Developing Qualitative Social Science Theory

Theory is a ubiquitous but sometimes elusive term in the social sciences. Methodological writers rarely define theory explicitly, nor do they provide specific examples of theories. This workshop presents a primer on the fundamentals of theory construction and its constituent elements; offers concrete examples of social science theories; and includes exercises in theory development.

Philosopher Karl Popper evocatively proposed that “Theories are nets cast to catch what we call ‘the world’: to rationalize, to explain, and to master it.” In more practical terms, Kathryn Roulston elegantly explains that “Theories are simply statements that explain how concepts connect with one another. Theories tell us something about the way things work and how things happen.” Saldaña extracts from the literature that a theory, most often, is a research-based statement with an accompanying explanatory narrative that contains and/or implies the following six properties; it

1. expresses a patterned relationship between two or more concepts;
2. predicts and manages action through propositional logic;
3. accounts for parameters of or variation in the empirical observations;
4. explains how and/or why something happens by stating its cause(s);
5. suggests generalizability and/or transferability to related social contexts; and
6. provides insights and guidance for improving social life.

A few examples of social science theories are: “Friends are defined by shared psychological intimacies” (Sarah Riley & Sally Wiggins); “Where there is power, there is resistance” (Michel Foucault); and “When labor is organized to maximize efficiency, productivity, and profit, there is a negative outcome for the workers” (Harry Braverman).

This workshop will present the fundamentals of social science theory, and provide participants exercises in concept construction, theory development, and theory assessment.