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What is Theory?

Theory is NOT:

Correlation
Description
Interpretation
Absence of data
Ideology

Theory IS:

A general, abstract explanation

Theories simplify reality

The world is complex


Theories tell us what to pay
attention to

Theories have empirical


implications

Assume the existence of a real world

Aim to increase understanding, not to


accomplish political, moral, or social
ends

Have empirical implications

If X, then Y, where X and Y are


observables

Social theories

Explain social rather than


individual outcomes

We are interested in explaining the


behavior of social systems rather
than of individuals

Social theories

Are composed of

Causal relations
Causal mechanisms

Causal Relations

The outcome

The thing you are trying to explain


Also called

Dependent variable
Effect

Causal Relations, contd

The cause

A factor such that change in it is


associated with change in the
outcome
Also called

Independent variable

Causal Relations, contd

So, X causes Y if by modifying X,


one can affect Y

An explanation includes an assertion


of such a causal relation

Causal Mechanisms

The link between the cause and


the outcome

In other words, the process through


which the cause leads to the outcome

We will say more about this later

How do we know which


theory is best?

Empirical evidence

Theories produce empirical


predictions about how change in a
causal variable will affect an outcome
variable
These predictions are called
hypotheses

Example: Durkheims theory


of suicide

The level of individualism in a group


affects the rate of suicide in the group
Individualism a cause

The degree to which individual activities are


controlled by individuals themselves rather
than by others

Suicide rate an outcome

Some countries/groups have a low rate;


others a relatively high one

Empirical implications

If Protestants are more individualistic


than Catholics

Then Protestants in France will have


higher suicide rates than Catholics in
France

If unmarried men are more


individualistic than married men

Then unmarried men will have a higher


rate of suicide than married men

Empirical implications,
contd

To determine whether the


predictions are supported by the
data, we must pay attention to
three things:

Correlation
Causal Order
Spuriousness

Correlation

A change in X is associated with a


change in outcome Y

Causal order

The cause must occur before the


effect

It is possible to change the value of the


dependent variable by changing the
causal variable
In other words, if you change X, Y will
change
Cause
(x)

Outcome
(Y)

Non-spuriousness

To infer causality, all possible


spurious causes of Y (the
dependent variable) must be ruled
out

That is, the researcher must


determine that a third variable is not
responsible for the observed relation
between X and Y

Example: The Protestant


Ethic

Max Weber noted that the initial


geographic distribution of European
industrial capitalism seemed correlated
with the % of Protestants in a country

Protestantism industrial capitalism

Possible spurious causes

Perhaps countries with large coal reserves


tended to be Protestant
If coal reserves industrial capitalism, then
Protestantism is a spurious relation

Example The Protestant


Ethic

Protestantis
m

Capitalism

Coal
Reserves

Assessing theories

If the theoretical predictions are


consistent with what we observe,
then we have more confidence in
the theory

Caveats

Very few classical theories live up


to these expectations

They do not always explicitly


articulate causal relations and causal
mechanisms

Not many contemporary ones do,


either

Theories are imperfect

Theories simplify reality

Theories must omit much, must


overemphasize much

Hence, all theories are imperfect

How to choose between rival


theories?

Ultimate criterion: empirical


adequacy

The best theory is the one that is


most consistent with observable
empirical phenomena