The Study Dude – Theory Building in Applied Disciplines

How Nerds Build Theory

The Study Dude – Theory Building in Applied Disciplines

There is nothing more that The Study Dude wants for you than to build a theory on why your mother birthed such an impeccable human being.

Well, in these articles, as The Study Dude, I’ll try to give you the study tips you need to help make your learning easier. I’ll also give you straight and honest opinions and personal anecdotes?even the embarrassing ones that you wouldn’t ever dare read about from any other study tip guru.

This week’s Study Dude looks at a book called Theory Building in Applied Disciplines by Richard A. Swanson and Thomas J. Chermack. If books on building theory (such as books on what is called grounded theory) leave you stupefied, then Swanson and Chermack’s simplified book will get you back on course.

The Philosophical Roots of Theories
The philosophical frameworks behind theory can confuse even a coke-bottle-eyeglass wielding nerd such as myself. One of my biggest issues with graduate studies in general involved the lack of a decent paradigm for doing research. What do I mean by paradigm? Well, things like critical theory that look at oppression or positivist approaches that take up number-driven methods both qualify as types of paradigms. So, what was my issue with paradigms? My faculty, Communications and Culture, a number hating faculty, banned students from using quantitative methods. In this faculty, students study the evils of science. Math-ogyny (a word I coined to mean the hatred of numbers) proved difficult for me as I excelled in the math department prior to entering communications. My mathogynist communications supervisor fumed over my enrolment in a multiple linear regression course offered by an external department. Some communications professors seem to hate anything countable.

Another obstacle I faced with the available paradigms involved the short-comings of a popular one based on critical theory. My supervisor urged me to use critical theory in my thesis. Critical theory involves complaining about how oppressed I am as a minority. To succeed with critical theory, I needed to bash white middle class males and all of their institutions. Instead, I wanted to find a happy medium that looked at a favourable compromise for all parties involved. You would think any progressive university department would offer such a paradigm approach. Not so.

Swanson and Chermack talk about the various paradigms for theory building:
– The positivism paradigm serves as a quantitative approach where relationships between variables are stated and even measured. Hypotheses make this paradigm come alive. Positivism focuses on the objective or observable world. Methods used include statistical regression, grounded theory (a qualitative method), and surveys.
– The Interpretivist paradigm focuses on a social construction approach to theory building. This paradigm aims to describe and reveal patterns of meaning. Meaning can involve those things that groups view subjectively about the world around them, such as how a group perceives the media. Interpretivism deals with some quite abstract ideas about the meanings the groups give things. Interpretivist methods include grounded theory (once again!), observation, interviews, and analysis of communications. Sometimes, something called textual analysis appears as the chosen method. (I believe textual analysis is likely easier to do than it sounds. I know, I know, those dratted academics: they like their work to at least sound important.)
– The critical science paradigm involves the examining of oppression, exploitation, contradictions, and “disguised contradictions hidden by ideology” (p. 17)–those kinds of fun things. Critical science wants to shove the dominant ideologies out of the way in place of their own findings. Methods include field research, historical analysis, textual analysis, and deconstruction.

The Conceptualize Step of Theory Building: Three Ways to Do It
There are three key ways to conceptualize (in other words, come up with big ideas) when building a theory. One approach to building theory is the qualitative (non-numerical) approach. One methodology taken up by qualitative approaches is called grounded theory. In my own thesis, I used grounded theory, but poorly so. Nonetheless, I loved the freedom that Barney Glaser, one of grounded theory’s originators, provided in his books. Since Glaser invented grounded theory, researchers have made various spin-off approaches, many of which involving excruciating restrictions you must follow.

Not only did I enjoy using grounded theory, I also wanted to enjoy the freedom to explore a topic of epistemology?the study of knowledge. I also wanted to create theoretical models. I thought epistemology and modeling combined would lead me to come up with an original thesis. My grandiose ideas never manifested, however, and I ended up doing a half-hearted thesis on Suncor. Nothing original. No grand theory. Just Suncor.

