• Writing the research report: Understanding what theory means


    WE continue our discussion on major parts of a research paper, this week, on what a theory is, preliminary to discussing the theoretical and conceptual frameworks of a research study. In my experience, establishing these frameworks seems to be very challenging to our students. Perhaps it is best to have students understand during coursework what exactly “theory” means. Not that our students have lesser minds than us their forbears.

    Perhaps because theory and theoretical frameworks are so associated with their research paper, and their preoccupation of the hurdles they have to come up with this capstone on time for their graduation, their minds get clouded about what theory or theories mean.

    Having a better understanding of what theory means, can better enable our students to draw from the related literature their theoretical and/or conceptual framework for their research.

    Theory comes from the Greek word, “theoria” which means a speculation. Hence, theories mean speculations on aspects of reality which are “used to describe, predict, explain, and control phenomena.” <http://users.ipfw.edu/sternber/339/framework.html.> Let’s discuss a theory to illustrate what theory means.

    The uncertainty/anxiety reduction theory is often associated with communication. Given a university setting, let’s say a new lady dean is appointed to our department whose background we don’t know. It is natural that we will feel anxious about how our relationship will be with this new dean. We resort to communication to gain more knowledge about her, so we can adjust and relate harmoniously with her. We would be asking ourselves how would she be as a boss. Is she stern, strict, unbending, inflexible?

    Would she appreciate suggestions? Is she caring? Would she be fair in evaluating our performance? Would she be biased in distributing seminar funds to those academics who may have disciplines similar to hers? Which means, if she were in literature or linguistics, would she be more open to sending to seminars/workshops English teachers rather than those in mathematics? Would she be fair, unbiased, especially, budget-wise?

    I recall, as a new head of an HEI, overhearing my staff asking themselves what merienda I would prefer. For one who may not know the uncertainty/anxiety reduction theory, the staff’s query could be misinterpreted as “ingratiation,” or in the dialect “sipsip.” The inquiry as to what I, the new boss, would prefer for snacks is a natural reaction – a way of reducing the staff’s uncertainty about a significant other – I, their new boss. Any new relationship is full of uncertainty – especially when either is unknown to the other. There is that anxiety in the kind of relationship one would have with a stranger who comes into one’s professional life as the boss. It is natural for the staff to want to know better the new head, their new superior.

    Charles Berger (1979) notes that there are three prior conditions which can “boost” the drive to reduce uncertainty. These are “anticipation of future interaction, incentive value, or deviance.” <http://www.communicationcache.com/uploads/1/0/8/8/10887248/uncertainty reduction-notes.pdf> As the researcher reviews related literature, and comes across this uncertainty/anxiety theory, the researcher could deduce from a theory what are referred to as axioms which are of several types. In general, an axiom is a logical expression not a self-evident truth, but rather a formal logical expression used in deduction to build a theory. Breaking down a theory into axioms gives birth to one’s research questions.

    Given the context/setting of the study, a research question that may be derived from the uncertainty/anxiety theory could be: What are the communication strategies to increase knowledge about a new significant other? Such a research question would lead to a survey questionnaire which would contain items on communication strategies such as “(1) covert observation, (2) asking questions, or (3) communicating to encourage others to reveal more about themselves.”

    It becomes evident from our brief discussion that reviewing literature would be the source of the theories and which would build the theoretical framework that could anchor a conceptual framework. The review would lead to findings of previous studies on the anxiety/uncertainty reduction theory. The gaps, controversies would spawn one’s research questions and which may arouse the researcher’s interest to find out whether previous findings about the different communication strategies (covert observation, asking questions, or communicating to encourage others to reveal more about themselves) can also be true to other settings or contexts, other respondents such as in a non-academic workplace. Research results pave the creation of new knowledge.

    In summary, a theory consists of “a set of concepts and ideas and the proposed relationships among these, a structure that is intended to capture or model something about the world.” Two concepts joined by a proposed relationship is an example of a simple theory. Hence, in our example, we can theorize that subordinates would have a feeling of anxiety when they have a new boss who they do not know. Let’s have in mind that “a major function of theory is to provide a model or map of why the world is the way it is” (Strauss, 1995). “It is a simplification of the world, but a simplification aimed at clarifying and explaining some aspect of how it works. Theory is a statement about what is going on with the phenomena that you want to understand.” A theory is a statement about “what one thinks is happening and why.” “A useful theory is one that tells an enlightening story about some phenomenon, one that gives a researcher new insights and broadens one’s understanding of that phenomenon.” <Error! Hyperlink reference not valid.>

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    Teresita Tanhueco-Tumapon, PhD, is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished educators and experts on institutional management in colleges and universities. Her studies have included not only education and pedagogy but also literature, general science and history. She has studied not only in the topmost universities in the Philippines but also in Germany, Great Britain and Japan. She is the Vice-President for External Relations and Internationalization of Liceo de Cagayan University (in Cagayan de Oro) after serving as its VP for Academic Affairs for six and a half years concurrent to her ten years as dean in the Graduate Studies of the same university. She holds a Lifetime Professional Achievement Award from the central office of the Commission on Higher Education.


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    1 Comment

    1. Angelita Alfonso-Tumanda on

      My first time to read your article and your kind of article. This is possibly the beginning of my love affair with your works.