There is a long tradition within qualitative research of theory being central and of critical importance. Qualitative research theory often equates with the methodologies used but this is a complex relationship, plagued by lack of consensus among scholars regarding how theory and methodology are related. This article furthers the debates on how theories are used in qualitative research, how they might influence a study and how they are articulated in publications. The aim is to provide a framework through which the relationship between theory and qualitative research can be understood. We propose a five-point typology on the levels of theoretical visibility, testing this against a range of published research from five key international health, medicine and social science journals. The typology captures a range of visibility--from seemingly absent through to highly visible and applied throughout. There was a clear gradient in this assessment--only a minority appeared to use theory consistently throughout a study. We outline several challenges to consistently applying theory in qualitative research and suggest potential solutions. This article is based on the argument that lack of theory in qualitative research undermines its quality. The typology is offered to assist researchers in applying theory in their own research and critiquing its use in the work of others.
Keywords: Qualitative; Research; Research design; Social science; Theory; Typology.
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