The Meaning of Theory and the Implications


This paper will address the meaning of theory in research. It seeks to find out why theories are important in the process of conducting research. The paper also discusses the different meanings of theory in research according to different scholars and the processes used in theory building in the different types of research. Theories are important in the writing of research works and dissertations. Authors are required to refer to theories that are related to the area that they are involved in research. This paper uses a number of scholarly articles to discuss the different types of theories and their application, the differences between theory and other concepts such as hypothesis, models, and concepts. Focus is also made on how research can contribute to theory.

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Literature Review

Theories are an important component of research. Researchers looking to produce professional works often refer to some of the theories relating to the area. Several researchers have also attempted to explain the meaning of theory and its relevance in research. One of the researchers that explain the meaning of theory in research is John Wacker (1998). He investigates the meaning of theory and the implications that it has on the theory-building research (Wacker, 1998). Wacker (1998) not only provides the meaning of theory, but also proceeds to define the meaning of a goof theory besides providing examples.

The importance of theory to researchers includes the provision of a framework for analysis where the researcher uses the theory to analyze ideas and works. Wacker (1998) also confirms that a theory is important since it allows the researcher to have an efficient method of field development. Theories also assist researchers in their quest to explain some events in their research. In fact, Wacker (1998) reveals that theories provide explanations for the pragmatic world.

Theories are widely applied in problem-solving. Researchers use them as the main basis for the solutions they get (Andersen, & Kragh, 2010). One way that the theories assist in problem-solving is the elimination of errors that are common in research (Ellis, & Levy, 2008). Through the application of theory, the researcher is able to make correct assumptions that aid in the making of the conclusion of the research. Therefore, theories introduce efficiency in research.

When a researcher is conducting a study, one of the primary activities that he or she engages in is the search for the latest theories concerning the area that he is about to indulge in. According to Ellis and Levy (2008), the researcher then proceeds to build on this current theory to ensure that the research is relevant. Research is able to incorporate knowledge on the research in literature and the study that researchers are undertaking (Wacker, 1998).

Wacker (1998) gives another importance and use of theory as being its applicability. A theory comes in handy in convincing individuals who will be involved in its application in the real world. When people give suggestions for possible changes, they should be believed based on the theoretical support that they give to their findings and suggestions. According to Wacker (1998), one application of theories is in the business where managers require proof that some of the measures set in place will be effective.

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Some other researchers have attempted to define the meaning of theory. Stam (2010) confirms that it is a “methodical demonstration” of a problem expressed in any field. However, the definition is dependent on the discipline of the researcher. Stam (2010) also reveals that the definition in natural sciences has to be mathematical while a logical meaning has to exist in the area of social sciences. Stam (2010) also states that theories assist researchers in predicting events in their research, and most of all, establishing the delineating features of the issue under discussion.

According to Stam (2007), the 20th century led to the development of three opinions of theory, namely realism, reductionism, and instrumentalism. In these opinions, the researchers sought to describe the utility of a theory. Reductionism means that a theory can be simplified and reduced to mere observables. However, using a theory as an instrument of carrying out activities led to the development of instrumentalism (Stam, 2010). The theory is different from other terms such as a concept. However, Wacker (1998) claims that a theory emanates from the philosophies of human life. The theory was previously thought to be a statement of the relationship between variables (Ferrer, & Ferrer, 2011).

According to Wacker (1998), this statement of the relationship between facts can be true, assumed, or proposed. Eventually, it ends up becoming an uncontested fact. Another researcher with a different meaning of theory as applied in research is Harlow (2009). He suggested that the different views of what theory consists of depending on the topic that is under discussion (Harlow, 2009). For scientists, especially natural scientists, a theory means laws or systems of laws that govern the universe (Harlow 2009). For other individuals, theory can mean a phenomenon. Wacker (2008) further expounded this meaning of the theory. He stated that the theory entails conceptual relationships that are not ambiguous but clearly explained.

For a statement to qualify as a theory, it must answer some questions that are asked in the respective field. Science tries to answer questions such as how, why, where, when, and how in research, and hence the widespread use of theory in this field. Wacker (1998) says that the four properties of a theory are possible from the questions that the theory attempts to answer. These properties include variable definition, the relationship between variables, application of the theory, and provision of predictions (Wacker, 1998). If a theory has restrictions to the above properties and can be used to test the hypothesis empirically, it then qualifies as a good theory (Wacker, 1998).

