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4.3: Attributes of a Good Theory

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    26227
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    Theories are simplified and often partial explanations of complex social reality. As such, there can be good explanations or poor explanations, and consequently, there can be good theories or poor theories. How can we evaluate the “goodness” of a given theory? Different criteria have been proposed by different researchers, the more important of which are listed below:

    • Logical consistency: Are the theoretical constructs, propositions, boundary conditions, and assumptions logically consistent with each other? If some of these “building blocks” of a theory are inconsistent with each other (e.g., a theory assumes rationality, but some constructs represent non-rational concepts), then the theory is a poor theory.
    • Explanatory power: How much does a given theory explain (or predict) reality? Good theories obviously explain the target phenomenon better than rival theories, as often measured by variance explained (R-square) value in regression equations.
    • Falsifiability: British philosopher Karl Popper stated in the 1940’s that for theories to be valid, they must be falsifiable. Falsifiability ensures that the theory is potentially disprovable, if empirical data does not match with theoretical propositions, which allows for their empirical testing by researchers. In other words, theories cannot be theories unless they can be empirically testable. Tautological statements, such as “a day with high temperatures is a hot day” are not empirically testable because a hot day is defined (and measured) as a day with high temperatures, and hence, such statements cannot be viewed as a theoretical proposition. Falsifiability requires presence of rival explanations it ensures that the constructs are adequately measurable, and so forth. However, note that saying that a theory is falsifiable is not the same as saying that a theory should be falsified. If a theory is indeed falsified based on empirical evidence, then it was probably a poor theory to begin with!
    • Parsimony: Parsimony examines how much of a phenomenon is explained with how few variables. The concept is attributed to 14th century English logician Father William of Ockham (and hence called “Ockham’s razor” or “Occam’s razor), which states that among competing explanations that sufficiently explain the observed evidence, the simplest theory (i.e., one that uses the smallest number of variables or makes the fewest assumptions) is the best. Explanation of a complex social phenomenon can always be increased by adding more and more constructs. However, such approach defeats the purpose of having a theory, which are intended to be “simplified” and generalizable explanations of reality. Parsimony relates to the degrees of freedom in a given theory. Parsimonious theories have higher degrees of freedom, which allow them to be more easily generalized to other contexts, settings, and populations.

    This page titled 4.3: Attributes of a Good Theory is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anol Bhattacherjee (Global Text Project) .