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Theory: A Scientific Concept

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Social scientists invent concepts to help them study and systematically analyze phenomena. In other words, they invest a language to describe behavior. There are at least two important advantages of defining theoretical concepts – first, theories, researchers, and practitioners can agree on their meaning, and second, their abstractness enhances the development of generalizations. 



The posting below looks at the role of theories in the social sciences.  It is from Chapter 1 – The Nature of Research and Science, in the book, Quantitative Research in Education – A Primer, by Wayne K. Hoy and Curt M. Adams.  Published by Corwin, A SAGE Company, 2455 Teller Road, Thousand Oaks, California 91320, (800) 233-9936, Fax: (800) 417-2466 Copyright © 2016 Sage Publishing. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.



Rick Reis

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Theory: A Scientific Concept


Theory is one of those words that makes people uncomfortable, largely because of their misconceptions of the term. Much of the skepticism about theory is based on the assumption that education in general, and educational administration in particular, is art, not science, a skepticism that has plagued all social sciences. Theory in the natural sciences, on the other hand, has attained respectability not only because it necessarily involves precise description, but also because it describes ideal phenomena that “work” in practical applications.

Most people think that scientists deal with facts, whereas philosophers delve into theory. Indeed, to many individuals, including educators and educational administrators, facts and theories are antonyms; that is, facts are real and their meanings self-evident, whereas theories are speculations or dreams. Theory in education, however, has the same role as theory in physics, chemistry, biology, or psychology – that is, providing general explanations and guiding research.

Theory Defined

As the ultimate aim of science, theory has acquired a variety of definitions. Some early agreement, for example, emerged in the field of educational administration that the definition of theory produced by Herbert Feigl (1951) was an adequate starting point. Feigl defined theory as a set of assumptions from which a larger set of empirical laws can be derived by purely logico-mathematical procedures. Although there was much initial support for this definition, Donald Willower (1975) cautioned that Feigl’s definition was so rigorous as to exclude most theory in education and educational administration. A more general and useful definition for the social sciences was provided by Kerlinger (1986): “A theory is a set of interrelated constructs (concepts), definitions, and propositions that present a systematic view of phenomena by specifying relations among variables, with the purpose of explaining and predicting phenomena” (p. 9). Willower’s (1975) definition is more parsimonious: He defined theory simply as a body of interrelated, consistent generalizations that explain phenomena.

In the study of education, the following definition is useful: Theory is a set of interrelated concepts, definitions, assumptions, and generalizations that systematically describes and explains regularities in behavior in educational organizations. Moreover, hypotheses are derived from the theory to predict additional relations among the concepts.  When the hypotheses receive overwhelming empirical support, the accepted hypotheses become principles (Hoy & Miskel, 2013). This definition suggests three things:

1.     First, theory is logically composed of concepts, definitions, assumptions, and generalizations.

2.     Second, the major function of theory is to describe and explain – in fact, theory is a general explanation, which often leads to basic principles.

3.     Third, theory is heuristic because it stimulates and guides the further development of knowledge.

Theories are by nature general and abstract; they are not strictly true or false, but rather they are either useful or not useful. They are useful to the extent that they generate explanations that help us understand more easily. Albert Einstein, one of the greatest theorists of all times, and Leopold Infeld (Einstein & Infeld, 1966) capture the essence of theorizing in the following:

In our endeavor to understand reality we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. He sees the face and the moving hands, even hears it ticking, but he has no way of opening the case. If he is ingenious, he may form some picture of a mechanism, which could be responsible for all the things he observes, but he may never be quite sure his picture is the only one which could explain his observations. He will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism, and he cannot even imagine the possibility of the meaning of such a comparison. (p. 31)

In sum, theory is a special language that explains and helps us understand some phenomenon, for example, learning, motivation, or administration (Tosi, 2009). Just as with any language, theory has its vocabulary (concepts) and grammar (generalizations). Concepts are abstract words that are given specific definitions, which enable us to agree on the meaning of the terms. Words alone, however, are not sufficient to explain something. We need to know not only the meaning of the words, but also why and how they relate to each other.  In other words, we need to combine our concepts into coherent generalizations that indicate the relation between two or more concepts. For example, “division of labor produces specialization,” and “specialization creates expertise.” Note that these two theoretical generalizations each indicate the relation between two concepts, and together they yield an explanation of how expertise can be developed in organizations. In brief, theories provide explanations; they provide a coherent and connected story about why acts, events, and behavior occur (Higgins, 2004; McKinley, 2010).

