Theories in social science are explanations; they propose a way to understand a particular aspect of the social world. If you seek to understand or explain empirical observations in your research, you will be required to engage with theory.
Example: Consider a study that examines the relationship between gender and academic achievement. If a strong relationship is observed, this in itself does not contribute to our understanding of the topic; the question still remains, why does the relationship exist? This is where theory comes in. A relevant theory in this instance will elaborate on the causal mechanism that links gender and academic achievement. This theory may rely on genetic arguments, or on arguments related to the social conditioning of girls and boys. Theories give mechanisms connecting variables.
A key characteristic of a good theory is that it is testable. That is, it must be possible to derive some specific hypotheses, which can be checked against the empirical evidence. These hypotheses are typically in the form of “if … then …”.
Examples of social science theories
Reinforcement theory. This theory seeks to explain the way in which people gather information. It is based on the assumption that people feel uncomfortable when their beliefs are challenged. It states that people seek out and remember information that provides support for their pre-existing attitudes and beliefs. A testable implication of this is that people are more likely to remember information that is in accordance with their prior beliefs than information that challenges their prior beliefs.
Differential association theory: this is a theory explaining how people become criminals. It posits that criminal behaviour is learned through social interaction with others. It predicts that the earlier in life an individual interacts with criminals, the more likely they are to become criminals themselves.
Neo-realist theory of international relations: this theory seeks to explain the behaviour of states in the international system. It is assumed that states are primarily motivated by the goal of survival and seek to maximize their power relative to other states. A testable implication of this is that if one state becomes powerful relative to others, then other states will seek to balance this power by increasing their capabilities or entering into strategic alliances.
Expectancy theory: this is a theory about the behaviour of employees. It assumes that employees’ behaviour is based on conscious choices among alternatives, with the goal of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. It predicts that if employees are offered clear rewards for productivity, then they will work harder.
Other related terms
As discussed on the page ‘conceptualization’, a conceptual framework is a set of clearly defined concepts that lead to the choice of variables to be used in a study. While a conceptual framework is essential, it in itself cannot provide an explanation for empirical findings.
A paradigm is an (often unstated) set of assumptions that shapes the way we interpret the world. In this sense, theories are more specific than paradigms, as theories propose explanations for specific phenomena. However, a broad set of theories can be said to be associated with a particular paradigm (e.g. the ‘rational choice paradigm’).
A model is something less clearly defined. Models are abstract representations of something else. In the literature one can find models of conceptual frameworks (for example models making a distinction between various phases in a decision making process or making a distinction between various elements of an organization), models of a theory (for example abstract versions of the theory with boxes for the main variables and arrows for the causal connections) and even models of ‘facts’, like maps or miniature representations of buildings. Since the word model is not very clearly defined, students are advised not to use it or to clearly define what it means in the context of their project.
Babbie, Earl (2004). The Practice of Social Research (12th edition). Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson. Chapter 2.
King, Gary, Robert O. Keohane and Sidney Verba (1994). Designing Social Inquiry: scientific inference in qualitative research. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Chapter 3.