Ethics Education and Theoretical Research Involving College Students


College students should learn that theory is a basic fundamental element of research. The definition of the term theory and what it constitutes is debated by the world’s researchers (Gelso, 2006; Harlow, 2009; Henderikus, 2007).Most researchers and theorists use typologies and classifications systems in describing the types of theories, in the context of purpose, boundaries, functions, and goals (Gay & Weaver, 2011).  Gelso (2006) defined a theory using eight constructs.  These included: Descriptive ability, heuristic value, explanatory power, integration, clarity, testability, parsimony, comprehensiveness, and delimitation.  These eight constructs are based on the fact that theory produces research and research generates and refines theory (Gelso, 2006).  Harlow (2009) suggested that theory lacks a fixed and universal meaning although considering the competing research paradigms, theory might mean a determining law, or a system of laws according to the natural sciences.  He also argued that theory can mean a construct or set of constructs for ordering and enhancing the understanding of phenomena. Therefore, this section will focus on how students can utilize research and theory and how they are related.  First, students should be aware of the following reasons that show the importance of theory in research; these will provide the baseline for this study;

  1. Theory provides a framework for analysis
  2. Theory provides an efficient procedure for field development
  3. Theory offers a clear understanding and explanation for the pragmatic world

 Theory Definition and Constructs

College students should know that despite the existence of conflicting opinions on what constitutes a theory, a comparison of diverse views on what actually constitutes the virtue of a good theory is vital.  Gay (1998) stated, “Operationalization of the definition of theory should directly be tied to the necessary components of theory” (p.363).  Wacker (1998) stated that a theory consists of four major components, which include the following;

  1. Definitions
  2. A set of related variables
  3. A domain of applicability
  4. Specific predictions.

Rychlak (1968) suggested that a good theory has to be stated clearly and openly with the objective of inventing a logically reliable and mutually interdependent body of knowledge. In addition, he stated the functions of a theory which includes; Descriptive, integrative, delimiting and generative.  Based on Rychlak proposals, Gelso (2006) argued that for any theory to have a scientific value, it has to go beyond the easy and simple propositional level. Students should learn from this that the most importance thing is that theories should be able to describe and explain a certain phenomena effectively, place a boundary on what might be examined and should also be greatly generative to heuristically motivate additional investigation (Gelso, 2006). Although an excellent theory must have an integrative purpose to be able to merge the diverse and opposing propositions and construct for a great degree of consistency, having an element of parsimony that consists only the constructs and thoughts that are essential to better describe the phenomena examination is very important (Gelso, 2006).  However, in spite of these definitions and constructs, a great discussion has come up among theorists and researchers regarding their scholarly approach to theory from the diverse and competing worldviews and paradigms.

Comparing and Contrasting Three Views that Constitutes a Theory

Theory traditions; Despite the fact that there exist many theory taxonomies, a number of theory/research traditions constantly emerge in the classification systems.  Therefore, this section will compare and contrast three persistent traditions.

  1. Hypothetico-deduction (also referred as the nomothetic, post positivism , positivism or empirical-analytical, )
  2. Inductive-synthesis(alternatively known as idiographic, constructivism, grounded theory or interpretative theory)
  3. Critical theory also known as radical, social justice theory or neo-Marxist theory

The main aim of research is discovering truths or the laws that are generalizable across populations, then hypotheses testing and viewpoint will be used.

Competing World views, Nature and Types of Theory

Due to rational curiosity, competing conceptions, contradicting assumptions, and surprising diversity of approaches to theory on the basis of an individual’s worldview, there exist numerous classifications associated with theory.  According to Gay and Weaver (2011), the assumptions of research and goals tend to sense the theory approach used by researchers.  Lynham (2002) explained the conceptual development of a theory as a knowledgeable theoretical framework that offers an initial understanding and clarification of the nature and dynamics of the issue, difficulty or the phenomenon that is the focus of the theory.  According to DiMaggio (1995), there exist at least three views of what a theory ought to be.  These are as follows; theory as covering laws, theory as an enlightenment, and theory as a narrative.

Additionally, Gelso (2006) discussed three significant central points to a good theory, the generation of an idea, hypothesis generation, and the interpretation of results.  Lynham (2002) argued that owing to an inherently generic nature of a theory, diverse methods of theory building need different theory-building research processes.  Despite of the many and competing views, it is important to look at the connection between theory and related ideas, models, hypotheses and paradigms so as to have an open and clear view on the nature and types of theory.

