How to use theory in research

You should have clear whether your research will adopt a deductive or inductive approach. The basic difference between both is regarding its relation to theory. Deductive approach aims to take a theory on your topic as a reference, develop an hypothesis based on such theory and then, after the collection on data, this hypothesis is tested; while inductive approach aims to collect data and develop theory as a result of your data analysis.

Perhaps it is worthy remember what is exactly theory. In the previous post Working at theory level when #formulatingaresearch ? it was underlined that theory consists of a relationship between cause and effect that it is not only present in the research world but also in our daily life. We all attempt to solve the daily problems that we have to face up in a similar way as scientist. We all constantly make hypotheses and check them according to our experience. Why do you usually take the bus number 3 if the 12, 22 and 48 also go to your destination?. Perhaps because according to your experience, the bus 12 is the least crowded. This schemata that you have in your mind derive in a theory, in your own theory. In doing your own research it works in much the same way.

In our Thurday 22th of November 2012 lecture we saw a frivolous but very illustrative example of theory to understand what theory means. In the right side of this post you can see a number of picutres describing the feeling of cats according to the position of the tail. Despite how reliable the conclusions are, the truth is that the author of such “research” have develop a theory consisting of relating cause and effects.

We tend to think that construction of theory is something exclusive for experieced reseachers. It is somehow true if you consider theory just “Grand theory”, i.e., the one that such researchers as Einstain, Newton have developed and that have somehow changed the way we think about the wold. You, as undergradute, will unlike develop this kind of theories. Equally, you are rather unprobably to develop the so called Middle-range theories, those that despite not having changed the way we think about the world, have changed prominently a specific field of knowledge, i.e. theories made by the authors that you will be dealing with in your literature of review. However, Creswell (2002) also suggests the existence of a third type of theories, known as substantive theories, which are restricted to a “particular time, research setting, group of population or problem”. For example, the evolution of luxury products demand in China last decade, the evolution of SMs companies in Greece or the Talent management strategy of SMs companies in China, as well as many other research topic suggested.

Coming back to the focus of this post, difference between deduction and induction, the former one refers to a research process consisting of testing a theory about our research question. I do not think that any of you, as Bachelor in Management student wants to research on how cats behave, but it is going to be pretty clear what deductive approach means following this example. You might test the different tail position of your cat at home just by observing and taking notes and finally conclude whether the theory is right or not. It does not apply for animals, but observation is, together with in-depth interviews and focus group, one of the most representative qualitative methods which is used, by the way, in research projects that has adopted a “interpretativist” or “feeling” philosophy.

What about inductive approach? The process would be precisely the opposite, i.e., it would consist of developing a theory after the collection of information. If you spend hours observing the behaviour of customer in a supermarket and taking notes about them, perhaps it enables you to develop a theory, neither “Grand theory”, nor a “middle-range theory” but a “substantive theory”. The same may occured after analysing the results of a survey or the collection of secondary data. If, for example, your research aims to understand the relation between evolution of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and unemployment rate in the world, you could develop, after collecting data from United Nations statistic division, a theory consisting of classify countries according both variables.

World map showing countries by nominal GDP per...

World map showing countries by nominal GDP per capita in 2008, IMF estimates as of April 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At this point you may be wondering whether your research will be deductive or inductive. Perhaps the most important criteria is the topic of your research. Some research topics lends itself for deduction and other for induction. It is going to depend basicly in the existing literature. A topic on which there is a wealth of literature from which you can define a theoretical framework and a hypothesis lends itself more to deduction. With research into a topic which is new and there is a little existing literature, it maybe more appropiate to work inductively.
Finally, despite the division of both approache made in this post, the truth is that not only they are compatible but often their combination is an advantage.


Becker, H. S. (2007). Writing for social scientists: How to start and finish your thesis, book, or article University of Chicago Press.

Camino, J. R. (2011). Cómo escribir y publicar una tesis doctoral ESIC Editorial.

