The Use of Theories in Literature Review

Literature review is probably one of the most important chapter in a thesis.  However, it should be known that the importance may be very much dependent on the type of research you intend to conduct.

If you are looking at a qualitative research, where you are ‘attempting to discover a theory’, your literature will likely be used to develop a conceptual model which will then through your research be developed into a ‘theoretical model’ for further testing.  However, if you are looking at a quantitative research where you are ‘attempting to test a theory’, you literature review needs to be adequately discussed to develop a theoretical model and relevant hypothesis.

Nevertheless the important part here is the use of theories when developing your literature review

Many times as we evaluated the theories in the literature review of the thesis of students who we supervised, we find some commonality:-

  1. The use of wrong substantive theories to support the argument
  2. The mis-match of theories use
  3. The missing gaps between theories used
  4. The incomplete use of theories to support argument.

Let me try to articulate the role of theories in a literature review:-

Theories are used to justify and support your arguments, variables and the phenomena that is being studied.  In developing your literature review, it will be helpful to identify an underpinning theory on which you can start developing your arguments and show the gaps of research being examined.  Additional theories can be used to supplement your literature review.

Theories are formulated to explain, predict, and understand phenomena and, in many cases, to challenge and extend existing knowledge within the limits of critical bounding assumptions. The theoretical framework is the structure that can hold or support a theory of a research study. The theoretical framework introduces and describes the theory that explains why the research problem under study exists.

A theoretical framework consists of concepts and, together with their definitions and reference to relevant scholarly literature, existing theory that is used for your particular study. The theoretical framework must demonstrate an understanding of theories and concepts that are relevant to the topic of your research paper and that relate to the broader areas of knowledge being considered.

The theoretical framework is most often not something readily found within the literature. You must review course readings and pertinent research studies for theories and analytic models that are relevant to the research problem you are investigating. The selection of a theory should depend on its appropriateness, ease of application, and explanatory power.

The theoretical framework strengthens the study in the following ways:

  1. An explicit statement of theoretical assumptions permits the reader to evaluate them critically.
  2. The theoretical framework connects the researcher to existing knowledge. Guided by a relevant theory, you are given a basis for your hypotheses and choice of research methods.
  3. Articulating the theoretical assumptions of a research study forces you to address questions of why and how. It permits you to intellectually transition from simply describing a phenomenon you have observed to generalizing about various aspects of that phenomenon.
  4. Having a theory helps you identify the limits to those generalizations. A theoretical framework specifies which key variables influence a phenomenon of interest and highlights the need to examine how those key variables might differ and under what circumstances.