B. Motivating Theory: Fundamental Questions and Radical Synthesis

Fundamental Questions

"Fundamental questions are the most effective tools for advancing understanding because they address any one of five ways to improve theory" (Pickett, Kolasa and Jones 1994:113). Specifically, fundamental questions can lead to: (1) establishment of theory or missing theoretical components; (2) refinement of theoretical components; (3) rejection of inadequate theory or inadequate theoretical components; (4) replacement of a theory or some of its components; and (5) increasing the scope of theory.

Table 1.

Figure 5 shows a number of types of questions that may not be mutually exclusive, but that do have different motivations and foci. Among these, fundamental questions are those aimed at changing/advancing the structure or content of understanding. Their loci for action are usually the conceptual constructs or the lines of interaction between theory and observable phenomena (Figure 6). Limits to current understanding invite ongoing efforts to identify and address fundamental questions as a crucial part of theory building.

Fig. 5.Fig. 6.

Formulating fundamental questions can also facilitate change in understanding by clarifying the scope of inquiry. Tinbergen's (1963) four questions are an attempt to acknowledge different ways of answering the question `Why?' in biology. These questions can be summarized as: (1) functional (questions about the adaptiveness of behavior); (2) proximate (questions about the mechanisms of behavior); (3) ontogenetic (questions about how behavior changes through development of an organism); (4) phylogenetic (questions about the ways behavior changes as species evolve). By distinguishing between these fundamental types of questions and the distinct answers they generate, Tinbergen helped bring theoretical clarity to otherwise sterile debates about which is the correct response to any given `Why' question.

"In case several fundamental questions are competing for attention, they may be ranked according to their logical precedence, clarity, and potential to unify" (Pickett, Kolasa and Jones 1994:113). Fundamental questions should be prioritized to the extent that they are interesting, feasible, fulfill logical requirements already present in theory, establish sound and clear concepts (Novak and Gowin 1984), as well as definitions and interactions, while encompassing a broad scope so as to advance generality (Kuhn 1977, Mayr 1982, Slobodkin 1985). Even if such questions are privileged they may lead to incorrect theory, but in the process greater clarity of concepts, hypotheses and tests may be achieved.

Fundamental questions should tend, by definition, to new theories.9 While keeping the scope of the inquiry in mind, fundamental questions ask about observed patterns of phenomena and possible explanatory processes/mechanisms. In this endeavor, judgement, reason and previously accepted ideas must be temporarily suspended so as not to constrain the person or group who seek alternative explanations (see Appendix for more on the possibilities of team thinking). Alternative explanations also come from within theory by unreasonably performing an extreme application of the building blocks of theory (generalization, idealization, abstraction, hierarchical integration), individually or in combination with others.

Integration and Synthesis

Theoretical understanding changes through the integration of disparate paradigms. This is the option of radical synthesis. Specifying the disparate paradigms and identifying possible fundamental questions to guide cross-paradigm integration helps to articulate an idea toward which integration can aspire.

Two general ways of synthesizing disparate areas of understanding are additive and extractive integration. In the first, two or more complete theories are connected, perhaps ultimately merged, through the implications of asking a very broad scale question. The paradox of additive integration is that the product may be more than the sum of its parts (Figure 7a). In extractive integration, selected components of different theories are recontextualized to provide new building blocks and relations. Here the result is expected to be synergistic (Figure 7b).

Fig. 7a.Fig. 7b.

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