In both qualitative and qualitative research, theory plays a central role in contextualizing research because it provides frameworks, concepts, constructs, and models, which elucidate a given phenomenon. Researchers have found that theories are indispensable elements in research since they are the foundation of research (Creswell, 2009; Elliot, 2005). In essence, theory forms the substratum that firmly holds other elements of research and thus dictates the framework under which the research takes place.
Creswell (2009, p. 51) points out that a theory is “a set of interrelated constructs, definitions, and prepositions that presents a systematic view of phenomena by specifying the relations among variables, with the purpose of explaining natural phenomena.” In this view, a theory aims at elucidating given phenomena in a systematic way, which is predictable and reliable. Without theory, it would be very difficult for researchers to present variables, constructs, and concepts in a systematic manner. Therefore, the purpose of the research paper is to examine the role of theory in each of the five approaches, namely, narrative, case study, phenomenology, ethnography, grounded theory, as well as in the proposed study.
Role of Theory in Narrative Approach
The narrative approach focuses on stories that people speak or write. The stories examine personal experiences or the experiences of others, and thus the objective of the narrative approach is to assess the meaning of stories using themes, concepts, and constructs. To enhance understanding of themes, concepts, and constructs in the stories, researchers apply theories. Wertz et al. (2011) state that since the narrative approach examines personal experiences, psychological theories that assess human behavior are crucial in elucidating concepts, constructs, and themes that are in the narratives. Researchers apply psychological theories since they give meanings to the themes in the narratives.
According to Elliot (2005), the narrative approach focuses on personal experiences and attaches meaning to these experiences for purposes of research. As researchers have biases in interpreting certain experiences, theories guide them so that they can make systemic inferences based on a certain framework. As the experiences of individuals are subject to social and cultural factors, researchers also require sociological theories in explaining them. Rogers (2003) asserts that sociological theories are applicable in describing social phenomena that surround a given narrative. By applying psychological and sociological theories in the narrative approach, qualitative researchers can effectively describe personal experiences in a certain social environment.
Role of Theory in Case Study
A case study is a research approach that examines a phenomenon with a view of providing a comprehensive description. As the objective of a case study is to describe a phenomenon, the theory has an important role in enhancing the description. Theories offer frameworks that conceptualize a phenomenon and thus making it easy for qualitative researchers to analyze and describe the phenomenon. According to Swanborn (2010), a case study requires the application of diverse theories depending on the nature of the case study. For instance, a case study of organizational management requires the application of management theories.
Although the application of theories is simple and straightforward, the choice of theories is complex because diverse theories exist. Hence, qualitative researchers experience a great challenge in selecting the appropriate theories that are applicable to specific case studies. What determines the choice of theories are the philosophical underpinnings of qualitative research. According to Woodside (2010), positivism, idealism, and realism are some of the philosophies that qualitative researchers apply in describing a certain case study. Comparatively, as theories of the narrative approach focus on the experiences of people, the theories of case studies focus on diverse phenomena. Hence, the role of a theory is to offer an in-depth description of diverse phenomena using appropriate concepts, constructs, and themes, which are specific to case studies.
Role of Theory in Phenomenology Approach
In the phenomenology approach, just like in the narrative approach, the role of theory is to elucidate the occurrence of certain phenomena. The fundamental approach aims at conceptualizing human experiences in relation to certain phenomena. The process of conceptualization requires a theory because it defines concepts, themes, and constructs that are in a given phenomenon. Smith, Flowers, and Larkin (2009) describe phenomenology as a research approach that focuses on human experiences in relation to a certain phenomenon of interest. Qualitative researchers in the epistemological fields such as education, philosophy, psychology employ the phenomenology approach.
Langdrige (2007) argues that the phenomenology approach requires theories, which illuminate perceptions and beliefs that shape human experiences in society. In this view, it is evident that the phenomenology approach applies the same theories as the narrative approach because both of them focus on human experiences. Psychological theories explain how humans acquire certain cognitive and behavioral patterns. Human experiences have their basis on beliefs, norms, and values that are unique to a specific society. Weidenfeld (2007) asserts that sociological and psychological theories effectively describe constructs, themes, and concepts in phenomenological research. Thus, with the help of theories, qualitative researchers can formulate concepts, illuminate themes, and construct frameworks of certain phenomena in research.
