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17 Apr 2019

Sorting Through the Pile: The Helpfulness of Theory in Research

When I was an undergraduate student, I had little interest in the role of theory in research. Honestly, it felt like a waste of time. Theory seemed like a bunch of old thoughts, all proclaiming obvious things about human experiences. “Yes, of course stress can lead to crisis,” I would think. “Why does anyone need to make a ‘Family Stress Theory’ to describe something so basic?” However, over time I have grown to see the invaluable utility of theory and its application to scientific study. Here, I will discuss the importance of theory because of its commonality in human experience and the power of theory to organize, explain, and predict phenomena.

Theory development and application are nearly universal human experiences. People have been developing formal and informal theories about life for virtually all of recorded history. Consider the old adage: “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Essentially, this statement is a theory about where fires can be regularly located. Consider how the originators of this statement may have developed this expectation about the correlation between smoke and fire. Evidence was acquired: “I see smoke over there.” This evidence was blended with other observations: “Every time I see smoke, there has been some kind of fire.” Theory was developed from these observations: “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” This is a simple illustration, but the point is that theory development is ingrained in human experience. We want to understand the world, and theory aids us in that understanding by providing a mental framework to organize evidence and use that evidence to explain and predict phenomena.

One of the primary ways that theory assists with understanding is by providing a frame or map to organize available data. Imagine you are going to a department store to buy a new set of pajamas. Unfortunately, when you get to the store you are dismayed to see that all of the clothes, shoes, jewelry, and appliances have been thrown into a large pile in the middle of the floor. Instead of trying to dig through the pile, you decide to try a different store. There, you find that all of the items have been neatly organized by sex, age, and type. As a result, it is easy to navigate the clothing sections and find your new favorite pair of pajamas! This is similar to the organizational clarity that theory provides academic research. Theory groups information in a systematic, understandable way. When new information is generated about a topic, it can be organized into its appropriate theoretical category to assist with understanding the phenomena as a whole. Additionally, aspects of the topic can be further clarified through explanation and prediction.

Theory organizes information into a coherent story that can be used to explain and predict phenomena. Using an example from earlier, a theory would help us know to expect smoke from fire, and may eventually explain why fire causes smoke. In another example related to human sciences, let’s consider why some families seem to struggle with stressful events more than other families. The Family Stress Theory (Hill, 1949) was developed to accomplish this very task, and it organizes data into four basic categories: stressor events, resources, perceptions, and crises. The theory suggests that these various factors influence one another to produce different outcomes for families dealing with stress. When new data emerge through scientific study, the information can be organized into these categories, and used to better understand what kinds of families are most likely to adapt or experience a crisis. Ultimately, theory used in this way helps us predict human experiences with greater clarity, which assists with general understanding and can be transformed into practical use through application.

Over time, I have grown to see theory as a vital aspect of scientific work. Theory is a basic aspect of the human experience that assists with our understanding of the world around us. Theory helps us better clarify phenomena and develop meaningful applications to adequately address important needs. Without theory in research, readers are less informed about how each piece of data fits into the broader whole and may be left to sort through a disorganized pile of evidence to find needed information.

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