The role of theory in research

Your thesis is likely to make a contribution in one of the three following areas:
•  Theory – through developing new theory or applying existing theory
•  Methodology  – through the use or development of original methodologies or an original application of an existing methodology
•  Application – a more practical outcome

What is theory?

Theory in general refers to thinking, abstraction and generalising (Thomas, 2013).

Theory can be defined as ‘an explanation of observed regularities’ (Bryman& Bell, 2011, p 7), Or

A set of interrelated constructs, definitions and propositions that present a systematic view of phenomena by specifying relations among variables, with the purpose of explaining a natural phenomenon (Kerlinger cited in Creswell 2009).

In your thesis you are likely to bring in theory:

  • When referring to and applying methodology. Theory here is not linked to a specific field of research but to methodology.
  • When referring to, possibly applying or developing concepts that are at the centre of your research. Here theory is likely to be linked to specific fields of research.

The following model developed by Lee & Lings (2008) illustrates the relationship between research and theory.


How are models and theory related? (Lee and Lings 2008):

  • Models are descriptive representations of a theory
  • Theories explain, while models only describe

How does theory fit in your research?

  • Theory can be the aim of your research. Your research is then mainly about developing theory. Research here follows an inductive process which starts with data collection, to develop broad themes and then a generalised model or theory (Creswell, 2009, p 63).
  • Theory can be the starting point of your research, for example when your research is about testing theory.
  • Theory can be used as a tool, to help explain something or make sense of data.

Theory in qualitative research:

  • Theory as a tool or lens through which a problem is viewed, as attempting to explain phenomena; Or/and
  • Theory as aim – research is carried out to develop theory.

aquestionExercise (from Creswell 2009, p 58 -59) Complete the following sentence

The theory that I will use is….. It was developed by……….. and used to study……………This theory indicates that…………….

Using conceptual and or theoretical frameworks

A conceptual framework brings together the concepts used in a research project. The conceptual framework then acts as narrative that explains what has to be studied.

  • In scientific research, the conceptual framework is developed at the start. Often reference is made to theoretical frameworks, referring to theories that will be tested in a research project.
  • In qualitative research reference is made to conceptual frameworks, as there may not be a clear idea of which theories or which concepts are most important. These may develop from the data. Conceptual frameworks developed are then not static, but tend to change as the research progresses.
  • In a grounded theory, aimed at developing theory, the theoretical framework is developed at the end of the project.

How to start developing a conceptual framework?

  • Find descriptions of relevant concepts
  • Isolate specific characteristics of concepts
  • Find related concepts and establish how they are related
  • Create schemes showing different point of views
  • Visualise


Bryman, A. & Bell, E. (2007).Business Research Methods (3rded), Oxford University Press.

Creswell, J. (2009). Research design. Qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods approaches, Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Lee & Lings, (2008)‘Theory, conceptualisation and hypotheses’, chapter 5 in Doing business research, a guide to theory and practice, London: SAGE.

watch video iconSo you want to do a PhD in theory?


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