Research within the social sciences is driven by theory. Theory is a fundamental function of scholarly research in any discipline, providing guidance through the exploration of relationships and discovery. While there are conflicting views on theory, and an ever-present debate on theory versus practice, it is undeniable that the role theory plays in research is an essential one.
The Nature and Types of Theory
Differentiating between the formal definition and the informal idea of theory is paramount to any discussion surrounding theory. There are conflicting notions on what constitutes theory, leading to a lack of agreement on a specific definition for “theory” (Henderikus, 2007), a definitive assessment of its nature (Corley & Gioia, 2011), or a an absolute purpose of theory (Harlow, 2009; Southern & Devlin, 2010). Theory does not have a definition or meaning that transcends disciplines (Harlow, 2009). However, Stam (2010) suggests use of the term theory is relatively unlimited. The term is being used for different unknowns and is often used to formalize a ‘hunch’. Three interpretations of theory that have been significant in research are reductionism, instrumentalism, and realism (Stam, 2007).
According to Wacker (1999), academics typically view theory as including definitions of variables, a domain where the theory is applicable, the relationships between the variables, and specific predictions. It is important to note that theoretical definitions are not observable; they are conceptual in nature and can transcend measurement (Wacker, 1999). Wacker (1999) suggests the definition of theory is a statement of relationships that are observed or estimated; theory must include conceptual definitions, domain limitations, relationship building, and predictions. Gelso (2006) suggests theory to be a statement about the relationships under investigation between and among variables. With this perspective, then it is logical to say that there can be a theory behind all research.
While there are several definitions of theory among academics and practitioners, it appears there are many shared beliefs about theory. However, there are varying opinions on the exact nature of theory. Wacker (1999) suggests some academics and practitioners alike believe theory and its application are somewhat limited and therefore not useful in real-world settings in business. On the other hand, some feel that there is very little theory in academia. The literature suggests that theory may not necessarily require application. However, the true nature of theory depends on the definition of theory being considered, as well as what criteria is being used to identify a ‘good ‘ theory.
A “good theory”
Good theory must have a clear explanation of how and why particular relationships lead to specific actions. In order for a theory to be ‘good’ theory, it should be unique from other theories, it should be generalizable, it should be able to generate new models and hypotheses, it should be independent of time and space, it should be internally consistent, and have few assumptions. There seems to be no consensus among the various virtues of a good theory, but there is an agreement as to what they are (Wacker, 1999). According to Wacker (1999), good theory is dependent on uniqueness, parsimony, conservation, generalizability, fecundity, internal consistency, empirical riskiness, and abstraction. A superior theory is one that is more widely applied, predicts the most unlikely of events, and is one that can be integrated into several relationships into a larger theory. Theories can also vary from formal to the informal, informal theories being those that are not stated explicitly (Gelso, 2006). Gelso (2006) suggests mini-theories to be more useful than comprehensive theories that will likely never be disproved. These broad theories rarely generate new research testing their validity, and are therefore not exactly scientifically useful. These mini-theories may be part of a larger comprehensive theory, or they may stand on their own (Gelso, 2006).
Good theory meets all definitions of theory as well as the virtues of good theory (Wacker, 1999). Theories must be descriptive in that they fully describe the phenomena under investigation. A good theory can effectively explain causes, address why occurrences happen, and also place limits on what is being investigated (Gelso, 2006). However, simply because a theory meets the criteria of theory and has the virtues of good theory, it does not make the theory a valid one. There may be cases where a theory under investigation is actually incorrect. For a theory to be of value to the science of research, it should go as far as to address why variables are expected to relate to one another (Gelso, 2006).
Theory or Hypothesis – Theory is distinct from such terms as concept, proposition, or hypothesis. Bachman and Schutt (2007) suggest a concept to be a mental image of sorts that represents the observations. A proposition on the other hand, is a statement that expresses relationships between two or more concepts (Cozby, 2009). Gelso (2006) posits a hypothesis is a proposition that is stated in a specific way so that it can be tested empirically. Hypotheses stem from such propositions, which are drawn from theory; theories tie concepts together.
Theory and Social Media
Ngai, Tao, and Moon (2015) investigated the current research surrounding social media using the leading five academic databases. Forty-six articles were analyzed. The authors found several personal behavior theories, social behavior theories, and mass communications theories used in social media related research. Social exchange theory was utilized only twice for research investigating virtual communities, once by Blanchard (2008), and once by Lin, Hung, and Chen (2009). The author’s literature review found that many researchers have studied the causal relationships of various variables, social influence and social capital were the most common input variables. User intention and user behavior were the most common outcome variables. In regards to mediating variables, the choice of tool was found to be an important variable given it has a mediating effect on input and outcomes. Ngai et al. (2015) provide a collection of research and an assortment of authors that have published work related to the field of study. The literature review within the study gives insight as to how researchers adopted theory, used research constructs, and developed conceptual frameworks for their research.
A Gap in Knowledge- Very limited research exists surrounding social media given how large a role social networking sites play in today’s business world (Chen, 2013). Specifically there is limited research on social media platforms. Most related studies investigate only Facebook (McFarland & Ployhart, 2015), and not the many other platforms used by consumers such as Twitter, Pinterest, branded blogs and more. Thus, we encounter an incomplete understanding of social media without considering the other contexts, such as Twitter, that offer a different and dynamic experience.
There is an absence of theoretical and practical scientific research surrounding social media use within the business sector (McFarland & Ployhart, 2015). Kane, Alavi, Labianca, & Borgatti, (2014) suggest the very nature of social media makes it difficult to apply established theory. Theories originating in non-digital contexts may not truly capture the essence of social media and it is possible new theories need to be developed (McFarland & Ployhart, 2015). Theoretically, social media interactions are quite different from traditional face-to-face interactions while also varying from other types of digital communication such as email (McFarland & Ployhart, 2015). Thus, meanings from traditional theory may change when used in the context of social media. This may require new theories and frameworks to fully understand social media within this context. If scholars simply take existing theories that are more person centric, and apply it to social media, there is a chance that these theories will not address the very features of social media that make them unique in the first place.
Currently there are several social media platforms, and each application has its own characteristics that influence behavior. Smith, Fischer, and Yongjian (2012) undertook research surrounding Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube via content analysis. Interestingly, sentiment varied across social media sites suggesting each social media site fosters its own different characteristics. With social media evolving, there will likely be mini theories that are only applicable to certain settings and certain situations (McFarland & Ployhart, 2015).
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