Role of Theory in Ethnography Approach
As an approach that examines how cultural elements influence human behavior in a given social environment, the ethnography approach applies theories. Hymes (2013) states that anthropology and sociology as central themes in the ethnography approach because they define culture based on human beliefs, norms, and values. Exposition of the beliefs, norms and values require the application of sociological theories, just as in the case of narrative, case study, and phenomenology approaches. In essence, it is impossible for researchers to expound on culture without applying theories.
Thomas and Ahmed (2008) affirm that sociological theories create a link between sociology and ethnography because they are inseparable elements in ethnographic research. The theoretical aspect of ethnography research aids in the formulation of concepts, creation of frameworks, and defining of themes (Punch, 2005). Since the process of ethnographic research is complex, theory eases collection, analysis, and presentation of study findings. The findings of an ethnography study should comply with theoretical principles for them to be valid and relevant. According to Madden (2010), ethnography entails “description and analysis coming together to answer questions and build theories, which in turn can respond to future ethnographic issues and generate future ethnographic theories” (p. 17). In this view, deductive reasoning is applicable in formulating theories and concepts that guide researchers in the description of cultural elements.
Role of Theory in Grounded Theory
The grounded theory is an approach that aims at formulating theory using a deductive form of reasoning. It is a theory in itself because it examines themes, constructs, and concepts that are present in a given phenomenon and come up with novel theories. Oktay (2012) argues that the grounded theory utilizes deductive and inductive reasoning in formulating theories, which elucidate certain phenomena in research. Since grounded theory mainly focuses on sociological phenomena, it uses sociological theories as tenets that define the framework of research. According to Creswell (2013), the grounded theory applies theoretical concepts, themes, and constructs in the analysis of data, and in coming up with refined findings. Without theories, it is impractical to analyze data and present findings in a systematic manner (Reynolds, 2006).
Such assertion confirms that theories provide a systematic way of examining and elucidating phenomena for purposes of research. When compared to narrative, ethnography, and phenomenology approaches, grounded theory is unique since it focuses on theoretical aspects of the findings. Moreover, while narrative, ethnography, and phenomenology approach shallowly describe a certain phenomenon, the grounded theory provides a comprehensive and in-depth analysis of data or phenomena (Patton, 2002). Hence, theories play central roles in the grounded theory approach because they provide micro-, macro-, and macro-theories that support prepositions and hypotheses in research.
Role of Theory in the Proposed Study
Since financial sustainability is a financial issue, the purpose of the qualitative research is to identify ways in which Clayton County Library System could diversify its sources of funds, as a way of enhancing its financial sustainability. Fundamentally, the approach that the study uses is a case study approach, as it describes the library as a case study. Swanborn (2010) states that the case study approach of qualitative research applies diverse theories in describing numerous constructs, themes, and concepts that explain a given phenomenon.
In the study, the phenomenon is financial sustainability, which is an economic phenomenon. As theories vary according to nature of the study, the proposed study is a phenomenon that requires economic theories to elucidate how financial sustainability occurs. Numerous factors determine the financial sustainability of an institution or an organization, and thus the application of theories enhances their identification.
In elucidating the concepts of financial sustainability the study requires the application of economic theories and models such as budget constraint, utility, monetary theory, and rational choice theory amongst others. Analysis of the study from the economic point of view is imperative because financial sustainability is an economic issue that needs economic exposition (Hyman, 2010). Public finance theory provides the framework of the research because the identification of sources of funds and analysis of their sustainability is imperative.
Burger (2003) argues that public finance theory evaluates the revenue and expenditure of public institutions with the objective of maintaining them in a sustainable manner. Likewise, the study aims at enabling Clayton County Library System to identify sources of funds that would promote the sustainability of library services. In this perceptive, the theory of public finance is indispensable in identifying sources of funds and elucidating the financial sustainability of the Clayton County Library System.
Comparative analysis of the five approaches of qualitative research shows that they have some differences and similarities. In the analysis, it is evident that all the five approaches apply theories in creating themes, formulating concepts, and constructing frameworks. The analysis has shown that a theory and a research approach are inseparable elements because they are dependent on each other.
Qualitative researchers apply theories in laying the foundation of research as they form the basis of defining variables, formulating hypotheses, analyzing data, and presenting findings. In essence, theories are the backbone of research because virtually every element of research holds onto the theory. In the proposed study, for instance, economic theories are pertinent in elucidating concepts, themes, and constructs. The public finance theory seems to be the appropriate theory, which can explain the issue of financial sustainability and provide a robust solution for the Clayton County Library System to enhance its financial sustainability.
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