How to write the theory section of a research article in the social sciences

Every empirical research article in the social sciences requires a theory section. When you do research with data, there are dozens of concepts and theories to choose from. But only some can go into the theory section of your article. What to do?

This post provides some commonsense tips on how to write the theory section of an empirical research article in the social sciences.

Articles on writing empirical research articles in the social sciences

What is theory?

Theories are a set of explanations and predictions of phenomena. The explanations can be about a phenomenon at one point in time, but they can also lead to predictions of how societies, groups, and individuals will think, feel, and act when faced with similar phenomena in the future.

Theories are sets of statements. Within these statements are concepts. Each concept must have a definition and relationship to the other concepts.

The theory section is where you define the concepts in detail and where you make clear the connections between the concepts.

Some tips on how to write the theory section of an article

1. Remember that the empirical research paper in the social sciences should be a harmonious whole — everything should meaningfully connect. The title, the abstract, the introduction, and so on should all be about the same set of concepts. Everything should fit together with as little extraneous information as possible.

2. Remember: the paper is 8000 words. The author cannot write an 8000 word theory section. There must be some reduction, some selection, and some judgment of what goes in.

3. The theory section should contain the concepts that were “introduced” in the introduction.

4. It is not the job of the author to survey every possible theory from Earth to Mars. Rather, they should discuss only the theories that are directly relevant for this article.

5. Remember your audience, which is the audience of that particular journal. The audience does not expect to read a meandering theory section that winds its way back to Aristotle, unless of course, the article is specifically about Artisotlean political philosophy. You do not need to invoke Marx every time you write about class, etc.

6. Keep in the theory section…

(a) What the literature at the time of your writing considers as the main theories. When you research your topic, you will keep notes on the theories previous scholars have used, and from them you will know what the main theories are.

(b) New theories that the literature has not considered, if that is a contribution of your article to the field of study. If you do not use the theory in your paper, you should seriously question why it is in the paper.

7. A mix of old and new references to theory and concepts is best. It will demonstrate the breadth of your research.

Joshua K. Dubrow is a PhD from The Ohio State University and a Professor of Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

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