Why Do We Need Theory?

Last updated on January 13, 2023

There are some students who love theory and are uninterested in methods and others who love methods and struggle with theory. I would say that most students, even those who love both theory and methods, struggle to figure out how to integrate theory and method into their research projects. I think partly this is a problem due to how we teach and learn about theory and methods, although this is not to suggest that there is a problem in how these things are taught, if that makes any sense. Let me explain. At least within Sociology, we often teach theory by beginning with the grand theorists, at the very least: Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. We might throw in some du Bois or Harriet Martineau, so as not to be entirely exclusively focused on the dead white men. These theorists all had A LOT to say about how society is organized and they form the foundation of the major sociological perspectives that underlie most contemporary theorizing as well. Marx situated economic systems as central to understanding social organization. Weber said economics matter but so do social and political systems as well (i.e. class, status, power). Durkheim focused on the scientific study of social organization and moved the understanding of society away from individual/psychological explanations to seeing societies as organized systems in and of themselves. Du bois (pronounced: du-boyz in English) focused on how American society was structured based on race and Martineau took a political economy approach to understanding society while including women in her analysis. (Although Martineau is mostly known just for being the first woman sociologist and for her English translation of Auguste Comte, the guy the coined the term sociology).

All of these people and their ideas are important to learn, particularly because their ideas are interwoven into what we read today. However, because they cover so much ground (i.e. they are grand, they are big), how to line them up with one’s more modest research question can seem rather puzzling. One thing I suggest to my students is to reconceptualize theory in much simpler terms as an explanation. No one thesis or paper is likely to be trying to explain how the world is organized but rather a much smaller question that doesn’t need a grand theory to explain it. Returning to Stark (2001), whom I cited regarding what science is, he suggests that theory is what differentiates science from “mere empiricism” (citing Marc Bloch [1940]1961). As Stark writes:

That is, progress was the product of observation and of trial and error, but was lacking in explanation–in theorizing. this objection can even be applied to Copernicus, since his heliocentric conception of the solar system was merely a descriptive claim (much of it wrong). He had little to say about why planets remain in their orbits around the sun, or moons around the planets. Until Newton there was no scientific theory of the solar system. I am willing to include Copernicus among the founders of modern science only because of his influence on and participation in a network of astronomers whose work soon qualified as truly scientific. But, the earlier technical innovations of Greco-Roman times, of Islam, of Imperial China, let alone those achieved in prehistorical times, do not constitute science and are better described as lore, skills, wisdom, techniques, crafts, technologies, engineering, or simply knowledge. Thus, for example, even without telescopes the ancients excelled in astronomical observations. But, until they were linked to testable theories, these observations remained merely “facts.”

Importantly, note that he says until they were linked to testable theories. Thus, in research, our theories cannot include things that are unobservable or unmeasurable in the natural or social worlds. This is why we leave the role of God in social life to the theologians, since we can’t empirically measure the divine.

Thus, we need theory in our social research to offer possible explanations for our questions. The research we carry out then tests the likely accuracy of our explanations. Often, we offer competing theories to test which one makes more sense. So, for example in a paper I published on the impact of breastfeeding on class-based cognitive skills gaps, I tested to see if class differences in IQ scores were better explained by breastfeeding or by parental involvement. There were those who theorized that since breastfeeding was said to increase IQ, perhaps increasing breastfeeding rates would improve trends of lower academic achievement among poor children. As a sociologist, I theorized that breastfeeding was less likely to explain these gaps than would environmental factors including a child’s home environment. So, I tested both of these theories and found that only measures of home environment reduced the class based gaps, but not breastfeeding (although breastfeeding did have a positive association with test scores). Thus, I wasn’t explaining how society is organized, but I was using a social theory to test the claims of an observation within the health sciences.

Grand theories do help us situate our thinking and provide a framework for understanding the world. However, within any particular research project, theory is no more complicated than a possible explanation for your research question. Even more simply, theory gives us the why to the questions we’re asking.

Works Cited

Stark, Rodney. 2001. “Reconceptualizing Religion, Magic and Science. Review of Religious Research. 43(2):101-120.

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