Grounded theory is one methodology for theory building that takes up the qualitative approach. Swanson and Chermack talk about the three key approaches to building your pet theory:
– Quantitative (numerical) approaches can help you come up with patterns and relationships among big ideas (a process called “conceptualization”). Author Dubin (as cited in Swanson and Chermack, 2013) speaks of some steps that focus on theory conceptualization, or, in other words, on the discovery of big ideas and their relationships with one another–but in a specific context. A context could be, for instance, online universities in Canada (kind of like a demographic). A context just refers to the scope of what you are examining. But, back to Dubin, the steps for conceptualizing he focuses on include (1) creating the ideas you will use, (2) finding relationships among these ideas, (3) defining your context, (4) figuring out the different situations in which the theory works, (5) saying how the theory should work if it is to work well, (6) show how your ideas and their relationships (in the theory) can be measured and then tested, (7) make your own hypothesis that can be tested, and (8) delve into the research that will help you figure out how to predict and measures the relationships among your big ideas. Enough said! (Other quantitative (numercial) approaches are outlined in Swanson and Chermack’s book, but I’ll stop here for simplicity sake.)
– Qualitative approaches include Storberg-Walker’s Five-Component Approach (as cited in Swanson and Chermack, 2013). There are, well, five steps to the five component approach: (1) look at different ways to theory build, (2) find a way to get over the hump of opposing paradigmatic views, (3) figure out how to work with different theory building methods, (4) find the best fit of methods, and (5) take your big ideas and relationships and turn them into a visual model. So, what does that mean in practice? Truly, I haven’t a clue.
– Qualitative approaches also include Weick’s Theorizing as Disciplined Imagination (as cited in Swanson and Chermack, 2013). This approach allows for lots of creativity. For instance, you can use what are called thought trials (that help you to look at a problem differently) to shape your research. You can use your personal experiences and your assumptions to shape your research. But, be sure to let your audience know what your biases are, as biases shape your conceptualizing in unique ways.

The Fun Part: Tools for Getting Started Building Your Own Theory
Fun little exercises can help you begin building theory. One such exercise involves looking at what are called outliers. Outliers consist of the people, events, and places that defy logic. When the sheep roam, at least one will go off the beaten track. Another example of an outlier includes discovering a homeless person who travels to Hawaii for three months of every year. Does such a person exist? Perhaps not, but if you know someone who doesn’t fit the mould or if you don’t fit the mould, then you’ve got an interesting outlier?and, better yet, a fascinating theory to build.

Outliers serve as one of many tools for theory building. Swanson and Chermack present over twenty different tools for getting started building your own theory. These authors simplify the tools and make getting started with theory building easy and fun. Here are some of my favourite tools in Chermack and Swanson’s book for getting ideas for the theory you are destined to build:
– Look at your own life. Have you come across something or someone who defied expectations, either for better or worse? These defiant people or things, otherwise known as “outliers” make for good things to study and build your theory around.
– Take a particular company, person, event, thing, or whatever (referred to as a “case”) and examine it. There might be something particularly revealing about the case. Study it. You might also want to limit your context or, on the other extreme, broaden your context by exploring additional cases. In the case of broadening your context, just one company examined might not represent every company. In other words, the theory that you come up on that one company may not apply to any other company out there, which is not very useful in the grand scheme of things.
– Take some research study that had been done, and change up the variables: this is an example of a thought experiment
– If you have an artsy flair, make some visuals or graphics that you think characterize the problem you want to look at. This creative stuff can give you ideas that you can build your theory on. You can even design models as crazy as a four-headed monster where each head represents a company issue and the monster’s body represents, say, the general office politics.
– Take a problem and simplify it or make it more interesting through metaphors and analogies. For instance, if describing a corporate deficit, find a metaphor like accidentally hammering your thumb to relate it to. You could draw a model with a hammer slamming on a thumb, with the four remaining fingers unharmed. Now, I know?That’s a reach?but I need a good several hours to come up with a particularly compelling metaphor. A good metaphor, however, can give you new ideas for going to work on building your theory with.
– Take the problem that you are studying, and look at it from the opposite point-of-view. Just take the exact opposite scenario. If you are studying homeless people without jobs, think the opposite: homeless people who are CEOs. Sound reasonable? No? Well, okay, It’s another reach, but it can give you ideas for building your theory. Besides, under what circumstances would a CEO end up homeless? Got you thinking?
– Focus on how things work and/or the ideas behind these things.
– Ask your grandma and other people who haven’t a clue about your problem what they think. You can get some aha! moments if you dig deep enough.
– If something is already known, try taking it to the extreme. For instance, if it is known that resilient people worry less, think about resilient people who claim to have never once worried or think about resilient people who worry 24-7.
– Read biographies and other books that don’t fit into your research specialty. You might come up with an interesting problem in these books to build a theory on. Reading bios never gave me any theory-building ideas, but, hey, I wasn’t looking for any.
– What are you passionate about? Make that the focus of your research study. Are you passionate about theory building? Then make a theory about theory building, or a theory about a theory about theory building. What kind of four-headed monster do you stand to model?

So, there’s nothing to fear. The Study Dude is determined to make right for you all the wrongs I made in grad school?one A+ at a time.

References
Swanson, Richard A. & Chermack, Thomas J. Theory Building In Applied Disciplines. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

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