The Usefulness of Guiding Theoretical Assumptions
What's Theory Got To Do With Family Crises?
for students unfamiliar with the scientific method and
the nature of finding things out in a systematic way,
you will just have to take this on faith for a while.
The mysteries surrounding family crises - why they
exist, why they persist, why those in crisis have
difficulty getting out of crisis- these things will stay
mysteries and never be solved on a grand scale unless
they are put in a theoretical context and thought
about like an engineer tackles a design problem.
Clearing the Decks for Disciplined Abstractions
Whether or not one wishes to be classified as a theoretician, there is overwhelming evidence that everyone theorizes. Infants, as their attention is caught by a glittering object on the coffee table, make plans to have an oral understanding with that glowing thing. They begin to make semi-educated guesses, based on their past experiences, about the territory over which they will have to travel in order to quench their thirst for knowledge. In daily traffic, each driver is placing bets (making predictions) about the intentions and sobriety of the various elements in his or her field of vision - "I can make this light before it turns completely red."
Just like the social scientist, each of us in everyday life is using the past to predict the future, cataloging novel events that go against our best judgments, learning from our mistakes, and continuing to grow in our understanding of the world around us. One of the differences between everyday theorizing and theorizing using the scientific method is that theoretical errors in science rarely result in a trivial mouthful of ashes or a crumpled fender. Errors in science can have more far reaching consequences.
Another difference is that scientific theories are formal, disciplined abstractions of reality; whereas everyday bets are placed in a much more informal manner.
When we think of the concept "family", one of the very first impressions we get is a man, a woman, young children, and maybe a pet or two - all living happy lives together. I'll bet they are even eating breakfast, or standing on a front porch. That is an ideal family and one that is accepted by most of the culture, even among those who are divorced, come from abusive childhoods, were orphaned, and even among those whose sexual orientation is something other than the norm.
This concept is ideal and abstract, but it isn't disciplined, or formal.
One way to
define family is in terms of what it looks like and
the functions it serves.
2. Has a division of labor that allows each person specific tasks to perform.
3. Allows opportunities for members to engage in economic, social, and emotional exchanges - they do things for each other.
4. Allows members to share things in common, such as food, residence, goods & services.
5. Affords relations among members: parents relating to children, children to parents, all based on some line of authority, each member with rights and obligations to all others.
6. Is functional to all members in terms of affection, sexuality, protection, and the transmission of wisdom.
In making observations, we now have the ability to judge whether or not differences exist between families who fully fit the definition and those who have limitations. Before we know it we are thinking like scientists and doing research and becoming famous. Pretty neat!
Did you get
A theory suggests a model, or representation, of the "way things are". Theories make order out of chaos because they organize the parts of the world (the universe, reality, everyday life) into logical, coherent, understandable relationships.
Jonathan Turner (1978) terms this "the problem of order", which is also known as the Hobbesian Question: ("How is order possible" in a world where everyone competes for scarce resources in order to survive?). Sociologists tend to agree that order is possible because of each person's dependency, or connectedness, to the social world in which they exist.
Think for a moment about any family as it begins its day. The sun is coming up, an alarm clock awakens the designated early riser - for our purposes, let us use a mother. This is the first evidence of connectedness - We have to get up in time to prepare for the day: Mom gets out of bed, nudges a snoozing father awake and pushes him toward the shower, shakes sleepy children awake, then goes downstairs to prepare the morning meal (the most important meal of the day!). She flips the radio or television on (media dependency) so that the predicted temperature and weather patterns for the day can determine the clothing everyone will use. She likes Channel 8 weather because the announcer is apologetic when it is going to be nasty outside.
Sensitive to the absence of movement noises upstairs, and knowing the other members of the family as she does, she stands at the foot of the stairwell and hurls a few threats up the steps ("Don't make me have to come up there!"). Children jump up, go into the bathroom - first one, then the others in semi-orderly fashion ("YOU used all of the hot water again!").
This ritual implies the family's adaptation to changing social demands. Only a few decades ago, we washed the day's labor off our bodies at night before supper, especially when we earned a living with our muscles. As we retired, or reallocated, our muscles to tennis and racquetball courts and the running trail, and began to work in less physical occupations, we discovered the need to start the day fresh and clean instead of ending the day that way.
