Original Research

The judicious use of theory in social science research

Gerrit van der Waldt
The Journal for Transdisciplinary Research in Southern Africa | Vol 17, No 1 | a1039 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/td.v17i1.1039 | © 2021 Gerrit van der Waldt | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 12 March 2021 | Published: 20 May 2021

About the author(s)

Gerrit van der Waldt, Department of Public Management, Faculty of Humanities, North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa


Social science research is focussed mainly on societal concerns and human dynamics. In scholarly domains such as Public Administration, theory is commonly regarded as the backbone of studies, but the why, where and how dimensions of theory in the research process are generally ill-defined. The purpose of this article is to reflect on the use of theory as value-adding catalyst in the research process. Following a literature review based on an interpretivist paradigm, this article aims to enlighten the systematic application of theory in the research process. It is evident that theory’s application is based on its unique nature and the aims, nature and type of research. Theory can either inform or structure the research process. This function of theory has significant implications for the research design, methodology, as well as methods and data collection. Understanding the role and significance of theory can definitely enhance the scientific rigour of research and the ability of social science researchers, especially postgraduate students. Such insight may help to ensure that these researchers are capacitated to utilise theory adequately and apply it suitably within the research process. The construction of new knowledge through theory building is critical for social science disciplines to reach maturity.


theory; social sciences; research designs; research value chain; theoretical frameworks; research approach; theoretical sampling; triangulation.


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