            Rychlak (1968) and Kerlinger (1986) also held related views and provided the definition of a theory as a sequence of two or more interconnected constructs, concepts, variables, propositions and abstractions which have been hypothesized with a methodical view of phenomena, for the purpose of explaining and predicting the phenomena.  According to Gelso (2006), theories consist of theoretical prepositions and hypotheses that are drawn from these prepositions.  On the other hand, Sutton and Stow (1995) defined hypotheses as vital bridges between theory and data.  Cozby (2009) suggested that prepositions are declarations that express the connection of two or more concepts.  Bachman and Shut (2007) viewed a concept as the image that finalizes a set of related observations.  Although models are used in doing research for the purpose of demonstrating the relationship of variables contained in a theory, they actually do not constitute a theory as suggested by Gay & Weaver (2011), instead, paradigms are universal ways of viewing or presenting the phenomenal world. Although, by contrast, theories are viewed as systematic sets of interconnected statements and constructs planned to describe some aspect of social life (Gay & Weaver, 2011).

            Prediction and understanding are two main purposes of a theory (Zikmond, 2010).  Research on the other hand has three major goals (Cozby, 2009) which include;

  • Research attempts to explain or describe behavior.
  • Research attempts to predict behavior
  • It determines the causes of behavior.

Worldviews may be described as the philosophical paradigms that summarize specific beliefs that direct researchers in doing social research.  College students learn that constructivist paradigm argues that reality is built through social relations and dialogue; post positivists reveal the need to assess and recognize the cause which influences outcomes and pragmatic worldview constitutes of a descriptive and investigative fact finding attempt, based on truth and balanced with qualitative and quantitative assumptions (Cozby, 2009; Creswell, 2009).  The pragmatist can borrow from paradigms such as the interpretivists   and the post positivists since truth is based on a fair analysis of circumstances (Creswell, 2009) because of these diverse paradigms, which are established on deductive, and on inductive analysis of theorists and researchers

Relationship between Theory and Research

The intellectual literature on the connection between theory and research and ways in which research can contribute to theory is as diverse as scholarly literature on the definition of the term theory.  Theory appears to have a key role in research.  Even though theory is supposed to guide research, both the theory and research are interconnected and are reliant to each other in making sense to certain phenomena.  Additionally, although research contributes mainly to explanatory power of a particular theory in increasing knowledge effectively, a theoretical framework has to be used so as to develop the process of research.  Therefore, it can be noted that research tends to contribute to a theory more incrementally.  The major issue of concern is the definition of the word research in that it has to be used in collecting and analyzing new data that will help to enhance the body of knowledge (Ellis & Levy, 2008).  According to Gelso (2006) theory is a statement of hypothesized connection among variables that involve a sequence of interrelated constructs, concepts, definition, abstractions and propositions which have been hypothesized or assumed with a methodical view of phenomena for the purpose of describing and predicting the phenomena.  Even though theory is grounded in the nuances of life, which gives meaning and importance to various stakeholders, theory is seen to stimulate and generate research while research produces and refines theory (Gay & Weaver, 2011; Gelso, 2006).  Harlow (2009) suggested that developing a theory inevitably engages an element of testing, hence the two are interconnected. For instance, a case study is either intended to test a theory, develop a theory or does both the testing and developing.  Therefore, theory development and theory testing will form the basis of the discussion about the existence of the relationship between theory and research.

Students should learn that the relationship between theory and research starts with a problem definition, and indeed, when an idea for research is generated.  Research projects often begin with a view on the relevant literature in which the researchers engages with the existing theoretical description of the topic in question (Harlow, 2009).  The theory of the construct to be tested or developed will tell the choice of the case to be studied, the type of data to be gathered, methods of data collection, as well as ways in which information will be examined (Harlow, 2009).  Developing a theory from case study is indeed a research strategy, which involves using one or even more cases in creating theoretical propositions, the constructs or midrange theory from the case-based, experimental evidence (Eisenhardt, 1989).  The emphasis of building a theory on developing constructs, measures, and theoretical propositions that are testable makes an inductive case research constant with the emphasis on testable theory within mainstream deductive research (Eisenhardt & Graebner, 2007).  An inductive research design that lets a theory to emerge from data or information can be an important research starting point when only inadequate theoretical knowledge exists concerning a particular phenomenon (Siggelkow, 2007).  Inductive and deductive logics are however the mirrors of each other.  Inductive theory develops from cases producing new theory from information or data while the testing of deductive theory completes the cycle through using research data in testing theory.  Therefore, Holton and Lowe (2007) argued that deductive theory has the greatest potential for enhancing science since it often bring up new constructs and relations that encourage researchers to conduct new experimental research so as to verify the theory.  Below is a diagram showing the conceptual map of a problem based research cycle.

Conceptual Map of problem based research cycle

Research Contribution to Theory

Ellis and Levy (2008) discussed several ways in which research contributes to theory.  Such contributions can be summarized by using the following constructs;

  1. Development of a causal relationship
  2. Element examination
  3. Developments of constructs
  4. Development of predictive model.

Harlow (2009) discussed the word “retroduction” research procedure that involves testing of theoretical thoughts against the emerging data, the reframing testing of ideals until the trustworthy conclusion are arrived at are believed to be reliable .  Students can learn that due to the fact that theory building approach is intensely embedded in the rich experimental research data, building a theory from a case has a highly likelihood of producing accurate theory which is interesting and testable within a research environment (Eisenhardt &Graebner, 2007).  Ellis and Levy (2008) suggested that an endeavor must undoubtedly present the potential of creating identifiable new body of knowledge for it to be considered research.