Children put on freshly pressed clothing, generally finding socks in their sock drawer, underwear in its proper place, and shirts hanging in the closet. One by one, family members are lured downstairs by the aroma of breakfast. While children eat and stare at the back of the cereal box, mother makes an informal inspection, evaluating the performance of the morning rituals. Money is dispensed for school buses, lunches, or special events. Homework is checked for errors and completeness. Corrections in clothing choices are made and kids are shooed out the door with a "have a good day". Alone for a few moments, mother and father make plans to meet up at the end of the day ("What time will you be home tonight?").
Interestingly, this ritual is played out in thousands of homes every morning during the school year. Rarely is there a serious disagreement. In fact, there is very little talk at all.
Theory's Building Blocks
The existence of a standard operating procedure is what allows the efficient performance of the morning ritual. Perhaps not as easily understood is the concept of love and affection. While we are perfectly comfortable using the term "love", we are rarely sure that we are in love, or that we are in love as deeply as we have the potential to be.
Scientific understanding of concepts is provided by the use of operational definitions. Each concept must be measurable. We have to be able to recognize the concept in order to gauge its relation to other concepts in the family.
Family rules are sometimes invoked by members in normal interaction
Hypothetical statements link concepts together in a causal or correlational manner. For example, a family with negotiated rules will exhibit less conflict than a family in which rules are set down from authority figures. When sets of hypothetical statements are collected together, the result is a theory. The morning ritual vignette is probably true for only a few hundred thousand families in the United States, however it is true enough to be recognized as an ideal type of ritual that normal families might perform..
To be able to generalize this theory to all families, we have to include variations in the ritual according to the gender and age composition of families, the socioeconomic status of families, the historical epoch and the culture in which the ritual is being performed. In order to achieve complete theory status, our theory must be applicable to every family everywhere, or else it is a delimited theory. Most theories fall short of this global attribute because they fail to include one or another important concepts. Thus, students of the family often hear charges that their favorite theory (and there are a great many little theories) is a "middle class theory" or is "wives' sociology" since lower and working class families are excluded or because only the testimony of wives is used to substantiate the theory's validity.
There are a great many theories for another reason. In order to make theoretical statements, one must make assumptions from which to construct hypothetical arguments.
Dimensions of Theory
In order to study anything, the student must begin by making some assumptions about the nature of what is to be studied. The ancient Greeks believed that the world was run according to the whims of a group of petty, human-like gods. My grandmother believes that she can remove warts by praying and rubbing the afflicted area of the body. Some of the social philosophers one may read about believe that a set of natural laws exist under which social life is determined - sort of a Social Physics.
However, all scientists believe that the universe is orderly and that it operates in "normal" regularity. This regularity, the laws, principles, and properties, of human social life exists whether we discover it or not. Theories that strive to describe, explain and predict individual development are generally psychological in content and take the individual as the unit of analysis. Concepts such as intelligence, motivation, and unique personal experiences are often used to deal with variations in individual personality development.
When the unit of analysis becomes a group, such as the family, the theory becomes sociological in content. The mechanistic-organismic dimension ranges from the view that individual behavior is completely determined by forces outside the individual on the one hand to the view that individuals have completely free will on the other. The mechanistic assumption views individuals as simple reactors to stimuli. Working under this assumption, all behavior could be seen as pain avoiding or comfort seeking. The organismic view allows the individual to choose between good and evil, right and wrong, and it assumes that individuals are motivated to actively stimulate change in the environment.
Objective theories, such as Skinnerian behavioral theory, explain actual behavior without attempting to describe or explain unique or personal motivations or thought processes. Subjective theories, such as Maslow's developmental theory of the hierarchy of needs, are more concerned with why individuals behave in specific ways than in the behavior exhibited. Introspective theories rely on reports from subjects, while extraspective theories assume the observations of subjects by trained clinicians to be more accurate.
