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1 - Promises and Pitfalls of Theory

from Part I - From Idea to Reality: The Basics of Research

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 May 2023

Austin Lee Nichols
Central European University, Vienna
John Edlund
Rochester Institute of Technology, New York
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We present an overview of the role, benefits, and drawbacks of theory in scientific research, particularly in the social and behavioral sciences. We discuss what theory is and what it is not. We also focus on some key elements of theory such as its ability to explain phenomena at multiple parallel levels of analysis. Evolutionary theory is offered as an example that illustrates the importance of conceptual integration across different disciplines. We further describe the key characteristics of good theories, such as parsimony, depth, breadth, and coherence (both internal and external), and we encourage the use of “coherence stress-tests” to help refine theory. We then discuss 4 advantages and 10 disadvantages of using theory in social and behavioral science research. Finally, we suggest conceptual tools and provide a list of recommendations for theory-driven research. We hope this chapter will help in the complex pursuit of improving research practices in the social and behavioral sciences.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2023

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