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what is theory?

Theory is never going to be a straightforward term to use as it gathers together many different assumptions about epistemology, methodology and indeed the purpose of doing social research. To complicate matters there are a host of further terms, for example modelling, conceptualising, analysing indeed theorising, that cover at least some of the things that 'theory' does. However attempts to define theory frequently refer to:

  • the search for cause and effect explanation as within, for example, large data sets. Here the contribution of theory might be to develop the explanatory framework that supports reported statistical association.
  • the modelling of outcomes. A model may lay out the factors that influence a certain outcome and while generated in particular circumstances they may be seen as generalisable. For example Piketty (2014) has a theory of capital and inequality which can be expressed as a general rule that wealth (r) grows faster than economic output (g) all things being equal.
  • what if scenarios: for example Rawls introduces a theory of justice based on reasoning what would happen if everyone were to decide principles of justice behind a veil of ignorance - an ideal state in which no one knows in advance what their place in society will be. According to Rawls, these conditions will lead to principles that are fair to all.
  • ethnographic description: for example Geertz's famous thick description of cock fighting in Bali. The key here is that all observation is theory laded. This kind of theorisation often aims at establishing a social phenomenon inviting others to look for a similar phenomenon in other contexts.

In a more specifically sociological tradition Martindale (1960) saw the fundamental role of theory was to 'explain things'. He suggested five basic approaches to theory: (1) meta-theoretical schemes, (2) analytical schemes, (3) discursive schemes, (4) propositional schemes, and (5) modelling schemes. A key distinction he makes is between theory used to sensitise us to what is happening (i.e a lens on a phenomenon) and analytical theory which has a presumed predictive quality. Martindale himself drew on Karl Popper to argue for what we might now see as a post positivist view of theory - we introduce theory in the expectations that it will be refuted.

Again from a sociological tradition Swenberg (2015) suggests that there is a distinction between theorising and theory. This draws a useful distinction between theory about the practice of research and theory regarding bodies of evidence which throw light on social behaviour. In discussing Swenberg, Krause (2016) suggests that modes of theorizing include:

  • interpreting major figures
  • applying existing concepts to new observations
  • linking a new fact or observation to an existential issue or a historical trend
  • developing new concepts in dialogue with observations and previous concepts
  • joining concepts to a testable hypothesis about a causal relationship between them.

This helps us to see that the work of understanding a key concept within a particular discipline, in some fields something that takes second place to the accumulation of empircal evidence, is an important kind of theoretical contribution.

Points in common?

Is there anything that underpins ideas of theory? In our interviews we often found that theory involved an attempt to abstract something from the data (a model, a rich description or conceptual category) which allowed for understanding social phenomena in more generalisable or at least more relatable way. Theory, at least for some, connected local findings to the problems of a discipline and staked a claim for general significance. Further, theory seems concerned with explanation. This did not necessarily mean cause and effect explanation it could as easily be explanations of actions and consequences of actions. Theory may or may not be interdisciplinary. Nearly all our interviewees argued that theory should be tentative. For them it was unlikely that we are going to uncover universal rules of human behaviour rather theory seems to develop to address questions posed at a particular point in time and we should expect to see theories superseded in the future.

The question for discussion is what does theory mean for you?


Krause, M. (2016) The meanings of theorizing, The British Journal of Sociology, 67, 1, 23–29.

Martindale, D. (1960) The Nature and Types of Sociological Theory. Boston: Houghton. Miffin Co..

Piketty, M. (2014) Capital in theTwenty-First Century, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Swedberg, R. (2016) Before theory comes theorizing or how to make social science more interesting, The British Journal of Sociology, 67, 1, 5–22.

(Note the journal articles are easily available from the library, to be honest I found chapter 1 of Martindale freely available on the Web)