I think your question is one that resonates with many of us who are always thinking about how realist methodology can be applied to our particular research interests. Here are a few thoughts that will hopefully stir up a helpful discussion on the forum about your proposal and the role of theory-testing in general.
What I'm about to say is most certainly a gross over-simplification of very well defined, historical concepts so bear with me as I try to keep the integrity of my thoughts here:
What is theory? We could begin with the idea that theory is really what links two or more visible (material) factors in the study of any phenomena. So in other words, empirical 'data' is what is observable. Theory then, is not the visible parts per se, but something to do with our ideas about the relationship between what is observable. For example, say there is a male employee. And we observe that his annual salary is more than his female counterparts. Those are visible, i.e., empirical elements (i.e., male employee, female employee & annual salary). But in needing to answer the 'why the inequity?' question, we need to think about the relationship between such visible elements. The assumed relationship between elements is theory. It's not visible as such, and furthermore, the ideas about the relationship between elements can range in the level of abstraction. And in this particular example, some form of economic or culturally influenced feminist theory may serve to explain (or partly explain) the relationship between these visible elements.
So the idea of theory-testing is really to see if we can find some scientific basis upon which to confirm our suspicions that our thinking about relationship between visible elements is indeed sound. As such, theory-testing is not a logic of inquiry that is limited to realist methodology. In fact, much of what we call 'empirical' research is also based on the idea of theory-testing. The difference, as I see it, between theory testing in empirical research vs realist research is that the former is often about determining whether two observable factors are indeed correlated or causally related: does lay health worker intervention (observable factor 1) lead to improved health behaviours (observable factor 2). In contrast, realist research is often about theorizing about the invisible forces or mechanism that underpin the connection between observable factors. These are generalizations. Some empirical research does also uncover mechanisms but it's not usually the thrust of the research.
So in your case, you are contemplating the possibility of 'goal setting' as a theory. That's probably a good start. But I'd think over the notion of this as a theory. Would it be better understood as a strategy of the intervention? If so, you could say that the acts involved in 'goal setting' (observable factor 1) - leads to improved health behaviours (observable factors 2). Then the theory has to do with: what is it about 'goal setting' that creates certain behaviour changes? and in that you will find one or more mechanisms. So to get to your question, I'd say that we can better understand the function of 'theory-testing' in realist research when we contrast to empiricism. Basically realist 'testing' so to say, is checking out whether your pre-conceived ideas about the causal relationship between observable factors (that includes invisible forces at play) make sense, given what you see in the empirical data.
Justin Jagosh, Ph.D
Centre for Advancement in Realist Evaluation and Synthesis (CARES)
Liverpool Reviews and Implementation Group
University of Liverpool, United Kingdom
From: Realist and Meta-narrative Evidence Synthesis: Evolving Standards [[log in to unmask]] on behalf of Mairi Anne Young [[log in to unmask]]
Sent: January 28, 2014 9:42
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Advice on testing theories - Realist Review
I'm a 2nd year Dental Public Health PhD student working on a protocol for a Realist Review. My research question is: Which mechanisms within child health interventions, positively influence child health promoting care giver behaviour?
The review will form part of my PhD which is an evaluation of a Lay Health Worker role within the Childsmile dental programme.
While researching Realist Review methodology and developing my protocol the only stumbling block I'm coming up against is the concept of 'theory testing'. I understand the searching is an iterative process, one which involves identifying and testing theories. However I'm failing to understand what exactly is involved within this testing phase.
For example, if it arose that Goal Setting was a theory, would I then be re-entering the literature with the intention of locating evidence related to Goal Setting? Would this evidence have to confirm why Goal Setting is an effective tool?
I would be grateful for any advice or information anyone could provide on this matter.
Mairi Young BA (hons) MSc MBPsS
The University of Glasgow, Glasgow Dental Hospital & School
Level 8 COH Office 378 Sauchiehall Street
Glasgow G2 3JZ
Email: [log in to unmask]
Tel: 0794 7744 517