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Use of theory in qualitative research

Research without theory is blind, and theory without research is empty. (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992: p. 162)

“Theory is integral to the practice of qualitative research in health” (Liamputtong & Ezzy, 2004: p. 13). It is necessary for sense-making, to interpret and explain seemingly disparate data. Theory is necessary to move beyond descriptions to explanations of phenomena, such as why some health professionals and community members discriminate against people with certain conditions (e.g., obesity and smoking), but not other conditions. Different theories offer different “lenses through which to look at complicated problems and social issues” and help move the focus from the particular to the general (Reeves, Albert, Kuper & Hodges, 2008). Theory helps to provide new insights into or ways of understanding an issue. It increases the utility, rigour, and credibility of research findings and it facilitates the development of new concepts and their generalizability[1] or transferability.

There are two ways in which qualitative researchers think about using theory: (1) as a way of theorizing the project or study as a whole; the general theoretical lens through which the researcher approaches the topic, study and study design, methodology and method; and (2) as a way of analyzing and interpreting the data, pulling it together into study “findings” and fashioning it into a story, an analytic whole, a theorization. Consequently, theory appears in different places throughout the research process. Studies are always guided by a theoretical perspective, whether this is explicitly stated or not (Sandelowski, 1993).

Theory does not always refer to grand theories like phenomenology or poststructuralism; assumptions and initial conceptualizations that we have when we enter the research process and the general perspectives of our disciplines are kinds of theory, too. For example, occupational therapists see “occupations,” jobs and everyday activities, as paramount to processes that lead to both health and ill-health. Our assumptions about how the world works, the kinds of research questions we ask, the way we present a research problem, and the methods we choose are all suggestive of theoretical or paradigm stances. Sandelowski (1993) asserts that theories

include the disciplinary paradigms in the arts, sciences, and humanities that direct or inform both the inquiry process, including the presentation of findings, and the abstract schemas (including what is commonly referred to as concepts, conceptual models, and frameworks) describing, organizing, and interpreting the target phenomena that constitute the subjects/objects of individual research projects in a substantive area. (p. 214)

  1. Unlike statistical findings that are generalized to populations, generalizability in qualitative research refers to concepts generated as having wider resonance beyond the initial context of the study or having relevance in another context (Green and Thorogood, 2004; Schofield, 2002).


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