Every research done is always used to understand a phenomenon.  Siggelkow’s (2007) discussion about persuasiveness provides a compelling argument on the appropriateness of a case study plan to contribute to a deeper understanding of the phenomenon under study.  Eisenhardt and Graebner (2007) confirmed the usefulness of a case study method of approach in building a theory, which will be expected to be strongly attached to experimental reality.  According to Adrade (2009), this claim can also be applied to interpretative researches where by the resultant theory should come from data.  This inductive way of thinking is more than simply generating hypotheses, in the sense that the assumed objective is not concluding a study but to build up ideas for further study (Andrade, 2009).  Grounded theory, which is developed a theory from data, will enable researchers theorize from data.  Through this systematic procedure, researchers can create either substantive theory that is generated from within a specific enquiry area (Lehmann, Myers & Urquhart, 2006) or a formal theory that is focused on conceptual entities (Strauss, 1987).  Therefore, the understanding of a phenomenon, identification and the retrieval of studies and analysis construction are the key ways on how research can contribute to a theory.

Discussion of Grounded and Substantive

Glaser and Strauss (1967) proposed the grounded theory based on the argument that a new theory could be established through carefully paying attention to the contrast between daily realities (what is going on) of substantive areas and the interpretation and understanding of the realities made daily by individuals who take(the actors) part in these realities.  Although it is difficult to find a grounded formal theory that was not in some way stimulated by a Substantive theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) in grounded theory suggested that theoretical concepts and framework are grounded in and come out of data and analysis that proceed, instead of a prior theory that guide the collection of data and analysis it.  Harlow (2009) coined the word retroduction as a circular process through which researchers tests their theoretical ideals against up-and-coming data, reframes the thoughts and retest until a dependable conclusion is reached.

An essential link exists between substantive theories or the theory grounded in an existing research and grounded theory (Suddaby, 2006).  Therefore, this can help college students to understand that substantive theory is usually a strategic connection in the formulation of formal theory (Glaser & Strauss).  Dimaggio and Powell’s (1983) suggested that neo-institutional theory comes from the old institutional theory and it is extensively adopted as a leading theoretical framework in organizational studies.  The theory offers an outline for organizational research varying from leadership, interaction and the effect of environmental contingencies and helps us to understand the theory behind organizational framework.  Hub, Liang, Saraf, and Xue (2007) used the neo-institutional theory to study the mediating task of top executives considering the institutional forces and enterprise scheme assimilation in organizations.  Likewise, Rant and Rozman (2008) carried out research on organizational performance based on the contingency theory so as to advance knowledge on how diverse organizations should adopt their organizational structure according to changes in the surroundings (environment) and other contingencies through a dynamic organizational fit model.

Dimaggio and Powell’s new institutional theory (the neo-institutionalism) emerged in contrast to the traditional functionalists view (Selnick, 1949) which suggested that organizations are rational units with, rules, structures, and procedures designed so as to perform particular tasks.  According to Scott (1987), an institutional theorist, organizations are social constructions based on the fact that organizational structures are adaptive vehicles which are shaped in reaction to the characteristics and commitments of participants as well as the influences and constraints from the external surroundings.  The conception by functionalists mostly seemed definitional rather than descriptive.  Despite the determined work of Meyer and Rowan (1997) about institutional theory, which states that associations are structured by phenomena in their institutional surroundings and slowly becomes isomorphic with them, college students can learn that a lot of questions still remained unanswered.  For instance; how does institutionalized structure and practices circulate among organizations across and within organizational fields?  This question has remained unanswered.  Dimaggio and Powell’s (1983) neo-institutional theory, stated that institutionalization and isomorphism are procedures that help to capture organizational homogenization, mimetic, normative isomorphism and coercive.  For an endeavor to be considered research, it should be able to clearly present the potential to produce new body of knowledge (Ellis & Levy, 2008).  Despite substantive theory being used as a theoretical framework in research, grounded theory has a greater emphasis on concept emergence.


Finally, theories are vitally important in guiding doctoral college students in their research.  They form the basis for student’s research and help in explaining and giving answers to research questions since every research is carried out with an of examining a certain phenomenon. For many years, researchers have debated the definition of the term theory with several theorists using typologies and taxonomy systems to explain the types of theory, based on a framework purpose, functions, goals, and boundaries.  A theory driven by research is directly significant to practice and helpful to any study field.  The methodical nature of a theory is to provide an explanation to a particular research problem, to illustrate unique innovative features of certain phenomena and to offer predictive utility.  Therefore, college students should learn that research that lacks theory has no foundation while research that lacks a problematic question lacks a starting point; similarly, they should also know that theory highly relies on research so as to provide enough proof of the theories’ correctness.








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