• Laura Huey

"I have this theory ...." What Theory is and What To Do With It.

Yesterday I had an absolutely fantastic chat with a former student from my Qualitative Research Methods course. She was struggling with what to do with her research. The problem? "I've read too much!" In other words, when you know a lot about a particular topic and all of the relevant theories, it can be difficult to see how to carve out a new path for yourself. It can also be difficult to see how you could use qualitative methods to work with the existing theories in an area. Say ... what?

Let's start with a basic definition:

- a theory is an idea or set of ideas to explain some phenomenon. What makes scientific theory different from your Dad's hunches, is that scientific theory has been systematically tested according to accepted standards of scientific practice. Please tell your Dad this.

When social scientists use theories, we use them as a way of helping to understand and explain our data. Hot spot policing is a great example of this. There is an entire body of literature that helps us to understand not just that 'hot spotting' can work if done correctly, but also why it might work (theory: routine activities theory).

Now one of the things it's important to bear in mind is that social theories explain phenomenon that occur at different levels of society.

Macro (large) - societies as a whole

Meso (middle range) - institutions, communities, groups

Micro (small) - individuals or small clusters of people

Hot spots is based on a theory that works in many different contexts, but is really focused on how people interact in local areas (micro). Theories that explore possible relationships between national economic collapse and increased crime rates are macro. If you study policing as an institution, you are typically working with what we call middle range (meso) theories.

Now why was my student struggling? A lot of the theory she was reading was meso or mid-range (institution-wide) and she has a sample size of 15 interviews, many of which document strengths and limitations with respect to inter-personal relationships (micro). In other words, there's a complete mismatch between her data and the theories she's reading. The mismatch is definitely in relation to content, but also in terms of her sample size. You cannot realistically talk about an entire institution in any kind of definitive terms based on a sample size of 15 interviews*. If you were to do that, you'd have to term your work exploratory and be very upfront about all of the sizable limitations in your work (pun intended).

And yes, for that one person who happens to think 15 interviews can be used to make sweeping statements about, say, an institution of 70,000 people, I am aware of the concept of 'saturation.' ** Trust me, 15 out of 70,000 will not hit any reasonable methodologist's definition of saturation.

So, what did I advise her to do?

Go back to her data, re-read it, and then start to think about how she can develop or apply relevant micro-level theory based on what her data is telling her. There is zero point, for example, applying a Marxist lens (macro) to the breakdown of inter-personal work relationships (micro). Square peg meet round hole.

*You cannot say 15 is remotely representative of the entire population. Therefore you cannot make explanatory or causal arguments, as in "These 15 represent the entire population of policing and their experiences can be explained by [insert mid-range or macro-level theory here] and therefore this theory explains all police officers' experiences." There are ways to make those larger arguments qualitatively but they take a helluva lot of work and significantly larger sample sizes.

**Saturation is the point in interviewing where you are highly unlikely to collect any new information, insights, ideas, beliefs, etc. because all of your interviewees are saying pretty much the same thing as everyone else you are interviewing.


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