This is “Revisiting an Earlier Question”, section 2.4 from the book Sociological Inquiry Principles: Qualitative and Quantitative Methods (v. 1.0).
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At the beginning of this chapter I asked, what’s theory got to do with it? Perhaps at the time, you weren’t entirely sure, but I hope you now have some ideas about how you might answer the question. Just in case, let’s review the ways that theories are relevant to social scientific research methods.
Theories, paradigms, levels of analysis, and the order in which one proceeds in the research process all play an important role in shaping what we ask about the social world, how we ask it, and in some cases, even what we are likely to find. A microlevel study of gangs will look much different than a macrolevel study of gangs. In some cases you could apply multiple levels of analysis to your investigation, but doing so isn’t always practical or feasible. Therefore, understanding the different levels of analysis and being aware of which level you happen to be employing is crucial. One’s theoretical perspective will also shape a study. In particular, the theory invoked will likely shape not only the way a question about a topic is asked but also which topic gets investigated in the first place. Further, if you find yourself especially committed to one paradigm over another, the possible answers you are likely to see to the questions that you pose are limited.
This does not mean that social science is biased or corrupt. At the same time, we humans can never claim to be entirely value free. Social constructionists and postmodernists might point out that bias is always a part of research to at least some degree. Our job as researchers is to recognize and address our biases as part of the research process, if an imperfect part. We all use particular approaches, be they theories, levels of analysis, or temporal processes, to frame and conduct our work. Understanding those frames and approaches is crucial not only for successfully embarking upon and completing any research-based investigation but also for responsibly reading and understanding others’ work. So what’s theory got to do with it? Just about everything.
Still not convinced about the value of theory? Perhaps “The Three Minute Sociologist” will change your mind:
What does this video suggest about the value of theory?