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Researching a Theory


This Guide is intended to help you identify and select a theory, understand its historical foundations within a field of study, and find research applying or testing your selected theory.

What is Theory?

Theory can be defined as "assumptions and rules that guide systematic research" (Sullivan, 2009, 517) and "a unified, or coherent, body of propositions that provide a philosophically consistent picture of a subject" (Littlejohn & Foss, 2009, 958). Theory is what a theoretical framework relies on to guide research; "the framework is constructed by using an established, coherent explanation of certain phenomena and relationship" (Eisenhart, 1991, 205).

Theory: Identification and Selection

Have a theory in mind? Jump to the next section: Historical Foundations.

Don't have a theory or need help getting started? Contact your librarian or chat with your instructor.

Rather than searching your specific topic at this point, think about your topic in broader terms. For example, what overall field is your topic within (e.g., Education, Nursing)?

Theory: Historical Foundations

Do you know how your theory developed?

Know the name of your theorist? Who else has built upon their theory?

Theories develop over time; trace your theory through its inception and development to gain an overview.

Theory: Application

How is your theory being used in research?

Who is publishing original research using your theory? How does this connect to your research?

Identifying how a theory is applied to original research can help you further understand its application in your field.


Eisenhart, M. (1991). Conceptual framework for research circa 1991: Ideas from a cultural anthropologist; implications for mathematics education researchers. Proceedings of the Thirteenth Annual Meeting, North American Chapter of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education, USA.

Littlejohn, S. W., & Foss, K. A. (Eds.). (2009). Theory. In Encyclopedia of communication theory (Vol. 1, pp. 958-958). SAGE Publications, Inc.,

Sullivan, L. E. (2009). Theory (communications). In The SAGE glossary of the social and behavioral sciences (Vol. 1, pp. 517-517). SAGE Publications, Inc.,