What is adaptive theory?

When starting out with a research topic, policy researchers are often faced with the question of whether to test existing theories or use empirical data to generate new theories. The answer could be both!

Layder (1998) outlines an approach linking theory and research, which he calls ‘adaptive theory’. Adaptive theory combines the use of existing theory and ideas generated from empirical research. It is ‘adaptive’ because the new theory is shaped by incoming evidence and influenced by prior theoretical frameworks, concepts and ideas.  

The benefit is that both general theory and empirical research benefit from the dialogue. Theory becomes more robust and explanatory capacity is enhanced. It also avoids the stagnation that may occur from repeated hypotheses testing. Empirical research benefits from more sophisticated analysis and expanded applicability. Overall, adaptive theory enables the accumulation of knowledge (compared to a traditional post-modernist approach).

Further reading:

Layder, D. 1998. Sociological practice: linking theory and social research. Sage Publications, London.


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