What differentiates scholarly research from other kinds of inquiry? In a word: theory. Scholarly research is designed within a theoretical framework, and conducted in order to test, refine, or develop theory. In other words, theory helps to define a scholarly study, and the findings that are generated contribute to improve theory.
While theory is essential to scholarly research, it is one of the most challenging aspects of research design for new researchers to grasp. When people talk casually about theory, they might use the term to describe something abstract, apart from reality. If someone says, “theoretically, we should be able to ____,” they might follow with a description of constraints or obstacles that keep the idea from being actualized. Maybe you have made such statements, like “Theoretically I should be able to finish this assignment today, but realistically, I will need to complete it tomorrow.”
When researchers talk about theory, they are naming real elements of the phenomenon or problem they want to study. They use theories to help explain specific relationships between the elements that they want to explore. In the process, they might develop new ways to describe such relationships that augment the existing theory or create a new theory.
In this Skill, you will learn about theory and its place in research, from the design stage to interpretation of findings. You will explore ways theory is used in qualitative or quantitative research, and ways researchers make a theoretical contribution. Start by understanding basic terms and principles, and then begin thinking about theory in the context of the research you are planning.
There’s a glossary of terms and concepts available for this entire Module in the Beginning Your Research Skill.