The Bare Minimum of Theory: A Definitional Definition for the Social Sciences
31 Pages Posted: 10 May 2022
Date Written: October 28, 2021
The ongoing debates in the information systems (IS) discipline on the nature of theory are implicitly rooted in different epistemologies of the social sciences and in a lack of consensus on a definition of theory. Thus, we focus here on the much-neglected topic of what constitutes the bare minimum of what can possibly be considered theory—only by carefully understanding the bare minimum can we really understand the essence of what makes a theory a theory. We definitionally define a theory in the social sciences as an explanation of the relationship between two or more measurable concepts. (“Measurable” refers to qualitative coding and inference of mechanisms, as well as quantitative magnitudes.) The rigorous justification of each element of this definition helps to resolve issues such as providing a consistent basis of determining what qualifies as theory; the value of other knowledge contributions that are not theory; how to identify theories regardless of if they are named; and a call to recognize diverse forms of theorizing across the social science epistemologies of positivism, interpretivism, critical social theory, critical realism, and pragmatism. Although focused on IS, most of these issues are pertinent to any scholarly discipline within the social sciences.
Keywords: theory, definitions, epistemology, information systems research, social sciences, positivism, interpretivism, critical social theory, critical realism, pragmatism, design science
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation