Theories are explanations of a natural or social behavior, event, or phenomenon. More formally, a scientific theory is a system of constructs (concepts) and propositions (relationships between those constructs) that collectively presents a logical, systematic, and coherent explanation of a phenomenon of interest within some assumptions and boundary conditions (Bacharach 1989).1
Theories should explain why things happen, rather than just describe or predict. Note that it is possible to predict events or behaviors using a set of predictors, without necessarily explaining why such events are taking place. For instance, market analysts predict fluctuations in the stock market based on market announcements, earnings reports of major companies, and new data from the Federal Reserve and other agencies, based on previously observed correlations. Prediction requires only correlations. In contrast, explanations require causations, or understanding of cause-effect relationships. Establishing causation requires three conditions: (1) correlations between two constructs, (2) temporal precedence (the cause must precede the effect in time), and (3) rejection of alternative hypotheses (through testing). Scientific theories are different from theological, philosophical, or other explanations in that scientific theories can be empirically tested using scientific methods.
Explanations can be idiographic or nomothetic. Idiographic explanations are those that explain a single situation or event in idiosyncratic detail. For example, you did poorly on an exam because: (1) you forgot that you had an exam on that day, (2) you arrived late to the exam due to a traffic jam, (3) you panicked midway through the exam, (4) you had to work late the previous evening and could not study for the exam, or even (5) your dog ate your text book. The explanations may be detailed, accurate, and valid, but they may not apply to other similar situations, even involving the same person, and are hence not generalizable. In contrast, nomothetic explanations seek to explain a class of situations or events rather than a specific situation or event. For example, students who do poorly in exams do so because they did not spend adequate time preparing for exams or that they suffer from nervousness, attentiondeficit, or some other medical disorder. Because nomothetic explanations are designed to be generalizable across situations, events, or people, they tend to be less precise, less complete, and less detailed. However, they explain economically, using only a few explanatory variables. Because theories are also intended to serve as generalized explanations for patterns of events, behaviors, or phenomena, theoretical explanations are generally nomothetic in nature.
While understanding theories, it is also important to understand what theory is not. Theory is not data, facts, typologies, taxonomies, or empirical findings. A collection of facts is not a theory, just as a pile of stones is not a house. Likewise, a collection of constructs (e.g., a typology of constructs) is not a theory, because theories must go well beyond constructs to include propositions, explanations, and boundary conditions. Data, facts, and findings operate at the empirical or observational level, while theories operate at a conceptual level and are based on logic rather than observations.
There are many benefits to using theories in research. First, theories provide the underlying logic of the occurrence of natural or social phenomenon by explaining what are the key drivers and key outcomes of the target phenomenon and why, and what underlying processes are responsible driving that phenomenon. Second, they aid in sense-making by helping us synthesize prior empirical findings within a theoretical framework and reconcile contradictory findings by discovering contingent factors influencing the relationship between two constructs in different studies. Third, theories provide guidance for future research by helping identify constructs and relationships that are worthy of further research. Fourth, theories can contribute to cumulative knowledge building by bridging gaps between other theories and by causing existing theories to be reevaluated in a new light.
However, theories can also have their own share of limitations. As simplified explanations of reality, theories may not always provide adequate explanations of the phenomenon of interest based on a limited set of constructs and relationships. Theories are designed to be simple and parsimonious explanations, while reality may be significantly more complex. Furthermore, theories may impose blinders or limit researchers’ “range of vision,” causing them to miss out on important concepts that are not defined by the theory.