rules of theory-building

I like systematic approaches to theory building. While theorizing undoubtedly can be a messy process (and, is often characterized as such), nonetheless I think it’s also extremely beneficial to step back and try to systematically follow an analytical process. (Perhaps theorizing begins with the former and moves toward the latter as one works on a project).

There are a few books that masterfully explicate their underlying approach to building theory. Coleman’s chapter 1, titled metatheory, in Foundations of Social Theory is a fantastic example, though perhaps more focused on justifying his particular theoretical effort.

Homans offers some more general advice — or, “rules of theory-building” — in his book The Human Group:

  1. Look first at the obvious, the familiar, the common. In a science that has not established its foundations, these are the things that best repay study.
  2. State the obvious in its full generality. Science is an economy of thought only if its hypotheses sum up in a simple form a large number of facts.
  3. Talk about one thing at a time. That is, in choosing your words (or, more pedantically, concepts) see that they refer not to several classes of fact at the same time but to one and only one. Corollary: Once you have chosen your words, always use the same words when referring to the same things.
  4. Cut down as far as you dare the number of things you are talking about. “As few as you may; as many as you must,” is the rule governing the number of classes of fact you take into account.
  5. Once you have started to talk, do not stop until you are finished. That is, describe systematically the relationships between the facts designated by your words.
  6. Recognize that your analysis must be abstract, because it deals with only a few elements of the concrete situation. Admit the dangers of abstraction, especially when action is required, but do not be afraid of abstraction.

Read the whole chapter (titled “Plans and Purposes”), it’s very insightful.

*** I might note that both of the above examples are void of considering the “sociology of knowledge”-related issues of theory building. So, for example, the results of theorizing should be counter-intuitive and “interesting” (for example, see this Davis 1971 piece), which goes counter to Homans first point. Etc. (Maybe a post on these issues later.)

Written by teppo

May 9, 2008 at 9:31 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Homan’s rules look good to me. I think our empirical results, not the results of theorizing, should be “interesting”, at least in the sense I think Teppo means it. Theories are conceptual frameworks that occasions (vaguely Kantian) intuitions, i.e., immediate cognitions in the face of sensible experiences (data). Theories just summarize intuitions.

    So our theorizing should always amount to a presumption of the familiar, the unremarkable. It is against our theories that our results become interesting. I’ll read Davis. He talks about the “audience”, but he demands that it find the theorizing (not the discoverin’) interesting. My view is that theory represents the expectations of the audience and that an “interesting theory” is therefore a contradiction in terms.

    That said, the empirical result that demands a modification of a familiar (“uninteresting” theory) in a sense implies a new theory (the modified one). It will be “interesting” in the relevant sense. But it won’t be a theory until its interest has, in that sense, passed.



    May 10, 2008 at 6:41 pm

  2. Rules 1-4 might as well be called “how not to write like Talcott Parsons.”



    May 11, 2008 at 1:37 pm

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