Theory and Theorizing in Social Science Research


Disciplinary education always includes the study of existing theoretical frameworks and approaches and how to apply them. Similarly, scholars-in-training practice literature searches and write state-of-the-art reviews of research in their fields to acquire the repertoire of skills prevailing in their discipline and to advance their own research output (papers, articles, dissertation). Importantly, researchers have furthermore ample high-quality opportunities to learn, master and develop the methods and techniques with which they do their research. However, researchers have far fewer occasions where they can critically reflect on the role of theory in their work and learn the tools to independently develop and/or enrich the theory with which they conduct their research. The aim of this PhD course on theory and theorizing is to assist researchers improve their theorizing skills.

A central epistemic aim of social/political science is to achieve understanding of the social/political world we live in. Various (explanatory) strategies can be used to attain this goal, but we always need theories to construct explanations or interpretations that provide understanding. Theory is understood as ‘a statement about the explanation of a phenomenon,’ which makes theorizing ‘the process through which a theory is produced’ (Richard Swedberg, The Art of Social Theory, 2014, Princeton University Press, p. 17). The course adopts a broad and inclusive conception of understanding and explanation as fundamentally being arguments. ‘An explanation is an attempt to answer the question of why a particular phenomenon occurs or a situation obtains, that is, an attempt to provide understanding of the phenomenon or the situation by presenting a systematic line of reasoning that connects it with other accepted items of knowledge (e.g., theories, background knowledge) (Henk W. de Regt, Understanding Scientific Understanding, 2020 [2017], Oxford University Press, pp. 24-25).

The course is organized around a number of key questions that we, as researchers, ask or should ask about the role of theory and theorizing in our own research. Under these headings, more specified question are or can be subsumed. What is theory and what is it not? What is theory good for? Why theorize? What is a good theory? What is strong theory? What is an interesting theory? How to theorize? How to get new ideas? How to find interesting research questions? What tools and tricks are available? What are the pitfalls?

The specific objectives for this course are:

  • to develop a better understanding of the role and use of theory in social science research
  • to advance critical reflection on the role and use of theory in one’s own research
  • to develop the ability (skill) to independently theorize

Session 1: What is actually the problem?

Keywords: Gap-filling research, uninteresting research questions, proliferation of irreconcilable theories, social (political) science as non-science, the end of theory, prisoners of our own preconceptions, theoretical fashions and fads, lack of motivation …


At the highest level, social science (and hence in research as Ph.D. students) must be justified by its ability to shed light on fundamental questions and problems in the world we live in and our understanding hereof. As our very first endeavour, it therefore becomes necessary to consider what the problems we are focusing on actually are (e.g., as to their novelty, quality, clarity, necessity, and substance). Alvesson and Sandberg (2013a, 2013b) highlight “interesting” and “influential” as key characteristics when assessing worthwhile problems, while simultaneously problematizing the usual gap-filling approach due to its incoherence in questioning already established research. Mead (2010) and Watts (2017) question the overspecialization of scholars’ contributions and promote “solution orientation” as an ultimate thermometer to assess research. Davis (2015) and Héritier (2016, responding to Mead) point to inherent issues with scholars planning out their research to maximize their chances of publication as this system promotes novelty (especially in terms of methods in recent years) rather than truth, and impact rather than coherence. Delving deep into such considerations is a prerequisite to developing and assessing theories aimed at answering and illuminating our selected problems.


  • Alvesson, Matt and Jörgen Sandberg (2013a), Gap-Spotting: The Prevalent Way of Constructing Research Questions in Social Science, in idem, Constructing Research Questions: Doing Interesting Research, London: Sage, pp. 25-37.
  • Alvesson, Matt and Jörgen Sandberg (2013b), A Critical Evaluation of Gap-Spotting Research: Does It Lead to Interesting Questions?, in idem, Constructing Research Questions: Doing Interesting Research, London: Sage, pp. 38-46.
  • Davis, Gerald F. (2015), Editorial Essay: What  Is  Organizational  Research  for?, Administrative  Science Quarterly 60(2):: 179-188.
  • Héritier, Adrienne (2016), Rigour versus Relevance? Methodological Discussions in Political Science, Politische vierteljahresschrift 57(1): 11-26.
  • Mead, Lawrence M (2010), Scholasticism in Political Science, Perspectives on Politics 8(2): 453-464. [AUL]
  • Watts, Duncan J (2017), Should Social Science Be More Solution-Oriented?, Nature Human Behaviour 1(1): 1-5.

(65 pages)

Session 2: How to find interesting research questions?

Keywords: Problematization, assumptions, description, abduction, analogies, metaphors …


The aim of this session is twofold. First, we will discuss how to find interesting research questions as this is the starting point for all good theories. Here, we will look at how to problematize existing literature using Alveson and Sandberg’s (2013) typology of theoretical assumptions. Concurrently, we will discuss Breslin and Gatrell’s (2020) strategies on how to move from spotting conceptual gaps in the literature to setting out new narratives and asking novel questions. Second, we move on to the preconditions for theorizing. Regarding this topic, Kreuzer (2019) argues that description is the building block of all explanation. On the base of this, we use the insights of Hammond (2018) to discuss different approaches and tools that can be used when preparing for theorizing.