A good theory should fulfill the mandate that it was designed to serve. It should be well constructed to make logic. Sherma (2013, p. 185) further asserts that a good theory is one that is able to fulfill all of the conditions proposed by Wacker (1998). She states that a good theory “should be unique, with fewer assumptions, conservative, generalizable, internally consistent, generate more research in new areas at an appropriate level of abstractions, and empirically risky enough to be refuted” (Sherma, 2013, p. 185). Some of the other researchers that define a theory and its application include Corley and Gioia (2011). These researchers began by defining what a theory entails.

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They state that it refers to the statement of concepts that are intended to provide an explanation of the relationship between it and other concepts (Corley, & Gioia, 2011). According to Corley and Gioia (2011), a theory is only important if it is able to offer utility. It can be described as being original. These researchers state that a theory should be used to contribute to a certain field by offering new ideas and original solutions to the field (Corley, & Gioia, 2011).

In the description of accounting theories, Miller and Bahnson (2010) stated that one of the most useful things about theories is their utility and potential in problem-solving. According to Miller and Bahnson (2010), the statement of theories in accounting allows for the provision of new methods of doing things, thus eliminating the repeated description of the already existing methods. Therefore, the normative accounting theory that these researchers focused on can qualify as a good theory based on its use in introducing new methods of carrying out financial evaluations (Miller, & Bahnson, 2010).

Miller and Bahnson (2010) made a prescriptive look at the methods used in accounting and account reporting. They suggested that there should be the use of prescriptive reporting and accounting in business in line with the discussed theories (Miller, & Bahnson, 2010). Theories should be based on the provision of new methods of doing things.

The research into the meaning and utility of theories is also broad, with researchers such as Jeanjean and Ramirez (2009) tracing the changes from normative theories into professional accounting. The researchers concluded that theories assist researchers to establish a way of developing new methods in accounting and other fields. The method used by Jeanjean and Ramirez (2009) to come to this conclusion is through the identification of some of the researchers that applied different approaches in their use of theory.

While one of the research groups used the deductive approach, the other group settled on an inductive approach that started with an abstract idea (Jeanjean, & Ramirez, 2009). The deductive approach that “used hypothesis construction based on examination of performance” was considered superior to the inductive approach (Sherma, 2013, p. 185).

Other researchers such as Collin, Tagesson, Anderson, Cato, and Hansson (2009) also majored in accounting theories. Some of the theories that were discussed by these researchers include the Institutional Theory (IT) and the positive accounting theory (Sherma, 2013, p. 185). Although these theories were considered relevant to the field of accounting, only the positive accounting theory was more predictive. Therefore, it can be used in the process of making accounting choices (Collins et al., 2009).

Accounting theories are heavily borrowed from other disciplines. This claim stems from the few researchers who pioneered in the development of theories intended for use in this field (Mlami, & Granlund, 2009). The reliance on theories that have been adopted from other disciplines affects the accounting field. Malmi and Granlund (2009) propose that this field needs to put in place mechanisms to ensure that there is the development of new theories that are relevant to the field of accounting. These theories should then be applied in the different areas of the world, including managers and other members of the larger society.

Apart from the theories highlighted above, there are many other theories that are relevant in the field of accounting. Other examples such as those suggested by Yi, Davey, and Eggleton (2011) include the agency theory, the legitimacy theory, the stakeholder theory, and the signaling theory.

These theories are important in the formulation of decisions in the process of disclosure (Yi, Davey, & Eggleton, 2011). The researchers suggested that these theories are not used singly, but as a group to enable the provision of the best results in the process. Yi, Davey, and Eggleton (2011) described the three theories and their use in the accounting field. They stated that they were originally used alone, and hence the poor results. Apart from these theories, another theory focused on by Yi, Davey, and Eggleton (2011) is the legitimacy theory. This theory created a form of explanation into the relationship between society and the businesses environment.

Business activities are sometimes difficult to explain and evaluate. Several theories have been proposed. Some of these theories have been used in the explanation of the business environment, but the best use is where a combination is done for the theories. Examples of researchers who combined several theories in their discussion of the business environment include Chen and Roberts (2010). The researchers proposed the use of the shareholders’ theory, the legitimacy theory, the resource dependency theory, and the institutional theory in explaining business activities and their interaction with the immediate society (Chen, & Roberts, 2010).

