Theses and Dissertations: A Guide to Planning, Research, and Writing

By R. Murray Thomas; Dale L. Brubaker | Go to book overview

Chapter 5
Building and Adapting Theories

"As an important part of my project, I'd really like to devise a theory, or at least I'd like to adapt one, but I don't know how to go about it."

As already noted, the word theory, as we use it throughout this book, is a proposal about (a) what variables are important for understanding some phenomenon and (b) how those variables are related to each other. In previous chapters we have distinguished between (a) classification systems and (b) theories that involve propositions about what causes events to turn out as they do. However, in the present chapter we subsume both of those matters under the topic building and adapting theories and then differentiate between the two by calling the former classificatory theories and the latter explanatory theories. The two can be considered theoretical matters because both fit our generic definition. Each concerns variables important for understanding some phenomenon, and each proposes how those variables relate to each other. However, the two have different functions, as reflected in the second part of the definition--how variables relate to each other. Classificatory theories (classification systems, typologies, taxonomies) consist of categories into which phenomena (people, institutions, events) can be placed so their likenesses and differences can be compared and contrasted. Explanatory theories consist of proposals about how phenomena interact to produce an observed outcome. Thus, classificatory schemes emphasize comparison, while explanatory schemes emphasize cause. You may wish to create a new--or to revise an existing--classificatory or explanatory theory as part of your thesis or dissertation. Your theory may even be the central focus of the project.

The fourfold purpose of this chapter is to suggest (a) how to identify the need for a new or revised theory, (b) how to devise a classificatory theory, (c) how to devise an explanatory theory, and (d) how to revise an existing theory.

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