Theory Construction Essay

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The ideal theory is a set of explicit, abstract, general, logically related statements formulated to explain phenomena in the natural world. Theory construction is the process of either formulating and assembling components of theories into coherent wholes, or revising and expanding theories in light of logical, semantic, or empirical analyses.

At their core, theories are arguments. As such, they are sets of statements (called axioms, propositions, assumptions, etc.) that provide logical support for one or more other statements (conclusions, theorems, derivations). Every statement in a theory consists of terms, and the meaning of every term should be clear to intended readers. Some terms are part of the logical system (e.g., ”If . . . then . . .”; ”{… + …}/… = …”). The meanings of all other terms must already be shared by readers, or else must be defined explicitly. Finally, scope conditions state conditions under which a theorist considers the theory to be applicable.

Good theories promote clear communication, rigorous testing, accurate measurement, and broad applicability. To achieve these qualities, theorists must take care to eliminate any contradictions, ambiguities and ambivalences from their terms and arguments. Further, good theories are constructed using abstract language so that they may be applied in many kinds of empirical settings. Another kind of specialized statement, sometimes called operationalization, instantiation, or interpretation, connects the abstract theoretical terms to observable terms.

Once expressed, good theories are deductive in the sense of having clearly stated propositions from which conclusions follow logically. As well, most theories also are inductive in the sense that their propositions, and modifications to their propositions, typically originated as conjectures and intuitive leaps.


  • Cohen, B. P. (1989) Developing Sociological Knowledge. Nelson-Hall, Chicago, IL.

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