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Research Process

These pages offer an introduction to the research process at a very general level.

Researching Theoretical Frameworks

Theoretical frameworks provide a particular perspective, or lens, through which to examine a topic. There are many different lenses, such as psychological theories, social theories, organizational theories and economic theories, which may be used to define concepts and explain phenomena. Often times, these frameworks may come from an area outside of your immediate academic discipline. See the link below for a comprehensive definition of theory and how it relates to social science research. Using a theoretical framework for your dissertation can help you to better analyze past events by providing a particular set of questions to ask, and a particular perspective to use when examining your topic.

Traditionally, Ph.D. and Applied Degree research must include relevant theoretical framework(s) to frame, or inform, every aspect of the dissertation. Further, Ph.D. dissertations should make an original contribution to the field by adding support for the theory, or, conversely, demonstrating ways in which the theory may not be as explanatory as originally thought. You can learn more about the theoretical framework requirements in the NCU Dissertation Proposal/Dissertation Manuscript Template 2018 document located in the NCU Dissertation Center. View our Library FAQ for how to locate this document here.

It can be difficult to find scholarly work that takes a particular theoretical approach because articles, books, and book chapters are typically described according to the topics they tackle rather than the methods they use to tackle them. Further, there is no single database or search technique for locating theoretical information. However, the suggestions below provide techniques for locating possible theoretical frameworks and theorists in the Library databases. In addition to your Library research, you should consider discussing possible theories with colleagues and your Dissertation Chair.  Also, keep in mind that you will probably find and discard several potential theoretical frameworks before one is finally chosen.


On the Roadrunner Advanced Search screen, include theor* as one your search terms, as shown below. It will retrieve results that include one of the following keywords: theory, theories, theoretical, theorist, or theorists. It is important to keep in mind, however, that this is not a foolproof method for locating theoretical frameworks. Scholars will often cite theory or theorists in order to refute them, or because they are saying something that's tangentially related, or they may even just refer to theory briefly in passing. In our example, we have selected the field for AB Abstract because if theory is mentioned within the abstract, the study is more likely to take a theoretical approach.

Screenshot of Roadrunner Advanced Search with example search for theor*.


As shown below, results from our example search clearly include articles which apply theory to the topic of curriculum design.

 Roadrunner Search results screen showing article titles related to theory.


Remember to look past the article title. Theoretical information may be mentioned in a subheading, or referred to elsewhere in the document. Use the FIND feature in your PDF viewer or internet browser to scan the document for terms such as theor (to pull up theory, theorist, theoretical), framework, conceptual, perspective, etc., as shown below.


Screenshot of an article PDF showing the Find feature.

Since most doctoral research requires a theoretical framework, looking at completed dissertations related to your topic is an effective way to identify relevant theories and theorists. ProQuest Dissertations is accessible from Research Resources - Dissertation Resources, and provides access to over 1 million full text doctoral dissertations and graduate theses. You may limit your search to only doctoral dissertations by using the Advanced Search screen. Look at the table of contents or abstract for reference to theoretical framework, as shown below. The dissertation’s references/bibliography will have a full citation to the original theorist’s research.

Screenshot of a dissertation abstract highlighting the theoretical framework.

Use the Library’s e-book databases to gather background information on a particular theory or theorist. To access, go to Research Resources – Find an E-Book. Since the e-book databases will contain fewer resources than a database containing thousands of scholarly journal articles, it is best to keep your search terms a little more broad.

For example, a search for education theory in the Ebook Central database results in many relevant e-books, as shown below. Expanding the Table of Contents will provide additional details about the e-book.

Ebook Central search results screen showing books related to education theories.


Encyclopedias and handbooks will also provide reliable background information on particular theories. For example, a search for cognitive developmental theory in the Credo Reference database results in a number of reference entries which discuss the history of the theory, identify relevant theorists, and cite seminal research studies.

Credo Reference search results screen for cognitive developmental theory.


Finally, some e-books may actually provide guidance about how to incorporate the theoretical framework into your research design. SAGE Research Methods provides e-books and e-book chapters which may help you better understand the theoretical framework aspect of your research study. A selection of resources is included below.  

Anfara, V. (2008). Theoretical Frameworks. In Lisa M. Given (Ed.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods. (pp. 870-874). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 

Dialogue: Articulating a Theoretical Framework. (2001). In Janice M. Morse, Janice M. Swanson, & Anton J. Kuzel (Eds.), The Nature of Qualitative Evidence. (pp. 49-50). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. Retrieved from

Vincent A. Anfara, Jr., & Norma T. Mertz (Eds.). (2006). Theoretical Frameworks in Qualitative Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi:

You may conduct a Cited Reference Search in Web of Knowledge to find articles that cite a primary theorist in your area. These articles are likely to tackle your topic through your theoretical lens, or will point you toward another article that does. To access Web of Knowledge, go to Research Resources – Databases from the Library’s home page.

  1. On the Web of Knowledge home page, select “Web of Science Core Collection” from the drop down arrow next to All Databases (this is the default). 
  2. Click the drop down arrow Basic Search and change it to “Cited Reference Search.”
  3. Enter the name of a key theorist in your area (in our example, John Dewey) in the format they specify (in this case Dewey J*), as shown below, and press "Search."

    Screenshot of Web of Knowledge Cited Reference Search.
  4. Select all the options that appear to relate to your theorist. For often-cited people (such as Dewey) use the "Select All*" button, even though this will probably gather in a few citations that aren't relevant to your search. Note that this will only gather the first 500 results. If you really want to be thorough, you'll have to do searches for 500 results at a time.
  5. At the bottom of that page, click "Finish Search."  However, do not spend time reviewing your results quite yet.
  6. On the results screen, select the appropriate Web of Science category under Refine Results. For example, we could select “Education Educational Research” and then click “Refine.”
  7. You may wish to further refine by Document Type, Research Area, Author, etc. (also located on the left hand menu).
  8. Sorting your results by “Times Cited” (defaults to Publication Date – Newest) is an effective way to discover the most frequently cited works. 
  9. Finally, start reviewing your results to see how they may relate to your topic/theory. Typically, the abstract will identify the cited theorists, as shown below.

    Web of Knowledge search results screen showing an article identifying educational theories.

You may search for theorists and theoretical information using Google and Google Scholar, as well. However, please keep in mind that you will need to be more discriminating when it comes to using material found on open access websites. We recommend reviewing the Website Evaluation guidelines when considering online sources.

One method that may be used in Google is limiting your search by a particular domain name. If a website ends in .org, .gov, or .edu, it is more likely to be a scholarly source. If it ends in .com or .net it is less likely to be a scholarly source. In the search below, for example, we have limited our search for "leadership theories" to just those websites ending with .edu. You may also find this domain limiter under Tools>Advanced Search.

Note: Limiting to a particular domain is not necessary in Google Scholar, as all results in Google Scholar may be considered scholarly. This may include articles, theses, books, abstracts and court opinions, material from academic publishers, professional societies, online repositories, universities and other web sites.


Google search box with example search terms "leadership theories"

For additional information, see the following:

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