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Theory Construction in the Social Sciences. Alan Dennis November, 2011. Agenda. What is Theory What is Interesting Theory Variance Theory versus Process Theory A Process for Theory Construction Testing and Generalizing Theory. What is Theory.

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theory construction in the social sciences

Theory Constructionin the Social Sciences

Alan Dennis

November, 2011

  • What is Theory
  • What is Interesting Theory
  • Variance Theory versus Process Theory
  • A Process for Theory Construction
  • Testing and Generalizing Theory
what is theory
What is Theory

You say tomato, I say tomato

theory is
Theory is
    • the explanation of a relationship between two entities: why A influences B
    • Why do people adopt new technologies?
  • the explanation of factors underlying a specific phenomenon
    • Why was Windows Vista not widely adopted?
  • the explanation of a phenomenon
    • What does it mean to adopt a technology?

Abend, 2008

theory is5
Theory is
    • the explanation of theoretical meaning
    • What is Marxist theory?
  • an overall perspective of understanding
    • Technology can be thought of as a system of people and tools
  • and so on
  • For the purpose of this Workshop, I’ll use definition 1:
    • the explanation of a relationship between two entities:
    • why A influences B

Abend, 2008

components of a theory
Components of a Theory
  • What
    • the entities that comprise the relationship
  • How
    • the relationship(s) among the entities
  • Why
    • the underlying dynamics that link the entities
  • Who, Where, When
    • the boundary conditions to the relationship








Whetten, 1989

components of a theory7
Components of a Theory



Entity A

Entity B

Because …….

Who, Where, When


Boundary Conditions

Whetten, 1989

big t theory versus small t theory
Big T Theory versus small t theory
  • Big T Theories are given a name and usually have an acronym, written in capital letters
  • Little t theories explain a phenomenon within a smaller domain, often an empirical paper

Dennis and Valacich, 2001

what theory is not
What Theory is Not
  • References
  • Data
  • Variables and Constructs
  • Boxes and Arrows
  • Hypotheses
  • Theory is a story with a plot that
  • explains how and why the
  • characters (entities) interact
  • with each other

Sutton and Staw, 1995

is this theory
Is This Theory?

The intention to adopt a new technology has often been influenced by the perceived usefulness of that technology, the extent to which the technology can enable the user to accomplish a needed task. Venkatesh et al. (2003) conducted several experiments with undergraduate students and found that perceived usefulness had a significant positive impact on the intention to adopt. As perceived usefulness increased, so did the intention to adopt. This relationship has been observed in many other studies in a variety of experimental and organization settings (Morris, et al., 2000; Taylor and Todd, 2005; Venkatesh, et al. 2000). Therefore:

H1: The perceived usefulness of a technology has a direct positive relationship with the intention to adopt that technology

what is interesting theory
What is Interesting Theory

Don’t write to get published,

Write to get read and cited

upending conventional wisdom is interesting
Upending Conventional Wisdom is Interesting
  • Organization
    • Something that appears to be organized/chaotic isn’t
  • Stability
    • Something that appears to be stable/changing isn’t
  • Evaluation
    • Something that appears to be good/bad isn’t
  • Correlation
    • Two things that appear to be independent/related aren’t
  • Causation
    • The independent variable is the dependent variable

Davis, 1971

finding the essence is interesting
Finding the Essence is Interesting
  • Starting a New Research Stream
    • Studying the uncommon, but not the unnecessary
  • Formal Models
    • Translating behavior into math
  • Simplifying the Complex
    • The definition of a Nobel prize in physics is “Oh #$@!, why didn’t I think of that.”

Tesser, 2000

extending implications is interesting
Extending Implicationsis Interesting
  • Surprising Implications of the Obvious
    • When obvious truths leads to unexpected predictions
  • Implications of the Bizarre
    • When “impossible” beliefs are true
  • Look for paradox
  • Scientific discovery does not start with the word “Eureka”; it starts with the words “That’s funny.”

Tesser, 2000

which is interesting
Which is Interesting?
  • As perceived ease of use of a technology increases, so does the intention to adopt.
  • As Web sites get slower, Internet users search for more information.
  • Novice Internet users are more likely than experienced users to believe that Web sites presented first in a Google search are “better” than others in the list.
variance theory versus process theory
Variance Theory versus Process Theory

Every good variance theory has

a good process theory at its core

variance theory
Variance Theory

Variance theory strives to understand “What”

What entities explain the behavior of another entity?

What explains the variance in an entity’s behavior?

Variables with different attributes affect other variables

Often tested with quantitative data

Van de Ven, 2007

technology acceptance model is a variance theory
Technology Acceptance Model is a Variance Theory

Perceived Ease of Use

Intention to Adopt

Perceived Usefulness

process theory
Process Theory

Process theory strives to understand “How”

How do entities explain the behavior of another entity?

How do events explain the behavior of an entity?

