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Theories and Frameworks: Learn About a Theory

Where to start

As you use the search strategies in this section to learn about specific theories, keep these things in mind.

  • There are formal theories and broader theoretical perspectives and paradigms under which they fall. Understand those relationships and what you’re searching for. For example, Maslow's hierarchy of needs is part of the humanist perspective. 
  • Theories are often called by different names. Learn why these variations exist and include these terms in your searches. For example, Herzberg’s theory of motivation is also called two-factor theory, motivation-hygiene theory, and dual-factor theory.
  • Theories evolve over time. Investigate when, why, and how this evolution occurred. For example, Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy originally included four influences; over time, other theorists have added additional influences.

It's helpful to first search for theories in encyclopedias and books to gain a broad understanding of how a theory developed and was used over time. Having this understanding will help you to make sense of the scholarly literature using that theory.

Encyclopedias & books

After you discover a potentially relevant theory or theorist, search for it in the Library's encyclopedia and book databases to get an overview of the theory. 


Try these search strategies when researching specific theories:

  • Search all the different names of the theory.
  • Search the theorist's name.
  • Experiment with using quotation marks around the theory or theorist's name to search it as an exact phrase.
  • Look for an advanced search link for searches involving more than one idea/concept.
  • Enter one idea/concept per search box.

Scholarly articles & dissertations

Once you have a general understanding of a theory using encyclopedias and books, consider looking at how the theory has been used in the scholarly literature and in dissertations. Try searching your topic and the theory name or try searching the theory by itself.

Seminal, influential, and early works

Seminal works, also called classic works, are highly influential and groundbreaking studies. They're often where a theory is first mentioned in the literature but can also include other major studies that have built upon that theory. When researching theories, it's important to understand how they developed over time. 

Finding the origin of a theory requires exploratory research and learning as much as you can about it by searching and reading widely, and using a variety of library research tools. Keep in mind that the source of a theory may have come from a research article or a published book. 

Strategies for locating seminal works

  • Read closely: As you research your theory in encyclopedias, books, research articles, and dissertations look for specific mention of seminal works.
  • Research articles: When reviewing your search results, try identifying articles that focus on or review the theory you're researching. These articles can be extremely helpful for identifying the earliest mention of a theory. 
  • Dissertations: Even though research articles use theory, they may not explicitly discuss seminal works. Dissertations are more likely to highlight these works, so searching here can be an invaluable search strategy. 
  • Reference lists: When a theory is mentioned in an article, use the in-text citation to locate the full source in the article's reference list. For example, the article Resurrecting the motivation-hygiene theory: Herzberg and the positive psychology movement lists 13 references related to Herzberg's motivation theory, beginning with his seminal work from 1966, Work and Nature of Man. It is up to you to review the references and decide what might be a seminal work. 
  • Google Scholar's cited by feature: Influential works are heavily cited by other authors. Google Scholar's cited by feature allows you to see how many times an article has been cited since its publication. Search the article title, and the number of times the article has been cited will be listed underneath the article information. For example, Herzberg's Work and Nature of Man has been cited almost 10,000 times indicating it's likely a seminal work.