The Study Dude – How Nerds Can Turn Ideas Into Theory, Part II

Study Tips from a Semi-Anonymous Friend

There is nothing more that The Study Dude wants for you than to examine your passion, find the big ideas that define your passion, and connect those ideas. There you have it: the endpoint of novice theorists. But we have high hopes for you: You will take it to the next level by pulling out your measuring tools. Yes, It’s as simple as that. Well, almost.

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 fills in the blanks of two phases of theory building, which are called the conceptualize phase and the operationalize phase (in other words, the first two steps of theory building). These phases are modeled and outlined in the simple-to-understand book Theory Building in Applied Disciplines by Richard A. Swanson and Thomas J. Chermack. If you like to build stuff (like I do!), then these guys will make building theory as simple as hammering cardboard.

Sometimes Big Ideas Are All That Theorists Propose: You Can Do Better!
Thinking about a problem, figuring out its big ideas, finding relationships, and crafting a model underlie the conceptualization phase of theory building (the first phase).

Just to sidetrack for a moment, your jaw may drop at some of the great philosophers? big ideas. How could you not sigh and wonder at the big ideas of Nietzsche? How could you not “ooh” and “ah” at the ponderings of Plato? When you heard “I think; therefore, I am” did you not wonder how such greatness could possibly be matched in all of human history?

Well, these philosopher guys came up with a lot of big ideas, but they left them at that: ideas. What they left out included ways to measure and test and apply and refine their big ideas–ways to turn them into robust theories. Of course, not all of the philosophers did this, but you get the idea. Their theories could have been made even better if they made the next step and made them measurable.

But many theorists stop at the conceptualizing phase (i.e., finding big ideas and their relationships to one another), according to Swanson and Chermack. That’s the easy way out, failing to measure your big ideas. So, if you want to scour the literature for, say, seven big ideas that seem to cover the scope of your passion, and stop there, then go ahead. Find how these ideas are related to one another, although if you don’t find a relationship, then don’t worry: other theorists sometimes don’t have a clue how their ideas are related.

When you have your big ideas together, and you have their relationships spelled out, then make a drawing or a chart or a mind-map or whatever works for you that visually links them together. But, to make it a “good” theory, you will need to take your big ideas and their relationships to one another to the next step: you will need to find ways to measure the relationships.

For now, let’s stick with the first stage: the conceptualize phase where you gather your big ideas and determine their relationships to one another?and see what Swanson and Chermack have to say about it:
– Your big idea has the potential to turn into a theory, but you need to groom it in order for it to be considered theory. don’t leave your theory untested. Instead, test your theory through methods such as interviews, surveys, and experiments. [But, those methods come to play in next week’s Study Dude article.]
– Find the big ideas that cover the scope of what you are examining by peering at the literature. Then determine how these big ideas link together if possible.
– Start your theory building with a useful problem. What do you want to solve? Alternatively, you could start your theory building with some theory you’ve come across that you think lacks substance. You could take that theory and make it better. As yet another alternative, you could examine new things that people are up to, such as social media. New technologies, new societal values, unusual cases, and new social circumstances beg for new theory. Keep your eye out for some juicy opportunity to flex your theorizing muscles.
– There exist at least four methods for coming up with big ideas (in the conceptualize phase of theory building): (1) a quantitative method, (2) grounded theory, (3) social constructivism, and (4) case-studies. They all pretty much boil down to finding big ideas and their relationships and outlining the scope of what you want to study (for instance, the scope could refer to an international corporation versus a mom-and-pop shop).
– Start by identifying your big ideas. To get these ideas, talk to experts, read journal articles, look at problems that arise in practice. Then organize your ideas to find relationships among them. Use sticky notes to organize your ideas

Once you find relationships between your big ideas, you can build a model. Models are typically visual representations of the big ideas. Models need to show all the relationships and all of the big ideas, of course. A model could be as simple as a chair with three legs on a mat, with each leg representing a big idea. The seat could represent the major overarching idea and the matt could represent the supporting idea.

Got Your Big Ideas? Prepare to Measure Them.
Finding ways to measure ideas is part of the operationalizing phase (the second phase) of theory building. This is the phase where you get to think about how you are going to measure your big ideas in your theory.

In a future article for the Study Dude, I plan on devouring a book on measuring tools and instruments for the sciences. Yes, I’m going to awaken you to some amazing devices for getting your big ideas pulled together into some model that can be measured.

