Developing Theory Through Qualitative Inquiry

Theory is a ubiquitous but sometimes elusive term in research and scholarship. Methodological writers rarely define theory explicitly, nor do they provide specific examples of theories. This one-day course presents a primer on the fundamentals of theory development and its constituent elements; offers concrete examples of theories from various disciplines; 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, in traditional social science, is a research-based statement with six properties and an accompanying explicating narrative. A theory, most often:

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

Most theories will overtly include at least three to four of six properties, while the other two to three may be implied or inferred.

A few examples of 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 course will provide participants exercises in concept construction, theory development, and theory assessment. Course content is derived from Saldaña & Omasta’s Qualitative Research: Analyzing Life (2nd edition, 2022, Sage Publishing) and Saldaña’s forthcoming text, Developing Theory Through Qualitative Inquiry (2024, Sage Publishing).