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The academic literature on the definition of theories provides an array of definitions and opinions that are driven from different angles and at multiple levels. According to Bacharach (1989), a theory is an explanation of a natural or social behaviour, event, or phenomenon. More formally, a scientific theory is a system of constructs (concepts) and propositions (relationships between those constructs) that collectively presents a logical, systematic, and coherent explanation of a phenomenon of interest within some assumptions and boundary conditions. Gelso (2006) claimed that a theory can be thought of as a statement of a testable relationship that may exist between and among a set of variables associated with a certain phenomenon. With that being said, we can safely say that a theory is not a belief or an ideology; it has to be somehow empirically testable. In other words, a theory has to be bounded by some data to support, confirm, deny or even deconstruct it.
There are different scopes for theories; sometimes being called micro and macro, or the specific terminologies being idiographic and nomothetic. These are two different ways that we can think about the scope of a theory. Idiographic (micro) theory explains a single situation or event in idiosyncratic detail. (Bhattacherjee, 2012). For example, if Sarah were to explain why she had a cold today, then she will have to collect all sorts of information about it; perhaps she was short on sleep, stressed about an upcoming project, or she shook hands with a person who also had a cold. The problem about idiosyncratic theory is that it cannot be generalized to a larger group of people in Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) who had a cold as a result of the combination of factors mentioned above.
On the contrary, nomothetic (macro) theory explains a class of situations or events rather than a specific situation or event. (Bhattacherjee, 2012). This means that it is going to look for the conditions in the broader context that would cause multiple people in UPM to have a cold today:
Perhaps it has to do with the change in temperature that occurs annually, the allergens that might be present in the air, or population percentage that has a cold or is contagious. Because nomothetic explanations are designed to be generalizable across situations, events, or people, they tend to be less precise, less complete, and less detailed. However, they explain economically, using only a few explanatory variables. For example, it might miss the exact combination of factors that gave Sarah a cold versus some random person with a similar cold. Because theories are also intended to serve as generalized explanations for patterns of events, behaviors, or phenomena, theoretical explanations are generally nomothetic in nature.
Generally, academics point to a theory as being made up of four components; (1) definition of terms or variables, (2) a domain where the theory applies, (3) a set of relationship of variables, and (4) specific predictions or factual claims. (Hunt, 1991; Bunge, 1967; Reynolds, 1971). Theories carefully outline the precise definitions in a specific area to explain why and how the relationships are logically tied so that the theory gives specific predictions. Therefore, a good theory’s precision causes a theory to be very stringent for all the key components of a theory, or as Poole (1989) and Van De Ven (1989) state: A good theory is, by definition, a limited and fairly precise picture. A theory’s precision and limitations are founded in the definitions of terms, the domain of the theory, the explanation of relationships, and the specific predictions.
The importance of utilizing theories in research cannot be overlooked. In addition, research requires a solid theoretical basis and a strong methodology. Wacker (1998) provided three reasons why theory is important for a research: (1) it provides a framework for analysis, (2) it provides an efficient method for field development, and (3) it provides a clear explanation for the pragmatic world. Theory that is driven by research is directly relevant to practice and beneficial to any field of study.
The systematic nature of theory is to provide an explanation of a problem, to describe the distinguishing innovative features of a phenomenon, and to provide predictive utility. Research without theory has no foundation; as theory depends on research to provide evidence on the theory’s accuracy.
A theory has a central role in research. Although theory should ideally guide research, theory and research are interrelated and are dependent on each other to make sense of a phenomenon. Furthermore, although research contributes significantly to the explanatory power of a theory (Gay ; Weaver, 2011), to be able to increase or build knowledge effectively, a theoretical framework must be used to develop the research process. Thus, “research knowledge tends to contribute to theory more incrementally, building upon, and adding to a lexicon of facts” (Gay ; Weaver, 2011, p. 29).
Although theory is grounded in the nuances of life that give meaning and importance to various stakeholders, theory stimulates and creates research and research creates and refines theory (Gay ; Weaver, 2011; Gelso, 2006). According to Harlow (2009), developing theory inevitably involves an element of testing and therefore the two are interlinked. A case study, in particular, is either designed to test a theory, develop a theory, or both (Harlow, 2009). Theory building and theory testing will then form the underlying support of discussion on the relationship between research and theory.
So what is a theory’s role in a research? Theories provide a framework to understand the phenomena we study; often behaviours or decisions of individuals and organizations. It can also guide the design of the research. Say, for an instance, one is interested in exploring about the relationship between television media and the perception of body image among women.
Specifically, it will apply cultivation theory to the construct of body image. In other words, the study will examine the cumulative effects of television’s messages on an individual’s body image. The researcher will conduct a survey asking participants to respond to a series of questions that include information on demographics, consumption of television, body image, perceptions about the realism of television, and perceptions about society (cultivation).
Another theory used to explain the relationship between media and body image is the social comparison theory (Festinger, 1954). This theory postulates that individuals shape their own identity by making comparisons between themselves and others. Social comparison theory is applied to the topic of media and body image when individuals compare themselves to people they see in the media (see Wykes & Gunter, 2005 for a review).
Unlike social comparison theory, cultivation theory considers the cumulative effects of television on one’s body image. It regards the amount of television watched as an influencing factor in body image. Over the years, the theory of cultivation has been used to investigate several socio-cultural perceptions; however, it has not been used directly for examining body image. For these reasons, the current researcher will use the theory of cultivation to examine the link between media and body image.
Cultivation theory became popular in late 1960’s and early 1970’s when George Gerbner and his colleagues secured funding for the Cultural Indicators Project. This project had three elements; the third of which involved cultivation analysis. The cultivation element of the Cultural Indicators Project aimed to investigate the relationship between television’s messages and the audience’s behaviours and beliefs (Morgan ; Singorielli, 1990). The Cultural Indicators Project was the beginning of decades of empirical research on cultivation theory.
This theory postulates that television’s “….stable, repetitive, pervasive and virtually inescapable patterns of images and ideologies.…” has a cumulative effect over long periods of time (Shanahan & Morgan, 1999, p. 5). In other words, cultivation theory does not aim to explain how watching a horror movie may cause nightmares or how a specific product’s advertisement influences purchasing behaviour, but is rather about examining “….television as a system of messages – a system whose elements are not invariant or uniform, but complementary, organic and coherent….” and the impact of that system of messages for television audiences (Shanahan ; Morgan, 1999, p. 5).
Cultivation theory propounds that television’s messages are used to cultivate perceptions of social reality over time. One particular side of social reality that cultivation may influence is body image (Wykes & Gunter, 2005). In other words, repeated, prevalent, standardized, and homogeneous television images of specific body types shaped over time may influence an individual’s own body image. Specifically, the theory of cultivation would predict a mainstreaming effect of body image and perhaps a resonance effect.
Cultivation is a slow process. It is about the cumulative effect of television viewing over time. When it comes to body image, this cumulative effect is enhanced when television programs with thin characters on television are examined.

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