Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Explaining Theory

The Hot Spot Theory of the Hawaiian islands seems like a good way to understand theory. No one has found a better explanation for the creation of this island chain, so the hot spot theory remains the generally accepted explanation for this particular natural process. The theory cannot be empirically proven at this time, although it is a reasonable and agreed upon explanation; it works to explain other associated phenomena and it is in agreement with other theories in earth science (Maxwell & Mittapalli, 2008). When scientists explore associated phenomena, they choose an approach that utilizes the theory as a central premise in their inquiry. Additionally, the theory can function as a lens through which other phenomena are explored and understood. It may inform the questions scientists ask as well as how they collect their information (Creswell, 2009a).

In scientific research, a theory is a system that explains phenomena that are not empirically proven, but provide a parameter by which to understand how and why phenomena take place (Foy et al., 2011). A theory can be foundational in research design when used as a paradigm or a series of sequential (if-then) statements (Creswell, 2009b). It may function as a scientific world view, of sorts, a binding force that provides a basis for understanding, or it may facilitate or provoke the emergence of new knowledge (Laureate Education, Inc., 2009). Foundational theories may be used as a basis for a hypotheses, in the revision of an established theory, to provide additional support for a theory or to generate new theory. When creating a hypothesis for research, theory may be used as a fundamental starting point (Creswell, 2009a; Laureate Education, Inc., 2009).

To facilitate the broad range of research goals, theory is used in a variety of ways, depending on the scope of research (Creswell, 2009b). For example, in a quantitative study, theory may be the basis of a prediction or an explanation about interactions or associations (Creswell, 2009a). Theory can be expanded upon or disproven, depending on the focus of the research. Utilizing deduction or deductive theory, researchers might explain established associations or whether a theory works in a variety of circumstances (Shank, 2008). Using established assessment techniques or instruments, deductive theory will determine whether one plus one still equals two in a setting different from the original one Creswell, 2009a).

In qualitative research, theory can inform the basis of study. For example, if I were to study the psychological effects of online support groups for battered women, I might use Eysenbach's (2004) idea that the effects of online support groups were not of significant value. I may use that information as a starting point for my research and either support those findings or replace it with more accurate information based on my observations, in effect, generating new meaning or new theory. Inductive theory is used when researchers make observations (about human nature), then generate a theory based on universalities discovered in their observations (Creswell, 2009a, 2009b; Fox, 2008). On the contrary, a researcher may not use a theoretical lens or any theoretical device in a qualitative study (Creswell, 2009a).

In mixed methods, theory can be used deductively or inductively, depending on the goal and focus of the study. Mixed methods can test theories, discover new theories, or use theories as a central theme in a study (Creswell, 2009b). Creswell (2009a) notes that contemporary studies use a theoretical standpoint to better explain diverse contexts in both qualitative and quantitative designs. Mixed methods integrates both approaches in scientific inquiry, proving that either method can inform the other and together they may function as integral in a study design (Creswell, 2009b).

Theory is a central and "inescapable component" (para. 2) of research (Maxwell & Mittapalli, 2008). It functions in a variety of roles, but is always a binding force that connects the components of a study. Further, it is the basis for selecting the most appropriate research approach


Creswell, J. (2009a). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Creswell, J. W. (2009b). Chapter three: The use of theory [PPT]. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Fox, N. (2008). Induction. In Lisa M. Given (Ed.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods. (pp. 430-431). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781412963909.n212

Foy, R., Ovretveit, J., Shekelle, P. G., Pronovost, P. J., Taylor, S. L., Dy, S., ... Wachter, R. M. (2011). The role of theory in research to develop and evaluate the implementation of patient safety practices. 2011 May;20(5):453-9, 20(5), 453-459. doi: 10.1136/bmjqs.2010.047993

Laureate Education, Inc. (Executive Producer). (2009). Theory. Baltimore: Author.

Maxwell, J., & Mittapalli, K. (2008). Theory. In Lisa M. Given (Ed.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods. (pp. 877-881). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781412963909.n457

Shank, G. (2008). Deduction. In Lisa M. Given (Ed.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods. (pp. 208-209). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781412963909.n105

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