Entities move through different stages at different times

Often tested with qualitative data

Van de Ven, 2007

roger s theory of adoption is a process theory
Roger’s Theory of Adoption is a Process Theory








a process for theory construction
A Process for Theory Construction

How to go from a blank page to a first draft

the rational model of science
The Rational Model of Science


is a waterfall model





Martin, 1982

the garbage can model of science
The Garbage Can Model of Science






Mine your Garbage Can

Martin, 1982

get the idea
Get “The Idea”

Prior Empirical


Prior Theoryin

Other Disciplines


The Idea


Prior Theory


Personal Experiences

Martin, 1982

define the idea
Define “The Idea”

The Idea


Title (the idea)

What is the problem or issue (why do I care)?

What are the key concepts (i.e., A and B)?

What is the Research Question (RQ)?

What answer do you expect to the RQ?

Why do you expect that answer?

What are the boundary conditions?

What are the methods?

How will the data answer the RQ?




Who, When,


How do I know what I think until I see what I write?

Van de Ven, 2007

write the idea
Write “The Idea”

The Idea


Title (1)


- Setting (7)

- Problem or Issue (2)

- What this paper does (4&9: RQ and its answer)

Prior Research and Theory

- Prior Research

- Hypothesis development

- Define concepts (3)

- State the relationship (5)

- Explain the relationship (6)

- State the hypothesis (4)

Methods (8)

refine the idea
Refine “The Idea”

Targeted Literature


The Idea


Thought Experiments

targeted literature search
Targeted Literature Search

Like Qualitative Research

Search for evidence to support or refute your idea

One hypothesis at a time

Code articles (at the paragraph level) that offer evidence about your idea

Both theoretical processes and data

Review the codings, change the categories, iterate

Multiple raters (authors) debate the evidence and change the idea

The Idea


thought experiments
Thought Experiments

Like Quantitative Research

Set up tests of your idea like experiments

Think about the manipulations

Run the experiment in your mind

Multiple raters (authors) debate the evidence and change the idea

The Idea


you can change your data
You Can Change Your “Data”

Literature searches and thought experiments guide your thinking, not dominate it.

If you don’t like what the literature tells you can change your “data.”

assess the idea
Assess “The Idea”
  • What’s New?
    • Value-added contribution to current thinking
  • So What?
    • Will this change research or practice?
  • Why So?
    • Is the underlying logic solid?
  • Well Done?
    • Is it complete and thorough?
  • Done Well?
    • Is it well written and understandable?

The Idea


Whetten, 1989

testing and generalizing theory
Testing and Generalizing Theory

Every research method

is critically flawed

the 3 horned dilemma
The 3-Horned Dilemma

Maximum Precision

Lab Experiments

Field Studies

Maximum Generalizability

Maximum Realism


McGrath, 1982


Setting 1

Setting 2







Setting 1

Setting 2







Draw Conclusions

Draw Conclusions

Lee and Baskerville, 2003

is science marketing
Is Science Marketing?

Publishing a theory is like marketing a new product

Find the message of the theory

Its unique selling proposition

Know the attributes that help sell a theory

Who developed it (halo effect)

Its origins (borrowed theory is easier to sell)

Simplicity sells faster than the complex

Consistency with current Zeitgeist

Test market the theory

With colleagues

At conferences

Peter and Olson, 1993


I teach BUS S798 on Theory Development

every Spring Semester, but I’m on sabbatical this spring, so it won’t be offered.


Abend, G. (2008) “The Meaning of They, Sociological Theory, 26:2, 173-199.

Davis, M. S. (1971) “That's Interesting: Toward a Phenomenology of Sociology and a Sociology of Phenomenonology,” Philosophy of Social Science,1, 309-344.

Dennis, A. R., and Valacich, J. S. (2001) “Conducting Experimental Research in Information Systems, Communications of the AIS, 7:5

Lee, Allen S.; Baskerville, Richard L.,(2003) “Generalizing Generalizability in Information Systems Research,” Information Systems Research, 14:3, 221-243.

Martin, J. (1982) "A Garbage Can Model of the Research Process," in J.E.McGrath (ed.) Judgment Calls in Research, Beverly Hills: Sage, pp. 17-39

McGrath, J.E. (1982) "Dilemmatics: The Study of Research Choices and Dilemmas," in J.E. McGrath (ed.) Judgment Calls in Research, Beverly Hills: Sage, pp. 69-80

Peter, J. P. and J. C. Olson, (1983) "Is Science Marketing?" Journal of Marketing, (47) pp. 111-125.

Sutton, R. I. And Staw, B. M. (1995) "What Theory is Not," Administrative Science Quarterly, (40), pp. 371-384.

Tesser, A. (2000) “Theories and Hypotheses,” in Sternberg, R. J. (ed) Guide to Publishing in the Psychology Journals, Cambridge University Press, 58-80.

Van de Ven, A. (2007) Engaged Scholarship, Oxford,

Whetten, D.A. (1989) “What Constitutes a Theoretical Contribution?” Academy of Management Review, (14), pp.490-495