How do researchers build theories? Steinfeld and Fulk (1990)2 recommend four such approaches. The first approach is to build theories inductively based on observed patterns of events or behaviors. Such approach is often called “grounded theory building”, because the theory is grounded in empirical observations. This technique is heavily dependent on the observational and interpretive abilities of the researcher, and the resulting theory may be subjective and non-confirmable. Furthermore, observing certain patterns of events will not necessarily make a theory, unless the researcher is able to provide consistent explanations for the observed patterns. We will discuss the grounded theory approach in a later chapter on qualitative research.
The second approach to theory building is to conduct a bottom-up conceptual analysis to identify different sets of predictors relevant to the phenomenon of interest using a predefined framework. One such framework may be a simple input-process-output framework, where the researcher may look for different categories of inputs, such as individual, organizational, and/or technological factors potentially related to the phenomenon of interest (the output), and describe the underlying processes that link these factors to the target phenomenon. This is also an inductive approach that relies heavily on the inductive abilities of the researcher, and interpretation may be biased by researcher’s prior knowledge of the phenomenon being studied.
The third approach to theorizing is to extend or modify existing theories to explain a new context, such as by extending theories of individual learning to explain organizational learning. While making such an extension, certain concepts, propositions, and/or boundary conditions of the old theory may be retained and others modified to fit the new context. This deductive approach leverages the rich inventory of social science theories developed by prior theoreticians, and is an efficient way of building new theories by building on existing ones.
The fourth approach is to apply existing theories in entirely new contexts by drawing upon the structural similarities between the two contexts. This approach relies on reasoning by analogy, and is probably the most creative way of theorizing using a deductive approach. For instance, Markus (1987)3 used analogic similarities between a nuclear explosion and uncontrolled growth of networks or network-based businesses to propose a critical mass theory of network growth. Just as a nuclear explosion requires a critical mass of radioactive material to sustain a nuclear explosion, Markus suggested that a network requires a critical mass of users to sustain its growth, and without such critical mass, users may leave the network, causing an eventual demise of the network.