Much Ado About Theories: Part 1


Theories are the bane of every dissertation student’s existence. This is a verifiable fact from Statistics Solutions (McDonough, 2017). Even a fly on the wall could attest to the amount of phone calls we get with students pulling their hair out over which theory is appropriate for their study. This topic is pretty dense, and even the experts at Statistics Solutions have a difficult time every now and then with theoretical application. As such, this blog post is going to be in multiple installments, in an attempt to try and wring as much information and advice as humanly possible from this topic.

The first step is that you have to actually choose an established theory. Established theories have seminal authors with concrete dates and underpin every ProQuest dissertation you have reviewed. You know the names: Avolio, Bass, Bandura, Vygotsky, Bronfenbrenner, and Friedman are a few theorists commonly cited in dissertation studies. If you think you have found a theory from 2017, you have probably found a construct, which is a mistake some make. Most established theories are at least 30 years old at this point. Intangible concepts are often the foundation of theories, so you want to focus on this while figuring out what theory to use.

Often times, students will devote pages upon pages of information to what a theory actually is, replete with definitions from seminal thinkers, practical applications of what theories do, and even the etymology and semantics surrounding the word itself. The problem with all this? It is wrong, and desperate students often resort to this as a means to fill pages while hoping that the chair will not be paying attention that week.

Many colleges offer a list of approved theories from which to choose. Fun fact about these lists: the theories are often categorized by specialty, so you do not have to worry about accidentally choosing a theory on health care for your study on cloud computing. Be sure to consult with your program director or school librarian for these files, as they can be incredibly useful in narrowing your focus and underpinning your proposed study. Another simple trick to figure out a theory is to use the Internet. Seriously, go to Google Scholar and type in the focus of your study (management, emotional intelligence, learning, etc.) and add theory to it. You will be presented with so many hits, you may not know where to begin. This, however, is the broadest possible advice I can give. In all honesty, this is just the first step to finding a theory.

This leads to the biggest question many students have when first putting together their study: what theory should I use? The truth is that you can use whatever theory you feel fits your study best, as long as you can defend it. I know this may seem like a cop-out answer, but it is the only answer there is. Keep in mind that you should not, by any means, be selecting a theory before you even know what your study is about. Many students will do this in an effort to save time, but this is a classic example of putting the cart before the horse. Think of it like pairing wine with a meal—you do not build the meal around the bottle, you choose the right bottle for the meal.

Your dissertation will inevitably go through changes; this is a statement of fact. No matter how solid you think your work is, your chair will find something wrong with it and tell you to go back to the drawing board. The last thing you want to do is build a study around a theory and suddenly have your study change at the whim of your chair. That Bandura theory that seemed to fit so well may suddenly seem out of place with just a few changes to your problem or purpose statement.

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