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Reading, understanding and using theory

Advice for how to understand theoretical texts and engage with them in your academic work.

Using theory in research

As well as discussing theoretical ideas within an essay, you can use a theoretical perspective or approach as a framework if you are doing research of your own, such as a dissertation. Think of this as a way of using existing knowledge to guide you in researching your topic – you’re not just considering every aspect of your topic at random, but using a theory to look at it in a particular way.

Remember: There won’t necessarily be a ‘right’ theory to use, but some theoretical approaches may be more relevant than others. Your choice of theory will depend on what you are most interested in, and what you are seeking to get out of the research. If you have started doing any preliminary reading for your dissertation, look at journal articles that are particularly closely aligned with what you are interested in – do they mention a particular theoretical perspective?

It’s also important not to get theory confused with methodology. Your chosen theory might shape your approach to your research topic, or the ways in which you think about it, whereas your methodology can be thought of as the actual tools or processes that you use to conduct the research. For more examples of the differences between the two, see this piece on using theory in academic research.

When writing about your use of theory in research, try to remember the following key points:

  • Try to explain why you are using this theory – show your understanding of it, and its relevance to your work. As mentioned, there are unlikely to be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ theories to use, but you will need to justify your choice and why it’s appropriate for your research.
  • Discuss its limitations. This might be something that you acknowledge in a section of your introduction after justifying your choice of theory.
  • Don’t just mention the theory once in your introduction and never again. Refer back to it in later sections of your dissertation, particularly in your discussion or at key points of analysis. What is this theoretical approach helping you draw out of your results, or how is it informing your interpretations?

For more detailed help on using theory in research, view this guide from Sacred Heart University


When using theory in research, think of it as a framework that guides your approach to your topic, or helps you think about it from a particular perspective. There won't be a 'right' or 'wrong' theory to use, but you should choose a theoretical perspective that is relevant and that you can justify using. 

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