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The abductive theory of method

Author: Dr Simon Moss


The abductive theory of method, proposed by Haig (2005), describes some of the processes and philosophies that researchers should adopt to improve the utility of their work and theories. In particular, Haig (2005) rejects the proposition, for example, that theories should first be developed and then tested. Instead, Haig (2005) recommends a different sequence of set of activities should underpin the activities of researchers. Specifically, researchers should:

In short, the abductive theory of method attempts to characterize the processes that researchers should undertake to generate important and insightful discoveries or explanations.

Limitations of other methods to science

The abductive theory of method departs from the traditional perspectives of most researchers in the domain psychology, who adopt either an inductive or hypothetic-deductive perspective. In particular, some researchers apply the inductive method, in which they attempt to extract generalizations from many observations. This method, however, does not explain most of the research endeavors of scholars.

More prevalent in the domain of psychology, many researchers apply the hypothetic-deductive perspective (Cattell, 1966& Laudan, 1981). Specifically, they form theories, often derived from their knowledge, logic, and imagination. Next, they form hypotheses--predictions that should be confirmed if the theory is correct. These hypotheses, if confirmed, provide some evidence the theory might be plausible.

Despite its prevalence, almost ubiquity, in quantitative psychology, the hypothetico-deductive method has been criticized vehemently (e.g, Cattell, 1966& Glymour, 1980& Rorer, 1991& Rozeboom, 1999). In particular, vindication of one hypothesis often implies corroboration of many other conjoined or related hypotheses. Hence, support for a theory can seem appreciable but really be minimal (but see Giere, 1983, for a more sophisticated conceptualization of the hypothetico-deductive method).

The abductive theory of method presents some key benefits. First, the importance of clarifying and validating key phenomena, even before theories are developed, is highlighted. With the hypothetico-deductive method, the focus on testing theories can impede the discovery of important phenomenon. In addition, the import of many research activities, especially activities that clarify the phenomenon, is underestimated.

Second, the abductive theory of method explicates the processes that researchers can adopt to uncover, develop, and appraise theories. This process is often unexplained when researchers adopt a hypothetico-deductive method: the theory seems to materialize mysteriously. Hence, advice about how to develop theories is difficult to communicate.

Phases of the abductive theory of method

Detection of phenomena

The first phase of researcher endeavors, from the perspective of this abductive theory of method, should be to uncover and establish phenomena. In this context, phenomena are not data (see Bogen & Woodward, 1988). Instead, phenomena represent somewhat stable, recurrent, general features of the world, derived from patterns in the data. An example is the ironic rebound effect, described by Wegner, Schneider, Carter, and White (1987), in which suppressed thoughts or feelings seem to resurface often more intensely than before. Another example is anchoring and adjustment, in which the final judgment of individuals tends to be biased towards the original estimate (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). Classes of findings that are designated as effects are often phenomena.

A multitude effects have been discovered already in the domain of psychology. Nevertheless, because of the emphasis on testing hypotheses, many phenomena have either not been discovered or have not been validated and established definitively. That is, scientists often eschew activities that are intended to validate these phenomena themselves.

According to Haig (2005), researchers should dedicate more effort to:

Because researchers primarily strive to substantiate their theories, many of theses research activities are overlooked, at least to some extent. For example, outliers might be examined only when the original data do not seem to confirm the theory. Exploratory techniques cannot test hypotheses and thus might be eschewed, reducing the likelihood of unanticipated discoveries. Close replication is also often not applied, because such techniques might challenge the stability of supportive data. Often, these phenomena arise from studies intended to solve problems and overcome constraints.

Theory generation

The second phase of the abductive theory of method is to engage in existential abduction, in which researchers attempt to uncover novel concepts that could underpin the phenomena. That is, existential abduction involves developing and explicating abstract objects--objects that have not been identified before--that could potentially cause the phenomena to unfold. Examples of such existential abduction include the concept of Pluto, first proposed to explain the unique orbit of Neptune as well as many psychological constructs, such as intelligence and extraversion.

