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)


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