When embarking on a research project students are very often faced with the question of how their research relates to theory, or what the theoretical framework for their research is. Lisa Harrison, for example, points out ‘much of the research that we can carry out only begins to have any value when we can use it to support a particular theory’, while Burnham et al begin their study of research methods in politics by asserting that ‘it is the deployment of a theoretical framework that differentiates political science from other forms of the study of politics.’ However, while research methods text books (and tutors) are often quick to point out the importance of theory, explanations as to what this means in practice are often less clear.
The physicist Professor Brian Cox, hardly needs any more attention, he is as ubiquitous as dark matter and considerably easier to find. Nevertheless, I recently read Cox’s book, The Quantum Universe, written with his colleague Jeff Forshaw, and whilst I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that you rush out and read it, and I’m sure if you wait long enough he will be on the telly telling you all about it anyway, Cox and Forshaw do offer one useful description of what is meant by theory. They are talking about the use of theory in the natural sciences but it could equally apply to the social sciences:
A good scientific theory specifies a set of rules that determine what can and cannot happen to some portion of the world. They must allow predictions to be made that can be tested by observation. If the predictions are shown to be false, the theory is wrong and must be replaced. If the predictions are in accord with observation, the theory survives. No theory is ‘true’ in the sense that it must always be possible to falsify it. As the biologist Thomas Huxley wrote: ‘Science is organised common sense where many a beautiful theory was killed by an ugly fact.’ Any theory that is not amenable to falsification is not a scientific theory – in fact one might go so far as to say that it has no reliable information content at all. The reliance on falsification is why scientific theories are different from matters of opinion. The scientific meaning of the word ‘theory’, by the way, is different from its ordinary usage, where it often suggests a degree of speculation. Scientific theories may be speculative if they have not yet been confronted with the evidence, but an established theory is something that is supported by a large body of evidence. Scientists strive to develop theories that encompass as wide a range of phenomena as possible, and physicists in particular tend to get very excited about the prospect of describing everything that can happen in the material world in terms of a small number of rules. Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw (2011), The Quantum Universe: Everything that can happen does happen, London: Penguin, p.14.
Which is a somewhat more considered attempt at arriving at an all-encompassing explanation than one of Cox’s earlier forays into this area, which went something along the lines of ‘Things can only get better’ .