Perfecting a Theory

“There is nothing so practical as a good theory” — Kurt Lewin (1890 – 1947)

When designing a research the researcher would select a “practical” theory – a theory that could answer the research problem. For example, on the subject of “does leadership of the health center head influence performance and job satisfaction of the health center staff?” the researcher would probably opt for the Substitutes for Leadership theory. Experiences in the field show that there are health centers that are still effective even though the head of the health center is just serving his/her term, irregularly visits the health center, or is constantly being replaced. This theory states that characteristics of the workers, the tasks and the organization could replace or negate the influence of leadership behavior. This theory was introduced in 1978 by Kerr and Jermier and is still drawing interests because the other leadership theories maintain that characteristics and behavior of the leader are essential (cannot be substituted).

However, as practical as a theory can be the researcher must always keep the scientific perspective of refuting and perfecting theories. Science develops through testing and falsification of propositions that construct the theories. For instance, Dione et al. use the Kerr & Jermier theory to study 49 organizations with 940 employees who judge 156 leaders (see Neutralizing Substitutes for Leadership Theory: Leadership Effects and Common-Source Bias, Journal of Applied Psychology, 2002, 3, 454-464). In this study they test hypotheses that do not treat the characteristics of workers, tasks and organization as moderators of the leadership-performance & job satisfaction relationship, but as mediators. As moderators these characteristics can strengthen or weaken the relationship of leadership and organizational effectiveness. As mediators they are regarded as mechanisms through which leadership influences organizational effectiveness. The researchers also improved the research design. The validity of the earlier studies was confounded by a bias that was caused by the using the same subjects to measure the predictor and criterion variables (same subject bias). The effect of this bias was examined by comparing the correlation coefficients when the same subject, two different subjects and three different subjects were being used for the co-varying variables.

The question is how can we teach students to refute and refine theories? Ideally, institutions of higher learning ought to keep track records of key theories that answer a range of problems in the various fields, accompanied by empirical studies that try to refute and refine them. Undergraduate students should be introduced to theories and taught how to validly measure their variables. Graduate theses should be directed at refuting the theories with robust designs and dissertations at perfecting the theories by adjusting the propositions and the treatments of the variables (i.e., observe, manipulate, control, or ignore).

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