Interpretive research is another area that rivals the use of theories in management accounting and business leadership (Kakkuri-Knuuttila, Lukka, & Kuorikoski, 2008). Baker (2011) states that fragmentation is one of the recent developments in accounting research, with different paradigms being formed. The researcher states that these changes took place in the last century, with some of the earliest shifts in accounting research occurring in the 1980s (Baker, 2011). The shift was considered fundamental for the field of accounting. The main shift observed is that from a normative framework to the adoption of positivist and empirical research (Baker, 2011).

Gelso (2006) is one of the researchers with significant work on the meaning of theory and its application in research. He cites the different concepts and explanations that exist on theory and its applications. Many changes to the meaning of theory have occurred over time, with Gelso (2006) stating that the original theories were not useful in research. Any theory is said to offer better accounting practices (Miller, & Bahnson, 2010).

In most of the works on hypotheses in administrative centers and in company management, three perspectives are prominent. According to Sherma (2013, p. 187), these views include the “interpretive view, normative view, and positive view.” Qualitative research has gained popularity in the business and accounting fields (Parker, 2012). Some researchers have proposed several types of research, including action research (Ansari, & Bell, 2009). In this type of research, the researcher actively participates in the area of research that they are engaged in, thereby gathering the most accurate information on the topic at hand (Ansari, & Bell, 2009).

The normative view of theories in research involves the description of the policies and other forms of frameworks (Jeanjean, & Ramirez, 2009). Baker (2011) adequately displayed the positivist view of accounting theory when he stated the various changes that occurred in the use and/or views on theories (Baker, 2011). The different views of theories in business and accounting are relevant because of the frequent research that is being produced in this area. The growth in research in this area is observed in several studies, with one of the significant of these being done by Bisman (2010). However, Bisman (2010) observed that the increase in research in the interpretive approaches was overshadowed by the coinciding growth in other areas such as the objectivist and positive accounting theories.

It is imperative for a division to be made between speculations and notions such as replicas, ideas, prototypes, and suppositions. A paradigm can best be described by looking at the different studies discussing it. One of these studies is that by Richardson (2012) who states that paradigms were thought to be worldviews. Researchers could state their experiences on world issues in the form of paradigms. They could make assumptions on how the paradigms would affect the way the subjects they were investigating would affect their beliefs on the world (Richardson, 2012).

Another definition of paradigms is stated as being the “epistemological stances like realism and constructivism within the philosophy of knowledge and ways of creating that knowledge” (Sherma, 2013, p. 189). A paradigm can also be defined as the belief that is shared by a group of researchers in a specific area (Richardson, 2012). The application of these concepts is important in any field of research, and hence the relevance in the application of paradigms (Taneja, Taneja, & Gupta, 2011).

A model is differentiated from a theory in that the model is the conception that is applied to a theory in research (Morgan, 20007). On the other hand, a hypothesis offers a relationship between situations or a group of variables (Perkins, 2010), which are then tested through empirical research to establish the existing relationship (Gelson, 2006). Concepts are related to theory in that they are the primary elements of theory (Sherma, 2013, p. 189). Therefore, the theory is different from the different terms described above. It constitutes an important part of research and application.


Most of the studies evaluated in the review provide different meanings for theory, with all of them emphasizing its importance in research. Different researchers state that a theory provides an opportunity for researchers to express the existing body of knowledge on any topic, including the provision of a basis for starting research (Ketchen, & Hult, 2011). The application of theory in research is not limited to research. The different disciplines that have been focused on apply different theories in research. This plan aids in the provision of credible results and conclusions (Broberg, Tagesson, & Collin, 2010).

Most researchers state that theories aid in the development of new ideas in research since they state the existing literature findings, thus preventing repetition in research (Broberg, Tagesson, & Collin, 2010). This section looks at the major findings from the literature review and the application of the findings to future research. The literature review had a focus on four of the major studies that were done on theories. These studies provided major findings that make the subject of discussion.

Theory Constitution

In one of the required readings, Gelso (2006) investigated the meaning of theory and its application in practice. One of the prominent findings in this research as regards the definition of theory is that different scholars have different views on this concept (Gelso, 2006). Most of the theories that exist in different fields are informed by studies done on the application of theories, which further underscore the relevance of theories in research.