Why do measuring tools excite me so much? I once became fascinated with a concept called parallax?so fascinated that it stirred my passions to a lifetime high. I wanted to measure how the world moves in unexpected ways, how still trees and light posts actually move in surprising ways whenever we move. It sounds bizarre until you actually start paying attention to the phenomena.

Ever since my fascination with parallax climaxed, I wanted to figure out a way to start measuring the phenomena. So, these Study Dude articles give me an opportunity to begin thinking of ways to measure the parallax phenomenon?and maybe even one day build a measuring instrument or even a theory.

But, that would take years and years of study, and I’m not sure I’m up to the task, but my view is, if we have some sort of distant goal, just keep working toward it, however small the steps. One day we might just bump into our final destination and everything will gel. The effectiveness of gradual but daily progress gives rise to the tale of the tortoise and the hare. Slow but persistent progress ultimately leads to opportunities.

I also read in Gail Wagnild’s book True Resilience that she crafted her own instrument (a survey) that measures resilience just by interviewing lots and lots of resilient people?and placing tidbits of their quotes exactly as they said it into her instrument. Can it get any easier than that? Sure, sure, it takes a lot of work studying the literature to ensure you don’t miss anything, and then you need to study other available instruments, and then you need to interview hundreds of people–but you end up making your own instrument to measure your own big ideas. What could possibly be cooler than building your own instrument?
Swanson and Chermack get into the meat and potatoes of the operationalize phase:
– In the operationalize phase, you make your ideas measurable. This phase sets up the theory for the next phase (in next week’s article) where you actually test?actually measure?the ideas in the theory.
– Relationships and ideas need to be turned into things we can test.
– You will need to get instruments, methods, and scales that can measure your big ideas. Your instruments can be surveys that people fill out on their own, like the Resilience Scale to measure resilience, for instance.
– You base the operationalize phase on the big ideas, the relationships between the big ideas, and the models that come from the conceptualization phase above.
– Case studies and grounded theory work well for building theory that uses mixed methods (mixed methods involves the use of both quantitative and qualitative methods).
– Some excellent methods for qualitative method building include “grounded theory, social construction, phenomenology, and some case studies” (p. 80).

Your Truth Statements, Your Measuring Tools, Your Research Questions: Now You’re Ready!
This stage sounds harder than it really is. Trust me. This stuff is just part of the operationalize phase above, and it gets pretty exciting.

When you make a truth statement, you are saying that as one thing changes (goes up or down), another thing changes, too (goes up or down, gets better or worse, etcetera). Your measuring tool will just confirm whether the relationship holds, and your research question will generalize the relationship in the form of a question.

You have to take all?yes, all?of the big ideas in your conceptual phase and measure them to see if their relationships to one another or to the central idea hold.

For instance, if you are studying crammers, you might ask “How do adrenaline highs play into cramming?” as one of your questions. You might find that, if adrenaline addiction and cramming are positively correlated, the more adrenaline you crave, the more likely you are to cram.

But, the fun part of this hypothetical study on cramming involves your digging through the research trying to find an instrument that measures adrenaline addiction. If you can find an instrument (a survey, an experiment?anything!) that is useful, simple, and appropriate, you are all set to use it to measure how addicted to adrenaline someone is.

But, if you can’t find an instrument, then you need to develop one on your own, which might take years and years. But, hey?you will be the first to create an instrument on that particular domain. Wouldn’t that accomplishment?you, creating an instrument?look awesome highlighted in bold on your resume?

Swanson and Chermack make this part of the operationalize phase seem as easy as telling your grandma about the olden days:
– Propose some truth statement for your big ideas, such as “If cramming and adrenaline addiction are positively related, the more you are addicted to adrenaline, the more frequently you will cram.”
– Measure your ideas with an instrument, such as a tried-and-trued survey that scholars respect. The surveys can measure to what degree you are addicted to adrenaline, for instance: one step in measuring your variable.
– Then make a hypothesis, or list some research questions. Your research questions could be general, such as “How does adrenaline addiction impact cramming?” You need to have a question for all of your big ideas. For instance, if time constraints (another big idea in your theory on cramming) also leads to cramming, you could find some instrument to measure whether increased time constraints lead to higher levels of cramming.
– If you can’t find instruments with which to measure your truth statements, then make your own.
– If you are using a qualitative method, make sure your truth statements (propositions) or hypotheses are falsifiable. For instance, makes sure you word your truth statements (propositions) such that one instance that doesn’t confirm your findings falsifies your theory. For example, you could say that increased time constraints leads to increased cramming. But you’ll need to define what you mean by “cramming.” If putting off your studies for a read of The Study Dude is cramming, well, then cramming might be healthy for your overall GPA.

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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