The role of theory in research and practice

Essay, 2018

19 Pages, Grade: 60


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theory and theory development

3. The relevance of theory to a study

4. Role of theory in Qualitative and Quantitative Research

5. Grand theory and Meta Theory

6. Theory analysis

7. Theory, Research and Practice
7.1 Relationship between research and theory
7.2 Relationship between theory and practice
7.3Relationship between research and practice

8. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Theory is usually used to explain certain conditions and events in society. It’s can be viewed as a collaboration between agreeing thought that has been developed over time. In social research the role of a theory differs depending on the type of methodologies and methods used to conduct the research. This paper aims to look at the relevance of theory and context of theory to a study by referring to grand theory and meta – theory. The aim is to do this firstly by looking at what a theory is and the nature of theory development. It will discuss how a single thought can be developed into a theory and how theories develop and become adaptable to the changing world. It will also look at the different levels of theories with a special focus on meta theory and grand theories. Relevant theories of social sciences but mainly political sciences will be used where applicable to highlight the different levels of theories. This paper also aims to explain the uses of theory when conducting social research and why we use theory to conduct research. In this section the focus will be place on the position and role of theory in Qualitative and Quantitative studies. The section that follows will examine how theory is analysed in social sciences, it will discuss the steps of theory analysis. This paper will also look at the relationship between theory, research and practice, here emphasis will be placed on the role and relevance of theory in improving practice through research.

2. Theory and theory development

A minimalist definition of the word theory is “a system of ideas formulated with the intention to explain a certain phenomenon” it can also be defined as a set of principles in which practice is based on (Oxford dictionary 2018). The idea here is that a theory is defined by its ability to explain why certain things happen or why certain things do not happen as well as provide a frame work that we base our actions according to. In social sciences theories can help us organise knowledge, help us to understand what we have already observed and why it occurred, in addition theories can highlight our gaps in knowledge (Rags dell, West & Wilby 2002: 196-198). Theory helps direct research, it helps us to helps filter which data is relevant to the study and which data is not (Harnish, Frank &Maul 2011: 16). Theories help us build frameworks to develop schools of thought and formulate ideologies. Ideologies becomes a lens of understanding of how we view the world.

Karl Marx believed that ideologies are produced by the mode of production in a society (Parekh 2015:103) that is to say that ideologies are determined by the economic model of production. In today’s modern word for example the economic model of production is capitalism thus it will produce liberal to neoliberal ideologies. Marx’s perspective towards ideology was highlighted in his theory of the base and super structure. The general idea of the base and superstructure theory is that the base controls the superstructure. According to Marx, the super structure which is the ideological domain, grows out of the base which is realm of production, to reflect the interests of the ruling class of society and justify the status quo that keeps them in power (Parekh 2015:104). The base and the super structure share a relationship that is interdependent which means that the actions of one affects the other thus a change in one will mean a change in the other. This was the foundation of Marx’s revolution theory. The revolution theory believes that the once the working class develop a consciousness and realise the exploitation by the elite class of society who are the owners of the means of production and controllers of the distribution of wealth, the working class will revolt. This will create a shift of ideology and will result the working to organise and challenge the status quo, changing both the social structure and the ideology of society (Parekh 2015; Drucker 1972: 152-161).

The question of what makes a good theory is important to consider when a theory is use for research purposes. Joseph Berger and Morris Zelditch believed that a good theory should be a composition of well – defined concepts that allows practicality and can be put into use. Good theories are clear and specific. A good theory should be simple however simplicity is sensitive and we ought to be care when we create simple theories as the world is very complex, over simplification can lead to a theory losing meaning and validity. A good theory should be believable, reasonable and logically consistent. Good theories should contain a level of testability and falsifiability (1993: 23-24).

The nature of research is one that is continuous therefore theories also have to be adaptive. Within some disciplines theories are developed. In social sciences theories can be adjusted in order to meet the new requirements of the changing world and to meet new social research standards. The process of theory development begins with a theory or theories that are tested empirically, existing knowledge, experience and/or observation is used when testing theories empirically.

The empirical test may lead to a hypothesis allowing for a research to be conducted. At this point some hypotheses are confirmed and others are rejected, the theory is then adapted to make changes as per research results (Schutt 2015:26).

In social studies theories are constantly going through a process of evolution. This is as a result of a rapidly changing world, theories that can no longer explain the reality of the modern world are either faced with the challenge to modernise and adapt or be neglected by the academic and social arena. We see this happening with Karl Marx’s theory of inequality known as Marxism and the development of its new theory neo Marxism. Neo- Marxism is the modern approach to amend and extend the classical Marxist theory. Neo-Marxist scholars try to provide supplements to the perceived shortcomings of classical Marxism (Barrow 1993:8). Classic Marxism sees the struggle between the rich and the poor and views capitalism as an exploitative system that allows exploitation of the working and the solution to this would be communism. Neo-Marxism acknowledges that in the modern world the struggle is not just between the rich and the poor or the owners of the means of production and the working class but there are different kinds of inequalities such as those concerning race, gender and international structures such as the wealth gap between the global north and the global south (Haywood 2017:121).

