Synopsis Four: theories and definitions

Research is an attempt to find relationships. Often that work is both based on a theory, and builds on a theory, a body of interrelated principles that describe, explain or predict.

A theory has three characteristics:

a. An "abstract calculus," that is, a logical structure of relationships. A "calculus" in this sense is any deductive logic system. Theories use the logical pattern based on a major premise (the theory), a minor premise (the research) and a conclusion (the results).

b. A theoretical construct. That is a generalization about something observed, grouping together many instances. The generalization is not the event itself, but a construct that may be observed indirectly through events. For instance, self-esteem is a construct, not in itself observable. We observe it by observing characteristics of self-esteem: confident opinions, trust in personal goals, etc.

c. A rule of correspondence. Does the theory work in reality? It a theory doesn't work in practice, it is not a good theory. It does not have "rules of correspondence."

Sometimes statements are mistaken for theories. A true theory must have two requirements:

a. You could prove it false by doing research.

b. It is tentative.

While we say that a characteristic of a theory is its deductive logic, in reality researchers use both deductive and inductive reasoning to deal with theories. You make a tentative prediction based on a theory, deductively, and after you complete the research, you make a tentative statement that may change or build on the theory, inductively.

Researchers have set up four levels of theory, each at an increasing level of sophistication. As more and more studies are done regarding a theory, it moves toward a higher level of sophistication.

1. Description (lowest).A researcher attempts to identify and describe behavior.

2. Explanation. Researcher tries to use event to explain a larger case.

3. Prediction. Researcher tries to use the event to predict what will happen in the future.

4. Control. Researcher tires to direct changes in an environment.

Researchers rely on two types of definitions, conceptual and operational.

The conceptual definition is used to describe a term using another term, a "dictionary definition." It can be divided into three levels:

a. Daily definition. What everyday society believes the term means.

b. Poetic definition. A figurative interpretation.

c. Scholarly definition. Precise and technical way a group of researchers describe a word of use in research.

The operational definition defines a concept by describing how one goes about observing it. Sort of a how-to definition, in a sense, the difference between a cake recipe (operational) and its menu description (conceptual). Researchers need to operationalize their definitions before proceeding with a research method.

Sometimes journal articles do not clearly state what kind of definition the researcher is using, or shift between definitions. Some journal articles do not include definitions. But the best research ought to carefully consider definitions.