This video describes how theories are built, and how some scientists test them empirically.
This video was produced in January 2013 for my research methods seminar (SOC 334) at Queens College in the City University of New York. If you are enrolled in this class, you must also complete the assigned readings and exercises. Instructions will be posted on my web site and on Blackboard.
This video is part of an experiment in teaching with technology. In the coming semester, I plan on releasing other videos and an overview of this experiment. If you are interested, please visit my web site (www.josephncohen.org) and share your questions, corrections, thoughts or criticisms. I appreciate any feedback or advice on the video’s content (admittedly poor) production, or the format of moving my lectures to sets of short (5-10 minute) streaming videos.
When we have an important decision to make, everyday life is replete with theories. Of course, we learn about theories in the classroom, but we also spin out our own theories on the world. We share them with our friends and listen to their theories. To the extent that we believe these theories, they affect how we think and behave. But how can we differentiate stronger theories from weaker ones?
In this video, I’ll explain how to probe theories by breaking them into two parts: concepts and relationships. Then, I’ll explain one way to probe these relationships scientifically through a process called operationalization.
A theory is an explanation of how the world works. In school, you hear lots of theories. For example, if a person experiences trauma in early life, they might have psychological problems later. That’s a theory. People buy more of a product when its price drops. That’s a theory. Visible minorities have more trouble finding jobs. That’s a theory. If the economy is doing well, the president is more likely to get elected. That’s a theory. But we also hear theories in everyday life: if you don’t finish college, you’re more likely to be poor; if you don’t control your weight, you’ll get diabetes; you’ll get cavities if you don’t brush your teeth. In a sense, our ability to make theories is one of humanity’s most powerful skills.
But not all of our theories are true. We used to believe that disease was caused by rolling clouds of pollution instead of germs and viruses. We were wrong. We used to believe that the sun revolved around the Earth. We were wrong. We used to believe that you could tell a lot about a person by measuring the dimensions of their head. We were wrong.
So, how can we tell if a theory is strong or weak in less simplistic situations? If you want to test a theory scientifically, then you have to understand what a theory is made of and how this testing process works.
A theory has two parts: concepts and relationships. Concepts are abstract ideas or labels that we use to describe things that we confront in real life. For example, race. In reality, there are no fixed races, but as a society, we attach importance to race. We have to simplify it to think about and talk about it. We understand the world through a lot of simplistic concepts like gender, justice, safety, beauty, intelligence, and so on.
Link two or more concepts together in a relationship. A relationship is a connection between concepts where a change in one concept is theorized or speculated to affect another. One way to simplify a theory is to draw a picture where circles represent concepts and arrows represent relationships. The arrows go from the cause to the effect.
To test a theory, we must operationalize these concepts and measure their relationship empirically. This means finding a way to turn these concepts into measurements or numbers and then looking for a statistical association between the measurements of our two concepts. Of course, testing theories is more complicated in real life. We’ll learn about these complexities as we progress. Still, the basic idea is: if you want to test a theory or an idea, find a way to measure the concepts, see if the measurements are related, and if they are, you have some indication that the theory has merit.