Lewis, P., Saunders, M. N. K., & Thornhill, A. (2009). Research methods for business students Pearson.

Karen Nichols. Aug 29th 2009. The Telltale Tail. Catster. Retrieved from

World map showing countries by nominal GDP per capita in 2008. IMF. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Ontology in research

Imagine all managers in a given organization leave and are replaced by new ones. Would such alteration have an important impact on the organization itself? Would the organization keep being the same? If you as researcher consider that such change is irrelevant to understand the organization itself, it means that your ontological position is rather objectivist. You would tend to think that changing managers doesn’t affect the object of your research purpose. Hence you think that the organization is defined by its formal structure regardless who is a member. In other words, you would focus on procedures, policies and resources and all those things that are independent from people within the organization. This is actually a perspective that comes from the natural science.

On the contrary, if you think that such changes would have a high impact on the organization to the extent that it is possible to consider it a different organization, then your ontological position would rather be subjectivist. In that case, it is the human perspective of those who compose the organization what inform about its proper existence.

Once said this, we can now purpose a more theoretical definition of ontology. It is a branch of the so called metaphysic that study the nature or being, becoming, existence or reality. In other words the study of what may be seen as existent or not. Actually, many traditional questions of the philosophy can be understood as ontological questions: does God exist? Do mental entities as ideas or thoughts exist? Do abstract entities as numbers exist?

What are the implications or one or another ontological position in terms of one´s research project. Every research project always deals with some kind of organization: neighborhoods, companies, cities, etc. They may be more or less abstract, but organizations after all. The point here is that assuming its existence or not will largely determine the rest of the research process in terms of, for instance, the way we collect information. Assuming an objectivist philosophy your research will focus on the formal structure of the organization, i.e. countable things like in which parts are divided, how many people, how many, let´s say, computers, etc. You would not consider any information coming from those people involved. Hence you will be more prone to use a more quantitative approach, meaning applying more quantitative methods like questionnaires, content analysis or secondary data.

What if you apply a more subjectivist point of view? Logically the opposite, you will omit any information coming from the formal structure of the organization and move on the informal one. What is it exactly? Those things that are not written anywhere but still exist. Those things that one can’t measure (or at least at a first glance) but one think they are still important. They way organization’s members see each other, the way they interact, the hidden hierarchies among them and many other details of human situations. As well as objectivism lead you apply more quantitative methods, subjectivism lead you to do the same with more qualitative ones like in-depth interviews, observation, mass-observation, focus group, etc.

Choosing one of another ontological position normally depends on the researcher’s way of thinking. Should you are more kind of human observer; you will tend to adopt a subjectivist position. Should you are a more number-centered person; objectivism is going to fit you better. However, it must be said that there is a tendency to consider ontology as a continuum, that is, to avoid radical positions as far as both may provide with rich and complementary information.

According to my personal experience, one may avoid the “ontological dilemma” and go ahead with the rest of the research design. However, considering the ontology of one’s research project contributes to better understand the universe under study, as well as organize one´s idea at the always difficult beginning of the research process. With regard to PhD dissertations, it’s also recommendable to raise this issue both in the research proposal and the submitted document. In the research proposal because it informs the supervisor about one’s decision. This may also give way to a helpful feedback. In the final document because it informs the readers about one’s philosophical alignment. This will both orient them throughout the whole reading of the document, and will also alert him/her in case they want to do some critiques in future works on the same topic.

What is your research paradigm?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the basic meaning of the term paradigm as “a pattern or model, an exemplar”. In terms of your own research, paradigm means the way of examining social phenomena.

