Thanks for your interest in Wikitheoria, a system for building, storing, and evaluating and integrating theories.
Consistent with general scientific practice, it emphasizes
The Wikitheoria system treats all theories as works in progress, democratizing their development by encouraging contributions from any interested users via new submissions and suggested improvements of others’ work. Evaluating and improving a theory is treated as the collective responsibility of all who care about its integrity and utility.
Wikitheoria focuses on modular theories. A Module is a kind of minimalist theory: simple, explicit, interconnectable with others, open to improvement. This swims against popular currents in sociology where the best-known theories tend to be bigger, more complex, stand-alone and relatively static.
There are some terms and procedures that you’ll need to know in order to take full advantage of the system and maximize your impact. This section introduces most of the key ideas used throughout Wikitheoria. There are not many of them, but each is very important.
This section reviews the vocabulary used throughout Wikitheoria. Although some of the words are familiar, their definitions are very specific for our purposes and worth a careful review.
To summarize so far, #1-#7 above establish the meanings of modules and key elements; #9 pertains to ties among modules; and #10-#12 forge ties from modules to the empirical world. Item #13 uses previous definitions to assert our criteria for “theory,” and #14 connotes a residual category for everything not actually within a given theory.
If definitions of terms are abstract and general (#2 above), then so are modules and theories. This means that, while theories (and modules) are designed for application in the “real world” of people and things, theories themselves are not concrete descriptions of specific cases. “Abstract” means not bound to any specific time, place, or set of things. Applications are accomplished by devising concrete indicators that satisfy criteria set forth in the abstract definitions of the terms with which they are associated. Abstractness of terms fosters generality of theories: A general theory is one that both (1) applies in a large number and wide variety of empirical cases, and (2) has been supported by rigorous observations across a number and variety of conditions.
The concepts enumerated above are part of a foundation for good theory building practices, details of which are provided in the Wikitheoria TUTORIAL for registered users. These concepts are part of a perspective that unifies scientific knowledge across disciplines. Unfortunately, it receives little attention in Sociology’s books and journals, and rarely is taught in our Ph.D. programs. The remainder of this Introduction highlights some of those important consequences that follow from a more systematic approach to theory building. Each point can be thought of as stemming from good theory-building practice.
(1) A Good Theory is Intersubjective
The reason for having explicitly defined terms, both in this tutorial and in theories, is for the sake of intersubjectivity—the concurrence among authors and readers on meanings of terms.
Unfortunately, it is the norm in sociology for authors to allow readers to infer their own meanings. Because our brains are wired to seek patterns and infer meanings, readers generally do so readily and confidently. The problem is that inferred meanings can vary among readers, and they can depart from the author’s intentions. This may be fine in literature and art, but not in science where the validity of empirical tests hinges on the theorist establishing intersubjectivity. Unless a term’s indicators conform to the specifications of its definition, hypotheses involving such indicators cannot provide a valid test of the theory. This makes the problem of intersubjectivity absolutely crucial.
Good theory-building practice fosters intersubjectivity, without which science cannot exist.
(2) A Good Theory is Not Metatheory
It is also normative in sociology for a so-called theory to span many pages, sometimes hundreds. Along the way the author may review a general perspective or framework, contrast it with other such frameworks, add empirical illustrations, discuss potential applications, cite specific observations consistent with claims, recommend research strategies, and more. Although this is all potentially very interesting, none of it identifies or clarifies terms, propositions or scope conditions.
We refer to these extra-theoretical topics as metatheory. Metatheoretical discussions can be inspiring and enlightening, but they are not constrained semantically or logically. Often they are imprecise, internally inconsistent, and highly particularistic. None of these necessarily harms a theory so long as that theory is clearly distinguished from any metatheory. Unfortunately, this distinction is rarely made. With no editorial requirement to define terms, demonstrate logical integrity, or establish scope conditions, few authors ever do so and so ancillary topics blend with theoretical elements. This can make it impossible to know exactly what is in the theory, which makes it impossible to test the theory. Wikitheoria promotes the separation of metatheoretical discussion from the theory proper.
Good theory building practice distinguishes theory from metatheory, without which rigorous testing is impossible.
