Intended for healthcare professionals

Practice Qualitative Research

Why use theories in qualitative research?

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: (Published 07 August 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a949
  1. Scott Reeves, associate professor1,
  2. Mathieu Albert, assistant professor2,
  3. Ayelet Kuper, assistant professor3,
  4. Brian David Hodges, associate professor and vice-chair (education)2
  1. 1Department of Psychiatry, Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, Centre for Faculty Development, and Wilson Centre for Research in Education, University of Toronto, 200 Elizabeth Street, Eaton South 1-565, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5G 2C4
  2. 2Department of Psychiatry and Wilson Centre for Research in Education
  3. 3Department of Medicine, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, and Wilson Centre for Research in Education
  1. Correspondence to: S Reeves scott.reeves{at}

    Theories such as interactionism, phenomenology, and critical theory can be used to help design a research question, guide the selection of relevant data, interpret the data, and propose explanations of causes or influences

    Previous articles in this series have addressed several methodologies used in qualitative research. Qualitative researchers also rely heavily on theories drawn from the social sciences and humanities to guide their research process and illuminate their findings. This article discusses the role and use of three theoretical approaches commonly used by qualitative researchers in health domains: interactionism, phenomenology, and critical theory. It also explains why such theories are important for clinicians, for health policy, and for patient care.

    Why is theory useful?

    Theories provide complex and comprehensive conceptual understandings of things that cannot be pinned down: how societies work, how organisations operate, why people interact in certain ways. Theories give researchers different “lenses” through which to look at complicated problems and social issues, focusing their attention on different aspects of the data and providing a framework within which to conduct their analysis.

    Just as there is no one way to understand why, for instance, a culture has formed in a certain way, many lenses can be applied to a problem, each focusing on a different aspect of it. For example, to study doctor-nurse interactions on medical wards, various theories can provide insights into different aspects of hospital and ward cultures. Box 1 indicates how each of the theories discussed in this paper could be used to highlight different facets of this research problem.

    Box 1 How different theories help illuminate the culture of doctor-nurse interactions on a medical ward


    A researcher using phenomenology would approach the study of doctor-nurse interprofessional interactions by exploring how individual doctors and nurses made sense of their ward-based interprofessional experiences. Such a study would aim to elicit, through interviews, the meanings each individual attached to their interactions and the classifications they employed to …

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