Theories can be formally stated, as is the case of the tenets of behavioral psychology, or they may be informally expressed, as is the case of sociology's grounded theory, or in many qualitative studies. Finally, there is the abstract/concrete continuum. Psychoanalytic theories of personality development operate within a set of concepts that are far removed from actual behavior. While one might be able to observe a child steal candy from another and call the behavior selfish, an abstract theory might assume that the part of the personality that emitted the behavior was the Id, where all desires and appetites reside. Good theories do not violate their own assumptions, however many of the family theories used in social science today aren't developed enough to specifically state their positions on each of the assumptive dimensions.
Functions of Theory One More Time
This feature allows social scientists to generalize theory in specific ways. Adolescent development will obviously be different for boys versus girls, for Koreans compared to Canadians, and for rich and poor teens. Thus, a theory of adolescent development would necessarily specify appropriate delimiting factors. Theory explains, or provides the "why" of, various aspects of individual experience and social events. For example, theories dealing with teenage pregnancy should explain why so many teens find themselves pregnant even though information about contraception is readily available. A good theory will explain events using "relational" statements (i.e., as self-esteem increases among teenage girls, their risk of premarital pregnancy decreases). Finally, theory predicts behavior or events. Often the prediction is inherent in the explanation. Given the statement about self-esteem and pregnancy, we could theoretically predict outcome (i.e., if parents, teachers, and others increase the number of self-esteem building messages aimed at teenage girls, this will effectively reduce the number of pregnant teenagers over time).
These are some of the rules that guide the generation of social theories. However, social theory is constantly evolving as more and more theory based research is initiated and completed. This means that theories start out rather imprecisely. They often lack one or more of the functions of description, delimitation, explanation, and prediction. Social scientists, like their counterparts in the "hard sciences", often talk about the cumulative nature of the field. Theory is continually in a state of refinement as research interests conspire to test each and every component of the theory under a wide range of conditions.
Robert King Merton, a well known theoretician in sociology, said this: "For in building the mansion of sociology during the last decades, theorist and empiricist have learned to work together ... All this has led not only to the realization that theory and empirical research should interact but to the result that they do interact." (Merton, 1967: 156).
This idea of theorizing and empirical testing, followed by refinement of theory and further testing applies to all of social science. Merton is said to have uttered one of the classic lines in sociology. Loosely paraphrased, he said that we stand on the shoulders of giants in order to have the vision that we now take for granted. In other words, the precision and sophistication of our knowledge base continues to mount up over time to the point that mediocre thinkers of today can solve problems that brilliant minds of yesterday could not even conceive.
There is easily more scientific "truth" in a seventh grade science book than was possessed by the entire population of the earth during the 17th century. Sometimes, as we sit in front of our microcomputers, clicking away at the keyboard, deeply involved in word processing, we may forget about the problems under which our intellectual forebearers scratched out a little theory. But we can get an inkling of the enormity of the task of fundamental thought set upon by those early philosopher/scientists.
Make a list of
the inventive contributors who made your personal
computer a desktop reality.
As one of my students, you may be interested to know that you have a direct, intellectual "blood line" to the beginnings of American pragmatic philosophy, the Dewey Decimal System, and the very foundations of modern social scientific thought. The point is that social science has come a long way since 1900. As new students of family development, you are preparing to do your part to extend the discipline's knowledge base. Think about these names for a minute. You know most of them.
The Chicago School was famous for developing theories about social disorganization, the sociology of knowledge, pragmatic philosophy, and symbolic interaction theory. The Harvard School was the site of the birth of Structural Functional Theory. Among the Modern Family Theorists are Jesse Bernard ("his and her" marriage), Ira Reiss (sex in America), Willard Waller (rating and dating in mate selection), and Reuben Hill (Hill's ABC-X theory of family dismemberment and crisis). Robin Williams wrote the best book on American Society ever published.
William Foote Whyte pioneered direct observation techniques of qualitative methodology in his study of the urban experience (and Whyte also invented that little wheel with clips that waiters attach orders to in restaurants!). Balswick and his student Peek conceptualized the "inexpressive male," Nancy Bell took her methodology courses from medical sociologist and jazz musician Howard Becker. All this potential knowledge and understanding has hopefully been passed down from teacher to student over the years.
A point not illustrated by Figure 2 is that around 1950, theoreticians became familiar with the techniques of research, and put to use the advances in computer technology of the times. Not one name on the list has achieved theoretical prominence without doing research. This is the next important part of the discussion about theory.
