Psychological Theories

Although various scholars have been attracted to the field of theory and have made various contributions both to the general field and to specific theories, it has never been possible for the scholars to come up with one general conception of the actual meaning of a theory. However, some researchers appear to have same views concerning a theory; though, they use different words to describe it. This means that different views do not necessarily point to different theories. In examining a number of articles by different scholars, this paper will, therefore, seek to describe different views on what constitute a theory.

Part I

Compare and Contrast at least Three Views of What Constitutes a Theory

Apart from the minimization role, a theory plays in psychological science; there has been a misunderstanding of what should actually constitute a theory. Gelso (2006) notes that the misunderstanding of what constitutes a theory emerges from the fact that individuals have equated theory with the grand theoretical system and broad therapy systems that have been used in psychology for decades, but they had not been developed in a way that allow them to be tested.

According to Gelso (2006), any theory must have a proposition, which clearly define the relationship between and among the different variables. He, therefore, argues that everything done by humans can be explained theoretically since the variables portrayed will normally relate to others. According to Gelso (2006), any theory should have elements that qualify it as scientific. He argues that this will enable it to be more than just a proposition and, therefore, enable it to give more than just a simple description of a phenomenon. Such a theory will be able to give a good understanding of the kind of relationship that exists between the various variables as used in the study. This is supported by Corley and Gioia (2011) who note that a good theory should have both the practical and scientific utilities.

In Gelso’s view (2006), a theory should also be constituted in a way that enables it to serve given functions effectively. He identifies four of such functions. These include: generative, descriptive, integrative, and delimiting. Any theory should perform a descriptive function since it should succeed in describing a phenomenon given the various conditions for the occurrence of such phenomena. This means that theories should be capable of explaining the reasons behind any occurrence. That is why things happen and what causes them to happen. This is what is called the explanatory power of theories. In addition, theories should also be able to delimit by limiting what it is going to be looked at. This will help guide the researcher in what he / she can look at in a specific theory and ensure that all the facts relating to the theory are explored. This will enable the theorist even to come up with new ideas and to examine new facts related to the area of research. This is what makes certain theories to be termed as heuristic since they stimulate new investigations, as well as new researches to allow their testing. According to Gelso (2006), the theories that lack this specific value tend to stagnate.

Finally, theorists should ensure that the theories they formulate have an integrative function. This will assist in bringing together constructs and propositions in a unified and a consistent manner. This will, thus, enable the researcher to harmonize the various facts to achieve internal consistency, as well as coherence (Gelso, 2006).

This is a bit different from the views of Wacker (1999) who, in his examination of the definition of a theory, argues that any definition of a theory must be based on four criteria. These include: relationship building, conceptual definitions, predictions, and domain limitations. According to Wacker (1999), it is the theory building that makes the analysis of results possible through providing the necessary framework. He notes that theory building is also important in the facilitation of the efficient field development, as well as in allowing its application in solving the practical world problems. He also notes that any theory should be able to follow the virtue which makes a theory be considered a “good theory.” According to Wacker (1999), these virtues include: uniqueness, conservation, fecundity, parsimony, generalizability, internal consistency, abstraction, and empirical riskiness. A good theory-building research should specify the domain, make specific predictions, define the variables, as well as succeed in building relationships that are internally consistent (Wacker, 1999).

The third view is suggested by Stam (2007, 2010). He considers that theory is a systematic way of representing a problem which is genuine. Then, such problems should be well-articulated. According to Stam (2007, 2010), the key aim of a theory should be to provide an explanation to any problem, make it possible for the prediction of a phenomenon, as well as to provide the features that allow the innovation of a new phenomenon.

Wacker (1999) reports the argument of another group of scholars that a theory does not have to be applied or tested for it to be proved as good. The views by the three scholars point to the need of any theory to be scientific. The argument that a theory should not have theory-building, as well as scientific investigation to qualify as a good theory is, thus, clearly negated by the three views. This would imply that a good theory can be found only through trial and error and not through a scientific study.  It is contrary to the views of these three scholars. For instance, Gelso (2006) points out that a good theory must indicate how it is measured empirically. This position is supported by Harlow (2010) who noted that it is unless the theory is tested that it will be able to be useful. According to him, this quality will enable a theory to inform the kind of data that should be collected, the methods to be followed during the collection, as well as the best technique to be used in the analysis of the data.

