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The Role of Theory. Jean Hillier GURU, Newcastle University AESOP PhD Workshop 2010. Introduction – which approach could I use? inductive/deductive/reproductive/adductive Illustrations – r etroductive d eductive Conclusions. Which Approach is Good for Me?.

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The role of theory l.jpg
The Role of Theory

Jean Hillier

GURU, Newcastle University

AESOP PhD Workshop 2010

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Which approach is good for me l.jpg
Which Approach is Good for Me?

Reasons for doing the research:

  • exploration 

  • description 

  • explanation 

  • prediction 

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Four Possible Approaches

  • inductive

  • deductive

  • retroductive 

  • abductive 

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Inductive Research

Research comes before Theory

unordered 'facts'



ordered facts



theory construction

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Deductive Research

Theory comes before Research

Research ‘tests’ the Theory

a priori model

or theory

data collection

testing of theory

modification of theory

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Retroductive Research

Theory comes before Research

Does a structure/process operate in the way theory suggests?

a priori model

or theory

data collection/

case study

critical analysis of

case study data

explanation of case study

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Abductive Research

Research comes before Theory

Starts from the social world of the ‘actant’

unordered data

subjective interpretation

of data

thematic categorisation

theory construction

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A Retroductive Example:Actor/Actant-Network Theory


  • incorporation – actors join and are woven into networks;

  • interessement – actors exert influence over others via persuasion that their position is best;

  • enrolment – actors lock others into their definitions;

  • mobilisation – the actor now speaks for the others

    Intermediaries: human, non-human

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A Deductive Example:Habermas' Communicative Action

  • interpersonal linguistic communication

  • mutual understanding

  • rational consensus

    'rules' of discussion:

  • all actors are allowed to participate;

  • all actors are allowed to introduce ideas into discussion;

  • all actors are allowed to question others.

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The Ideal Speech Situation:

all participants must speak

  • truthfully

  • comprehensibly

  • sincerely

  • legitimately

    Systematically Distorted Communication

    False consensus

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Conclusions (1)

What strategy you use will depend on:

  • whether you want to apply existing theory or develop new theory.

  • whether you want to test a theory using empirical data?

  • whether you want to examine data or a case study using a theoretical frame?

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Conclusions (2)

  • Select your theory carefully

    • What do you want to analyse?

    • If social institutions – think about Healey etc

    • If power – think about ANT, Foucault, Habermas etc

    • If ideology – think about liberalism, utilitarianism, Marxism etc etc

    • If relationality – think about Healey, Deleuze etc

      If in doubt, ASK!!

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‘what we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning’

(Heisenberg, cited in Capra, 1996: 40)

  • Methods PERFORM – they help to produce the realities they describe.

  • Different theoretical frames lead to different questions lead to different realities being interpreted.

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Key References

Blakie N. 2000 Designing Social Research,

Polity, Cambridge. [nb chapters 4 & 5]

Punch K. 2000 Designing Effective Research Proposals, Sage, London.

Punch K. 2005 Introduction to Social Research, Sage, London.