The Theory -
We'll get back
to Babbie's ideas in a moment. But first we have to
understand the scientific method.
Here's a discussion about the scientific method and why it is important to think about that which one intends to theorize about. Here, a boy, his father, and some friends are camping by the side of the road. It is night and everyone is gazing into the campfire: After a while he says,
"Do you believe in ghosts?" "No," I say. "Why not?", Chris asks. "Because they are un-sci-en-ti-fic", I say. "They contain no matter and have no energy and therefore, according to the laws of science, do not exist except in people's minds."
I add, "Of course, the laws of science contain no matter and have no energy either and therefore do not exist except in people's minds. It is best to be completely scientific about the whole thing and refuse to believe in either ghosts or the laws of science. That way you're safe. That doesn't leave you very much to believe in, but that's scientific too."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Chris says. "One of the kids at YMCA camp says he believes in ghosts". "He was just spoofing you." "No he wasn't. He said that when people haven't been buried right, their ghosts came back to haunt people. He really believes in that." "What's his name?" Sylvia says. "Tom White Bear." "Ohhh, Indian!" . . . "I guess I'm going to have to take that back a little. I was thinking of European ghosts."
"What's the difference?" John roars with laughter. "He's got you," He says. "Well, Indians sometimes have a different way of looking at things, which I'm not saying is completely wrong. Science isn't part of the Indian Tradition. I guess I believe in ghosts too. My own opinion is that the intellect of modern man isn't that much different." "Those Indians and medieval men were just as intelligent as we are, but the context in which they thought was completely different. Within that context of thought, ghosts and spirits are quite as real as atoms, particles, photons and quants are to a modern man. In that sense I believe in ghosts. Modern man has his ghosts and spirits too, you know. The laws of physics and of logic ... the number system ... the principle of algebraic substitution. These are ghosts. We just believe in them so thoroughly that they seem real." "I don't get it", says Chris. (Pirsig, 1974: 28-29).
To help his son, and himself, understand the difference between Indian and European ghosts, the father begins to tell his theory about solving mysteries using logic and science. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance continues:
Mysteries. You're always surrounded by them. But if you tried to solve them all, you'd never get (anything done). Take Nature - When you've really hit a tough one, tried everything, racked your brain and nothing works and you know this time Nature has really decided to be difficult, you say "Okay, Nature, that's the end of the nice guy," and you crank up the formal scientific method. For this you keep a lab notebook.
Everything gets written down, formally, so that you know at all times where you are, where you've been, where you're going and where you want to get....otherwise the problems get so complex you get lost in them and confused and forget what you know and what you don't know and have to give up.
The logical statements entered into the notebook are broken down into six categories:
is absolutely delightful. If you haven't read it, you
probably would benefit from it.
Science allows us to create an environment within which our little models of reality will work for the time being. Our theory will be tested and interpreted and published. And it may be right for a month, a year or a decade. But sooner or later, it will fade in its "truthfulness", and then we have to start over. We try (sometimes we make fools of ourselves in the process) to be precise and exact, faithfully employing scientific methodology that has worked in the past.
The family studies field has been applying scientific principles for some time. A mainline text for courtship and marriage courses in the 1950s supported conservative advice to young women on the subject of "physical contact in dating success". Keep in mind, this advice was based on research findings:
While Kinsey reported that about 1/3 of 21-25 year-old women had had premarital intercourse in 1953, the 1980's heralded, not only the AIDS virus, but also an 80% rate of premarital intercourse among women of that age group, a rate that continues to rise. In terms of our discussion, what has changed in the interim between the two reports?
Additionally, the age for first premarital intercourse for women is also dropping - about half the females in the 15-19 year-old category had premarital intercourse, 1/3 of the young women in the 12-15 year-old category. It would appear that premarital sex has become an acceptable and established pattern in our society, especially when sex takes place in intimate relationships such as serious dating, engagement, and cohabitation.
And one of the big reasons for this dramatic increase in sexual activity, and the change in ATTITUDE about sex for young women was the placement of reliable contraceptives in the hands of the women who would use them.