Burrell and Morgan (1982) suggest a taxanomy of four different paradigms as a result of crossing two variables: objectivism/subjectivism and radical change/regulation. Radical change refers to the fact that the organization studied must be conducted by mean fundamental changes to the normal order on things, while regulation perspective is less judgemental and critical.
In the bottom right corner of the quadrant is the funcionalist paradigm. You will concern with a more ratiaonal or “reources researchers-like” perspective to explain to suggest some recommendations of change in the organization (non fundamental changes). E.g. “the number of customer complaint have increase 20% last year and it is recommendable improve the client services”

In the bottom left corner of the quadrant is the interpretative paradigm. You still would be recommending non-radical changes but through an explanation based on irrationalities or, in other words, trying to understand the meaning that humans involved give to the organization. E.g. “the fact that the workers at customer service do not get on very well is affecting the quality of the service and it requires to be improve by mean organizing more social events”.

In the top left corner the radictal humanist paradigm is located within the subjectivist and radical change dimensions. The needs of radical changes in the organization would be based on “feeling researchers-like” perspective, i.e. interpretativist perspective. E.g. the lack of motivation among customer service workers means that it must disapeared or being integrated in marketing department in order for workers have more challenging jobs.

Finally, in the top right corner of the quandrant is the radical structuralist paradigm. Here you try to achieve fundamental changes based upon statistical analysis of the organitation. E.g. “after doing a survey among workers of customer service department there has been a clear decrease on labour satisfaction among new workers comparing to long term workers and it must be solved by mean a change in the different position of managers and teamleaders, as well as in the management strategy”


Oxford English Dictionary

Lewis, Philip, Mark NK Saunders, and Adrian Thornhill. Research methods for business students. Pearson, 2009.

Are you forced to assume a philosophy for your research?

If after reading the previous post on positivism and interpretativism philosophy you think that choicing one or another is still unrealistic in practice you might be interesting on adopting the view of pragmatism. This view argues that more important than the research philosophy is the research question. The pragmatism view also argues that is perfectly possible to work with combination of “resources” and “feeling” researchers´ views, as well as the combination of both objectivist and subjectivist philosophy. Consequently, it mixes methods, both qualitative and quantitative, something which is, actually, very recomendable.

Tashakkori and Teddlie (1998) suggest that it is more appropiate for the researcher in a particular study to think of the philosophy adopted as a continuum rather than opposite positions.


Lewis, Philip, Mark NK Saunders, and Adrian Thornhill. Research methods for business students. Pearson, 2009.
Tashakkori, Abbas, and Charles Teddlie. Mixed methodology: Combining qualitative and quantitative approaches. Vol. 46. Sage Publications, Incorporated, 1998.

Are you “resources” or “feeling” researcher? #understandingresearchphilosophies

As researcher you are creating new knowledge. But, what is or not knowledge for you? Two main views may be adopted.

(1) The researcher who concerns on numbers and countable elements: “resources” researcher

(2) The researcher who concerns more with the feelings and attitudes of the people involved in the organization studied: “feeling” researcher

1. “Resources” researchers

The first ones are more akin to the position of the natural scientist, and for them, the reality is represented by objects that are considered to be “real”, “touchable” and “visible”, such as computers, trucks and machines. Actually, “resources” researcher´s data are presented in the form of a table of statistical data. E.g. estimated personal computers users:

Estimated personal computers users
Country Computers
USA 223,810,000
Japan 69,200,000
China 52,990,000
Germany 45,000,000
Uk 35,890,000
France 35,000,000
South Korea 26,201,000
Canada 22,390,000
Italy 21,486,000
Brazil 19,350,000

Apart from resources, the existence of such sophisticate research methods as survey, allow researchers measure also opinions and attitudes. Imaging your research aims to measure the labor satisfaction in a manufacturing company. You may perform a survey and ask such questions as below:

“Are you very satisfied, somewhat satisfied, neither satisfied nor dissatisfied, somewhat dissatisfied, very dissatisfied within the company?

