In the Social Sciences, the humanities, and even the natural sciences, the quality of every research output is measured by the application of  two factors; theory and methodology. Consequently, it becomes imperative for students to have a clear understanding of the meaning and application of theory in any research. Unfortunately, the manner in which this topic is treated in the available literature, compounds an already difficult situation. And at times the explanation offered on this topic by our lecturers leaves much to be desired.. This ultimately affects the quality of the research products at our disposal today. Wrong choice of theory has been made in many researches thereby betraying the inadequacy of the researcher.

Further to the above, for the sake of passing exams on the topic, students have taken to memorizing the lecture notes, if any, text books, PDF and other online materials, without adequate understanding. Having experienced this myself, I was compelled to embark on further studies and have offered to share the knowledge with you in this book.  My intention is to make this book the simplest you have ever read. I have made my choice of words the simplest possible such that even a lay man can get the message clearly. For the fact that my concern is for you to understand this topic completely, I will therefore take my time to cover all that pertains to theories, theoretical framework; meaning characteristics and its application.


Theory is one of the most important  words in the world of the Social Sciences and the Humanities. In Political Science, Economics, Sociology, and other Social Sciences, many propositions have been made in an attempt to give meaning to the word theory within the context of the endeavor. Rather than providing clarity, students and readers are made to get even more confused. For the records therefore, it is important to state here that there are many views to the meaning of the word “theory.” For example, in an attempt to explain the theory of Social Movement, (Phongpaichi,1999), implied that  a theory is a logically connected system of general propositions which establishes a relationship between two or more variables. Now, how many undergraduates can put this into perspective? I know you are saying very few. At best they memorise it as it is written and try to reproduce it in the exact form when the need arises. That is the reality of the situation. Theorising is the process of systematically develop and organise ideas to explain a phenomena. A theory therefore is the total set of empirically testable, interconnected ideas formulated to explain those phenomena. I want to assure you that in the next few lines, you will get the clearest picture of what theory is. But we also must understand here that our concern in this book is not on the semantic of theory; the commonest way it is used in the context of an ordinary English word which often implies something that cannot be seen or something that is not practicable.

Now, what is theory? At the very basic level, the different theoretical schools and disciplines are at least  in agreement that theories should be understood as generalisation.(Abend,2008). To put it in another way around, to make it easier for your understanding, a theory is a generalisation or theories are generalisations. We use theory all the time, especially in our everyday life; our speeches, our conversations, etc. Whenever we use the plural or generalise without having checked if it applies to each part or member of the group, in all cases, we are at that moment using a theory. For instance, we commonly hear people or even some of us say that, a hungry man is an angry man. This is a generalisation which presupposes that every hungry man is angry without having checked the state of mind of every hungry man, or any at all. But this is a theory because it provides a generalised perspective in which an angry man is viewed. With this theory in mind, each time you come in contact with an angry man, what comes to your mind baring other factors, is that he is hungry. Same goes for a hungry person. If you have the understanding that someone is hungry, you would have the assumption that he can easily be provoked. Or saying that all Germans are Nazists, all Europeans are Eurocentric and so on. This generalisation helps us to predict certain behaviours given certain factors.  Nevertheless, it is important to note that, for a generalisation to be accepted as a theory it must be empirically proven through modeling, and having been accepted as a theory it becomes a generalisation.

Further, theory is like  lenses through which we view objects. it is also seen as a perspective from which individuals perceive or interpret a behavour. In other words, different theories can be used to explain a topic of research, depending on your line of argument. For example, In analyzing Nigeria-China economic relation, more than three theories can be applied by different authors to drive home their line of argument. A writer whose intent is to argue that the relationship is a mutual cooperation would prefer the theory of interdependence. But a writer who is convinced by the data at his disposal that the relationship has serious adverse effects on Nigerian economy by making Nigeria a dumping ground for cheaply manufactured Chinese goods, would prefer to use the dependency theory. In the same vein, someone who wants to argue that globalisation is responsible for this increase in trade relation and the attendant consequences, would prefer the theory of globalization. From the foregoing therefore, the data at the disposal of any writer to a large extent determines the appropriate theory for his research topic.


As stated earlier, a theory is the connecting rod between concepts and ideas.  Theory allows us to organize our facts. it describes a behaviour  pattern and helps in making predictions for the future. For example, Abraham Maslow in his theory of motivation while affirming our meaning of theory by generalizing that all human beings are similar, stated that, our actions as human beings are motivated in order to achieve certain needs (Munaradzi, M., Tapuwa, R., Mirjam, V. R., Gerjan, V. S. Maslows, 2010). He divided human needs into five hierarchy of needs; psychological needs, security needs, social needs, esteem needs and self actualisation needs. He argued that psychological needs are the basic needs of a man that are vital for survival, such as the need for water, air food and shelter. That all needs are secondary until the psychological needs are met. This implies that a man who has not achieved the psychological needs cannot be motivated to work for his self esteem. Therefore, we can predict the behavour of someone using his position in the hierarchy of needs.

Also, with our understanding of human reaction to threat, fear and intimidation, we can predict an individual’s response to a particular type of threat. For instance, a psychologically weak person’s response to threat is easily predictable.  A theory helps us to encapsulate our thoughts and ideas into one framework and provides a clear direction to our ideas. Remember one of the examples above that says all Germans are Nazists . With this generalisation in mind, it is easy to predict the behaviour of any Nazists in any given situation even though the generalisation might not necessarily be correct. Are we getting somewhere?

Specifically, the following are the roles a theory performs in any research:

1. As a result of its applicative nature, a good theory in social science helps to explain the meaning, nature and challenges associated with a situation or a phenomenon, often experienced but not explained in the world we live so that we may use the knowledge and understanding to act in a more informed and effective ways.

2. Theories are conceptual basis for understanding and designing ways to investigate the relationship within a social system.

3. A theory is a means by which new research data can be interpreted.

4. It is a response to new problems that have no previously identified solution strategy.

5. It is a means for identifying and defining research problem.

6. It is a means for evaluating and prescribing solutions to research problems.

7. Theories are ways of understanding certain facts among the body of knowledge that are important and those that are not.

8.They are means of giving old data new interpretation and new meaning.

9. It is a means of providing members of a professional discipline with a common language and a frame of reference for defining the boundaries of their profession.


A theory is different from the common usage in everyday speech that implies an explanation that is unverified or just a mere guess work. The following characteristics are necessary for a concept to become a theory.

1. Theories are testable and are capable of being used for predictions. They explain the causes of a  particular situation or thing and make prediction about a specific aspect of the situation. For example, the dependency theory states that as long as a nation continues to export raw materials and import finished goods, it would predictably and continually remain dependent on the industrialised countries which see the country as a dumping ground for her finished goods.

2. It must be supported by many pieces of evidence rather than a single foundation. What this means is that the generalisation that leads to the theory should not be based on just one strand of evidence.

3. A theory is modifiable or subject to modification or adaptation in other to explain new situation that may arise in the course of time. For instance, from the liberal theory emerged the neo-liberal to take into account new data that emerged after the liberal theory was propounded. Every theory is subject to critique as new data are found which leads to modifications of the propositions of the theory.

4. A theory must be broad. The process of theorising goes beyond the observation of the immediate phenomenon or situation it is meant to explain. It must be able to lead to generalisation.

5. A theory must have clear propositions.

6. Replicable or Repeatable. For a scientific theory to be acceptable it should be repeatable by others. This means that there should be enough data and information in the theory so that others can test the theory and get similar results.

7.  Another characteristics of theories is that they must be stable. When others test the theory, they get the same result. A theory is stable and valid as long as there is no evidence to argue against it.

. 8. Finally, a theory must be consistent. A theory is expected to agree with other theories that have been proven and tested. This means that no principle of the theory should contradict the principles of other already accepted theories


Theoretical framework is the structure that holds together the data of a research. It is like a building that encloses all the items in a household. A theoretical framework must show an understanding of theories and concepts that are relevant to your project or research paper and all that relate to the broader area of knowledge you are working on.


1. The proposition of the theory for the theoretical assumption help readers to analyse the paper more critically.

2. Theoretical framework serves as a linkage between a research and an existing knowledge.

3. Expressing the theoretical assumptions of a research helps the researcher to answer the questions of how and why. It helps the researcher to move from mere describing a phenomenon or situation you have observed to generalising about general aspects of the object or situation.

4. Having a theory helps a researcher to identify the limits of those generalisation. A theoretical framework specifies which key variable influences a situation or phenomenon of interest and bring to the fore how those variables might be different.

A theoretical framework is used to limit the scope of relevant data by focusing on specific variables and specific view point or framework that the researcher will take in analysing the data.


1. Examine your thesis title and research problem. Your research problem is the heart of your study and forms the basis from which you construct your theoretical framework.

2. Think around your topic more critically to see what you consider to be the key variables in your research. Try and answer the question,” what factors contributes to the presumed effects?”

3. Review related literature to see how scholars have attempted to address your research problem and identify the assumptions from which the researches addressed the problem.

4. List the variables and constructs that might be relevant to your study and group the variables into dependent and independent variables.

5. Review key social science theories that were introduced to you during course work and choose a theory that can best explain the relationship between the variables in your study.

6. Discuss the assumptions of this theory and point out the relevance to your research.



In our next volume, we will focus on individual theories with detailed explanation on each. 








Abend , G. (2008) Meaning of Theory: Washington DC, American Sociological Association

Phongpaichi, R. (1999) Theories of Social Movement and their Relevance to Thailand. Retrieved April 30th,2019 from http://pioneer.netserv.chula

Munaradzi, M., Tapuwa, R., Mirjam, V. R., Gerjan, V. S. Maslows         Theory of Human Motivation and its Deep root in Individualism: Interpreting Maslow’s Applicability in Africa. Retrieved May 10th,2019 from https://www.researchgate.net