Have you ever wondered how "they" can say "that" about "them"? In other words, how does a social scientist use the scientific method to describe, explain, and predict human behavior and attitudes? According to Professor Babbie, she should begin with theory - with an interest in some aspect of the real world. Maybe an informed opinion about the alleged difference between males and females in their attitudes and behaviors regarding sexuality. Her informal theory might hold that women are not as intentionally sexy as men (at least among those born before the end of World War II).
She must state her theory precisely. After spending some hours in the library, searching the database for titles about her subject, she emerges with all the scholarship on the subject since the beginning of time (that's about 1950 for social science). Her theory is beginning to take shape as she puts her notes together into
The Theory of Gender Differences on the Subject of Sex.
2. While there have always been exceptions, in general men have been more willing to discuss sexuality than have women.
3. Men are more casual in their approach of the subject of sex, and are more single-minded in their quest for sex.
4. Men tend to think about sex more than women.
5. There are fewer differences between the genders now than in the past.
theoretical statements, she will have to deduce
hypotheses (good old deductive logic is the method
used). If it is true that men have always been more
willing to discuss sexuality than have women, then they
ought to have a larger vocabulary of words describing
If men are more
casual in their approach, then they should feel less
commitment to the people with whom they engage in sex,
right? So Hypothesis #2 is:
seem to have changed. If that is true, then older people
will exhibit stronger differences on H1 and H2 when
compared to younger people, or Hypothesis #3.
The methods that get our social scientist from the hypothesis stage to the observation stage of theory construction are many. First, she has to operationalize each of the concepts in all three hypotheses. This refers to a specification of the steps, procedures, or operations necessary to accurately and precisely measure each concept.
Remember: Concepts are abstract, while measures are concrete. Concepts reside in the minds of people, like ghosts and the laws of science. Measures reside in rules, on paper, in tools.
gender is easy enough. On the questionnaire, simply type
Age of respondent is also pretty easily obtained: What is the year of your birth? _______
Vocabulary size proves more difficult to measure. She could ask respondents to write down all of the words that they can think of for male or female anatomy, then count the number of entries. We could think of many other ways to measure this concept. To measure the commitment-after-sex concept, she could ask respondents about their past relationships and whether or not they ever had sex with a partner who was less committed to the relationship than they were.
With measures for every concept in every hypothesis, our practitioner needs to draw a representative sample - with respondents from both genders, and a wide age range. She might also want to insure that the sample is not biased some way (i.e., all Presbyterians, mostly Hell's Angels, etc.).
After sampling is accomplished, she is ready to apply her measuring instrument and make observations, then data can be collected. At this point (all observations are made), the social scientist is ready to analyze the data and make her comparisons based on age and gender. Depending on the quality of the measures and the representativeness of the sample and the soundness of the logic used to derive hypotheses, she should be able to generalize her findings to the larger population.
She is saying "My findings hold for all men and women everywhere." Using inductive logic, she is able to consider her theory in view of her current findings. If no differences were found between men and women when age was taken into account, she could say that her theory stands without amendment.
If she found that men and women differ regardless of their birth year, she would have to amend her theory since H3 was rejected. And so on - considering each hypothesis in view of the data and inductively modifying her theoretical position.
This is a brief example. Obviously, more stringent measurement, or finer distinctions in hypotheses could make for big changes in findings. Thus the connection between theory and methodology.
Also, only one
study does not a test of theory make.
It is much easier to rely on past information, allowing nature to fool us into thinking we know more than we really do know. Pirsig is correct - it isn't very romantic to be so precise and accurate all the time. But there are specific times when there is no substitute for precision. One such time is when our car is stalled in a rough part of town in the middle of the night. In our driveway, we could caress it and speak softly to it in the ridiculous belief that it can feel and hear us. On the dangerous avenues of American cities, we become the epitome of precision, if we have it in us. At least we wish, with all our heart, that we had taken auto shop in high school instead of art.
Another appropriate time for precision, conservative and informed opinions, and sheer awareness is when we are in the service of the family. Advocates of the family need to be able to cut through inaccuracies with a superior knowledge base. Families are betting their very existence on our ability to do so. In the next chapter, We deal specifically with the subject of the purpose of theory in the study of the family. While you read, keep in mind the thousands of young women who failed to maintain their virginity after reading the Landis text in 1955. Even with his best estimates, Landis failed to question his data enough.