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THEORY-EXPLANATION AND PREDICTION

All research is specific. Whether you conduct ethnographic or questionnaire research, the first thing you do is describe a process or investigate a relation among some variables in a population. Description is essential, but to get from description to theory is a big leap. It involves asking: ‘‘What causes the phenomenon to exist in the first place?’’ and ‘‘What does this phenomenon cause?’’ Theory, then, is about explaining and predicting things.

It may seem odd to talk about theory in a book about methods, but you can’t design research until you choose a research question, and research questions depend crucially on theory. A good way to understand what theory is about is to pick something that begs to be explained and to look at competing explanations for it. See which explanation you like best. Do that for a few phenomena and you’ll quickly discover which paradigm you identify with. That will make it easier to pick research problems and to develop hypotheses that you can go off and test.

Here is an example of something that begs to be explained: Everywhere in the world, there is a very small chance that children will be killed or maimed by their parents. However, the chance that a child is killed by a parent is much higher if a child has one or more nonbiological parents than if the child has two biological parents (Daly and Wilson 1988, 1998; Lightcap et al. 1982). This “Cinderella effect,’’ as it’s known, means that those evil-step-parent folk tales are based on more than fantasy. Or are they? A lot depends on the paradigm you start with.

 
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