February 17, 2020

Theories and Hypotheses

author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

What’s the difference is between a theory and a hypothesis? Which one is absolutely necessary for research, while the other is common, but not a requirement?

I’ll give you a hint: if you are a sociology major, you might have to take a class called Sociological Theory. You probably don’t have to take a class called Sociological Hypothesis (if you do, I’d like to hear more about it in the comments below, because I have never heard of such a class before).

A theory is a system of ideas that has been developed after multiple studies. Theories are constructed by examining the results of research and repeated observations; researchers begin with theory and end by noting how their findings add to a particular theory or set of theories.

A hypothesis is an educated guess about how two or more things are related. It might be based on our informal observations and life experiences. Here’s the confusing part: we often use the word “theory” in everyday language when we really mean hypothesis.

For example, you might hear a friend say that they have a “theory” that you struggle on tests because you need to be more confident, but what they are really suggesting is that they have a hypothesis that if your confidence improves, your test scores will too.

Why does all research need theory, but not necessarily a hypothesis?

Sociological theories are explanations about an aspect of society that we are interested in learning more about. Theories are developed not just from one study but rather are based on multiple studies by many scholars who add to the development of the theory.

Think of it as similar to solving a mystery: you might get the process started by narrowing down possible locations and suspects, encouraging others to pick up where you leave off. Others might begin working on the mystery and narrow things down further, or even suggest a new suspect after ruling some out based on their research. Theories are created collectively as scholars share their work. If you were going to solve a mystery, why would you want to start from square one when others have already spent time, effort, and maybe money in search of a solution?

Theories help us understand the conversation that has been taking place on our subject, as I blogged about in 2018. Starting a research project without reading previous research and theory ignores all of the work that others have done and shared on a subject.

For instance, let’s say that you are interested in learning more about gender and appearance. You might begin by reading the work of Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman.

Their 1987 article, “Doing Gender,” focuses on their theory that gender is a social performance developed within our interactions with others. More than 14,000 other publications referenced this article, and thus this theory has been refined by research many, many times in the past three decades. This tells us that many other studies have found this framework useful and have used the findings from their research to add to and refine this idea.

Here’s another analogy: imagine that you are going to have dinner with a large group. It’s a lot of work to do on your own if you were to do all the cooking and could be very expensive. Maybe this is a group that has eaten together many times before and they have particular dishes that some people have made before that have been hits with the crowd. Wouldn’t it be easier to have a potluck together, and ask what you might contribute to the meal? It’s not a perfect analogy, as research and theory construction takes place over years, but you get the idea.

Theories are necessary in sociological research, and while hypotheses are common, they are not required. Why not?

Some research uses inductive reasoning, meaning we are going to gather information first and then attempt to draw conclusions afterwards. Unlike deductive reasoning, where we test our hypothesis in order to find out if we can find evidence in support, inductive reasoning just requires us to be curious about something without making any predictions. We might begin this way and later create a hypothesis, but it is not required.

Hypotheses are related to theories. After we test hypotheses, whether we find evidence in support or not will inform the larger theory and contribute to the body of scholarship created. The next time you notice yourself or someone else proposing a “theory,” ask yourself if it isn’t really a hypothesis in disguise.


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