Establishing theoretical keywords for your research

What is a theoretical keyword, and why is it important for my research?

When designing a qualitative study, one of the first decisions we need to make is to choose our theoretical keywords of interest — the scientific term for the phenomenon we are interested in studying.

Theoretical keywords specify your research topic and should be included in your research question and the title of your study.

How do I specify the theoretical keywords of my research?

1. Write down two theoretical keywords you are interested in analysing

For example, in our research we were interested in analysing the “political leadership” of top leaders who were in charge of their country’s “transition to democracy”, and these two theoretical keywords formed the basis of our research.

As you think about what you want to study, you can try:

  • Making a list of theoretical keywords related to your research in general, and make sure that each theoretical keyword is a subject of scientific publication
  • Checking the novelty of each theoretical keyword with queries in scientific data bases and scientific journals
  • Consider adding words to each theoretical keyword in order in increase its novelty and focus (e.g. “contacts” – “personal contacts” – “international personal contacts”)

2. Choose your two theoretical keywords and the relationship between them

Once you know which two theoretical keywords you are interested in, it is important to describe how they are related. For example, we were interested in analysing how “political leadership” influences the success of a peaceful “transition to democracy”. In other words, now you want to think about how your two keywords go together, and what is the relationship between your two keywords that you want to explore?

To clarify the relationship between your two theoretical keywords that you want to study, you may want to:

  • Draw a conceptual map to visualise direct and indirect relationships between the theoretical keywords
  • Choose one relationship between the two theoretical keywords as the focus of your research (e.g., “the influence of leadership on a transition period” is a different research topic from “the influence of a transition period on leadership”)
  • Avoid tautological relationships between theoretical keywords, or relationships between keywords that have similar meanings or refer to the same thing

3. Define your two theoretical keywords

Finally, it is important to elaborate a conceptual and operational definition of your theoretical keywords. With a conceptual definition, you are clarifying what exactly your keyword refers to, and with an operational definition, you are specifying how you may measure and recognise this keyword in your data. You can adopt definitions for your keywords that are used by other researchers in your area (and cite this source), or you can develop your own definition for the purpose of your research.

For example, in our research, we defined political leadership by adopting the definition of Burns (1978): Leadership over human beings takes place or is exercised when people with certain interests and intentions are able to mobilise (in competition or conflict with other people) institutional resources, politicians, psychologists, or others, in order to arouse, capture, attract, and satisfy the interests of the followers… with the objective of mutually reaching the execution of the goals, as much for the leader as for the followers (Burns, 1978, 18). We understood a political transition as a period in which a country’s political regime is changing from a non-democratic regime (e.g., autocratic) to a democratic one.

As you define your theoretical keywords and the relationship between them, you may want to think about:

  • How other authors define and analyse this theoretical keyword
  • Adopting a working definition of your keywords that you will continue refining as you develop your understanding of the topic
  • How these definitions form the basis or your theoretical contribution
  • How these definitions will help you identify and analyse your keywords in your data
  • Constructing your research question such that it captures your two theoretical keywords and the relationship between them


Smith, K. G., & Hitt, M. A. (Eds.). (2005). Great minds in management: The process of theory development. Oxford University Press on Demand.

Sutton, R. I., & Staw, B. M. (1995). What theory is not. Administrative Science Quarterly, 371-384.

Weick, K. E. (1995). What theory is not, theorizing is. Administrative Science Quarterly, 40(3), 385-390.

Whetten, D. A. (1989). What constitutes a theoretical contribution?. Academy of Management Review, 14(4), 490-495.

September 7, 2020 Qualitative research
Ivana Radivojevic
About NkQualitas

Thank you for visiting NkQualitas, we appreciate your interest! After more than a decade of teaching and assisting qualitative researchers and leaders, we are embarking on a new adventure. I am excited and honored to take on a new role as Director of Training and Collaboration at ATLAS.ti Scientific Software Development GmbH. This new position brings with it a great deal of responsibility, and I am glad that my team and I can continue to support qualitative researchers around the world.