It’s common for students to encounter problems when applying theory in a thesis or dissertation. This is often because they are unable see the connection between the smaller theories needed for their project and the big theories they learned in class.

Yet, if theory is a tool we should be able to find it in unlikely places – like on the football field. When students see how theory can be applied to football, they have a useful, familiar bridge to understanding how to apply theory in their own work. Perhaps students could use a playbook.

Watch the video below for my interview conducted by New Forums Press. You can follow the conversation on Twitter at #ScholarHangout.

PhD Pat Shields Relates How Football Relates to Theory

Consider the football team that is behind and is in a third down and 15 yards situation. The coach would call for a long yard play (a form of abstract thinking).  Here the coach has a small problem, getting to the first down. The play is a form of theory.

Next consider the coach preparing for a big game (shifting scale from play to game). In the process he learns the strengths and weaknesses of his opponent. He devises a strategy to win the game. The strategy uses abstract thinking to solve the problem of winning the game. Strategy and plays are types of football theories. They are connected yet they are distinct. The successful coach has a sense of strategy as the play is chosen.

Now consider the National Football League. It is confronted with a new recognition that football players are subject to the risks of serious head injuries. The NFL may wish to address this problem by changing the rules of football. The rules are another form of abstract or generalized thinking (theory). The rules are obviously important. The coach preparing for the next season, the next game or the next play needs to know the rules.  The rules inform the decisions at each level. Yet theorizing for a play (or a particular study) is much different.

If Theory Is Like a Play: Students Need a Playbook

In a Playbook for Research Methods: Integrating Conceptual Frameworks and Project Management, Dr. Rangarajan and I explain theory at the close to the data “play” level.  We show how to create and use this type of theory we call conceptual frameworks.  We also show how the framework connects to the research purpose, literature review, methodology, variable operationalization, statistical tools, data collection and analysis. We use many examples from the 300 student papers mentioned earlier. We were also inspired by these students (particularly the football players) who have taught us so much over the years.

playbook for research methods

About the Author

Author Patricia ShieldsPatricia M. Shields is a Professor of Political Science at Texas State University. She has a Master of Economics(1975) and PhD (1977) in Public Administration from The Ohio State University. Her research interests include pragmatism and public administration, peace and conflict resolution, research methods, women in public administration, and civil military relations. She has published over 60 articles and book chapters in journals. Meet Patricia.