  1. Very satisfied
  2. Somewhat satisfied
  3. Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied
  4. Somewhat dissatisfied
  5. Very dissatisfied

As such, the results might be represented as below:

Level of satisfaction %
Very satisfied 40
Somewhat satisfied 35
Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied 20
Somewhat dissatisfied 4
Very dissatisfied 1


These “resources” researchers would argue that this kind of data is less open to bias and therefore more objective. They think that the object studied by the “feeling” researchers cannot be seen, measured and modified like computers, trucks and machines.

As well as nature scientist, “resources” researchers also aim that the end product can be law-like generalizations, similar to those produced by physical and natural scientist. In our example of workers satisfaction, another question of the survey questionnaire might be:

Which department do you belong to?

  1. Manufacturing department
  2. Marketing department
  3. Accounting department
  4. Logistic department

Obtaining as a result the below table and being able to make law-like generalization as: “Employed satisfaction is 20% higher among manufacturing department workers than in the rest of the department”


Manufacturing department Marketing department Accounting department Logistic department
Very satisfied 80 58 62 59
Somewhat satisfied 10 12 8 9
Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied 5 3 2 7
Somewhat dissatisfied 3 5 3 2
Very dissatisfied 2 2 5 1

2. “Feeling” researchers

But, does this data presented in statistical tables deserve more authority than those presented in a narrative by a “feeling” researcher? You may be critical of “resources” researchers view and argue that the social world of business and management is far too complex to be understood just by numbers.

“Feeling” researchers advocates that it is necessary for the researcher to understand differences between humans in our role as social actors. Before further explanations of what is a social actor, watch the below video.

This video, emphasize the importance of the context, i.e. how important is where we are to the way we behave. Many of the people passing by the famous violinist would have paid more than 100$ for attending one of his concerts, but in this precise context, not even stopped to listen to him.

At the same way, you as students might be making jokes and laughing if you were outside or in a party, but as you have been tough that in a class you are supposed to behave, you don’t make jokes. Because there is something called social norms: being in silence, raise your hands when I ask you for, say good afternoon when entering in classroom, just example of social norms that are not written anywhere but all of us know.

Following this social norms we become in social actors, and play different roles depending on the context.

What are the implications for your own research? Coming back to the example given previously about the satisfaction in a manufacturing company, you, as “resources” researcher might be content with the result and might not want to go further. However, as “feeling” researchers you might prefer to go further and try to study more closely the feelings of the workers, as well as their beliefs, values, concerns. For this reason you perform a number of in-depth interviews. After recording the interviews, listening carefully and analyzing the information, you will unlikely to represent it by statistic tables, but you will be able to perform a narrative as the one given below:

Most of the interviewed sustain that they are satisfied, but mainly thanks to the “good salaries” (Joe). But the truth is that many of them feel quite unsatisfied in terms of development, because the tasks they do are “quite boring” (Peter). On top of that, some of them think that they are satisfied with the job, but in a long term they would prefer to leave the company for doing something “more challenging” (Mary)”…

A “resources” researcher would think that this is not objective, because you analysis is affected by the context and the answer given by the worker may be biased. On top of that, the number of interviews is not enough and it is not representative of the total number of the workers.

The truth is that a “feeling” researcher do not highly focus on “representativity” and “objectivity” as “resources” researchers do, but they gain, by contrast, major deepness in their analysis and major ability to identify the smallest details of worker satisfaction.

If you are more “resources” researcher, you will likely embrace what is called the positivism, whereas if you are more “feeling” researcher, you will likely embrace interpretivism. (There are also another philosophical position called realism that will not be address here and which essence is that what the senses show us as reality is the truth. You can find more details here)

The metaphor of iceber illustrate very well the difference between both philosophies. In case of perfoming a research on a company culture, a positivist (“resources” researcher”) will aim to understant the visible part of the iceber, which corresponds with goal technology, structure, policies and proceedures, products/services and financial resources, among other, or what is called formal aspects of the organization. By contrast, a interpretativist (“feeling” researcher) will aim to undertand such questions as beliefs, attitudes and values, among others, or what is called “informal aspects of the organization.

