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Family Theory

Methods Of Creating Theories

Theories about families usually develop over time as theorists incorporate prior knowledge and new experience. At first, there may be only fragments, enough of an argument to share the basic shape of a theory with an audience. If a particular theory has been discussed for a period of time and a consensus has been established, the theory may be named and only brief mention made of its details, on the assumption that colleagues understand what is involved. Working to produce a family theory, however, usually takes place in one of two ways.

Deductive theory is produced by starting with fairly abstract ideas and without particular regard for the way families can be observed to operate in the "real" world. Some of the ideas may be borrowed from other areas of study, and some may represent the integration or modification of existing ideas about family. Portions may be entirely new, but more often the theorist is just reshaping or recombining ideas that have appeared in other scholarly works. Theorists may work deductively even when they are not creating deductive explanations.

Once the new theory is given a clear structure, the theorist or a colleague who is attracted to the theory conducts empirical research to test some of the arguments. If the theory is supported by research data, gathered and analyzed using suitable methods, the theory is provisionally accepted. This acceptance is provisional because it takes repeated tests, often by different groups of researchers using somewhat different methods, before a great deal of confidence in the theory is warranted. If the theory is unsupported or refuted by research data, it is revised or discarded in favor of a superior alternative. Ideally, two rival theories with different explanations and predictions are pitted against each other in a single study or a carefully managed series of studies. This enables scholars to determine which of the two theories is better.

Some family scientists object to the deductive process. While they acknowledge that it is the usual textbook approach, they offer either of two arguments. The weak theory objection is that scholars really do not use the deductive method. Instead, they are guided by hunches derived from the direct experiences they have, either as handlers of empirical data or as participants in family life. The strong theory objection is that every judgment and decision a scholar makes is based on preconceived ideas to which that scholar has very strong attachments. Because all social scientists have ideas and beliefs about families, the theories they create are biased in ways that escape the attention of even the most impartial theorist.

To take advantage of both objections, some family scientists use an inductive method to create their theories. In its pure form, the scientist disregards all previous knowledge and speculation about the topic of interest. Research with minimal biases is conducted, and the participating families and the results they produce are taken at face value. A useful theory is developed either after the research is concluded or slowly during the process of study. A grounded theory emerges.

Much family theorizing is transductive, with elements of both deduction and induction. The two extreme approaches provide models for how to work, but there is room for an intermediate approach.

Many participants are involved in the process of creating any theory. Even if only one author receives credit, that person builds on the ideas of others. If a particular theory has many acknowledged contributors and if it endures sufficiently long, it becomes recognized as a theoretical tradition or school of thought. The family members who participate in the creation of family theory may be recognized as coauthors, but often they are not.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of FamiliesFamily Theory - Philosophies Of Family Science, Purposes Of Family Theory, Meaning Of Family, Level Or Scope Of Family Theories