There are many ways to contribute to theory and potentially fruitful avenues of research, and reading top research articles, it can seem obvious and self-evident. However, most people who have tried to come up with interesting research ideas, know it is far from simple. Working on identifying interesting research opportunities and questions will influence all subsequent work, both as it is more rewarding to work on engaging research, and the potential reach, will be a lot higher. It is well worth putting in the effort.

In the book “Theory Construction and Model building skills”, Jaccard & Jacoby outline 27 (!) approaches to start the creative process. I have grouped them into 6 categories, these are:

  1. Personal Experience and Reflection
  2. Expert Knowledge and External Input
  3. Creative Thinking Techniques
  4. Analyzing Extremes and Outliers
  5. Systematic and Structured Thinking
  6. Methodological and Technological Innovation


Most people will be more familiar and comfortable using one, or a small selection of these to generate ideas, however, by attempting a broader set, may yield new fruitful avenues.


1.     Personal Experience and Reflection

  • Analyze your own experiences
    • Reflect on personal experiences to understand the phenomenon.
    • Identify situations that triggered anxiety versus those where you felt confident. Analyze factors like environment, social dynamics, and personal mindset that contributed to these feelings.
  • Focus on your emotions
    • Emotions can be a source of meaning and interpretation.
    • Record and reflect on your emotions during observations or research. Example: Ethnographic studies using emotion notes to gain insights.
  • Find what pushes your intellectual hot button
    • Investigate ideas that evoke strong reactions.
    • Explore topics that provoke disbelief or disagreement. Example: Studying the effects of information overload based on skepticism about the value of excessive information.

2.     Expert Knowledge and External Input

  • Collect practitioner or expert rules of thumb
    • Experts’ practical, experience-based theories.
    • Interview professionals or researchers to gather their implicit or explicit theories. Example: Robert Cialdini collected rules from sales professionals to develop theories on social influence and persuasion.
  • Consult your grandmother—and prove her wrong
    • Challenge obvious or banal ideas.
    • Extend common-sense notions to less obvious contexts. Example: Examining the impact of minor positive events on life satisfaction.
  • Read biographies and literature, and be a well-rounded media consumer
    • Diverse sources provide rich insights into human behavior.
    • Engage with biographies, fiction, non-fiction, movies, and other media. These resources can inspire new ideas and theoretical perspectives.
  • Use case studies
    • In-depth analysis of an individual, group, or organization.
    • Conduct detailed interviews, analyze archival data, and gather existing information. Examples include Freud’s psychoanalytic theory development and various sociological case studies.
  • Engage in participant observation
    • Participate in the environment you’re studying.
    • Involve yourself in the community or group being studied. Example: Margaret Mead’s work in Samoa. Reveals insights about social dynamics and cultural influences not apparent from an outsider’s perspective.

3.     Creative Thinking Techniques

  • Use role playing
    • Imagine yourself in another’s position to gain different perspectives.
    • Mentally simulate the experiences of others, such as family members, friends, or professionals from different fields. Helps understand diverse viewpoints and can generate new ideas about behavior and decision-making.
  • Conduct a thought experiment
    • Hypothetical experiments to explore variables and their effects.
    • Visualize different variables and manipulations as if conducting an experiment in your mind. Consider counterfactuals. Example: “What if no atomic bombs were dropped on Japan?”
  • Engage in imaging
    • Use visual thinking instead of verbal thinking.
    • Create vivid mental images of scenarios related to your research question. Example: Visualize social interactions in a detailed setting to understand social anxiety. Stimulates right-brain thinking.
  • Use analogies and metaphors
    • Apply logic from one area to a new area.
    • Example: Memory as a “storage bin.” Analogies can help structure theories and make predictions.
  • Reframe the problem in terms of the opposite
    • Consider the opposite perspective.
    • Example: Instead of studying why people are loyal to a brand, examine why people are not loyal. This reversal can uncover overlooked factors and lead to more comprehensive theories.
  • Make the opposite assumption
    • Reverse explicit assumptions.
    • Example: Consider if an assumed cause-effect relationship is actually reversed. Helps critically examine assumptions and reveal new possibilities.
  • Identify remote and shared/differentiating associates
    • Free association to generate creative insights.
    • List causes and consequences of the phenomenon to find remote associates. Compare attributes of people who do and do not exhibit the behavior to identify unique factors and commonalities.


4.     Analyzing Extremes and Outliers

  • Apply deviant case analysis
    • Study outliers to gain insights.
    • Analyze cases that deviate from the norm. Example: Investigate individuals who thrive despite adverse conditions. Helps expand existing theories by incorporating explanations for these exceptions.
  • Change the scale
    • Imagine extreme changes in variables.
    • Example: Globalization effects at local versus global levels. Can reveal new dimensions and relationships within the phenomenon.
  • Push an established finding to the extremes
    • Explore the limits of known relationships.
    • Consider what happens at the extremes of a phenomenon. Example: Excessive eye contact. Identifies boundary conditions and nuanced effects.
  • Analyze paradoxical incidents
    • Identify and explain paradoxical behaviors.
    • Example: Investigate why some people engage in behaviors contrary to their beliefs, such as non-use of contraception despite wanting to avoid pregnancy. Can lead to new theoretical explanations.

5.     Systematic and Structured Thinking

  • Apply the continual why and what
    • Repeated questioning to uncover deeper insights.
    • Continuously ask “why” and “what” to drill down into the underlying causes and mechanisms. Example: Why do some students perform well in school?
  • Use both explanations rather than one or the other
    • Integrating multiple explanations provides a comprehensive understanding.
    • Consider how different processes might all contribute to a phenomenon. Example: Integrate change in meaning, differential recall, and discounting processes to explain primacy effects.
  • Shift the unit of analysis
    • Change the focus from individuals to larger units.
    • Analyze phenomena at the couple, family, group, or organizational level. Example: Consider factors influencing couple behavior instead of individual behavior in HIV prevention studies.
  • Shift the level of analysis
    • Move between proximal and distal determinants.
    • Consider both immediate and broader contextual factors. Example: Individual intentions vs. societal influences.
  • Focus on processes or variables
    • Shift between process-oriented and variable-oriented thinking.
    • Consider dynamic processes over time versus static variables. Example: Becoming a criminal as a process rather than a static state.
  • Consider abstractions or specific instances
    • Think at different levels of abstraction.
    • Move between abstract concepts and specific instances. Example: General attitudes vs. attitudes toward political candidates.
  • Engage in prescient theorizing
    • Thinking about the future can lead to innovative theories.
    • Consider how phenomena and theories might evolve over time. Example: Demographic changes and their impacts. Forward-thinking approach to anticipate and shape future research trends.


6.     Methodological and Technological Innovation

  • Capitalize on methodological and technological innovations
    • New tools and methods open up fresh areas for inquiry.
    • Utilize advances like brain imaging or unconscious attitude measurement. Staying abreast of technological developments can lead to innovative research directions.


The book in question is:

Jaccard, J., & Jacoby, J. (2019). Theory construction and model-building skills: A practical guide for social scientists. Guilford publications.

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