Within this post it would be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that one research philosophy is “better” than another. This would miss the point. They are “better” at doing different things. When doing a research on labour satisfaction, adopting both philosophies is as possible as applying, provided that you own enough resources and skills, both a survey and in-dept interviews. For example, taking advantage of the information obtain by mean the in-depth interviews you will be able to formulate more focused questions and obtain more specific data. Coming back o our previous example, once you know that the satisfaction depends not only in salary but also in expectation and in oing interesting task, your survey questionaire could include apart from the general question on satisfaction, another kind of question as: “how satisfied are you in terms of personal development”, “…and in terms of salary…”

Finally, after reading this post you still think that choosing between one position and other is somewhat urealistic in practice, perhaps you should consider read this other post on pragmatism.


Camino, J. R. (2011). Cómo escribir y publicar una tesis doctoral ESIC Editorial.

Gene Weingarten (April 8, 2007). Pearls Before Breakfast. Washington Post. Retrieved from

Lewis, P., Saunders, M. N. K., & Thornhill, A. (2009). Research methods for business students Pearson.

Stanley N. Herman (1970) Cultural Iceber. TRW Systems Group. Retrieved from

Related articles

Understanding research philosophies

The point of this post is not about choosing one or another philosophy for your research. Actually, you could skip this topic and begin thinking about whether you will use questionnaire or secondary data method. The point here is enhancing your understanding of the way in which we approach the study of a particular field. Bear in mind that the philosophy you assume will influence the way you answer your research question.

Although philosophy might sound very profound, this term just refers to the development of knowledge and the nature of such knowledge.

Three questions you must answer for a major understanding of the process of developing knowledge and its nature:

  1. Is your organization independent of its members? (Ontology)
  2. Are you a “resources” or “feeling” researcher? (Epistemology)
  3. What roles do our values play in our research? (Axiology)

What roles do your values play?

English: ASHS science values

English: ASHS science values (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A value is an idea what people share about what is good or bad, desireble or undesireble. Values are reflected in apparantly trivial everyday behaviors. The sociologist Robin M. Williams, Jr. (1970) identified fifteen fundamental values (in reference to american society

  1. achievement and success
  2. activity and work
  3. humanitarianism
  4. efficiency and practicality
  5. progress
  6. material confort
  7. equality
  8. freedom
  9. resignation
  10. rationality and science
  11. nationalism and patriotism
  12. democracy
  13. individuality
  14. racial and ethnic superiority

Of course, there may be many more and some of the mentioned values may be not share in all the countries and also, it may change over time.

A “resources” or positivist researcher will probably sustain that our personal value should not affect the process of research and for this reasons you must be completly out of this process and that doing in-depth interviews the results are not credible. On the contrary, a “feeling” or interpretativist researcher would argue that unavoidably we demostrate our values at all stages. After all, choicing one topic rather than another, suggests that you think one of the topics is more important. For example, having such values as humanitarianism it wouldnt be rare if your research focus a nonprofit organization.

Your choice of philosofical approach is a reflection of your values, as is your choice of data collection techniques. For example, to conduct a study where you place great importance on data collected through interview work suggests that you value personal interaction with your respondents more highly than their views expressed through an anonymous questionnaire.

Heron suggests the possibility of writing your own statement of personal values in relation to the topic you are studying. The statement of values may be of use both to you as researcher and those parties with whom you have contact in your research. The use to you would be a result of your “being honest with yourself” about quite what your values are. This would heighten your awareness of value judgements you are making in drawing conclusions form your data. These value judgements may lead to the drawing of conclusions which may be different from those drawn by researchers with other values.


Williams, Robin Murphy. American society: A sociological interpretation. New York: Knopf, 1970.
Craig J. Calhoun, Donald Light, Suzanne Infeld Keller. Sociology. McGraw-Hill, 2000.
Lewis, Philip, Mark NK Saunders, and Adrian Thornhill. Research methods for business students. Pearson, 2009.