The Role of Theory

The theory is intertwined with the research process, thus a thorough understanding of theory must involve the understanding of the relationship between theory and research (Bryman & Bell, 2007).  When looking at research from a deductive role (developing and testing a problem and hypothesis) the theory is presented at the beginning.  The theory here is being tested, as it helps define the problem, its parameters (boundaries) and a hypothesis to test.  Whereas an inductive role uses data and research to build a theory.  Theories can be grand (too hard to pinpoint and test) or they can be mid-range (easier to test, but it is still too big to test it under all assumptions) (Bryman & Bell, 2007).

Where you write your theory depends on the type of world view you have (positivism at the beginning of the paper, or constructivism at the beginning or end of the paper) (Creswell, 2013).   My particular focus will be on the postpositivism view (quantitative methods), so I will dissect the placement of the theory primarily on a quantitative research study (which are mostly deductive in nature).  Placement of the theory in the introduction lit review, or after the hypothesis runs into the issue that it will make it harder for the reader to isolate and separate the theory from their respective sections (Cresswell, 2013).  There is another disadvantage from what Creswell (2013) states for the after the hypothesis approach: you may forget to discuss the origins and rationale for the theory.  Cresswell (2013), suggests as a research tip to separate the theory and create a brand new section for it so that it is easily identified and its origin and rationale can be elaborated on.

However, separating the theory section from the rest of the paper can still get the paper tossed out of being published in a journal if it is still fuzzy to decipher amongst your peers and the editor.  Feldman’s 2004 editorial states that if the question & theory is succinct, grammatically correct, non-trivial, and makes a difference, it would help you get your results published.  However, he also states (like many of our professors do) we need to find what are the key articles and references in the past 5 years, that we should be exhaustive yet exclusive with our dataset, and establish clear boundary conditions such that we can adequately define independent and dependent variable would help you get your results published (Feldman, 2004).  The latter set of conditions helps build your theory, whereas the first set of conditions speaks to the readability of the theory.  If it is hard to read your theory because it’s so convoluted, then why should anyone care to read it?


  • Bryman, A. & Bell, E. (2007) Business Research Methods. (2nd ed.). Location: Oxford University Press.
  • Creswell, J. W. (2013). Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches, 4th Edition. [VitalSource Bookshelf version]. Retrieved from
  • Feldman, D. C. (2004). What are we talking about when we talk about theory? Journal of Management, 30(5), 565–567.

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