A challenge for many novice researchers is knowing how to use theory. As we do research, we often have theories about what will work and what won’t work, because that’s how our minds operate: finding order, patterns, and relationships, in other words, making sense of sensory data as it comes in. As scholars, we test theories and modify them, generate new theories, and abandon theories that are no longer useful.
Overall, when you are working with theory, you need to identify and articulate the theoretical foundations of the proposed study based on a review of the relevant literature. We often use theory incorrectly. For example, I may say, “Give me your theory of what the outcome of the football game will be tomorrow.” In this way, I have conflated theory with hypothesis or guess. Instead, a theory is a model for understanding a phenomenon. Some of the more common theories are Lewin’s Change Theory, The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, and The Theory of Andragogy. As you can see, these theories have been researched and tested to see if they can be used to understand some phenomenon such as change, learning styles, and adult learning, respectively.
As you expand your theoretical understanding, the research you propose must make an original contribution to the literature and include relevant theories as the foundation of the study; in this way, your study will contribute to theory by adding more support, expanding applications, or perhaps demonstrating ways in which the theory may not be as explanatory as originally presumed for the given study context. Theories provide a “lens” with which to observe, understand, and explain the study topic. It is acceptable to discuss more than one relevant theory that help to predict, explain, or understand the study topic, but it should be clear why the theory is included rather than simply listing several disparate theoretical frameworks.
The theories identified must be explicit as there are many different lenses, such as psychological theories, social theories, organizational theories, and economic theories, which may be used to predict and explain concepts, topics, or phenomena. The theoretical framework must be appropriate, aligned with the topic, well-articulated, and sourced.