Constructing An Inductive Theory

Inductive theory. Getty Images Credit: Hinterhaus Productions

There are two approaches to constructing a theory: inductive theory construction and deductive theory construction. Inductive theory construction takes place during inductive research in which the researcher first observes aspects of social life and then seeks to discover patterns that may point to relatively universal principles.

Field research, in which the researcher observes the events as they take place, is often used to develop inductive theories. Erving Goffman is one social scientist that is known for using field research to uncover rules of many diverse behaviors, including living in a mental institution and managing the “spoiled identity” of being disfigured. His research is an excellent example of using field research as a source of inductive theory construction, which is also commonly referred to as grounded theory.

Developing an inductive, or grounded, theory generally follows the following steps:

  • Research design: Define your research questions and the main concepts and variables involved.
  • Data collection: Collect data for your study using any of the various methods (field research, interviews, surveys, etc.)
  • Data ordering: Arrange your data chronologically to facilitate easier data analysis and examination of processes.
  • Data analysis: Analyze your data using methods of your choosing to look for patterns, connections, and significant findings.
  • Theory construction: Using the patterns and findings from your data analysis, develop a theory about what you discovered.
  • Literature comparison: Compare your emerging theory with the existing literature. Are there conflicting frameworks, similar frameworks, etc.?


Babbie, E. (2001). The Practice of Social Research: 9th Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Thomson.