According to Haig (2005), exploratory factor analysis, when conducted optimally (Fabrigar, Wegener, MacCallum, & Strahan, 1999& Preacher & MacCallum, 2003), provides one means to unearth such concepts. Factor analysis identifies sets of variables that are highly correlated with each other: such as enjoyment of company, bold behavior, and positive emotions. Once these sets are derived, researchers might then identify the common theme or feature that underpins these variables, perhaps a yearning for positive, social interactions. A descriptive or narrative that depicts this common theme evolves into a concept, in this instance extraversion.

Haig (2005) also identifies other techniques, such as some of the processes that underpin grounded theory (Strauss, 1987), which could be applied to identify these novel concepts. To uncover novel concepts, proponents of grounded theory develop many specific codes to classify written data and then categorize these codes into broader, and more abstract or intangible, concepts and constructs.

The suggestions proposed by McGuire (1997) could also be applicable. That is, McGuire (1997) identified 49 techniques that can be used to generate hypotheses. According to Haig (2005), many of these processes might be useful in generating theories to explain phenomena. McGuire (1997) refers to processes such as introspection, reversing the plausible direction of causality, extending on obvious statement to an implausible extreme, imagine the effect of reducing a variable to zero, decomposing non-monotonic relationships into simpler relations, examine deviant cases, and exploring a glamorous technique or model.

To illustrate a few examples, McGuire (1997) argues that researchers should juxtapose opposite problems to uncover reciprocal solutions. For example, individuals with hypertension often do not adhere to prescribed medication, whereas elderly individuals often overdose on futile arthritic medications. Understanding the sources of one problem could offer a solution to an opposing problem. Likewise, reflecting on two phenomena that seem contradictory, and the core differences between these effects, might uncover some key insights into the underlying causes.

In addition, McGuire (1997) recommends that researchers should imagine themselves in specific scenarios or settings. They could imagine their behavior, thoughts, and states had they been exposed to the conditions that prompt or inhibit the phenomenon of interest.

Furthermore, McGuire (1997) advocates that researchers imagine two variables or concepts that should be related, such as extraversion and enjoyment at parties, and then imagine the opposite association. Attempted explanations of the opposite association could uncover some interesting insights and mechanisms.

Theoretical development

The third phase of the abductive theory of method is to engage in analogical abduction, which is intended to develop and refine theories (see Campbell, 1920& Harre, 1976& Peirce, 1931-1958). In particular, individuals apply processes or mechanisms that are established in one domain to explain phenomena in another domain. Specifically, researchers attempt to identify a context or effect that is similar to the phenomenon that needs to be explained, with reference to the novel concepts that were uncovered. Next, feature of arguments, mechanisms, or propositions that explain effects in this other context are then applied to accommodate the phenomenon of interest. An example includes how the planets were used to depict atoms and how artificial selection in farm animals was used to explain natural selection.

Both theoretical generation and development, therefore, can be underpinned by rational, systematic, and logical processes. Furthermore, these extensive processes can optimize theory development. In contrast, the hypothetico-deductive approach did not focus on theory construction and development but more on theory testing and validation. As a consequence, theory generation and development are not valued, embraced, or rewarded, which could curb the effort that researchers apply to this process.

Theory appraisal

The final phase of the abductive theory of method is to appraise the theories--although this activity can be conducted concurrently with the other phases. Haig (2005), however, argues that many of the prevalent means to evaluate theories are not suitable in this context. Specifically, proponents of the hypothetico-deductive method tend to examine whether the theory can predict future empirical discoveries, called predictive success. Theories that are consistent with future observations are regarded as preferable. In contrast, Haig (2005) argues that researchers should apply the concept of explanatory coherence to facilitate an objective called inference to the best theory.

Inference to best theory implies that theories should be compared with each other, preferably on a criterion called explanatory coherence. The theory that outperforms rivals should be preferred (Thagard, 1988& see also Lipton, 2004). Specifically, from the perspective of Lipton (2004), the theory that is the most elegant, simply, and coherent should be preferred. Likewise, Thagard (1992) maintains the theory that demonstrates consilience--that is, explains many facts--simplicity--that is, comprises few ad hoc assumptions--and analogy--that is, relates to established mechanisms, should be preferred.

These criteria are used to identify theories that are coherent, as defined by seven principles (Thagard, 1992, 2000). If a theory is coherent, and thus optimal, all the underlying propositions are consistent, as defined by these seven principles.


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Last Update: 6/23/2016