(3) A Good Theory is Both Testable and Tested
The earlier definition of “theory” requires support from empirical tests. This makes testability (also known as falsifiability) a defining property of theories. By this criterion, something cannot even be called a theory unless (i) the relevance (or irrelevance) of any particular observation to the theory’s claims can be established, and (ii) many and varied relevant observations support derived hypotheses. This criterion may look self-evident, but it is common to see scholars argue in print over whether certain research findings support, refute or are irrelevant to a hypothesis. They also may cite a single study or bit of anecdotal evidence to support a theory. Such practices are encouraged by the use of ambiguous theoretical terms that allow mutually contradictory interpretations encourages such practices.
It is important to think skeptically about theories, even those which may seem compelling for their consistency with some real-world cases. Has anyone sought out falsifying instances or noted that their key terms have alternative interpretations? Have authors responded by clarifying or modifying terms and propositions? Is there a single, definitive statement of the theory on which proponents and skeptics can focus attention? In general, when a theory-like argument is not clearly stated, it simply cannot be tested definitively. From a scientific perspective, therefore, the claims of such a theory should be regarded with caution.
If a theory has not survived a gauntlet of pointed attempts to disprove it, the proper attitude toward it should be one of skepticism. Good theories are explicit and transparent. They invite others to find and fix their vulnerabilities rather than use equivocating language to mask them. Their clarity prevents weak test outcomes from triggering post-hoc reinterpretations that make results seem unduly supportive. The best theories not only are well-constructed, but also consistent with the results of comprehensive, detailed and varied tests.
Wikitheoria recognizes the hand-in-hand nature of theory development and theory testing. If a theory has empirical implications that extend well beyond existing tests, then we must treat the theory—or at least those untested aspects of the theory—as provisional until better evidence comes along. More common is the situation where rigorous empirical methods and statistical tests are used to evaluate vague theoretical notions. In this case, the theory’s lack of rigor weaken any conclusions even before tests are conducted.
Theories and their empirical tests are continuously interacting with each other. Well-articulated theories generate precise and fruitful testing opportunities, and quality empirical tests build confidence in the theory and point to potential new opportunities for refinement.
Good theory building practice strengthens the mutual impact of theory and research.
(4) A Good Theory is Communal
Science is both open and communal. Anyone with sufficient training can participate, but there can be a high bar for publishing new theory and research. Peer review and “critical tests” against competing theories are two of the standards that are part of our collective responsibility for producing quality work. Both can be problematic in sociology where positive reviews from two marginally qualified “peers” can land a manuscript in a top journal, and critical tests of loosely-stated theories typically raise more questions than they settle.
The problem of intersubjectivity is relevant here, too. If interested members of a community of scholars don’t agree on the meanings of the terms used in their books and articles, then any theoretical rationale behind the research is open to interpretation by researchers and peer reviewers alike. As noted above, an ambiguous theoretical claim allows mutually contradictory interpretations and mutually contradictory test results that cannot speak at all to the theory’s validity.
Post-publication, theoretical ambivalence spreads to those who read the work and, most harmfully, to those who may wish to test newly derived implications. For proponents, ambivalence has the pseudo-benefit of flexing a theory to fit seemingly any observation. But the flip-side is that ambivalence also opens up the theory to falsifying cases never anticipated by the original author. Unsupportive results then ought to cast doubt on the theory and lead to changes or refinements, but this is rare. Instead, proponents with vested interests create a rhetorical buffer zone against such rational treatments.
When intersubjectivity is lacking, time is wasted on unwinnable debates among entrenched scholars. Nothing will change unless debaters can step back and realize that there is no true communality without good communication; that good communication requires intersubjectivity; and that intersubjectivity cannot occur without clearly defined terms. Holding one another to such high standards may feel discomfiting to some, but it is necessary to foster worthwhile collective theoretical products. As an aside, this need not be a contentious process. Constructive criticism using explicit, rational standards should be given and received as an act of generosity. It helps each of us, and it helps us all.
Good theory building practice is applied, monitored and rewarded collectively.
Wikitheoria’s primary focus is on developing reliable, valid, integratable theory modules. However, module Contributors may certainly take credit for their approved and published modules. Contributors’ names are attached to each iteration of the module published. We encourage them to cite their contributions on their CV:
LastName, FirstName, MI. YEAR. “Module Title.” Wikitheoria index#:version#,
So for example,
Markovsky, Barry. 2018. “3-Element Balance Theory.” Wikitheoria 82:1, http://wikitheoria.com/modules/82/1.
In order to become a Contributor to Wikitheoria, you first must register as a new user, and then read the TUTORIAL and take the associated quiz. Otherwise you are still free to peruse the site and its content, but non-Contributors cannot submit materials or comments.
