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 satisfy their need to know things. 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.e., "I can make this light before it turns completely red."). 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 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. Formal means stated in precise language according to scientific convention - axioms, premises, hypotheses, logical statements. Disciplined means a strict adherence to definitions and rules that results in an orderly explanation of things. Abstractions of reality means that we take our observations of real life and generalize them to ideal life.
Theory isn't simply normal family life explained in scientific jargon. Family theorists have to agree that the family exists in the first place, and that it has a basic, identifiable form, and that there is general agreement about its identity. Family theorists also have to share some ideas about the best way to observe the family and record our observations. Theories about the families always begin with a definition of the family so that readers may all begin at the same conceptual place. 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, or were orphaned. It 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. What if we could formulate a definition that allows a group of people to be more or less a family, depending on the number of definitional elements they possess?
Formally stated, let us say a family:
The Definition of Theory
Before we get too smart too fast, let us try out some other definitions. What exactly is a theory in the scientific sense of the word? It is a rhetorical question, so I'll tell you.
Theories are the means by which science realizes its goals, which are to classify and organize (describe) events so that they make sense, to explain the past and predict the future, and to offer an "intuitively pleasing sense of understanding why and how events should occur. (Turner, 1974: 2).The goals of science are to describe, explain and predict events and phenomena regarding the family.
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:
Another way to look at the ritual theoretically - as the economy transposed itself from a labor intensive, factory/production orientation to an information-and-referral, service orientation, the need to start fresh became increasingly more important.After all we wouldn't want to offend our clients. Continuing into the morning ritual:
How is order possible with so much potential for conflict or error?
How are patterns of family organization created, maintained, and changed?
To answer these questions, theory must classify and organize the events in everyday life, explain causes of past events and predict when, where and under what conditions future events will occur, and offer a sense of understanding of why and how things happen the way they do. Theory accomplishes all of this in its own orderly, systematic fashion, beginning with the isolation and definition of concepts, and the forming of hypothetical relationships between concepts. These are the building blocks of theory.
Family Theories' Building Blocks
Scientific measurement of concepts is provided by the use of operational definitions. Each concept must be measurable. We have to be able to recognize the concept (usually quantitatively) in order to gauge its relation to other concepts in the family. Family rules are sometimes invoked by members in normal interaction - "You're not supposed to say that word!" "Mom's going to make you have a time out on the steps." Operational definitions of love might simply consist of the number of times a term of endearment is used, or the amount of physical touching that occurs when family members are in close proximity.
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. 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. Thus, we can hypothesize that morning rituals will be less conflictual as the number of children decreases, or the family income increases, or if the parents' level of education is high enough.
In order to achieve complete theory status, our theory must be applicable to every family everywhere. 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.
Assumptive Dimensions of Theory
However, all scientists believe that the universe is orderly and that it operates in "normal" regularity. They have to possess this belief - to believe otherwise is to abandon the scientific method altogether. This regularity, the laws, principles, and properties of human social life exists, it is believed, whether science discovers 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, alone or in groups, are motivated to actively stimulate change in the environment and participate in their own development.
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
Nomothetic theories display research-based laws of behavior, while idiographic theories are hard pressed to be of much generalizable value. 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 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 are not developed enough to specifically state their positions on each of the assumptive dimensions.
Thus, trustworthy theories will probably be consistent across these
assumptive dimensions, and will give rise to hypotheses in need of testing
in research, as they describe, explain, and predict events and behaviors.
THE FUNCTIONS OF THEORY AND SYSTEMATIC THEORY BUILDING
Theory has four specific functions for the social scientist:
-Theory describes situations and events, as nearly as possible, as they occur in reality. Theoretical statements about some aspect of family life should paint a meaningful and accurate picture of the events in question. When reading scholarly literature about the differences between girls and boys as they develop through adolescence, for example, one should be able to imagine the reality of two typical teenagers as the he or and the she normally mature.
-Theory delimits the picture of family life it creates by cropping reality to exclude portions of social organization not covered by the theory. Social and psychological theories should specifically state to which groups, to what portions of the population, or to whom the theory applies. 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, as well as note the conditions when the rule might apply to all.
-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 fore bearers 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. Begin with the person who first discovered fire, because
that is one factor needed to extract the copper in the little wires from
its ore. Along these lines, the importance of social scientific history
is illustrated in the geneology chart below. It is extremely important
that we know the giants on whose shoulders we stand. The names here are
only a few of the many thinkers who have contributed to our theoretical
understanding of the family (Mullins, 1973). It is a genealogy of dissertation
teachers and students who became teachers with students. The linkages in
the figure represent classroom contacts. To update the theory family
tree for yourself would require inquiries of your own professors about
their old teachers.
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 American philosophy and 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 that has been carried on by your own teachers and their teachers.
Think about the names on the list for a minute. You might know most of them, or you will, since these are the names associated with the theories we will be studying in this class. 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 (Street Corner Society) 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, who was the graduate student of E.C. Hughes, co-founder of Symbolic Interaction Theory. All this potential knowledge and understanding has hopefully been passed down from teacher to student over the years.
A point not illustrated by the geneology chart 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 - Methodology Connection
From Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Pirsig, 1974), 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 when the boy asks a question.
The logical statements entered into the notebook are broken down into
1) statement of the problem,
2) hypotheses as to the cause of the problem,
3) experiments designed to test each hypothesis,
4) predicted results of the experiments,
5) observed results of the experiments and
6) conclusions from the results of the experiments.
This is just like a 2-4 high school or college lab project, but the purpose here is no longer busy work. The purpose now is precise guidance of thoughts that will fail if they are not accurate. The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure Nature hasn't misled you into thinking you know something you don't actually know. There's not a scientist or mechanic alive who hasn't suffered from that one so much that he is not instinctively on guard. That's the main reason why so much scientific and mechanical information sounds so dull and so cautious. If you get careless or go romanticizing scientific information, giving it a flourish here and there, Nature will soon make a complete fool out of you.
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:
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.
1. Things have changed.
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.
How is she going to go about testing her theory? Look at Wallace's Wheel(1971):
From her theoretical statements, our researcher 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 sex, right?
So Hypothesis number one is:
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:
Finally, things seem to have changed. If that is true, then older people
will exhibit stronger differences on H1 and H2 when compared to younger
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 (measure) 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.
Operationalizing gender is easy enough.
On the questionnaire, simply type in: Please check one: SEX ___ Male ___ Female
For the moment we will forget the research on androgyny that suggests gender to be a continuum rather than a dichotomy (a range of masculinity to femininity rather than one or the other).
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. She will have to continue to test this theory with a variety of measures and samples to come close to a complete test of the theory. However, over time, with many researchers at work on the same theory, the cumulative nature of science begins to transform what we know about boys and girls and sex and age.
It is much easier to rely on past information, allowing nature to fool
us into thinking we know more than we really do.
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, I 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.