A theory can be simply briefly described as proved opinion. This description we arrive at by inferring from the knowledge-making procedures adopted in both scientific and social scientific research.
Both in scientific and social science research anything that eventually becomes a theory starts first as an opinion, or conjecture, guess, or revelation, or an idea or dream-induced thought or hearsay. Once chancing upon this, which we all do, some may set out to verify or prove the same in real wider word-natural or social.
The methods adopted to prove this may determine whether someone is a scientist or a philosopher. Research is all about verifying an opinion. If one adopts set of procedures followed in science, namely experimentation, then such theory is scientific. But if any one sets out to prove the veracity of same possible opinion / guess etc. through a mere reasoning, then such theory becomes logical. Though every scientific theory should be logical, not all logical propositions are scientific.
The scientific theory adopts the inductive logic to arrive at grand theorizations. Inductive logic is a process of inferring something general from the instances that are particular.
Generally, a theory is also a well-defined and logically coherent set of concepts. Thus a theory cannot have vague words, thought it can have abstractions which may be called concepts. It is however important to remember that every theory is also a grand abstraction. The logically coherent concepts constitute a good theory. The concepts are nothing but shortcuts to a long statement denoting a process, an event, an experience or a happening, a trait, feeling, etc.
The important characteristic of a concept is its ability to nearly communicate the same meaning to the members of a research community in particular and possibly to a wider society in general. For example the concept of gravity, force, weight, mass, etc. tend to unambiguously convey the same meaning to any physicist. Similarly when we say society, community, literacy, personality, consumer, market, it is understood in more or less the same way by every social scientists. Therefore concepts are not one individual’s personal product. Even concepts need to be validated and refined through a process of rigorous peer evaluation and criticism.
The Uses and Functions of Theories
Explanation: Theory made up of by concepts, have several use in the scientific research community. Primarily a theory is an explanatory tool. A theory helps us to explain social or natural phenomena in no uncertain terms. These explanations aspire to be universal both in time and space. We all attempt to explain things happening around us. But when such explanations are offered scientifically through process of rigourous experimentation and peer validation, then they became theories.
Prediction: Theories since they are time-neutral in the sense that they apply to events that happened in the past, happen in the present and likely to happen in the future, they become a means of prediction. With the help of a theory a natural event such as rain, storm or solar eclipse or soil conditions etc. can be predicted. In the social word too development planners are often guided by social economic theories to anticipate the positive or negative effects of a social or economic process.
Source of Research: Theories become the inspiration for new research agendas to either confirm or refute the theories. Although theories themselves are products of previous research programmes, a theory may also became the source of further research, in different era or different geographical areas. For example Durkheim’s theory of suicide has inspired many research studies along the same line by many sociologists subsequently.