Acknowledgment The development of Wikitheoria was supported by the National Science Foundation (grants #1123040 and #1551458).
The sections to follow provide instructions for building good theory modules and avoiding common pitfalls. If you have not already familiarized yourself with the basics from the INTRODUCTION, you should read it before continuing.
This tutorial provides the essential tools for working with theory modules in Wikitheoria. If you want to create a new module, modularize existing work in your area of interest, or evaluate and modify modules already in Wikitheoria, this tutorial is for you.
Writing a good module takes some time and patience. There is an element of trial-and-error as you try to coordinate propositions, defined terms, and scope conditions. Before we dive into that, however, some preliminaries.
Basic navigation around Wikitheoria is simple. Major areas are accessed through the links on the top right side of the page. To the logged-in user, the links appear as:
HOME GUIDE LIBRARY ▼ BUILD LOG OUT [UserName]
To reach all available features, you’ll need to SIGN UP initially, then LOG IN for full access. We suggest that you log in now if you haven’t done so already. You also may want to open Wikitheoria in a second window and follow along as features are covered in this tutorial.
HOME is the landing page for Wikitheoria. It has links for getting started, logging in, etc.
Currently you are in the GUIDE area.
Clicking LIBRARY opens a drop-down menu with options to access either the Module library or the Terms lexicon.
If you have Contributor status, then you can impact modules in three ways:
Use the 5-star rating system. Users are encouraged to rate any module that they have reviewed using Wikitheoria’s criteria described below. This is done by using the star rating system at the top of each module’s page. You are urged to apply your best and honest judgment as to the module’s degree of clarity, logic, and empirical support.
Suggest specific revisions. When viewing a module, clicking the Suggest Modifications link at the bottom of the module page takes you to an editing view. From there you can work on any element of the module. Once you have begun editing a module you can always save your work, then later find your revised version in your My Work area. When ready, you can opt to send your suggested modification to the editors for approval. If accepted, your new version will replace the current one on the site.
Submit your own module. You can use the BUILD option from the main menu to construct your own module. Your work may be totally original, or a modularized version (with appropriate citations) to someone else’s work in the past. You can save your module-in-progress and then retrieve it later using the MY WORK link on the main menu. Any work submitted for approval can also be tracked in this section.
This section reviews the vocabulary used throughout Wikitheoria. Although some of the words are familiar, their definitions are very specific for our purposes and worth a careful review.
We have created a small module below for the purpose of illustrating the sort of analysis for which Wikitheoria is designed. The content is purely hypothetical and has not been the target of focused tests, so consider it to be a highly provisional illustration only.
CULTURAL DIFFUSION & INNOVATION (Illustrative Module)
BACKGROUND / METATHEORY
This is a very simple module about cultural diffusion and innovation. Its sole purpose is to illustrate some common problems in theory construction. We will refer to it over the course of the TUTORIAL and offer solutions.
TERMS & DEFINITIONS
Culture - the cumulative total of the learned behavior of a group of people that is generally considered to be the normative tradition of that particular people and that is transmitted from one generation to the next.
Cultural Change - the process by which cultural elements of a society change over time.
Society - the aggregate of people who all live in relative proximity to each other and who identify as a member of the society.
Diffusion - the transfer of cultural traits between groups of people.
Innovation - the application of previously known information in post-industrial societies in a way which is unique.
A proposition is a statement that asserts a cause-effect relationship between two or more terms. As an example, it may take the form
An increase in x causes a decrease in y.
Multiple propositions can work together to provide a deeper explanation of that proposed relationship, as in
An increase in x causes an increase in m. An increase in m causes an increase in y.
Taken together, the proposed effect of x on y is explained via an intervening mechanism: x’s effect on m, and m’s on y. In general, the ideal proposition is clear, precise, abstract, and general. We will have more to say about these properties when we discuss terms and definitions.
Although modules are subject to rigorous scientific scrutiny, the process of building one has a creative, inductive component that makes it about equal parts art and science. You can build a module based on existing work or start one from scratch. Because we believe sociology already has an abundance of great but under-developed ideas in print, it will likely be more common for Contributors to start with previously published work.
To begin constructing a module from existing work, thoroughly search related publications for basic, general, causal claims to serve as candidate propositions. These should not be mere descriptions of empirical findings or phenomena, but claims that transcend specific times, places, people, and events. Unfortunately, authors rarely bother to list propositions for their readers. Sometimes they will restate empirical descriptions in general terms to make them appear proposition-like—possibly a good starting point, but proceed with caution! More often you, the analyst, must do the best you can to infer and extract candidate propositions without much help from the original authors.
