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What’s all this talk about theory?

Monday, 10 June 2019


When developing your Honours, Masters or PhD proposal, why are qualitative researchers asked to 'choose a theory?' Although the answer to this question is straightforward, the process can be a little confusing.

Essentially, qualitative researchers hold that all research is underpinned and driven by some understanding of how the world works, what constitutes knowledge and how we can acquire knowledge. Every individual has a (usually unstated) position on this but researchers are asked to make it explicit. The theory is more than decorative: it impacts on the research question and what questions can be asked, on the methodology, on the methods, on your data analysis and finally on the status of the conclusions to your research.

For something so important, the next question is where does this theory come from? There are a number of possible sources. Given their experience in your general field, a broad theoretical framework or author may be suggested by your supervisor. They will be able to guide you on what might be typical for the type of research you are doing.

Your options may be narrowed by what are common approaches in your discipline. As you read journal articles, books and reviews, you will see the names and theories appear again and again. These are clues to follow up on. Do the ideas of this or that author have importance for my project? Here is a theory used by researchers in my area, might it be relevant to my project?

Another option might come from a particular theory used in a journal article that seems to ‘fit’ the goals of your research project. Maybe this paper had similar goals to your research or it explored a similar population, or it might be the particular combination between the theory, the methodology and methods that seems appropriate to you.

In my next article, I will explore the connection between your methodology and your methods and data analysis.

Dr Neil Ferguson, Research Adviser (Qualitative), Graduate Research School

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