what a phenomena is, but that one can describe the processes surrounding it.  He uses the example of memory, as there are many theories of what memory is, but not exact knowledge of the phenomena surrounding memory.  According to some researchers, the hypothesis-driven nature of psychological research calls for alternative views of research process.

Gelso (2006) and Stiles (2007) suggest alternatives to hypothesis testing.  Gelso (2006) states that hypothesis driven research has not proven to be as fruitful as expected.  He suggests an approach oriented towards discovery, which is free from hypothesis testing.  According to Stiles (2007), using case studies is an alternative to using hypothesis testing.  Case studies compare many theories to one or two observations whereas hypothesis testing involves comparing one statement to several observations. Trochim and Donnelly (2008) suggest grounded theory, which creates links between observations and theory, and allows for adjustment of theory based upon these links.

The relationship between theory and research and how research (including quantitative and qualitative) contributes to theory.

Five ways research can contribute to theory. Two ways research can contribute to theory are suggested in the literature by Harlow (2009) and Stiles (2007).  Of the types of theory development, Stiles (2007) describes that hypothesis testing and case study research contribute to the development of theory.  While hypothesis testing involves testing of one statement from theory against many observations, case-study compares many statements to observations.  Case-study research highlights the matching of theory and observation, and how adequately the theory predicts aspects of particular cases.  In addition, case study research depends upon several contacts between each case and each theory, involving elaborated descriptions and links from theory to observation.

According to Harlow (2009), case studies can contribute to constructing theory.  In an unexplored area, contributions from case studies can offer new data.  In areas that are more established, case studies are more likely to contribute to incremental developments of the work of previous theorists.  New evidence from case studies can provide theoretical insights that can confirm or deny existing theory.  In this way theoretical contributions develop the knowledge base of disciplines (Harlow, 2009).  Grounded theory relates initial questions to the process of doing research.  Trochim and Donnelly (2008) discuss grounded theory, which is an iterative process in which development of the theory and data collection build upon each other.  Research begins with raising questions which do not confine or remain static, but assist in generating the research.  Researchers operate from a core of theoretical concepts which are used as a baseline in asking and adjusting questions.  The research contributes directly to the forming of theory through creating linkages between data.

A third way research can contribute to theory is as follows: a proposition offered to a gap in research must show how research builds on past theory and must show its important uses (Ellis & Levy, 2008). This involves knowledge of prior research about the problem or proposition.  Through familiarity with the literature related to the problem, one can identify areas of further research or inquiry that prior research has not addressed (Ellis & Levy, 2008).  Wacker (1999) identifies one of the purposes of research as theory-building; this is distinguished from fact gathering, in that the purpose of theory-building is to create integrated knowledge that is applicable as a cohesive whole.  Knowledge of prior research in a field can be built upon, and theory can be extended to new phenomena.

A fourth way research can contribute to theory is that research design adds up to the construction of theory.  The theory-driven aspect of research in the social sciences implies that design of research will have an impact on the theory construction.  Affected by design of research are: the relationship of theory construction, observation, and the outcome of empirically based research (Stam, 2010). Research designs and methods which are employed in psychology include, but are not limited to: case study, quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods.  Each research method is composed of several different tools to apply to research questions (Leedy & Ormrod, 2005).  To summarize, methodology should address how, when, where, and who (Ellis & Levy, 2008).  In examining research design, Gay and Weaver (2011) discuss deductive and inductive methods of research.  They determine which method to use, the research goal, and the data for the research question.  Whenever possible, it is best to use mixed methods that draw appropriate strategies from both research modes (Gay & Weaver, 2011).

A fifth way research can contribute to theory is highlighted in Stiles (2012).  In research, observations change theories.  Observations may confirm the theory.  Theories change to fit the observations.  Researchers must practice “quality control”, or observe how theory and observations match.  If theory and observations do not correspond, then the theory should be adjusted; the goal is for theory to answer.  The task of the researcher is to undertake and verify observations and correlate theory with observations.  Successful research, I deduct, proves or disapproves a theory.  Theory can be delimited depending on aspects of the problem, such as the type of research which has already been conducted in respect to the problem (Ellis & Levy, 2008).


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