Theory Development

12. Determining Real Causes

The value of more general theory lies in its ability to hold in many circumstances. But it is also understood to be approximate, and thus is not to be discarded if it fails on occasion. There are many conditions for their holding in similar circumstances, some known or hypothesized, and many unknown. Its claim to represent the real causes in a given situation– that is to say to be, among the various causes that might reasonably be cited to account for the outcome of a student election, the one that actually operated to produce the outcome– rests on its generalizability, but also on the fact that it can be connected to other general theoretical ideas which were supported in other empirical settings, thus making a system of generalizations. In this case it could be connected to cognitive dissonance theory, which involved other similar general formulae which were also approximations.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling or stress caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a fundamental cognitive drive to reduce this dissonance by modifying an existing belief, or rejecting one of the contradictory ideas.

The connections between the theoretical statements are thus only supportive, in the sense that they increase the expectation that the related statements are true, rather than provide deductive guarantees that the statements are true (Turner, 2007, 2008). This approach to producing theory was associated with post-war Columbia sociology, especially with Robert Merton and Paul Lazarsfeld, and popularized under the name “grounded theory” (Glaser and Strauss, 1967; Glaser, 1978) and, with a stronger emphasis on mathematicization, by a movement of theory construction thinkers (Berger et al., 1962).

Turner, S. (2007) Fact, theory and hypothesis, including the history of the scientific fact. The blackwell encyclopedia of sociology 1st ed. Boston: Blackwell; 1554-57.
Glaser, B. G., Strauss, A. L. (1967) The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company.
Glaser, B. G. (1978) Theoretical sensitivity: Advances in the methodology of grounded theory. Mill Valley, CA: Sociology Press.
Berger, J., Cohen, B. , Snell, J. L., Zelditch, M. Jr. (1962) Types of formalization in small group research. New York: Houghton-Mifflin.
Turner, S. (2008) How not to do science. Sociological Quarterly. 237-251.