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A coherent statement or set of ideas that explains observed facts or phenomena, or which sets out the laws and principles of something known or observed; a hypothesis confirmed by observation, experiment, etc.
A method of discovering knowledge about the natural world based in making falsifiable predictions (hypotheses), testing them empirically, and developing peer-reviewed theories that best explain the known data.
Actual operation or experiment, in contrast to theory.
An example of a sociological theory is the work of Robert Putnam on the decline of civic engagement. Putnam found that Americans' involvement in civic life (e.g., communityorganizations, clubs, voting, religious participation, etc. ) has declined over the last 40 to 60 years. While there are a number of factors that contribute to this decline (Putnam's theory is quite complex), one of the prominent factors is the increased consumption of television as a form of entertainment. Putnam's theory proposes:
The more television people watch, the lower their involvement in civic life will be.
This element of Putnam's theory clearly illustrates the basic purpose of sociological theory: it proposes a relationship between two or more concepts. In this case, the concepts are civic engagement and television watching. The relationship is an inverse one - as one goes up, the other goes down. What's more, it is an explanation of one phenomenon with another: part of the reason why civic engagement has declined over the last several decades is because people are watching more television. In short, Putnam's theory clearly encapsulates the key ideas of a sociological theory.
Another sociologist might choose to test this theory. For example, someone might seek to explore if the same correlation could be observed in China, where in the past couple decades watching television has become an integral part of urban life.
There is a reciprocal relationship between theory and practice in sociology. In practice, sociologists use an empirical approach that seeks to understand what is going on in the social world and how it happens. These practices, however, cannot stand on their own without underlying theoretical questions (the why) that guide the research. Without theory, interesting data may be gathered without any way to explain the relationships between different observed phenomena. Sociologists go back and forth between theory and practice as advances in one require modification of the other.
Theory and Practice Explained
Practice refers to the actual observation, operation, or experiment. Practice is the observation of disparate concepts (or a phenomenon) that needs explanation. A theory is a proposed explanation of the relationship between two or more concepts, or an explanation for how/why a phenomenon occurs.
Grounded Theory Method
Sociologists often work from an already existing theory, and seek to test that theory in new situations. In these cases, theory influences the practice of empirical research – it shapes what kinds of data will be gathered and how this data will be interpreted. This data may confirm the theory, lead to modifications of it, or disprove the theory altogether in that particularcontext. These changes to the theory then lead to further research.
When working from theory, sociological observation runs the risk of being directed by that theory. For example, if one is working from the perspective of a Marxistconflict theory, one might tend to interpret everything as a manifestation of bourgeoisie domination, from the patterns of seating at a school cafeteria to presidential election results.
A response to this problem was developed by two sociologists, Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss, called grounded theory method; it is a systematic methodology in the social sciences involving the discovery of theory through the analysis of data. Grounded theory method is mainly used in qualitative research, but is also applicable to quantitative data.
Grounded theory method operates almost in a reverse fashion from traditional research, and at first sight may appear to be in contradiction to the scientific method. Rather than beginning with a hypothesis, the first step is data collection through a variety of methods. Using the collected data, the key points are marked with a series of codes, which are extracted from the text. The codes are grouped into similar concepts in order to make them more workable. From these concepts, categories are formed, which are the basis for the creation of a theory, or a reverse engineered hypothesis. This contradicts the traditional model of research, where the researcher chooses a theoretical framework and only then applies this model to the phenomenon to be studied.