Bear in mind that when propositions are ambivalent, your interpretations and inferences cannot legitimately be deemed incorrect. Give credit where credit is due for the texts that inspired your interpretation, but also point out that the original was vague and accept credit for making it less so. And realize that others can and will come along to help you move things forward with interpretations that are potentially even more useful.
As you analyze the original texts, focus especially on theoretical discussions. Try to identify sentences or paragraphs that appear to express key general causal assertions. Avoid statements that merely provide illustrations, express opinions, review previous work, discuss implications, speculate about future directions, summarize an approach or framework, or offer other non-essential material. While these can be interesting and useful for the analysis, it is unlikely they will yield useful propositions.
A word of caution: Even if an author identifies certain statements as propositions, assumptions, presuppositions, postulates, axioms, hypotheses, predictions, theorems, etc., this is no guarantee that they are well-constructed propositions and functioning as such. But they may be a good place to start.
Hypotheses should not be confused with propositions. Hypotheses not part of the theory. Propositions assert a module’s general claims; hypotheses assert concrete empirical relationships between indicators or instances of a module’s terms. Hypotheses thus express empirical consequences of a theory, but not the theory itself. Also, we want to minimize terms and propositions inside a module, but we want it to generate potentially vast numbers of hypotheses outside the module.
It is a proposition’s use of abstract, general terms and logical connectives that allows it to be instantiated or operationalized via hypotheses in a wide variety of situations. Consider this example:
Proposition: The greater an organization’s resources per capita, the less its sanctions for norm violations.
Hypothesis: In-class Twitter use by college students in the Fall of 2016 is positively related to their college’s operating budget-to-student ratio.
Here the proposition is expressed in abstract terms, potentially applicable and testable in numerous kinds of settings. The hypothesis refers to a large but actual, concrete set of people during a particular time and at particular locations.
A derivation has the same form as a proposition, but happens to be logically derived from other propositions and/or derivations. It relies on those prior statements for its terms, logical connectives and form, and so it is also abstract and general. For example:
Proposition 1: Increases in C cause increases in D.
Proposition 2: Increases in D cause increases in E.
Technically, it is logic’s so-called Law of Hypothetical Syllogism that now allows us to say:
Derivation: Increases in C cause increases in E.
The derivation is a new abstract and general, proposition-like statement that expresses a logical consequence of Propositions 1 and 2. Together, the three statements form an argument claiming that the derivation follows logically from the propositions. In this case, the derivation claims that C affects E indirectly via C’s effect on D, and D’s effect on E.
When logical rules can be proven to yield a derivation, we say that the entire argument is valid. As you may realize already at this point, every module makes an argument, and that argument must be valid.
Now we can begin to consider where things can and do go wrong.
One common mistake in proposition statements is the use of non-causal language. This can result in imprecise and unclear propositions. It is important that propositions state, instead of imply, causal relationships. And when stating propositions, the greater the level of precision the better.
It may help to keep falsifiability in mind. Asking what evidence it would take to falsify the statement may suggest shortcomings.
Here are some examples of non-causal language:
A is related to B.
Changes in A reflect changes in B.
Both are claims about the relationship between A and B. However, neither specifies precisely how! Do changes in A cause B to change or the reverse? Also, if changes in A cause changes in B, is the relationship positive or negative? Do changes in B increase linearly with A or according to some other function? The logical ambiguity here obscures potential falsifications.
Perhaps another variable or set of variables account for the relationship? If so, they should be stated. If not, the current statements are too ambiguous. Theories are explanations in the form of arguments. If these arguments do not make causal claims, they are not good explanations—they are forecasting efforts.
Here are some examples of better propositions:
The greater A, the greater B. Increases in A will cause increases in B at a magnitude of 3. A = 3B
All of these statements clearly articulate how the variables are causally related. They explain with more exactness and detail, which is ideal. They are also designed to be vulnerable to disconfirming evidence. Insisting on explicit logical clarity in this way will only improve a theory.
The propositions included in the example module are already less ambiguous than many real sociological theories. However, they leave room for incremental improvement.
Notice that the phrase “leads to” appears in the first and third propositions. These statements will be more vulnerable to falsification if they are their antecedents are stated to “cause” the consequents. Thus, for the provisional reworked version of the example module we will restate them like this: