Developing Theories in Research

Theories in quantitative research serve the purpose of explaining and predicting the influence of the independent variable(s) on the dependent variable(s). Theories provide researchers with an understanding of the various relationships that are found in research. For example, let’s say a researcher finds a relationship between exercise and income. The researcher finds that as exercise increases so do salary. The relationship is found in many different contexts. It is found among men, women, Africans, Asians, various college majors, etc. Since the relationship holds steady across several different contexts and environments it is considered a theory. It is the general applicability of a theory that makes it strong.

The testing of a theory is one of the most rigorous forms of quantitative research. However, the development of theory does not start there. There are many different ways to develop theories. In this post, we will look at four common ways to develop a theory, which are…

  1. Gut-feeling
  2. Theoretical reason
  3. Conceptual framework
  4. Theory testing


Sometimes a researcher has a gut-feeling that there is a relationship between two variables. For example, going back to the example of the link between exercise and income, a researcher may notice that his most fit friends also makes the most money. He has a gut feeling that exercise can predict income. This is an unsophisticated approach but it is a beginning for exploring a potential theory. However, the application of this initial research is highly limited because the motivation to study is from just the experience of one individual.

Theoretical Reason

A theoretical reason is a logical conclusion by another scholar that a researcher uses as support for the development of their own theory. In our exercise example, let’s say that another scholar finds that students who exercise perform better academically than students who do not. This leads to a reasonable conclusion that exercise may affect income as well. Our theory is not only a hunch now but based on the scholarly contribution of another person’s work. This allows the conclusion of our study to have a wider application because it not only based on our own observation.

Conceptual Framework

A conceptual framework is a collection of several others who have come to similar conclusions about a particular relationship. Instead of just one author, let’s say that ten authors made the conclusion that exercise impacts grades. Our questions are slightly different. Does the link found between exercise and grades hold when we look at exercise and income?  The results of this study have an even larger application because more people are involved in the development of this potential relationship.

Theory Testing

Theory testing is just what it says, it is the testing of theory. After we complete our study on exercise and income, several other people replicate the student in various context. The study is done in different cultures, nations, regions, ethnicities, etc. After several reasonable replications, our theory about exercise and income is considered a theory.


Developing a theory is not an easy task. It entails a detailed process that involves a lot of oversight and scrutiny. The benefit of a theory is that it takes a phenomenon in the world and explain the cause and effect of it in simple language for other to use as needed. These explanations help us to make sense of our complex world in succinct sentences and paragraphs. This is why we need more theories because we do not understand everything about the world.

Leave a Reply