Meaning of Reality

Reality exists, but our knowledge of it always remains elusive and uncertain. It should not be surprising that different individuals often draw different conclusions from the same perceptual experiences because they hold different theories that affect their interpretation of events (Carey & Smith, 1993). Our knowledge consists of our theories, but the form of the theory is less important than the degree to which it generates useful understanding; theory is judged by its utility.

The use of theory in organizational analysis seems indispensable to reflective practice. The beginning student of education may ask, “Do these theories and models really exist?” Our position is the same as Mintzberg’s (1989). The models, theories, and configurations used to describe organizations in this book are mere words and pictures on pages, not reality itself. Actual organizations are much more complex than any of these representations: In fact, our conceptual frameworks are simplifications of organizations that underscore some features and neglect others. Hence, they distort reality. The problem is that in many areas we cannot get by without theoretical guidance (implicit, if not explicit, theories), much as a traveler cannot effectively navigate unknown territory without a map.

Our choice is not usually between reality and theory, but rather between alternative theories. Mintzberg (1989) captures the dilemma nicely:

No one carries reality around in his or her head, no head is that big. Instead we carry around impressions of reality, which amount to implicit theories. Sometimes these are supplemented with explicit frameworks for identifying the concepts and interrelating them – in other words, with formal theories, built on systematic investigation known as research, or at least on systematic consideration of experience. In fact, some phenomena cannot be comprehended without such formal aid – how is one to develop an implicit theory of nuclear fission, for example? (p. 259)

In sum, we all use theories to guide our actions. Some are implicit, and others are explicit; in fact, many of our personal implicit theories are formal ones that have been internalized. To paraphrase John Maynard Keynes (1936), educators who believe themselves to be exempt from any theoretical influences are usually slaves of some defunct theory. Good theories and models exist; they exist where all useful knowledge must survive – in our minds.

Components of Theory

The nature of theory can be better understood by looking at the meanings of each of the components of theory and how they are related to one another.

Concepts and Constructs

The terms concept and construct are often used interchangeably. Sociologists are more apt to use concept, whereas psychologists typically favor the word construct. Both refer to a term that has been given an abstract, generalized meaning. A few examples of concepts in sociology are status, social system, stratification, social structure, and culture. Some constructs from psychology are motivation, ego, hostility, personality, and intelligence. In administration, our concepts or constructs include centralization, formalization, leadership, morale, and informal organization. Social scientists invent concepts to help them study and systematically analyze phenomena. In other words, they invest a language to describe behavior. There are at least two important advantages of defining theoretical concepts – first, theories, researchers, and practitioners can agree on their meaning, and second, their abstractness enhances the development of generalizations.

Although concepts are by definition abstract, there are different levels of abstraction. Examples of terms arranged along a concrete to abstract continuum are Jefferson Elementary School, school, service organization, organization, social system, and system. Each succeeding term is more general and abstract. Generally speaking, terms that are specific to a particular time or place are concrete and less useful in developing theories. The most useful concepts, generalizations, and theories in the social sciences are in the “middle range”; that is, they are somewhat limited in scope rather than all-embracing. For example, organizational theories are not attempts to summarize all we know about organizations; rather, they explain some of the consistencies found in organizations; in our case, schools are of particular interest.