Distinguish Scientific Theory from Other Types of Theories

Scientific theories can easily be distinguished from non-scientific ones based on a number of elements. For instance, Reingold (2012) noted that a good scientific theory must be parsimonious, internally consistent, and integrative. Compared to non-scientific theories, any scientific theory’s explanatory power should be higher. In addition, its domain should have clear boundaries to enable it to be comprehensive enough. This is achieved through a clear specification of the vital relationships that are specific to its field of inquiry. Also, a theory should allow testability by having its facts stated in a clear and explicit manner. Such a higher level of testability allows a theory to be capable of disconfirmation. This is what disqualifies large scale theories of therapy and those of personality from being scientific since they are never endangered as they cannot be tested (Gelso, 2006).

According to Hutto (2007), a good scientific theory should also have a heuristic value. It means that any scientific theory should be able to trigger the need for a new inquiry. This will create the need to carry out further research and that of coming up with more theories. According to Baskas (2008), to be scientific, any theory must possess a descriptive ability and have higher explanatory power, as well as a heuristic value. Butts (2011), adds that such theories must be testable through research and must have its ideas organized in a coherence manner to allow the integration of its facts. Moreover, theories should limit themselves only to those ideas and constructs that are vital in the explanation of their phenomena. This is supported by Trochim and Donnelly (2008) who note that statistical procedures are the only logical procedures which can be utilized in testing the theoretical objectives. Finally, Gelso (2006) notes that any scientific theory should have its ideas stated in a clear and explicit manner and should comprehensively specify the kind of relationship that exists within its domain while also seeking to convey the scope of the study clearly.

Relationship between Theory and Hypothesis

The concepts of theory and that of hypothesis have been used interchangeably by scholars causing a bit of confusion. The distinction is that theories contain theoretical propositions while it is the very propositions from which the hypotheses are derived. However, hypotheses are normally more specific in nature than the theoretical propositions. They are simple statements, the predictions that are tested directly when an empirical research is conducted. Creswell (2009) notes that theories unlike the hypotheses are commonly used in the interpretation and explanation of the findings. Though such findings are normally consistent with the hypotheses derived from the given theories, the explanation of the findings must be derived from the specific underlined theory. Even in cases where there is an occurrence of the unexpected findings, the researcher will have to identify a relevant theory or create a new one in an attempt to have a good and elaborate explanation of his / her results. However, the new theory should be attached to the larger theoretical system (Gelso, 2006).

The debate is furthered by the work of Stam (2010) who noted that theory must be able to explain at least a phenomenon. According to the scholar (2010), this is why theories are preferred to hypotheses that are mere propositions. He adds that, in that, theory can no longer be described in terms of a single enterprise just in the same way psychology is can no longer said to be a single discipline. Moreover, he notes that, unlike hypothesis, theories are closely related to the process of the development, acceptance, and propagation of the various methods in the psychological discipline. The last indication of the superiority of theories to the hypothesis as noted by Stam (2010) is that they can be reduced to observables and can, thus, be utilized as instruments in the actual performance of various tasks in the world.

Part II

Relationship between Theory and Research and the Ways in Which Research Can Contribute to Theory

According to Gelso (2006), the connection between a research and theory is profound and inevitable. He notes that the contributions of the two are all vital to the field of science. That is, in his view, the relegation of either research or theory would impoverish science. He argues that, without controlled empirical research, science would be limited to ideas that are not yet tested giving way to biases. It would subject the results obtained from such studies to lose their reliability since there would be no proof that it is scientific, but instead, the study will be comparable to other nonscientific studies, such as astrology or witchcraft.

It is also the same with a case of science without a theory. In this case, the lack of theory will make science be composed of various observations that may not only be disconnected, but also presented as simple facts. This will mean that such studies will not convey a good understanding of what is happening in the world of psychology. Gelso (2006) gives an example where a number of studies have revealed that the technique of a therapist, in which both interpretations and reflections of the feelings he observes from his clients are used, shows a positive relationship both to each other and the level of experience of the therapist, while at the same time, the relationship is inverse to the ratings of the sessions by clients. This could be in terms of the level to which they feel they formed a rapport with their therapist, as well as the depth to which they feel the study had covered. In this case, the psychologist will need a theory to explain the relationship between the therapist technique, the level of experience, and the experience the clients had during the therapeutic sessions. The moment this relationship is not conveyed well through the use of a theory, the findings will not be of any meaning to the parties concerned (Thompson, 2010). 