Gelso (2006) observes that some theories can never be disproved based on the level of expertise that was used in their creation. They also consist of a universally accepted truth that guides humankind in the process of decision-making in empirical research. Theory served to fulfill special functions such as answering questions in research. Some of the questions include why certain observations exist, description of functions, explanation of events, and the provision of an acceptable interaction between man and his society (Gelso, 2006).

Gelso (2006) observes that theories are important because they serve different functions such as descriptive functions, integrative functions, delimiting functions, and generative functions. The formulation of theories is a complex process. It has to involve credible research that puts the facts into question before restating them (Mia, & Al- Mamun, 2011). Gelso (2006) reveals in his research that the characteristics of a good theory include the provision of descriptive ability, testability, clarity, comprehensiveness, integration, and parsimony. There are different views on the characteristics that make a theory favorable in any research. The research by Gelso (2006) provides a close review of these characteristics.

The views above are shared with many researchers that have been discussed in this report. The views include the comprehensive work by Gelso (2006). After the definition of a theory, Gelso (2006) progresses to make some observations on the relevance of theory on research, including the provision of new measures of approaching research. Some of the researchers state the misconceptions that exist on theory and its application in research (Gelso, 2006).

Other researchers that provided important information on the utility of a theory in research include Malmi and Granlund (2009). These researchers state that other scholars engage in the provision of likely scenarios in their research by invoking a theory. Some of the theories that are discussed include the shareholders’ theory and the agency theory (Malmi, & Granlund, 2009). These theories are recognized as important influences to the business profession, especially in the relevant field of business leadership. The personal area of business leadership has several theories that guide research, and hence the importance of the consideration of theory as an important part of the research.

The practical application of theory in research allows researchers to add onto the available knowledge in the particular area of research (Ellis, & Levy, 2008) because the researcher establishes a certain degree of knowledge on the topic by stating the existing theories, and hence avoids replicating it (Ellis, & Levy, 2008). The only option remains to build upon the available knowledge. Hence, the researchers who follow theoretical frameworks are often beneficial to the research area. Most of the research articles that are discussed establish that theory is an important part of understanding the various research findings that they post.

The other relevant findings on a theory that is presented in the literature include the components and processes of formulating a theory. Researchers state some of the major components and characteristics of theories, which have an underlying concept of empirical research (Tacq, 2011). For a theory to be accepted, it must have been reviewed by experts in the field, with the use of specialized tests to test the concepts existing before a theory comes into effect (Kang, & Gray, 2011). Researchers state that a theory should be a statement of facts, and hence the rigorous process of ensuring that they are respected and followed.

Most of the researchers in the articles also state that a theory is dependent on the area of application (Tacq, 2011). For example, in the business and accounting field, theories are described as having been borrowed from other disciplines to explain the significantly fewer research works that have been produced in this area as compared to some of the other areas (Tacq, 2011). The studies give a general outlook of the meaning of theory in research, with most of the theories providing a lead as to the usefulness of a theory in research.

A major theory that relates to the personal field of business leadership is the shareholders’ theory (Tacq, 2011). In this theory, shareholders are recognized as the most important members of an organization (Tacq, 2011). The individuals also play a role in the leadership of any organization since they are at the helm of the corporate governance hierarchy in the organization. The shareholder theory is important and relevant to personal work since it also presents some important qualities of leadership that should be practiced. According to Sharma (2013), the organizations that utilize the shareholder theory often report significant results in their operations.

Relationship between Theory and Research

The review of literature provides an important relationship between theory and research. The main agreement in all the evaluated research articles is the relevance of a theory in research. The researchers state that every study should be aimed at producing new results by building on the existing bodies of evidence (Taneja, Taneja, & Gupta, 2011). According to Taneja, Taneja, and Gupta (2011), starting research from scratch is often hard for researchers. Therefore, scholars have to start from the existing theories in an effort to build on the existing works by other researchers. The bottom-up approach in research is recognized as a less effective one, with researchers having to build on the existing bodies of evidence in the form of theories (Zahra, & Newey, 2009).

Theory and research are also inseparable because research is initially responsible for the creation of a theory. Researchers state that the existing theories have significant work behind them since they were the products of research into the area that they define (Zahra, & Newey, 2009). Most of the theories were products of long periods of research where the researchers set about to test a hypothesis and/or create a new piece of knowledge for use by the generations after them (Zahra, & Newey, 2009).

