Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Definition of a Theory

In quantitative research, some historical precedent exists for viewing a theory as a scientific prediction or explanation (see G. Thomas. 1997. for different ways of conceptualizing theories and how they might constrain thought). For example, the definition of a theory, such as the one
by Kerlinger (1979), is still valid today. A theory is "a set of interrelated constructs (variables), definitions, and propositions that presents a systematic view of phenomena by specifying relations among variables, with the purpose of explaining natural phenomena" (p. 64).

In this definition, a theory is an interrelated set of constructs (or variables) formed into propositions, or hypotheses, that specify the relationship among variables (typically in terms of magnitude or direction). The systematic view might be an argument, a discussion, or a rationale, and it helps to explain (or predict) phenomena that occur in the world.

Labovitz and Hagedorn (1971) add to this definition the idea of a theoretical rationale, which they define as "specifying how and why the variables and relational statements are interrelated" (p. 1 7). Why would an independent variable, X, influence or affect a dependent variable. Y?
The theory would provide the explanation for this expectation or prediction. A discussion about this theory, then, would appear in a section of a proposal titled a theory-base, a theoretical rationale, or a theoretical perspective. I prefer the term theoretical perspective because it has been popularly used as a required section for a proposal for research when one submits an application to present a research paper at the American Educational Research Association conference.

The metaphor of a rainbow can help to visualize how a theory operates. Assume that the rainbow bridges the independent and dependent variables (or constructs) in a study. This rainbow, then, lies together the variables and provides an overarching explanation for how and why one would expect the independent variable to explain or predict the dependent variable.

A Form of Theories
Theories develop when researchers test a prediction many times. Recall that investigators combine independent, mediating, and dependent variables based on different forms of measures into hypotheses or research questions. These hypotheses or questions provide information about the type of relationship (positive, negative, or unknown) and its magnitude (e.g., high or low). The hypothesis might be written. "The greater the centralization of power in leaders, the greater the disenfranchisement of the followers." When researchers test hypotheses such as this over and over in different settings and with different populations (e.g., the Boy Scouts, a Presbyterian church, the Rotary Club, and a group of high school students), a theory emerges and someone gives it a name (e.g.. a theory of attribution).Thus, theory develops as explanation to advance knowledge in particular fields (G. Thomas, 1997).

Another aspect of theories is that they vary in their breadth of coverage. Neuman (2000) reviews theories at three levels: micro-level, meso-level, and macro-level. Micro-level theories provide explanations limited to small slices of time, space, or numbers of people, such as GofEman's theory of "face work" that explains how people engage in rituals during face-to-face interactions. Meso-level theories link the micro and macro levels. These are theories of organizations, social movement, or communities, such as Collins's theory of control in organizations. Macro-level theories explain larger aggregates, such as social institutions, cultural systems, and whole societies. Lenski's macro-level
theory of social stratification, for example, explains how the amount of surplus a society produces increases with the development of the society.

Theories are found in the social science disciplines of psychology, sociology, anthropology, education, and economics, as well as within many subfields. To locate and read about these theories requires searching literature databases (e.g., Psychological Abstracts, Sociological Abstracts) or reviewing guides to the literature about theories (e.g.. see Webb. Beals. & White. 1986).

A Form of Theories
Researchers state their theories in several ways, such as a series of hypotheses, "if ... then" logic statements, or visual models.

First, some researchers state theories in the form of interconnected hypotheses. For example, Hopkins (1964) conveyed his theory of influence processes as a series of 15 hypotheses (slightly altered to remove all the male-specific pronouns).

For any member of a small group, some hypotheses are:

1. The higher her rank, the greater her centrality.
2. The greater his centrality. the greater his observability.
3. The higher her rank, the greater her observability.
4. The greater his centrality. the greater his conformity.
5. The higher her rank, the greater her conformity.
6. The greater his observability, the greater his conformity.
7. The greater her conformity, the greater her observability.