Answered By: Judith Jablonski
Last Updated: Mar 24, 2017     Views: 761

Before you begin, be sure you have a clear understanding of what a theory is. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary provides these two useful definitions:

  • the general principles or ideas that relate to a particular subject
  • an idea or set of ideas that is intended to explain facts or events 

For instance, the theory of evolution outlines the general principles or ideas developed/proposed by Darwin (and Alfred Russell Wallace) that explain the changes observed in species over time. He concluded that “evolutionary change comes through the production of variation in each generation and differential survival of individuals with different combinations of these variable characters.” [from the Christ College (UK) website: Charles Darwin & Evolution).

Second, be sure to understand the role of theory in research. Paul McCann, in his 2006 doctoral thesis says this: “The theoretical framework of a research project relates to the philosophical basis on which the research takes place, and forms the link between the theoretical aspects and practical components of the investigation undertaken. The theoretical framework, therefore, ‘has implications for every decision made in the research process.’ (Mertens, 1998.3)“ (pg. 166)*

Think think about your own research question in relation to the theories you are considering using.  Keep in mind that you are looking for a set of concepts (or a framework) that will help you understand your own research question and will guide you in designing your study and interpreting your findings within that larger theoretical context.

NOTE: One can use theories from other fields, if they seem applicable. (See item #3 in this LibAnswer for more information: I'm not getting any results when I search the library's databases. What should I do?)

“Integrating a theory” into your own research includes (but is not limited to):

  • using a research approach that is similar to other studies that have been on your topic and used this theory;
  • designing your study so that your approach and findings will let you say something meaningful about the theory;
  • challenging or modifying  the theory’s assumptions by designing a study for which you think the findings might do this; and
  • talking about your research topic and the theory/theoretical framework as a kind of “conversation of ideas.”


For more information on using theory in your graduate research, see the Theoretical Models (Using Theory) page on our Research Methods Information guide.


* McCann, P. (2006). Principals’ Understandings of Aspects of the Law Impacting on the Administration of Catholic Schools: some implications for leadership. (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved from

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