The researcher also had to build on the existing theories to produce a theory of interest, with others having to start all the way from the bottom. Researchers who start from the bottom are initially driven by a desire to create new levels of knowledge in their respective fields while those working from the existing theories provide a better understanding of their areas (Wacker, 1998).

Gelso (2006) defines the other relationship that exists between theory and research. The researcher states that the theory can be used in research to support the findings of researchers. In many of the previous works in the field of business leadership and accounting, researchers attempt to test some of the hypotheses that they develop using the existing theories (Wacker, 1998). The use of theory in research can be emphasized in the numerous researches that state their theoretical frameworks before embarking on the actual research process (Gelso, 2006).

There are also many uses of theory in research according to Wacker (1998). Wacker (1998, p. 371) says that the main objective of any research is to build on a theory and produce facts. The determination of whether the research is aimed at finding facts or building on theory is determined by the research purpose (Wacker, 1998, p. 371). Good research is one that is able to establish and build on theories. It should involve a fact-finding process.

The difference between studies that are aimed at finding facts and those that are aimed at developing theories is mainly in the purpose of the studies. There are few differences between the studies. The main difference according to Wacker (1998, p. 271) is the prior predictions that are provided at the beginning of the research together with how the research results integrate with the available studies and evidence.

The other relationship between theory and research is in the interpretation of the results of research where the individuals carrying out research have to use theories that are in place to interpret and explain their findings (Gelso, 2006). When researchers find results that match with the hypotheses that they make, they have to look for theories that explain the results (Gelso, 2006). They also have to ensure that they formulate a theory on the observed results if there is no theory that exists on these findings (Gelso, 2006). Therefore, theory and research are inseparable concepts that lead to the development of new knowledge in special areas of study.

Situational Leadership

The theory is an important part of the research. It provides a basis for the real-life events that take place in different areas (Henry, 2010). The situational leadership theory is an important one in the field of business leadership. It dictates leaders to adapt their leadership styles based on the situations at hand (Henry, 2010). Before this theory was developed, researchers had different opinions on leadership, with some stating that the leadership styles displayed by different individuals have to be standard in organizations. The research proved that leaders who adopted situational leadership were more successful than those who had a different approach to leadership in general (Taneja, Taneja, & Gupta, 2011).

The application of situational leadership allows leaders to exercise a form of leadership where people working under them understand their intentions together with those of the organization in terms of strategies. It is important that leaders display versatility as demanded by situations and scenarios (Henry, 2010). By exercising situational leadership, leaders in business are applying the theory of situational leadership as originally stated.

This further emphasizes the importance of theory in research and the potential results from the application of theories in practice (Taneja, Taneja, & Gupta, 2011). If a manager in an organization applies proven theories in management and business leadership, the results may reflect those observed when the theories are applied in research. Therefore, there is a need to apply the necessary theories in the daily activities of any discipline.

Situational leadership is related to theory and research in different ways. Business leaders and leaders in other capacities are expected to act differently as per the different conditions that face them. There are many theories that are available for guiding these leaders on the best ways of reacting to a given situation (Christopher, 2010). These theories are only possible because of the much researches that have been conducted on them. Therefore, situational leadership theory is an example of the effective application of theory in research in the field of business leadership.


A number of recommendations are possible in relation to theory and research building. Researchers should adopt the application of theoretical frameworks in their work to ensure that the results of these works have theoretical bases. There is also a need for researchers to build on the existing theories to produce results that are quality and acceptable. The application of research findings is only possible if the right theoretical frameworks are applied in these researches. Scholars also need to approve the use of speculations in their explanation of findings. This research establishes that there exist countable theories in accounting and in business leadership. There is the need for increased effort to provide more findings that can be listed as plausible theories.


This paper has looked at the meaning of theory in research and the potential applications of a theory in the process of conducting research. It has established that a theory constitutes an important part of the research. Most of the existing research findings have used theory at some point. The paper has also discussed the meaning of theory according to different researchers. The difference between hypotheses and other terms such as a prototype, notion, and premise is provided together with the different types of theories that are currently in application. Research and theory are two interrelated concepts. One of the discussed theories is the situational leadership theory. There is a need for the application of different theories in research.

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