Theoretical Research Program Essay

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A theoretical research program includes a set of interrelated theories, working strategies, and empirical models regarding social processes to be studied. The interrelation among theories in a program arises from a core set of key ideas used in different ways throughout the program. Each way represents a distinct pattern of theoretical growth. Core ideas may be elaborated to provide a more specific account of the phenomenon under study. They may be combined with new ideas to proliferate a theory that explains phenomena in a new domain. Two variant theories may propose slightly different versions of the core ideas to account for a process they both explain. Competing theories use very different core ideas to address the same phenomenon. Finally, ideas in one theory may be integrated with ideas from another theory to provide a deeper or more complete account of phenomena.

Working strategies help determine, for example, what the core ideas in a program should be and how to construct and test theories with them. Working strategies may only emerge gradually as theories in a program develop, broaden, and deepen understanding of the ideas under investigation. Additionally, models help specify ways the core ideas in a program may be employed to deal with the complexity of an application situation.

A focus on theoretical research programs reveals multiple kinds and sources of knowledge growth. Knowledge grows through the construction of new theories within programs, through articulation and refinement of working strategies, and through assessments of the empirical adequacy and instrumental utility of models.


  • Berger, J. & Zelditch, M., Jr. (1993) Theoretical Research Programs: Studies in the Growth of Theory. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.

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