How To Theorize

This material drawn liberally from Lave & March
An Introduction to Models in the Social Science
(some changes have been made)


Start with an observation. For example, think about being in college. You're in class, and the guy next to you -- who is obviously a football player -- says an unbelievably dumb thing in class. So you ask yourself: Why? And the answer comes thundering back:

This is a theory. It is not a very good one, but it is a start. What would make it better?

One thing would be to make it a little more general. Theories that are too narrow and specific are not very interesting, even if they are correct. So, we could say:

This is better, but the theory still has no sense of process, of explanation. It says, athletes have this property of being dumb, and that's why they ask dumb questions. Dumb begets dumb. Does that actually explain anything? Or does it just push the thing to be explained one step back? Why are athletes dumb? It's like when kids ask you 'Why is the sky blue?' and you say 'Because it is, that's why'.

There is also a circularity here. What do we mean when we say that a person is dumb? Practically speaking, it means that they consistently behave dumbly. We cannot perceive dumbness directly. The only way we can know whether people are dumb is by what they say and do. Yet what we are trying to explain is a dumb thing that they said. So in effect we are saying that they say dumb things because they say dumb things.

The really big problem with circularity is that it prevents theories from being falsifiable. For example, take the theory that if you perform the Rain Dance Ceremony and all the participants are pure of heart, it will rain the next day. This theory is not falsifiable because if you perform the ceremony and it rains, the theory is confirmed. If you perform the ceremony and it doesn't rain, that tells you right away that one of the participants was not pure of heart, and again the theory is confirmed.

A good theory has a sense of process. It describes a mechanism by which A makes B happen, like the way the gears in a car transfer the rotation in the engine to a rotation of the tires. For example, look at this explanation:

This has much more of a sense of explanation. When reading this account, we have a much greater sense of satisfaction that something is being accomplished by theorizing. Of greatest importance is that the focus of the story is a mechanism, not an enduring property of a class of people (athletes). This means that we can apply the same reasoning to other people and other situations. Let's rewrite it this way:

An implication of this theory is that we should also observe that good musicians (who practice many hours a day) should also be dumb in class. If we don't find this, the theory is wrong. This is in part what makes it such a good theory. It is general enough to generate implications for other groups of people and other contexts, all of which serve as potential tests of the theory. That is, the theory is fertile.

The essence of theorizing is that you start with an observation, and then imagine the observation as the outcome of a (hidden) process.

Here is another process that would lead to the outcome of a football player asking a dumb question in class:

This theory also has implications for other groups of people, such as musicians or beauty queens.

Here's one last theory:

This theory has some interesting implications. For example, because we are jealous of rich people, we love soap operas which reveal how unhappy the rich really are. Similarly, perhaps really beautiful women get a lot of recognition and status, so others will feel that beautiful women are dumb. This would explain the widespread stereotype of the "dumb blonde" or "bimbo".

Choosing Among Competing Theories

We can use the fertility and non-circularity of all these theories to help test and choose among them. If the theory is specified clearly enough, we can essentially present a situation to a theory and ask what it would expect as an outcome. The idea, then, is to collect a set of situations which the different theories would have different predictions or expectations about.

Consider, for example, how football players should behave (or appear to behave) in class out of season. Will they still be asking dumb questions? According to the first theory (Limited Time), football players should not ask dumb questions out of season, because there is plenty of time to study. [Whether or not there is ever a time when football players are not consumed by the sport is another question.] But according to the second theory (Recognition), members of the football team should continue to ask dumb questions because they are still football players and still getting recognition, so they still don't need to excel academically. The third theory (Jealousy) also yields the expectation of continued dumb questions, because we are still jealous.

So studying football player behavior out of season should help to distinguish between the first theory and the other two, no matter how the data turn out. If the football players appear smart, then the Recognition and Jealousy theories are wrong. If the football players appear dumb, then the Limited Time theory is wrong. [Of course, we can make the theory more complicated: having limited time during the season makes them dumb in class for those times, which erodes their confidence and interest, so they that even when they have the time, they still don't study effectively, so they don't do any better in the off-season. We'll deal with that some other time.]

Now, consider athletes who do not look like athletes -- they are not unusually big (like football) or tall (like basketball) or fat (like sumo wrestling). Will they appear to ask dumb questions? The Limited Time theory will again clearly say "yes" because practice time is unaffected by physique. The Excellence theory will also say "yes" because even if people can't recognize them on the street, they are still fulfilling their need to do one thing really well so they will not feel the need to excel in class. The Jealousy theory would say "no" for most people because they just don't know that they are in the presence of an athlete.

Expectations Generated by Each Theory For Two Situations

Question Limited Time Excellence Jealousy
Football players ask dumb questions out of season? No Yes Yes
Will athletes who do not look like athletes ask dumb questions? Yes Yes No

Once again, no matter how the data turn out, we will know which theories are wrong. Note that if the answer to both questions is No, that means that all the theories are wrong, since none predict a NO answer to both questions.

In practice, we would want to ask many other questions as well, even ones that more or less duplicate the expected answers for other questions. For example, consider how football players appear in schools where football is not important. Will they still be asking dumb questions? The Limited Time theory clearly says "yes" because they still have to practice even if nobody on campus cares about football. The Excellence theory also says "yes", because football is still satisfying their need for accomplishment. And the Jealousy theory would say "no" because we are not jealous unless football is a source of status. So this question has the same pattern of expected answers as question #2:

Question Limited Time Excellence Jealousy
FB players ask dumb questions in schools where FB is not important? Yes Yes No

Every implication of one theory is potentially useful in choosing among all the theories. For example, we noted earlier that an implication of the limited time theory was that students studying music should also ask dumb questions, because of the time they spend practicing their instrument. So what would the other theories say about musicians?

Question Limited Time Excellence Jealousy
Musicians ask dumb questions too? Yes Yes No

(I'm assuming here that people don't realize, just by looking at their classmates, who is a musician, and that it not terribly high status anyway.)


Copyright 1996 Stephen P. Borgatti Go to Home Page Revised: September 22, 1996