  • Alvesson, Matt Alvesson and Jörgen Sandberg (2013), Problematization as a Methodology for Generating Research Questions, in idem, Constructing Research Questions: Doing Interesting Research, London: Sage, pp. 47-70.
  • Breslin, Dermot and Caroline Gatrell (2020), Theorizing through Literature Reviews: The Miner-Prospector Continuum, Organizational Research Methods, first online.
  • Hammond, Michael (2018), ‘An Interesting Paper But Not Sufficiently Theoretical’: What Does Theorising in Social Research Look Like?, Methodological Innovations 11(2): 1-10
  • Kreuzer, Marcus (2019), The Structure of Description: Evaluating Descriptive Inferences and Conceptualizations, Perspectives on Politics 17(1): 122-139.

(81 pages)

Session 3: Theory, concepts, criteria for good concepts

Keywords: Different conceptions of theory, different meanings of theory and of theorizing, different goals of theory and of theorizing, conflicting criteria for good concepts, conflicting criteria for good theory, potential trade-offs, evaluation


In this session, we will first turn our focus towards answering the question of what theory really is and what it is not. The papers by Raadschelders (2019), Sandberg/Alvesson (2021) and Sutton and Staw (1995) provide input for our discussion. How do different conceptions of theory relate to different types of research? What are the different ways to use theory? Key issues for this part of the session: What is theory and what is not?; What is theory good for?; Why theorize? Next, via the text by Collier et al. (2012), we turn to important (preparatory) role of conceptualization and the use of typologies for theorizing.


First part:

  • Raadschelders, Jos C. (2019), The State of Theory in the Study of Public Administration in the United States: Balancing Evidence-Based, Usable Knowledge, and Conceptual Understanding, Administrative Theory & Praxis 41(1): 79-98.
  • Sandberg, Jörgen and Mats Alvesson (2021), Meanings of Theory: Clarifying Theory Through Typification, Journal of Management Studies 58(2): 487-516.
  • Sutton, Robert and Barry Staw (1995), What Theory is Not, Administrative Science Quarterly 40(3): 371-384.

Second part:

  • Collier, David, Jody LaPorte, and Jason Seawright (2012), Putting typologies to work: Concept formation, measurement, and analytic rigor, Political Research Quarterly 65(1): 217-232.

(80 pages)

Session 4: What is a good and strong theory?

Keywords: Conflicting criteria for good theory, potential trade-offs, evaluation, theoretical challenges …


The goal of this session is to provide some tools to appraise theoretical contributions. First, scholars have investigated what determines the quality of a theory. As two notable examples, Bacharach (1989) and Gerring (2012) offer a set of criteria which allows us to assess theories. Healy (2017), analysing the rise of nuance as a supposed trait of good theories, warns against the perils of superficially attractive criteria that ultimately lack substantive relevance and that are even detrimental to good theory making. The consensus on the existence of some requirements for good theories does not imply that subjective evaluations do not matter. As Kuhn (1978) highlights, the choice between competing theories often depends on a mixture of objective and subjective factors. Subjective preferences play a role, for instance, when a conflict between different criteria arises.


  • Bacharach, Samuel B. (1989), Organizational Theories: Some Criteria for Evaluation, The Academy of Management Review, 14(4): 496-515.
  • Gerring, John (2012, second edition), Social Science Methodology: A Unified Framework, chapter 3 (“Arguments”, pp. 58-73).
  • Healy, Kieran (2017), Fuck Nuance, Sociological Theory 35(2): 118-127.
  • Kuhn, Thomas (1978), Objectivity, Value Judgment, and Theory Choice, in idem, The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, chapter 13, pp. 320- 339.

(66 pages)

Session 5: Theorizing

Keywords: the difference between the context of discovery and the context of justification; theorizing presupposes a concept of “theory”; theorizing as the actual process that precedes the final formulation of a theory; tips and tricks for theorizing...


This session is almost entirely devoted to the work by Richard Swedberg, who has been promoting theorizing. He starts from the conviction that theorizing is a practical process that can be taught and learned. Swedberg and ABC of theorizing. Carleheden (2016) an Krause (2016) provide useful and critical contributions on Swedberg’s work.


  • Carleheden, Mikael (2016), What Conception of the Theoretical Does ‘Theorizing’ Presuppose? Comment on Richard Swedberg’s ‘Before Theory Comes Theorizing or How to Make Social Science More Interesting’, The British Journal of Sociology 67(1): 36-42.
  • Krause, Monika (2016), The Meanings of Theorizing, The British Journal of Sociology 67(1): 23-29.
  • Swedberg, Richard (2016), Before Theory Comes Theorizing or How to Make Social Science More Interesting, The British Journal of Sociology 67(1): 5-22.
  • Swedberg, Richard (2017), Theorizing in Sociological Research: A New Perspective, a New Departure?, Annual Review of Sociology 43 (2017): 189-206.
  • Swedberg, Richard (2021), Does Speculation Belong in Social Science Research?, Sociological Methods & Research, 50(1): 45-74

(84 pages)