Monday, 28 March 2022

Why we need theory

Theory has been defined as “a set of interrelated constructs (variables), definitions, and propositions that presents a systematic view of phenomena by specifying relations among variables, with the purpose of explaining natural phenomena” (Kerlinger, 1979, p. 64, as cited by Creswell & Creswell, 2008, p. 51).

Theory is - in my view - an observed pattern of behaviour. It is something we notice that happens in particular situations, and we collect evidence, turn that into information, then codify it to use the theory to make decisions.

We can then use theories as a rough rule - a rule of thumb - to examine our behaviour against. Like considering ingredients as a ratio in cooking: once we know the ratio, we can upscale without losing the relationship between the ingredients. If a recipe calls for 10g of baking powder for each 250g of flour, we can quadruple to 1 kilo of flour and 40g of baking powder, or halve to 5g and 125g. Theories work in the same way. 

Once we know the steps or stages or specifications, we can be deliberate about making changes. We can become more aware of our actions and aware of the relationship between components. We can find that there are some portions of the theory that we don't do so well at, and so make improvements to that area until we develop a strength. 

Having a number of theories - patterns of behaviour - in our toolkit means we can try different approaches in differing circumstances. Knowing how all the theories break down into their component parts, we can seek a match to use when what used to work for us no longer does. 

We are working blind if we don't know the theory. We are unable to change our approach if we don't know the pattern we are following, or if we are unaware of the other patterns that there are to chose from. We can only repeat what we learned. We are powerless to meaningfully change our approach. Once we know the theory, we have power.

Further, we need theories to measure our research against: it becomes a benchmark for us to examine what we are observing. While some research generates theory - such as grounded theory - most of us will use an existing theory for our research projects. 


  • Reference: Creswell, J. W., & Creswell, J. D. (2008). Chapter 3: The Use of Theory. In Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches (5th ed.) (pp. 49-71). SAGE Publications, Inc. 

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