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Critical Thinking Applied to Theory, Concepts and Variables Coursework

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Rehabilitation and Restorative Justice Theory

Between 1980 and 1999, no less than 25 new theories of crime causation, rehabilitation and restorative justice caught the attention of penologists (Hay, 2001). Among these was Braithwaite’s reintegrative shaming theory (1989). The author thought to improve on a preponderance of strategies that emphasized shaming, labeling, using subcultures to “explain” criminality, overtly humiliated offenders, and likely bred such resentment as to foster recidivism. Hence, he proposed a general criminological theory suitable to a milieu of high crime rates, while asserting that reintegrative shaming can be an extraordinarily powerful and just form of social control.

To effect reintegration and maximize restorative justice, Braithwaite’s theory suggested, the shaming approaches needed to:

  • Emphasize a “moralizing approach” rather than punitive social control in order to be relevant to the postmodern American social context;
  • Embody respect for the offender;
  • Be generalizable from “sporadic” teenage delinquency (the early focus of restorative justice theory-building) to the more widespread social damage that white collar crime such as Enron and Bernie Madoff could inflict.

Reintegrative shaming has by no means arrested recidivism in its tracks. As alternatives to incarceration, restorative justice theories or praxis in general have not achieved perfect reform yet. Nevertheless, the singular achievement of Braithwaite was to leaven legalistic deterrence with more humane sociological and social psychological thought about the wellsprings of delinquency and crime. As well, the theory was robust to permit scholarly exploration, testing and refinement.

To understand reintegrative shaming is to realize, first of all, that restorative justice embraces a variety of theories and programs. An example is “humanistic mediation”, a “dialogue-driven” theory (Umbreit, 1998) operationalized in victim-offender mediation (VOM), the centerpiece of about 800 programs in North America and Europe. VOM is about a trained mediator mediating a meeting between the victim and offender. Both beneficiaries share their perceptions, settle their conflict and agree on a mutually satisfactory solution for the offender to “make right” the harm done to the victim (Van Ness and Strong, 1996). Variations on this are conferencing and “restorative justice” or “repair of harm” circles, involving participation by relations of both offender and victim and by disinterested community members.

Other prominent approaches in the restorative justice repertoire are restitution, community service and victim assistance.

When applied to the case of adolescent offenders, Hay (2001) reveals that reintegrative shaming does have an inverse relationship with teenage delinquency but mainly when there is pronounced parent-child interdependency and sanctioning exercised by parents.

Propositions and Hypotheses

Propositions embody relationships among concepts. It is essential that a proposition explain what is the logical connection between events, processes or organisms. An example might be, “Intermittent reinforcement has the most enduring effect on learned behavior.” The whole work of theory building depends on prior scientific findings, on observing (heretofore) unexplained phenomena and thence, speculating on a logical new relationship among the concepts in question.

Consistent with the reliance of the scientific method on empirical testability, propositions must be confirmed chiefly by experimentation, by observation, and (in the case of penology or socio-anthropology) by immersion with the subjects of study. Reliability and prediction in scientific inquiry mandates that propositions be converted to empirically testable form by formulating a hypothesis about the link or nature of relationship among variables. One might therefore test the above proposition by stating that, “The rate at which pigeons peck a target stimulus will rise highest and last longest if reinforcement (in the form of food pellets) is administered at completely random intervals.”

Concepts and Variables

Zikmund (2003) defines “concepts” as naming conventions and abstractions for phenomena, objects, events, or processes. Given that concepts are abstracted descriptions of the reality being studied, they are apt to group disparate objects together and are therefore less amenable to manipulation and testing than variables: individual sub-classes of objects, phenomena, etc.

An example of concepts is the belief that organically-grown farm produce makes for better eating. “Organic” farming embraces a wide range of non-synthetic fertilizing, weeding and insect or pest “best practices”. This is far too broad to be tested in one step unless one employs a complex multi-factorial research design. Lowering the level of abstraction to “integrated pest management results in vegetables that are more appetizing” remains unwieldy because each vegetable species and variety is susceptible to at least four insect subspecies with at least as many “beneficial” predators. As well, appetite appeal is subject to a spectrum of definitions.

Bringing this to the level of the concrete so as to allow valid measurement and prediction means observing or manipulating variables: the form or characteristics that the objects of concern can take. For instance, “using ladybugs to control aphids in a tomato plantation provides fruit that is redder and juicier.” Here is the essence of variables, that they are meticulously defined and possess characteristics that are amenable to manipulation for appearance/non-appearance or intensity.

