April 29, 2019

Connecting the Dots: Linking Theory with Research

author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

As I wrote about previously, one of the main things to consider when making sure that your research topic is sociological is its connection with sociological theory. How does your study—or idea for a study—reflect or inform a theoretical perspective within the discipline?

First, let’s remind ourselves about what the difference is between a hypothesis and a theory. A hypothesis is a specific, testable “educated guess” about the relationship between two or more variables, while a theory is a system of ideas, often based on previous studies.

For instance, in his classic 1973 study “The Strength of Weak Ties” about the importance of social networks, Mark Granovetter begins by making the case that his research is meant in part to fill in a gap within existing social theories:

A fundamental weakness of current sociological theory is that it does not relate micro-level interactions to macro-level patterns in any convincing way. Large-scale statistical, as well as qualitative, studies offer a good deal of insight into such macro phenomena as social mobility, community organization, and political structure. At the micro level, a large and increasing body of data and theory offers useful and illuminating ideas about what transpires within the confines of the small group. But how interaction in small groups aggregates to form large-scale patterns eludes us in most cases (p. 1360).

Granovetter goes on to discuss how understanding patterns of social networks can bridge the micro-macro theoretical divide, and he introduces related theories from social psychology that have informed his thinking.

Within his study, he randomly sampled people who recently changed jobs to find out if anyone they knew helped them in this process, and how often they had contact with such individuals. He found that typically contact was rare, thus the importance of “weak ties,” or people whom we don’t know well, in finding a job because people we don’t know well have access to a wide array people in their network who we probably do not know at all. The combination of our acquaintances’ social networks with our existing networks of friends, family, and acquaintances broadens our chances of hearing about more opportunities.

After discussing his findings, he returned to his opening interest in informing sociological theory:

Linkage of micro and macro levels is thus no luxury but of central importance to the development of sociological theory. Such linkage generates paradoxes: weak ties, often denounced as generative of alienation (Wirth 1938) are here seen as indispensable to individuals' opportunities and to their integration into communities; strong ties, breeding local cohesion, lead to overall fragmentation. Paradoxes are a welcome antidote to theories which explain everything all too neatly (p. 1378).

How does his research inform theory? Rather than creating alienation and weaker social bonds, as the sociologist Louis Wirth suggested in his 1938 article “Urbanism as a Way of Life,” Granovetter found that weak ties can be paradoxically beneficial in the job search process.

Theories inform the researcher before a study is undertaken as well as the reader before learning of the author’s findings. Theories provide a context within which the research can be understood. In this case, we might consider that these two studies were published in the same journal—American sociology’s preeminent publication—and thus part of an ongoing theoretical conversation.

Sometimes researchers seek to broaden both the lack of sociological theory and research on a particular issue. As sociologist Kristen Schilt writes in “The ‘Not Sociology’ Problem,” sociologists who seek to branch out into topics not previously researched—as was the case for feminist scholarship 40 years ago and transgender studies more recently—face “resistance to research that disrupts the center of the discipline or a well-established subfield” (p. 47). They experience institutional challenges, as other sociologists sometimes deem their research as unworthy of study or career advancement. Such research might initially borrow theory and methods from other disciplines and could eventually become part of mainstream research inquiry.

It’s not enough to say, “Here’s what my study is based on” and be done with theory. The researcher circles back to theory at the end of a book or article to note how their study can add to, challenge, or otherwise inform scholars about the theory (or theories) on which their research was based. This is an integral part of connecting the dots between theory and our empirical findings.

Comments

True, theory offers useful and illuminating ideas about what transpires within the confines of the small group. Good article

Great piece this is....actually linking research topic and the theory validates the research topic

Thank you for this piece. Having more people in your social network opens up discovering new possibilities and opportunities in life.

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