© Copyright JASSS

JASSS logo ------

Theory Construction and Model-Building Skills (Methodology in the Social Sciences)

Jaccard, James and Jacoby, Jacob
Guilford Press: London, 2009
ISBN 1606233394 (pb)

Order this book

Reviewed by Iris Lorscheid
Hamburg University of Technology, Germany

Cover of book This book is aimed to provide social scientists with hand-on tools for defining concepts and formalizing theories. It is particularly addressed to graduate students and it ranges from causal analysis to mathematical modelling, from simulation to grounded and emergent approaches to theory construction. It is well organized, includes many simple and effective examples, and has a very clear setup. At the end of each chapter, the authors provide a summary, concluding comments and suggested readings. The latter are complemented by a sentence about the content of each referenced literature, which is very helpful to find the respective reference of interest. Above, an index with key terms of each chapter and intuitive exercises to deepen the understanding of it are provided. Doing so, the book is very suitable for didactical purpose, in particular for research courses to graduate students.

Part 1. Basic Concepts

The effective, easy-to-understand and straightforward style of writing is noticeable since from the first pages of the book. The authors put each topic in a superior context and start from a general point, from where newcomers are guided to the scientific way of 'thinking in theories'. The introduction of a theory as an approach to support the understanding of the world is an important foundation that is made extremely intuitive by the authors. The readers can acquire knowledge about basic terminologies and their distinctions, which are made explicit by comprehensive discussions about concepts, constructs and variables, as well as theories, models and hypotheses.

The authors state:

"The world that we experience is multifaceted, dynamic, unique, and mostly hidden from direct view. At a most basic level, individuals cope with this complexity by forming and using concepts to assign meaning to (i.e., to identify and describe) their experiences. People place concepts into relationships with other concepts and use these conceptual system as guides to organizing and explaining the world they experience. (...) In order to share and interact with others regarding these conceptualizations, people (scientists) translate their internal concepts into external symbols of language. When both the symbols and the underlying conceptualizations to which they refer are reasonably well shared, the exchange of meaning from one individual to another can take place." (p. 18).

Part 2. Core Processes

The first chapter of this second part is inspiring and touches upon the creativity and the generation of ideas. The authors discuss how to come to new ideas that create new insights into real world phenomena for theory building. Many heuristics and ways of thinking are presented as practical tools, like thought experiments, taking explicitly into account the opposite assumption or shifting the level of analysis. In this case, the authors stress the value of small increments for scientific knowledge and encourage us to work on small ideas to get to revolutionary ones. The importance of thinking 'outside the box' is emphasized, without leaving out the relevance of existing knowledge to provide an overall basis for ideas generation

In the second chapter, the instantiation of focusing concepts to delimitate and narrow theoretical definitions is elaborated. Again, the authors provide practical and useful suggestions, such as explaining concepts as simple and exact as possible. Common pitfalls are mentioned as well. For example, authors suggest not to define theory by an example, but to specify it on a general level. In their view, using examples should be seen as a refinement of the definition, by stressing the key properties of the concepts in question. The authors point out the importance of clear construct definitions for the value of theories and present possible strategies to tackle this challenge.

The third chapter concerns clarifying relationships using thought experiments, where the authors present thought experiments as a means to articulate constructs and (expected) theoretical relationships between constructs. For the definition of relationships, variable tables (e.g. contingency tables) are introduced and scatterplots are presented as graphical representations for relations. In the ODD protocol for simulation models (e.g., Grimm et al. 2006), variable tables are a means to identify model structures. The variable tables serve as a link between general theory construction and model specification for simulation models.

Part 3. Frameworks for Theory Construction

This part opens with a section about causal models that is aimed to explain causal relationships with a focus on variable-centred approaches. The types of relationships in causal models and a process to develop a causal theory are presented. The terminologies about directions and types of influences (e.g., mediated moderation or moderated mediation) can be used as helpful communication links for researchers using simulation, when presenting simulation results in interdisciplinary environments. The answer to hypothetical assumed causal relationships between variables in the model can be given by identified factors and interaction effects in simulation experiment analyses. Hence, a bridge between simulation and theory construction can be built, by promoting simulation as a suitable research method to test hypothetical interdependencies.

The next sections of this part introduce strategies for theory construction in very detail:

The section simulation as a theory development method describes simulation as a suitable tool for construction of theories, in particular in case of complex and dynamic systems. Moreover, the advantages of simulation in respect to laboratory experiments are presented. The book states that simulation models have the potential to deal with a larger set of variables, whereas the number of variables in laboratory experiments must be dramatically reduced. For instance, the contribution of simulation to theory construction is such that it can provide tests for a variety of hypothetical criterion systems and feedbacks on the process of conceptualization in iterations.

In sum, the book is highly recommendable for social science students, is a good lecture for young and open minded researchers and locates simulation at the core of the scientific endeavour.

* References

GRIMM V, Berger U, Bastiansen F, Eliassen S, Ginot V, Giske J, Goss-Custard J, Grand T, Heinz SK, Huse G, Huth A, Jepsen JU, Jorgensen C, Mooij WM, Müller B, Pe'er G, Piou C, Railsback SF, Robbins AM, Robbins MM, Rossmanith E, Rüger N, Strand E, Souissi S, Stillman RA, Vabo R, Visser U, DeAngelis DL (2006) A Standard Protocol for describing Individual-based and Agent-Based Models. Ecological Modelling 198: 115-126


ButtonReturn to Contents of this issue