Definition of a Theory in Quantitative Research

Definition of a Theory in Quantitative Research A theory in quantitative research is an interrelated set of constructs (or variables) formed into propositions, or hypotheses, that specifies the relationship among variables (typically in terms of magni­tude or direction).

A theory might appear in a research study as an argu­ment, a discussion, a figure, or a rationale, and it helps to explain (or predict) phenomena that occur in the world. Labovitz and Hagedorn (1971) added to this definition the idea of a theoretical rationale, which they defined as “specifying how and why the variables and relational statements are interrelated" (p. 17). Why would an independent variable, X, influence or affect a dependent variable, Y? The theory would provide the explana­tion for this expectation or prediction.

A discussion about this theory would appear in a section of a proposal on the literature review or in a separate section called the theory base, the theoretical rationale, or the theoretical perspective. I prefer the term theoretical perspective because it has been popularly used as a required section for proposals for research when one submits an application to present a paper at the American Educational Research Association conference.

The metaphor of a rainbow can help to visualize how a theory operates. Assume that the rainbow bridges the independent and dependent variables (or constructs) in a study. This rainbow ties together the variables and pro¬vides an overarching explanation for how and why one would expect the independent variable to explain or predict the dependent variable.

Theories develop when researchers test a prediction over and over. For example, here is how the process of developing a theory works. Investigators combine inde­pendent. mediating, and dependent variables into questions based on differ­ent forms of measures. 1 these questions provide information about the type of relationship (positive, negative, or unknown) and its magnitude (e.g., high or low).

Forming this information into a predictive statement (hypothesis), a researcher might write, The greater the centralization of power in leaders, the greater the disenfranchisement of the followers." When researchers test hypotheses such as this over and over in different settings and with different populations (e.g., the Boy Scouts, a Presbyterian church, the Rotary Club, and a group of high school students), a theory emerges, and someone gives it a name (e.g.. a theory of attribution).

Another aspect of theories is that they vary in their breadth of coverage. Neuman (2009) reviewed theories at three levels: (a) micro-level, (b) meso- t vt . and (c) macro-level. Micro-level theories provide explanations limited to small slices of time, space, or numbers of people, such as Goffman’s Theory o ace work, which explains how people engage in rituals during lace-to-face interactions.

Meso-level theories link the micro and macro levels. These are theories of organizations, social movement, or communi­ties, such as Collins’s theory of control in organizations. Macro-level theo­ries explain larger aggregates, such as social institutions, cultural systems, and whole societies. Lenski’s macro-level theory of social stratification, for example, explains how the amount of surplus a society produces increases with the development of the society.

Theories are found in the social science disciplines of psychology, sociol­ogy, anthropology, education, and economics, as well as within many sub­fields. To locate and read about these theories requires searching literature databases (e.g., Psychological Abstracts, Sociological Abstracts) or reviewing guides to the literature about theories (e.g., see Webb, Beals. & White. 1986). 

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