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PSC/SOC 340/JS 504: Social Science Research Methods

Explanation of the parts of a scientific research article, how to read scientific articles, books about the research process, how to do a literature review, forming hypotheses, research design, research instruments, finding statistics & survey results.

What is the difference between a theory & a hypothesis?

The terms theory and hypothesis are often used interchangeably in everyday use. However, the difference between them in scholarly research is important, particularly when using an experimental design. A theory is a well-established principle that has been developed to explain some aspect of the natural world. Theories arise from repeated observation and testing and incorporates facts, laws, predictions, and tested hypotheses that are widely accepted [e.g., rational choice theory; grounded theory].

A hypothesis is a specific, testable prediction about what you expect to happen in your study. For example, an experiment designed to look at the relationship between study habits and test anxiety might have a hypothesis that states, "We predict that students with better study habits will suffer less test anxiety." Unless your study is exploratory in nature, your hypothesis should always explain what you expect to happen during the course of your research.

The key distinctions are:

  • A theory predicts events in a broad, general context; a hypothesis makes a specific prediction about a specified set of circumstances.
  • A theory has been extensively tested and is generally accepted among scholars; a hypothesis is a speculative guess that has yet to be tested.

Cherry, Kendra. Introduction to Research Methods: Theory and Hypothesis. Psychology; Gezae, Michael et al. Welcome Presentation on Hypothesis. Slideshare presentation.

An Example of How to Write a Hypothesis

A worker on a fish-farm notices that his trout seem to have more fish lice in the summer, when the water levels are low, and wants to find out why. His research leads him to believe that the amount of oxygen is the reason - fish that are oxygen stressed tend to be more susceptible to disease and parasites.

He proposes a general hypothesis.

“Water levels affect the amount of lice suffered by rainbow trout.”

This is a good general hypothesis, but it gives no guide to how to design the research or experiment. The hypothesis must be refined to give a little direction.

“Rainbow trout suffer more lice when water levels are low.”

Now there is some directionality, but the hypothesis is not really testable, so the final stage is to design an experiment around which research can be designed, a testable hypothesis.

“Rainbow trout suffer more lice in low water conditions because there is less oxygen in the water.”

This is a testable hypothesis - he has established variables, and by measuring the amount of oxygen in the water, eliminating other controlled variables, such as temperature, he can see if there is a correlation against the number of lice on the fish.

This is an example of how a gradual focusing of research helps to define how to write a hypothesis.

How to write a hypothesis - the research paper question Retrieved 2/2/2014, 2014, from

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