What is Theory?

See also: Sources of Information

This page covers the basics of understanding what is meant by the word ‘theory’ and how theories are developed. 

As well as describing theory the page gives a brief introduction to the steps involved in the construction of theory, in an academic or scientific context.

A theory is a method we use to give us understanding. 

One of the major purposes of a theory is to provide an answer to the question ‘why?’.  Asking, ‘why?’, to increase your knowledge of a subject area and realign your thoughts and opinions is an essential skill for anybody who wants to learn and develop.

Why’ is one of the very first questions that children ask:

  • “Can you get ready for bed now?” … “Oh why?
  • Why is snow cold?
  • Why do I have to go to school tomorrow?
  • Why is the sky blue?

Questions like these, from children, can be endless. Often finding or providing suitable explanations can be exhausting and frustrating – perhaps we resort to saying, “Well it just is!”  At the basis of such questions however, are a child’s first attempts to understand the world around them, and develop their own theories of why things are the way they are.

Defining ‘theory’, therefore, has to take into account the ‘why?’ question, but a theory is deeper than that.  The points below go some way to helping with a definition.

  • A theory is an attempt to explain why and so to provide understanding.

  • A theory is not just ‘any’ explanation - a theory comes into being when a series of ideas come to be held and accepted by a wider community of people.

  • A theory is not necessarily factually based – how we understand and provide explanations arises from our cultural background and how we view the world.

Understanding Theory

Although there are no hard and fast rules, modern theory is usually developed through a series of steps, by academics and scientists.

It is important to understand that the steps to theory development, as listed on this page, are generally thought of as being sequential – one step follows the last.

In reality there is often more than one of these processes being engaged in at any one time.

From Observation to Understanding

  • Observation (usually the effect)
  • Description
  • Possible theory - hypothesis
  • Reading - placing individual understanding in context
  • Research
  • More reading
  • Accepting, rejecting or modifying a hypothesis
  • Theory – understanding why – and this being accepted by a wider community of people

Observation and Description

Observation may include personal or professional experience and wider reading on the subject.  What we usually observe is not the cause, but the effect.  In undertaking research, observation is an important research method.

From observation, the next step is usually description; this is what ‘appears’ to be happening.  Description provides the surface view; think about the fabled, simple observation of an apple falling to the ground which led Isaac Newton to the theory of gravitation (which eventually became the universal laws of gravitation).

Hypothesis – The Research Question

Following on from observation and description, a tentative understanding as to ‘why’ may be formulated and this is known as a hypothesis or the research question.  This is usually to explore the cause, e.g. ‘why’ the apple fell to the ground?

Reading and Placing in Context

Reading from a wide range of sources is important; reading may take place at any stage within this sequence of events.  Reading allows the researcher to place their information in context.  It is usual for the researcher to have undertaken a considerable amount of reading prior to undertaking their research.

It is also possible that reading around the subject leads to a new research question.  Whilst reading around a subject to gain an understanding, a researcher may discover a ‘gap’ in the current knowledge that they wish to fill.


Research is then undertaken to ‘test’ the hypothesis or to explore the research question.  For the natural scientist, this usually involves controlled scientific experimentation, which is repeatable time and time again and should provide the same (or similar) results.

For the social scientist or social researcher, such experimentation is more difficult, sometimes impossible to orchestrate.  There are, however, many research tools that a social researcher can deploy to investigate their research question.

Accepting, Rejecting, or Modifying a Hypothesis:
The Research Question

Once research has been undertaken within scientific research this can lead to accepting, rejecting, or modifying the hypothesis.  For the social researcher there may not be any firm conclusions drawn to allow this process to take place; it is usual that research leads to more research and further questions being explored.  Definitive answers may be difficult to ascertain - there may be a host of reasons given and these reasons may change over time.  Research findings from both the scientific and the social research community do, however, need to be discussed more widely prior to their becoming accepted.

This process is usually undertaken with a ‘discussion’ of findings with the wider community, e.g. other researchers and academics with an interest in the area. Within academia this can involve presenting findings and papers at conferences and seminars. This means that the findings from the research undertaken do not exist in isolation.  Other academics may wish to carry out similar experiments etc.


The wider academic community exists, in part, to contribute to and/or scrutinise the content of academic materials, research journals, articles or chapters in books.    What is important is that these areas are ‘peer reviewed’ prior to publication and the research presented is rigorously debated.  The researcher may be asked to review their work prior to publication or indeed it may be rejected.  Once published, such ideas can become part of the ‘system of ideas’.

Theories around particular subjects tend to fall in and out of ‘fashion’.  As society changes, additional information is discovered or attitudes change then so too do theories and the explanation as to ‘why’.  Whilst this is the case, it is important to remember that even though theories may come to be discredited over time - as thinking about a subject changes - they can prove highly influential.  A good example here, might be the work of Sigmund Freud.

Social Understanding

Gaining an understanding around the behaviour of people and society is much more problematic (people are inconsistent and society is constantly changing) than within the natural sciences, where natural phenomena are generally more consistent.

It is also important to note that within this realm, it is easier to appreciate that understandings and theories created are specific to the people or persons who are creating the theory, the time and place in which they were writing, i.e. their whole social, cultural and economic context. 

Their observations (as are our own) are biased, that is, seen through their eyes and understood from their own background, assumptions etc.  Theories and ideas, therefore, can be built upon and expanded and can be discredited.  Even so, certain theoretical perspectives have had enormous influence around our thinking, understanding and practice within our society, such as the work of Sigmund Freud.

Our understanding about ourselves changes and evolves throughout time as society changes.

Education is about gaining an understanding about how and why people, society, and the natural world work.  Being educated enables us to reflect upon the world around us and our understanding of it - to be aware of changes and never to stop asking ‘why?’