Why Good Theory is Practical

This is founded on:

  • Inductive reasoning being able to drive theory formulation. This means that sagacious observation of facts leads one to conclude a relationship exists among them. Empirical observation makes it possible to induce that one variable is related to another. A teenage boy perennially cleans the family car and does all chores asked of him without a whimper when he wants use of the car in the evening. Female body language consisting of posture turned toward an interesting man, smiling at the slightest excuse and lip-licking precedes consent to go on a date with him (provided he has the sense to ask, of course). All other things being equal, spending X dollars on major-media advertising will always propel consumer acceptance and sales. Conversely, refusing to spend any money on the grounds of cutting cost during a recession never yields the expected sales volume and profit. In an organizational setting, a perceptive manager confronted by an employee relations problem may be aware of theories that provide him a framework for analysis and insight. Certainly, all individuals are unique. But when the manager understands from Maslow’s theory that employees, both union and non-union, will always try to satisfy job security needs before those for loyalty and belonging, then he finds the different incidents he confronts theoretically comparable. As a result, he takes steps to motivate each employee by responding to their fear of being retrenched.
  • Deductive reasoning via experimentation and recording the changes in objective phenomena or data is the backbone of the scientific method.

Spinoza’s Inconvenient Fact

The practical implication of Spinoza’s lighthearted dismissal of a conflict between fact and theory is that, since facts do not change:

  • The theory requires scrutiny and adjustment to reality;
  • The subset of facts sampled was fluky or a random variation;
  • The instruments used were defective or the wrong ones’

Alternative Definition

The definition Zikmund furnishes pertains to theory as “…a coherent set of general propositions, used as principles of explanation of the apparent relationships of certain observed phenomena“. (2003, 41)

This seems a broadminded concept not necessarily reliant on purely empirical proof. The entire corpus of what is called theory happens to embrace, to provide just two examples, philosophical and political theory. The test of philosophical theories such as Immanuel Kant’s ethical theory rests on principles and self-evident truths. The belief that all humans are innately rational and will seek rationality as the ultimate goal may not be measurable by laboratory instruments.

However, proxy measures such as attitude scales provide the basis for the thought experiment and “proof” for such a maxim as “it does no good to kill anybody who disagrees with you”: it is universally applicable because to violate it would leave only one man standing. Independent of religion or political affiliation, the ethical principle explains why we abhor Hitler’s Holocaust or every Israeli killed by Muslim suicide bombers.

Another set of theories that have gained credence since the Age of Enlightenment are those that answer questions about the best form for a state to take and manage the affairs of the governed. Thus, a political theory can also be an ethical theory as well as a general viewpoint, political belief or attitude. A modern-day equivalent is Supreme Court Justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor being accused of reverse discrimination for rejecting, in Ricci v. DeStefano, promotion for 17 white and two Hispanic firefighters in New Haven, Conn. on the grounds that no black applicants passed the test.

In contrast, the physical and social scientists like to boast that scientific theory is a conclusively- and repeatedly-proven explanation of natural phenomena and, according to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (2005), important features of nature. Facts are provided by observation and experiment (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2009). In the abstract, theories also ought to lead to predictions about replications of the case being studied or of other phenomena that have not yet occurred. And this is true enough in the case of Einstein’s quantum theory of physics.

The basic phenomena have not been directly observed but the predictions have permitted advances in nuclear physics as witness nuclear bombs. However, the seeming robustness of scientific theory conceals large gaps in the natural and medical sciences. To cite a handful, why does tobacco kill but not 100% of the time? Why have none of the intricate theories about the first spark of life in the methane-saturated atmosphere of the earth millions of years ago never been replicated in atmospheric chambers?

Despite belief in the right to their own bodies, why do women suffer depression after abortions and breast implant surgery? Why do minorities afforded the same educational opportunity in American public schools make up a disproportionate share of the population of teenage and adult offenders? Given findings of being at greater risk for molesting young boys, should male homosexuals enjoy equal rights to take jobs as teachers, gym and summer camp instructors?


American Association for the Advancement of Science. (2009). Evolution on the frontline. Web.

Braithwaite, J. (1989) Crime, shame and reintegration. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hay, C. (2001). An exploratory test of Braithwaite’s reintegrative shaming theory. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 38 (2), 132-153.

National Academy of Sciences (2005). Science, evolution, and creationism. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, ISBN-10: 0-309-10586-2.

Umbreit, M. S. (1998). What is humanistic mediation? St. Paul, Minnesota: Center for Restorative Justice & Peacemaking, University of Minnesota.

Zikmund, W. (2003). Business research methods(7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Thomson/South-Western.


Wilson, F. R. (1998). The hand: How its use shapes the brain, language, and human culture. New York: Pantheon.


Craner, P. M. (1991). New tool for an ancient art: The computer and music. Computers and theHumanities, 25, 303-313.

Author, A. A., & Author, B. B. (Date of publication). Title of document.

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