Classifying Theories


            It is first necessary to develop a typology of theory types.  The approach used here involves the application of the 5W questions: who, what, why, when, and where.  These prove very useful in distinguishing theories in human science. It may be useful to develop further distinctions, especially in natural science.

 

1.                  Who is the agent? There are two important distinctions here: non-intentional (including volcanoes or institutions) versus intentional agency (of beings that can act on purpose), each of which can take the form of individual, group, or relationship agency.

2.                  What does the agent do? There are three broad answers, which map imperfectly onto the six types of agency: passive (re-)action, active action, changes in attitude.

3.                  Why does the agent do this? With non-intentional agents, action can only be understood in terms of their inherent nature. With intentional agents, scholars can explore five distinct types of decision-making: rational, intuitive, process (virtue) oriented, rule-based, and tradition-based. For groups and relationships, scholars can also ask how individual preferences are aggregated.

4.                  Where does the causal process occur? The concern here is with the generalizability of the theory: there is a continuum between nomothetic (generalizable) and idiographic (situation- or causal-link-specific) theory.

5.                  When does the causal process occur? There are four broad time-paths that a causal process might follow: return to the original equilibrium, movement to a new equilibrium, change in a particular direction, or stochastic/uncertain.


 The following table classifies some important theories in terms of these five dimensions. The point to emphasize is that different theories have different -- compensating -- strengths and weaknesses.

Typology of Selected Theories

Theory

Who?

Agency

What?

Action

Why? Decision-making

When?

Time Path

Where?

Generalize?

Most Natural Science

Nonintentional

various types

 

Passive

Inherent

Various

Various

Evolutionary Biology

Nonintentional individuals

 

Active

Inherent

Not the same

equilibrium

Nomothetic

Evolutionary Human

Science

Intentional individual

(group)

 

Active

Various

Not the same

(any)

equilibrium

Nomothetic

Complexity (including Chaos)Theory

 

Various

Active and passive

 

Not strictly

 rational

Varies by version

Generally nomothetic

Action

Theory

Intentional individual

(relationship)

 

Action

(attitude)

Various; often

rational

Various

Generally

idiographic

Systems theory;

Functionalist

 

Various

Action and

attitude

Various; emphasize

constraints

New

equilibrium

Generally

nomothetic

Psychoanal-ytic Theory

 

Intentional individual

Attitudes

Intuition; others possible

 

Various

Implicit

nomothetic

Symbolic Interactionism

Intentional relationships

Attitudes

Various

Stochastic

Idiographic; some nomothetic

 

Rational Choice

 

Individual

Action

Rational

Usually equilibrium

Nomothetic

Phenomenol-ogy

Relationships (individuals)

Attitudes (actions)

Various

Various

Various

                   Source: Rick Szostak, Classifying Science, 2004, 94. The table is developed and explained in ch. 4. This table is reprised and applied in Allen Repko, 

Interdisciplinary Research (2nd ed., 2011) and Rick Szostak, Restoring Human Progress (2012).

 

 


 

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