Cambridge University (2015) defines theory as “a formal statement of the rules on which a subject of study is based or of ideas that are suggested to explain a fact or event or, more generally, an opinion or explanation” (p. 1). The theory has an important place in research because of two main reasons. First, it provides a learning model for researchers and consumers of research materials to understand new information (Onwuegbuzie & Leech, 2005). Fawcett and Downs (1986) support this view by saying that most theories provide a model for learning new information by influencing a researcher’s actions. This is why many institutions of research require their scholars to state their theoretical basis of study before starting their projects. Without a theoretical basis, most studies would stand in isolation (Creswell, 2009). A comprehensive understanding of this function depicts theories as “paradigmatic umbrellas” of research processes. This analogy also shows that most theories provide the power of abstraction by developing research links and identifying patterns of association across different research studies that would have otherwise stood in isolation (Fawcett & Downs, 1986).
The theory is also important to research because it offers a model for professional and expertise development. This way, people could have a framework for learning new materials by invariably simplifying a system of research processes (Onwuegbuzie & Leech, 2005). This step allows them to focus on what is important and neglect the complexities that often characterize the comprehensive understanding of research data.
Theory connects different research components (Fawcett & Downs, 1986). It does so by providing a conceptual framework for piecing different components of a research analysis together. For example, many researchers have used it to explain, either graphically or through narratives, different issues/processes in research (Creswell, 2009; Fawcett & Downs, 1986). Lastly, theory connects different research parts by explaining their relationships.
Theories provide different bases for selecting research approaches because both theory and research approaches need to align together to develop a coherent understanding of a research phenomenon (Creswell, 2009). This alignment explains why theory is the basis for generating new knowledge. Researchers who support this view infer this relationship through a discussion of their functions. For example, Fawcett and Downs (1986) explain the need for finding research approaches through theory development because theories determine the data collection and data analysis processes. Stated differently, research is not different from a vehicle for generating new theoretical ideas. This analogy is true either when a research study strives to test an existing theory, or when it questions the validity of an existing one (Fawcett & Downs, 1986). This analysis highlights the importance of understanding the role of theory in research.
A theory would dictate whether a researcher would use the qualitative, quantitative, or mixed-methods approach. The choice of research design would mainly depend on a researcher’s resources, time, and commitment to complete the project (among other factors). In my experience, I find that the grounded theory provides a good framework for undertaking quantitative research studies because the theory allows researchers to develop findings that are grounded in data (through data collection and analysis).
Cambridge University. (2015). Theory. Web.
Creswell, J. (2009). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Fawcett, J., & Downs, F. (1986). The Relationship between Theory and Research. Norwalk, CT: Appleton Century Crofts.
Onwuegbuzie, A., & Leech, N. L. (2005). On Becoming a Pragmatic Researcher: The Importance of Combining Quantitative and Qualitative Research Methodologies. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 8(5), 375-387.