Given that theories and observations are the two pillars of science, scientific research operates at two levels: a theoretical level and an empirical level. The theoretical level is concerned with developing abstract concepts about a natural or social phenomenon and relationships between those concepts (i.e., build “theories”), while the empirical level is concerned with testing the theoretical concepts and relationships to see how well they reflect our observations of reality, with the goal of ultimately building better theories. Over time, a theory becomes more and more refined (i.e., fits the observed reality better), and the science gains maturity. Scientific research involves continually moving back and forth between theory and observations. Both theory and observations are essential components of scientific research. For instance, relying solely on observations for making inferences and ignoring theory is not considered valid scientific research.
Depending on a researcher’s training and interest, scientific inquiry may take one of two possible forms: inductive or deductive. In inductive research, the goal of a researcher is to infer theoretical concepts and patterns from observed data. In deductive research, the goal of the researcher is to test concepts and patterns known from theory using new empirical data. Hence, inductive research is also called theory-building research, and deductive research is theory-testing research. Note here that the goal of theory-testing is not just to test a theory, but possibly to refine, improve, and extend it. Figure 1.1 depicts the complementary nature of inductive and deductive research. Note that inductive and deductive research are two halves of the research cycle that constantly iterates between theory and observations. You cannot do inductive or deductive research if you are not familiar with both the theory and data components of research. Naturally, a complete researcher is one who can traverse the entire research cycle and can handle both inductive and deductive research.
It is important to understand that theory-building (inductive research) and theorytesting (deductive research) are both critical for the advancement of science. Elegant theories are not valuable if they do not match with reality. Likewise, mountains of data are also useless until they can contribute to the construction to meaningful theories. Rather than viewing these two processes in a circular relationship, as shown in Figure 1.1, perhaps they can be better viewed as a helix, with each iteration between theory and data contributing to better explanations of the phenomenon of interest and better theories. Though both inductive and deductive research are important for the advancement of science, it appears that inductive (theory-building) research is more valuable when there are few prior theories or explanations, while deductive (theory-testing) research is more productive when there are many competing theories of the same phenomenon and researchers are interested in knowing which theory works best and under what circumstances.
Figure 1.1. The Cycle of Research
Theory building and theory testing are particularly difficult in the social sciences, given the imprecise nature of the theoretical concepts, inadequate tools to measure them, and the presence of many unaccounted factors that can also influence the phenomenon of interest. It is also very difficult to refute theories that do not work. For instance, Karl Marx’s theory of communism as an effective means of economic production withstood for decades, before it was finally discredited as being inferior to capitalism in promoting economic growth and social welfare. Erstwhile communist economies like the Soviet Union and China eventually moved toward more capitalistic economies characterized by profit-maximizing private enterprises. However, the recent collapse of the mortgage and financial industries in the United States demonstrates that capitalism also has its flaws and is not as effective in fostering economic growth and social welfare as previously presumed. Unlike theories in the natural sciences, social science theories are rarely perfect, which provides numerous opportunities for researchers to improve those theories or build their own alternative theories.
Conducting scientific research, therefore, requires two sets of skills – theoretical and methodological – needed to operate in the theoretical and empirical levels respectively. Methodological skills ("know-how") are relatively standard, invariant across disciplines, and easily acquired through doctoral programs. However, theoretical skills ("know-what") is considerably harder to master, requires years of observation and reflection, and are tacit skills that cannot be “taught” but rather learned though experience. All of the greatest scientists in the history of mankind, such as Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Neils Bohr, Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, and Herbert Simon, were master theoreticians, and they are remembered for the theories they postulated that transformed the course of science. Methodological skills are needed to be an ordinary researcher, but theoretical skills are needed to be an extraordinary researcher!