It is a clear indication that, in any scientific research, a theory is needed for a clear explanation of findings. Even in cases where the researcher fails to come up with a theory at the initial stages of a conceptual framework, it will be necessary to create one immediately he / she has obtained the research findings. It is, thus, clear that theory and research work together in the realization of a good research. Science in its very nature does occur in two major contexts: that of discovery and that of testing. While carrying out discovery, the scientists involve themselves in inventing and constructing dynamic concepts that characterize the events as they are observed. During this process, scientists have to draw from their hunches, ideas, creativity, and observations. In addition, scientists have to come up with the various ways through which they can relate the emerging concepts to the events they observe, as well as how the observable symptoms can be measured (John, 2008).

At this point, it is a theory that enables scientists to test their concepts and findings. It is done through the generation of the various observations to help test the theoretical premises. Normally, such observations reveal the existing inadequacies both in measures and in constructs. It is these observations, hunches, as well as the new ideas that enable scientists to trigger the discovery process resulting in the alteration of the initially existing theories or the generation of a totally new theory. Further researches on initial theories have, therefore, triggered studies aimed at testing various theories and making them more refined (Harlow, 2009).

Equally, theories play very important roles in research. It is instrumental in the generation of hypotheses and ideas, as well as in result interpretations. This means that the knowledge of theories is applicable at all stages of research (Harlow, 2009). According to Wacker (1999), it is the theories that provide a framework for the analysis, as well as clear explanation regarding the pragmatic world. Theories also provide a good and efficient method through which the field of research can be developed. The scholar adds that a theory increases the efficiency of research through the reduction of the possibility of the occurrence of errors. It is, in turn, made possible through enabling the adjustment of the existing theories.

Ways in which Research Can Contribute to Theory 

Gay and Weaver (2011) note that though scholars seem to disagree on the various ways in which research can inform theory, there is a mutual understanding that theory forms “the currency of any scholarly research,” and therefore, each of the two influences one another and is influenced by the other. First, research allows a continuous development and refinement of those theories that are fully developed. Theories are normally modified by further research leading to the invention of other theories, which are also tested to allow further modification with a view to increasing their effectiveness in guiding research through building upon and adding to the already known facts. That is the knowledge from research normally contributes to theory more incrementally. This view follows the assumption that a theory is considered preferable over the others based on the way it is advancing and progressing towards the “truth” (Gay &Weaver, 2011).

Gay and Weaver (2011) also note that the contribution of research to a theory is bi-dimensional. That is it contributes to the increment and utility of the theory. According to them, it is the testing of a hypothesis through research that gives a theory its explanatory power, as well as predictability. By increasing the explanatory power of the theory, the resulting knowledge can be revelatory in a unique manner. It may even enable the theory to cause a shift in the paradigm. Duit and Treagust (2011) add that research also contributes to theory qualitatively. It is especially experienced in cases where the topics under study cannot be quantified. It is also the same case where there is an attempt to make sense of certain complex social situations, as well as the cases when the researcher is trying to provide an explanation of the way in which the various stakeholders perceive their own situation, as well as when providing answers to broader questions.

Dooley (2002) also notes that it is research that gives an already conceptualized theory its applicability. It enables the theorists to utilize their experience, as well as what they learn from the real world when their individual theories are applied to carry out a further development and refinement of their theories through incorporating additional information as obtained from research. According to him, research also helps in the confirmation, as well as disconfirmation of an existing theory. This is done through the use of an applied theory building model, which entails the planning, designing, implementing, as well as evaluating of a study to have its theoretical framework rejected or confirmed. This is made possible after the collection, analysis, concluding, as well as evaluation of both the result and the process followed during the entire research (Dooley, 2002).

Ellis & Levy (2008) add that theoretical foundation can only be placed into practice through the examination of a given problem statement and crafting of an effective statement through the proposition of an appropriate template. Scholars warn that, for any research to be able to contribute to theory, its research problem must be well-articulated. Such a research should also possess all the basic elements of a scholarly research, such as the topic, research question, results, methodology, goals, and conclusions.  

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