Fact, Theory, and Hypothesis Essay

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The terms ”theory,” ”fact,” and ”hypothesis” are sometimes treated as though they have clear meanings and clear relations with one another, but the histories and uses of these are more complex and diverse than might be expected.

The usual sense of these words places them in a relationship of increasing uncertainty. A fact is usually thought of as a described state of affairs in which the descriptions are true or highly supported.

A highly corroborated or supported hypothesis is also a fact; a less well corroborated one is still a hypothesis. A hypothesis which is not supported by or corroborated by other evidence would not be a fact, but could become a fact if it came to be corroborated to a high degree of certainty by other evidence. Similarly, a theory, which is a logically connected set of hypotheses, could come to be a fact if the hypotheses in the theory were to be highly corroborated by the evidence.

When we collect data we have already described them or have a conceptual category for them. Since the ”data” are already in a predefined category, we are not dealing directly with the world but with an already categorized world.

The methodological understanding of science that fits best the insight that facts are already conceptual is hypothetico-deductivism, which contrasts to a different view of methodology called inductivism.

Inductivism was the traditional understanding that science consists of generalizations which can be built up on the basis of the collection of data which can then be arranged into generalizations. The problem with inductivism is that there is no logical way to get from a collection of finite singular pieces of information to a generalization which goes beyond the particulars that have been collected.

Hypothetico-deductivism deals with this limitation by turning the problem upside down by beginning with hypotheses that are generalizations and asking whether the observable particulars are consistent with (because they are implied by) the generalization.

Hypothetico-deductivism has an advantage over inductivism as a method in that hypothetico-deductivism can be used to corroborate theories where the concepts in the theories are not themselves directly observable. This is an especially important possibility in sociology because many of the concepts in sociology do not directly apply to observable facts in the world, but instead to grounding concepts such as ”society,” or ”role,” or ”attitude.” These concepts can be understood as having observable manifestations, but are not limited to or equivalent to observable manifestations.

Sense-Making In Theories

The major difference between sociological and physical theory is that the concepts in sociology are typically sense-making: they serve to enable a fact described in its terms to be more fully intelligible.

Making a fact more intelligible will usually make its consequences more predictable. If one does something as simple as characterizing an action as a product of the agent’s beliefs and positive attitudes towards some outcome specified by the agent’s beliefs, one has improved the prediction over alternative descriptions or over chance.

If the sociologist can add to this simple situation of explaining in terms of beliefs and attitudes by characterizing the set of beliefs that support the particular belief that relates directly to the action, for example by understanding a religiously motivated action in terms of a typology of religious belief, and if the sociologist can explain how those beliefs come to be distributed in particular groups, she will have something that begins to look like a theory that explains those actions sociologically, that is to say at some level beyond the level of the individual.


  1. Apel, K.-O. (1984) Explanation and Understanding: A Transcendental-Pragmatic Perspective. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
  2. Giddens, A. (1993) New Rules of Sociological Method, 2nd edn. Stanford University Press, Palo Alto, CA.

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