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Condition 4: Theory

Finally, even when you have established nonspurious, consistent, strong covariation, as well as a logical time sequence for two or more variables, you need a theory—a mechanism—that explains the association. Theories are ideas about how things work. Good theories are good ideas about how things work—that is, ideas that have held up against challenges and that explain new cases of things as they come up.

One of my favorites is called cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger 1957). It’s based on the insight that: (1) People can tell when their beliefs about what ought to be don’t match their perception of how things really are; and (2) This causes an uncomfortable feeling. The feeling is called cognitive dissonance. People then have a choice: They can live with the dissonance (be uncomfortable); change the external reality (fight city hall); or change their beliefs (usually the path of least resistance, but not necessarily the easy way out).

Cognitive dissonance theory helps explain why some people accept new technologies that they initially reject out of fear for their jobs: Once a technology is entrenched, and there is no chance of getting rid of it, it’s easier to change your ideas about what’s good and what’s bad than it is to live with dissonance (Bernard and Pelto 1987). Dissonance theory helps explain why men in countries across the world are increasingly accepting of women working outside the home: When economic necessity drives women into the workforce, it’s painful to hold on to the idea that that’s the wrong thing for women to do.

On the other hand, some people do actually quit their jobs rather than accept new technologies, and some men continue to argue against women working outside the home, even when those men depend on their wives’ income to make ends meet. This is an example of a general theory that fails to predict local phenomena. It leads us to seek more data and more understanding to predict when cognitive dissonance theory is insufficient as an explanation.

Many theories are developed to explain a purely local phenomenon and then turn out to have wider applicability. Many observers have noticed, for example, that when men from polygynous African societies move to cities, they often give up polygyny (Clignet 1970; Dorjahn 1977, 1988; Jacoby 1995). This consistent covariation is explained by the fact that men who move away from tribal territories in search of wage labor must abandon their land, their houses, and the shared labor of their kinsmen. Under those conditions, they simply cannot afford to provide for more than one wife, much less the children that multiple wives produce. The relation between urbanization and changes in marriage customs is explained by antecedent and intervening variables.

If you read the literature across the social sciences, you’ll see references to something called ‘‘contagion theory.’’ This one invokes a copycat mechanism to explain why suicides are more likely to come in batches when one of them is widely publicized in the press (Jamieson et al. 2003) and why more women candidates stand for election in districts that already have women legislators in office (Matland and Studlar 1996).

‘‘Relative deprivation theory’’ is based on the insight that people compare themselves to specific peer groups, not to the world at large (Martin 1981; Stouffer et al. 1949). It explains why anthropology professors don’t feel all that badly about engineering professors earning a lot of money, but hate it if sociologists in their university get significantly higher salaries than they do.

Theories start with one or two primitive axioms—things that are simply defined and that you have to take at face value. The definition of cognitive dissonance is an example: When people have inconsistent beliefs, or when they perceive things in the real world to be out of whack with their ideas of how things should be, they feel discomfort. This discomfort leads people to strive naturally toward cognitive consonance. Neither the fact of dissonance, nor the discomfort it produces, nor the desire for consonance are ever explained. They are primitive axioms. How people deal with dissonance and how they try to achieve consonance are areas for empirical research. As empirical research accumulates, the theory is tested and refined (box 2.5).

BOX 2.5


William Dressier developed his theory of cultural consonance based on cognitive dissonance theory. Cultural consonance is the degree to which people's lives mirror a widely shared set of beliefs about what lives should look like. What's a successful life? This differs from culture to culture, but in many cultures, the list of things that indicate success is widely shared. Dressler and his colleagues have found that people who have more of these things (whose lives are in consonance with the cultural model) have lower stress and fewer blood pressure problems than do people whose lives lack cultural consonance (Dressler et al. 1997, 2002, 2007; Dressler, Ribeiro et al. 2004, and see chapter 16 on measuring cultural consensus).

In relative deprivation theory, the fact that people have reference groups to which they compare themselves doesn’t get explained, either. It, too, is a primitive axiom, an assumption, from which you deduce some results. The results are predictions, or hypotheses, that you then go out and test. The ideal in science is to deduce a prediction from theory and to test the prediction. That’s the culture of science. The way social science really works much of the time is that you don’t predict results, you postdict them. You analyze your data, come up with findings, and explain the findings after the fact.

There is nothing wrong with this. Knowledge and understanding can come from good ideas before you collect data or after collect data. You must admit, though, there’s a certain panache in making a prediction, sealing it in an envelope, and testing it. Later, when you take the prediction out of the envelope and it matches your empirical findings, you get a lot of points (Further Reading: causal analysis in the social sciences).

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