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  A set of connected statements used in explanation. The nature and status of theories differ among philosophies of social science (cf. epistemology).

Within positivism, a theory comprises a set of hypotheses and constraining conditions which, if validated empirically, assume the status of laws, so that the theory structures understanding of the relevant portion of the empirical world. These linked coherent statements, which are assumed to be universal in their application, stimulate future research: deduction and speculation from the known (the validated theory) to the unknown (the hypothesis) guide production of future knowledge.

Within idealism there are no universals, only the individual theories resident in each person\'s mind which are used to guide action and which may be refined, even changed, according to its outcome (see also pragmatism). In this context, human action is directed by personal theories not external ones. Various forms of structuralism and postmodernism contend that since understanding is contextually achieved, usually through interpersonal interaction and shared cultural appreciations, then theories are outlooks shared by people from the same position within society (cf. positionality; situated knowledge).

In realism a theory is a means of conceptualizing reality which provides a mental framework for its apprehension; the test of a theory is not its validation against empirical evidence, therefore, but rather its coherence and, especially, its practical adequacy. A theory is adequate for an individual if the understanding that it provides is sufficient for a satisfactory life; for the social scientist, it must provide a basis for understanding and, potentially, changing society. Realists argue that because societies are open systems in which the same conditions are rarely reproduced, theories cannot, as positivists contend, be used to predict the future; they can only illuminate the past and the present and provide guidance to an appreciation of the future. (RJJ)

Suggested Reading Harvey, D. 1969: Explanation in geography. London: Edward Arnold. Keat, R. and Urry, J. 1981: Social theory as science, 2nd edn. London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Sayer, A. 1992: Method in social science: a realist approach, 2nd edn. London: Routledge.



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