Introduction

First of all, Thank you so much for your interest in Wikitheoria project! "Wikitheoria Basics" section provides a foundation of the theory construction basics on which the site is built. After reviewing the basics we recommend contributors to complete the "Contributor Tutorial" linked below. Each tackles a core aspect of theory formalization and identifies common faults and weaknesses in sociological theory writing. Many of these errors are committed by students and theory construction veterans alike. It is only through practice and conscious effort that these weaknesses are identified and resolved. After completing the tutorials you will be well equipped to begin editing and contributing theory modules in the library.

Wikitheoria Basics

1.1 Module

A module is a small, abstract and general unit of explanation--a little theory, so to speak. It offers a clear, logical argument for how certain conditions and factors cause particular outcomes to occur. A proposition within a module is a causal unit that expresses a relationship between two or more terms. A term is a unit of meaning--a word whose definition is shared by the module’s author and readers. A scope condition is a provisional statement that delimits the domains in which the module is deemed applicable and testable. None of these elements is empirical or descriptive. Like theories, modules offer abstract and general models. Definitions of terms provide the crucial links between the abstract realm of theory and the concrete realm of the real world.

1.2 Theory and Metatheory

In sociology, “theory” can refer to many things. It is important that we use it consistently here. A theory is a set of abstract, general, testable statements that explains phenomena within its scope of application and is validated through empirical tests. To further clarify the distinction between theory and non-theory consider another term:Metatheory refers to statements that are about a theory but not actually in the theory. They include, but are not limited to, examples that clarify or illustrate the theory, descriptions of a theory’s intellectual history, discussion of implications, and future directions for the theory. Meta-theoretical statements are not held to the same high standard as theories and so are not accorded the same weight. Metatheoretical statements may be valuable, but it is essential to be able to distinguish them clearly from the theories to which they refer. Unfortunately, theory and metatheory are almost never explicitly separated in practice. Wikitheoria promotes their separation, providing distinct systems for inputting theoretical terms and statements, metatheoretical discourse, and references to empirical evidence.

1.3 Fostering Intersubjectivity

At heart, Wikitheoria hopes to foster clarity of content and intersubjectivity between users. We want the ideas expressed in theories to be interpreted in the same way by all intended audience members. Theories are only as valuable as the consistency with which they are perceived by those trying to understand them. The more fluid their interpretability, the less useful they are.

1.4 Empirical Evidence

Theory modules in Wikitheoria can be rated on three criteria—clarity, logical integrity, and empirical support. Even the most carefully crafted theories are guesswork until surviving the hazard of empirical falsification. In fact, the best theories make themselves most vulnerable to empirical testing. The value of evidence is a hallmark of science. Because empirical tests are so essential for validating theory, we have devoted a portion of the module page as a space for referencing empirical evidence.

A major benefit of formalizing theory is that it maximizes the value of empirical tests. When the rigor of empirical methods outstrip the theories under consideration data become less valuable. This is due to fundamental differences between theory testing and other non-scientific epistemologies like common sense assessments, forecasting efforts, and rote empiricism. Without good theory suitable empirical tests are difficult to design and at risk of misinterpretation or reframing.

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. The value of theory relies on evidence and vice versa.

Science must be shared and collective in nature. All else equal, theories which are communicable, logically sound, and parsimonious are superior. Those that suffer by these standards are fundamentally less successful at fulfilling their role, regardless of the empirical evidence surrounding them.

1.5 Using Wikitheoria

As a Contributor, there are three ways to update the content on the site. First, you can rate existing modules based on their clarity, logic, and empirical support. This is done by clicking on the stars on the right side of the module view screen. These ratings are descriptive and serve the purpose of incentivizing further improvement in weak areas.

1.6 Recognition for Contributions

You may be wondering what sort of credit is due for work done on the site. Having a theory module published in Wikitheoria is not the same as publishing elsewhere. Completely original ideas will rarely be published on the site. Instead, modules will most often be inspired by existing theory. An analyst can make substantial contributions to a theory without hijacking credit for its authorship. This action merits its own recognition. For now, users will have their names attached to each iteration of the module published. They may also cite their contributions on a vita like this:

Contributor Tutorial

2.1 Introduction

This tutorial provides essential instructions for developing good propositions for theory modules and avoiding common pitfalls. Upon completing it you’ll have essential tools for working with theory modules in Wikitheoria. If you hope to create a brand new module, to modularize existing work in your area of interest, or to evaluate and modify modules already in Wikitheoria, this tutorial is for you.

Writing a module requires shifting focus between its propositions, defined terms, and scope conditions, ensuring that these elements coordinate their functions. We introduce each element individually for the sake of simplicity, but in practice the interdependence of these elements requires module authors to work back-and-forth among them. For example, changing the definition of a term will impact any statements in which it appears.

2.2 PROPOSITIONS

Propositions are statements that compose the core claims and arguments of a theory. They assert how particular terms are presumed to be related causally--for instance, the proposed effect of x on y. Multiple propositions also can work together to provide an explanation for that x-y relationship, e.g., in terms of intervening mechanisms and conditions. Ideally, propositions are clear, precise, abstract, and general. We will have more to say about these properties when we discuss terms and definitions.

  • Getting Started: Identifying Candidate Propositions
  • Propositions vs. Hypotheses
  • Propositions vs. Derivations
  • Avoiding Non-causal Language
  • Keep It Simple! Maximizing Logical Parsimony
  • Arranging Propositions
  • 2.3 TERMS AND DEFINITIONS

    Terms are the building blocks of theories. Without clearly defined terms, sociologists would not be able to communicate, test or compare their theories. Fundamentally, terms are symbols that represent ideas. A successful theory packages its ideas in a way that optimizes the efficiency and accuracy of its communication to relevant audiences. A theory that fails to communicate its terms clearly will be hindered by misinterpretations, and loses the assurance that appropriate tests and applications will be conducted.

  • What is a term? What is a definition?
  • Clarity
  • Propositions & Terms
  • Ideal Terms and Definitions
  • Denotative and Connotative Definitions
  • Finding Scope in Definitions
  • 2.4 SCOPE CONDITIONS

    Scope conditions are statements that restrict tests of a theory to specific circumstances. A theory is only vulnerable to falsification within its scope of application. Scope conditions are essential for theory testing because they communicate when and where the author intends the theory to apply.

  • SCOPE CONDITIONS
  • 2.5 EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE

    Theory modules in Wikitheoria can be rated on three criteria—clarity, logical integrity, and empirical support. Even the most carefully crafted theories are guesswork until surviving the hazard of empirical falsification. In fact, the best theories make themselves most vulnerable to empirical testing. The value of evidence is a hallmark of science. Because empirical tests are so essential for validating theory, we have devoted a portion of the module page as a space for referencing empirical evidence.

    2.6 FINAL THOUGHTS

    Now that you have completed the Contributor Tutorial you have all the tools necessary to make contributions in Wikitheoria. The future of the site ultimately hinges on the interest of users like you. We hope you share our value for clear and rigorous theory construction. If so, we encourage you to peruse the site and to rate, revise, and develop modules.