A concept or construct can be defined in at least two ways. First, it may be defined in terms of other words or concepts. For instance, we might define permissiveness as the degree to which a teacher employs a relaxed mode of pupil control; that is, permissiveness is defined in terms of relaxedness, another term that we believe brings more clarity to the concept. Although this kind of definition often provides one with a better understanding of the term, it is inadequate from a scientific point of view. The researcher must be able to define the concept in measurable terms. A set of operations or behaviors that has been used to measure a concept is its operational definition. For example, an operational definition of permissiveness might be the number of hall passes a teacher issues per day. This definition is limited, clear, and concise. Permissiveness is the specific set of operations measured. The intelligence quotient (IQ) is the standard operational definition of intelligence, and leadership can be measured and operationalized using Bass’s Multi-factor Leadership Questionnaire (1998). Operationalism mandates that the procedures involved in the relation between the observer and the measures for observing be explicitly stated so that they can be duplicated by any other equally trained researcher (Dubin, 1969). Remember that objectivity is a pivotal part of science and research.

Assumptions and Generalizations

An assumption is a statement that is taken for granted or accepted as true. Assumptions accepted without proof are often, but not necessarily, self-evident. For example, consider the following assumptions:

1.     There is no one best way to teach.

2.     All ways of teaching are not equally effective.

The first assumption challenges the conventional idea that there are universal principles for effective teaching regardless of time or place. The second assumption challenges the notion that the complexity of teaching makes it futile to seek guiding principles. Now consider a third assumption:

3.     The best way to teach depends on the nature of the teaching task.

The third assumption posits that effective teaching is conditional; it depends on the nature of the teaching task. All these assumptions have been accepted as reasonable by various groups of people; in fact, there is evidence that all three assumptions might lead to an explanation of effective teaching.

A generalization is a statement or proposition that indicates the relation of two or more concepts or constructs. In other words, a generalization links concepts in a meaningful fashion. Many kinds of generalizations are found in theoretical formulations:

-       Assumptions are generalizations if they specify the relationship among two or more concepts.

-       Hypotheses are generalizations with limited empirical support.

-       Principles are generalizations with substantial empirical support.

-       Laws are generalizations with an overwhelming degree of empirical support (more than principles); there are few laws in the social sciences, but consider the law of supply and demand in economics.

The basic form of knowledge in all disciplines is similar; it consists of concepts or constructs, generalizations, and theories, each dependent on the one preceding it. Figure 1.1 summarizes the basic components of theory that are necessary for the development of knowledge. The figure shows that concepts are eventually linked together into generalizations that in turn form a logically consistent set of propositions providing a general explanation of a phenomenon (a theory). The theory is then empirically checked by the development and testing of hypotheses deduced from the theory. The results of the research then provide the data for accepting, rejecting, reformulating, or refining and clarifying the basic generalizations of the theory. Over time, with continued empirical support and evidence, the generalizations develop into principles that explain the phenomenon. In the case of organizational theory, principles are developed to explain the structure and dynamics of organizations and the role of the individual in organizations. Theory is both the beginning and the end of scientific research. It serves as the basis for generating hypotheses to test propositions that explain observable empirical phenomena, but in the end it also provides the general explanations and knowledge of a field.


Bass, B.M. (1998). Transformational leadership: Industrial, military, and educational impact. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Dubin, R. (1969). Theory building. New York, NY: Free Press.

Feigl, H. (1951). Principles and problems of theory construction in psychology. In W. Dennis (Ed.), Current trends in psychological theory (pp. 179-213). Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Higgins, E.T. (2004). Making theory useful: Lessons handed down. Personality and Psychology Review. 8, 138-145.

Hoy, W.K., & Miskel, C.G. (2013). Educational administration: Theory, research, and practice (9th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Kerlinger, F.N. (1986). Foundations of behavioral research (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Keynes, J.M. (1936). The general theory of employment, interest, and money. London, England: Macmillan Press.

McKinley, W. (2010). Organizational theory development: Displacement of end. Organizational Studies, 31, 47-68.

Mintzberg, H. (1989). Mintzberg on management. New York, NY: Free Press.

Tosi, H.L. (2009). Theories of  organization. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Willower, D.J. (1975). Theory in educational administration. Journal of Educational Administration, 13, 77-91.