3. The relevance of theory to a study

When conducting research, we can look at the contribution of theory to the study in three ways, first is theory as a paradigm, where theory plays a significant role in helping us understand the research design. Thomas Kuhn defined a paradigm as “a representation of a way of thinking that is shared by scientists in solving problems in their fields, to represent commitments, beliefs, methods, outlooks and so forth [that are] shared across a discipline” (Cited in Chilisa & Kuwilich 2015:1). Secondly we can think of theory as a ‘lens’ which may inform our understanding of the conditions or events being studied or investigated. The third way is to think of theory as knowledge, that which may come from our study. Theory as a paradigm is concerned with the philosophical assumptions of what makes up our social reality as we know it or rather the ontology, it looks at what we accept as the truth of that reality or rather the epistemology and lastly it looks at the means which we employ to investigate these backgrounds, this is known as the methodology and the means we use to gather evidence or methods (Gay & Weaver 2011: 26; Chilisa & Kuliwa 2015: 1).

There are a number of questions concerned with the paradigm. There are those that focus on the ontology, what do we believe exits? These regard the central beliefs that that the individual holds about the social world and its relationship to individuals. There are social realities that we believe exist independent of the humanity’s conceptualisation and understanding of it and there are social realities that we believe are a social construct, that are created by people in specific social, cultural and historical backgrounds. The questions of epistemology question what make reliable and valid knowledge? These focus on the relationship between the observable conditions and the interpretation of meanings. The questions of epistemology ask: how do we produce knowledge that is reliable and valid? Here the focus is on the strategies we can employ to produce reliable knowledge. The last sets of questions are those that are concern with the method, these questions ask how can we collect data to test our theories? here the focus is on the data collection approach or the tools that can be used that are appropriate to the methodology.

4. Role of theory in Qualitative and Quantitative Research

There are two models of social research, one is qualitative and the other is quantitative. In a qualitative study the aim is to understand the social phenomena through investigations and interpretations of the meanings attached to it, the primary objective is to make sense of the social world. The key principles lie on subjectivity or rather interpretations, a theory is developed during and after the study is conducted and the process is inductive (Pierce 2008: 45; Taylor 2005: 101-103). When researchers employ inductive studies, a researcher begins by collecting data relevant to the topic of interest, the second step is data analysis and observation of similar patterns and then a theory is developed based on the data (Blaikie 2009: 154). The quantitative study’s enquiry is based on testing a theory made up of variables that can be measured in numbers and analysed with statistical tools in order to see if the predictive generalisation of a theory is correct or rather true. This type of study is associated with the positivist and/or post positivist paradigms, its core principle is objectivity, the theory is stated before the study and the aim is of research is to verify the theory, this method is often associated with deductive processes (Perce 2008:45; Taylor 2005: 91-92). Deductive process is when the hypothesis is developed based on an already existing theory. It begins with a social theory that the researcher is interested in and move to its inferences with data. The research focus will move from a more general approach to a more specific approach. The researcher studies what other researchers have already studied, reads on existing theories and the aim is to test the hypothesis that emerges from those theories (Blaikie 2009:154). In some instances, the researcher might choose to employ mixed methods. Mixed methods refers to the use of both qualitative and quantitative research techniques. In concurrent mixed methods both qualitative and quantitative strategies are employed parallel to each other, in sequential mixed methods the latter informs the former or vice versa (Chilisa & Kuwilich 2015:6).

Where theories may be used as a lens of understanding, the researcher will look at existing theories which seek to explain how aspects of the world work, specifically those in proximity with the research interest. Here the objectives may be to revise, adapt and confirm an existing theory, they can also be to generate a new theory or to relate conceptual frameworks. Conceptual frameworks can be understood as “a writing or visual representation that explains either graphically or in narrative form the main things to studied – key factors, concepts or variables – and the presumed relationship among them” (Miles & Huberman 1994: 18). In quantitative research the conceptual framework is typically developed after the literature review, it provides the structure and background for the whole study based on the literature review, the conceptual framework is more likely be revised at the conclusion of the study (Rivitch & Riggan 2015:12). In qualitative research conceptual framework are the first framework developed after the literature review and then further developed as participant’s views and issues are interpreted and analysed (Rivitch & Riggan 2015: 14).

5. Grand theory and Meta Theory

There are different types and levels of theory. Different theoretical perspectives focus on different aspect of understanding knowledge and social research. Grand theory is believed to have originated from the work of sociologist C. Wright Mill. As a research aspect grand theory is concerned with the broad coverage of human societies. It focuses on how the social structures and organisation of human societies operate and how they have evolved throughout the years. It provides more of a perspective than a theoretical view point. Grand theorisation can be associated with the work of early social theorists such and Karl Marl and Emile Durkheim whose primary objective was to understand society and how it functions. Howard Wierda defined grand theories as those “…large, overarching, all – encompassing explanations of social and political behaviours that gives meaning to existence, enable us to order our lives, and provide us with a conceptual frame work to think about reality” (2010: 2). Theories are considered ‘grand’ in their ability to explain large social backgrounds or in its attempt to link the issues concerning macro level realities to issues of micro level realities (Turner &Boyns 2006: 253-378). Macro levels of social realities are concerned with large scale social processes such as issues of change and stability, while micro level realities are concerned with small scale interactions, these could be between individuals or group dynamics (Calhoun, Rojek & Turner 2005: 409). An example of a significant grand theory is Francis Fakuyama’s end of history.


Excerpt out of 19 pages


The role of theory in research and practice
Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University
BA honors
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ISBN (Book)
I submit on the base of content. Please excuse any grammatical errors and typographical errors. I am not a native speaker.
Research, Theory, Practice
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Anele Mngadi (Author), 2018, The role of theory in research and practice, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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