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Linking theory with research, choosing a theoretical framework and developing alternative explanations

I taught Research Design this past fall and one of the key challenges I see in teaching how to properly design research projects is the chasm that exists between theory development and empirical testing. For some reason, it is hard for some students (and more than one scholar!) to link theory with research. This discussion is one I have had for a very long while with my colleagues, Dr. Rodrigo Salazar Elena and Dr. Gloria del Castillo Aleman.

How do we link all the theories we read into what we see in the empirical work?

I believe that there are three elements at play.

1) There are various types and levels of theory (grand theory, meso-level theory, micro-level theory), etc.

2) We (scholars, students, practitioners) need to read very broadly to be able to discern across theories.


Holland establishes two theoretical expectations:

1) if there is poor state capacity to monitor and enforce, we may expect that there will be limited enforcement activity. Holland cites Levitsky and Vicky Murillo on this)

2) if there’s inadequate bureaucratic control here’s a higher likelihood that there will be limited enforcement activity.

These are two observations that Holland makes from absorbing, summarizing, integrating and presenting the various theories surrounding poor regulatory enforcement.

She then introduces her own conceptualization of forbearance. Holland makes it clear how her framework borrows from other theories (including price theory) and in doing so, these borrowed theoretical concepts help her explain how states choose not to enforce regulation.

This is an excellent example of how to apply theory to explain things. Theories help establish an expectation of how the world should work. We need theory to establish exactly what we expect to see

Empirical research then tests those theories and asserts whether the theories being used actually do help explain the phenomenon we are observing.

If we reverse-engineer Holland’s paper, we can see the empirical phenomenon she is looking to understand (limited, constrained regulatory non-compliance). She then establishes the various theories that could potentially help her explain this non-compliance/non-enforcement.

We choose the theory depending on the empirical phenomenon we are examining and the research question we are trying to understand, and our prior experience (and reading/understanding) of how the phenomenon will operate. hus selecting a theoretical framework does not happen “a priori”.

I never decided that “oh I am going to study the governance of river basin councils using the Ostroms’ frameworks”. I examined the phenomenon, and reviewed the literature to see how others have looked at it. For example, in my work on water conflicts, I look at the different theories on which factors could combine to make a water dispute happen. There are theories that indicate that under resource scarcity conditions, actors will want to hoard resources and thus engage in conflict.

Below another example.

Snow et al find empirical support for resource mobilization theory (one of the most popular among scholars of social movements). Thus, instead of arriving with a theoretical framework in hand, we need to establish which phenomenon we want to study/explain and the theories that have been previously used to explain this phenomenon.

Thus, in closing:

a) selecting a theoretical framework for a study usually happens after reading and synthesizing a lot of literature on how the phenomenon has been analyzed before. I wouldn’t do it “a priori”.

b) linking theory with research is particularly important because it helps us establish theoretical expectations (and develop alternative explanations, something that apparently has been forgotten when teaching research design).

3) Alternative explanations are based on theory. I strongly believe it is fundamental that we teach our students both elements, how to link research with theory and how to select a theoretical framework, and if I were to add a third element, how to establish alternative explanations for the same phenomenon and discern which elements/theories/evidence best explain what we are trying to understand.

I hope this blog post clarifies my approach to selecting a theoretical framework, linking theory with research and developing alternative explanations as well as theoretical expectations.

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  1. Adam Loch says

    Thank you for this nice brief explanation which I feel does an excellent job. In my teaching of research principles and practices I agree that we seem to have lost sight of theory and for me it is an integral component exactly as you have described it above. I especially like the link you make between theory and expected/alternative outcomes which is critical. This is now added as a resource to my course because many struggle with this idea – yet it is so helpful once you get it right.

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