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Rhetorical functions in academic writing: Using theory


It is clear that in academic life, theory is vitally important. If you do not situate your work in theory, it will not be taken very seriously, or, if you are a student, it will be marked down. Your claims need to be supported with theory and you need to compare your claims with theories and results reported in the literature.

What is a theory

A theory is a coherent explanation or interpretation of one or more phenomena.

As well as the word "theory", academic researchers use other terms to refer to their explanations and interpretations of phenomena.

It is important to be careful about the use of the word "theory". In everyday use, "theory" means a guess or a hunch, something that needs to be proved. In academic English, this would be called a hypothesis.

In the academic world, a theory is not a guess or a hunch. It's "a well-substantiated, well-supported, well-documented explanation for our observations" (Baumeister & Bushman, 2014, p 15). It pulls together all the facts about something and provides an explanation that combines all the observations and can be used to make predictions. In the academic world, a theory is the ultimate goal and it is as close to proved as anything in science can be.

It is also important not to confuse the following:

 What are theories for?

The purpose of a theory is to provide accurate explanations and/or interpretations of phenomena.

Three other purposes of theories are (Thomas, 2007):

Types of theory

According to Dubin (1969), theories have two distinct goals:

Use of theories

A)   Describing

Involves: Naming, describing & defining.

You should name the relevant theory or theories, and provide an appropriate reference. It show that you know about the theory.

B) Understanding  

Involves: Naming, describing & defining.

You should name the relevant theory or theories, provide an appropriate reference, and explain how it works. It show you understand the theory.

C) Locating  

Involves: Naming, describing, defining  and locating.

You should name the relevant theory or theories, and provide an appropriate reference, and explain how your work is connected to it. It show you understand the theory and how your research is situated in and informed by theory.

D)  Analysing and discussing

Involves: Naming, describing, analysing  and explaining.

You should name the relevant theory or theories, and provide an appropriate reference, and explain how it is composed and how it is related to other theories. It shows you understand the theory by using it to explain or understand a real world issue.

E) Applying  

Involves: Naming, describing, defining, discussing, analysing  and applying.

You should name the relevant theory or theories, and provide an appropriate reference, discuss it and apply it to a real world issue. It shows that you understand the theory by applying it to a real world issue, or linking it relevantly to a real world issue.

F)  Justifying

Involves: Naming, describing, analysing  and justifying.

You should name the relevant theory or theories, and provide an appropriate reference, apply the theory to a real world issue to justify it. It shows you can use the theory to justify a real world issue.

G) Predicting

Involves: Naming, describing, analysing  and predicting.

You should name the relevant theory or theories, and provide an appropriate reference, discuss the theory, apply it and use it to discuss the future. It shows you can use the theory to predict something in the real world.

H)   Synthesising

Involves: Naming, describing, Synthesising  and applying.

You should name the relevant theory or theories, and provide an appropriate reference, relate the theory to other theories and real world issues. It shows you understand the theory by applying it to a real world issue, and Synthesising it with a real world issue.

I)   Evaluation

Involves: Naming, describing, analysing and evaluating.

If you evaluate something, you judge how good or bad it is or how useful it is – in your context. You can use the theory to evaluate a real world issue or use the real world .

J)   Testing

Involves: Naming, describing, analysing and testing.

If you test something, you judge how good or bad it is or how useful it is – in your context. Academic testing is usually detailed and requires you to analyse a situation or issue first, and then assess the theory in your context.

K)   Building

Involves: Naming, describing, analysing, testing and developing.

If you build on something, you develop and make it better  – in your context. You should describe and analyse the theory first, and then show how you develop the theory to make it more applicable to your context.


Bloom’s Taxonomy of cognitive objectives (1956) has been around for a long time. Since 1956, it has served as a guide for teachers to think about how they can design lessons that will help their students to think critically. Basically, the taxonomy designed by Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues provides a way to describe levels of thinking. The taxonomy is essentially a hierarchy, with knowledge as the first level and evaluation as the sixth level.

One of the most powerful ways of understanding human motivation was developed by Maslow (1954). According to Maslow, human beings have a variety of needs (concepts), some more fundamental than others. Maslow grouped these needs into five basic categories (constructs), arranged hierarchically from "lower" to "higher" (propositions). Lower needs dominate behavior when they are not satisfied. Higher needs become salient only after the lower needs have been satisfied. From these concepts, constructs, and propositions, Maslow concluded that behavior is an expression of one's drive to reduce deficiencies by gratifying the most salient type of needs (theory).

Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

In addition to the direct effects discussed above, we also examined the indirect effects of positive and negative feedback on job satisfaction. We used the competing models analysis suggested by Singh et al. (1994) to study this effect.

Brown’s (2012) theory of employee motivation provides a useful analytical framework of factors which might impact on workplace motivation in general. However, it may be that the criteria he uses are too limited in scope. For example, the theory does not include any affective criteria. The present study investigated the extent to which the quality of the social experience associated with the workplace is also going to be an important motivational factor for employees.       

The socio-cultural environment (Aguillar, 1967) includes aspects, such as, consumer demographics, demands and tastes. These vary with social trends and disposable income, and can therefore provide both opportunities and threats for companies. ABC company have already had to change their New Product Development (NPD) policy to respond to an ageing population.  This may also mean that they will have to change their marketing strategies and long term strategic goals to fully address this demographic.

Aguilar, F. J. (1967). Scanning the business environment. New York: Macmillan.

The task performance of six teams of four individuals identified as shapers by the Team‐Role Self‐Perception Inventory (Belbin, 1981), was compared with that of six mixed teams of four individuals; one co‐ordinator, one plant, one completer finisher, and one team worker. It was found that consistent with Belbin’s proposal the “mixed” teams performed better than teams consisting of shapers alone. 

Prichard, J. S. & Stanton, N. A. (1999).  Testing Belbin’s team role theory of effective groups. Journal of Management Development, 18(8), 652 – 665.

This paper set out to examine the psychometric properties of the extensively used, but little tested, Belbin (1981) Team-Role Self-Perception Inventory which examines how people behave in teams. The original 56-item inventory was given to over 100 people from a variety of backgrounds in a non-ipsative Likert scaling form.

…. the alpha coefficients were modest and the factor analysis suggested a more simple solution than suggested. Team-role scores did not correlate significantly with a large number of demographic factors any more than may be expected by chance.

Furnham, A., Steele, H. & Pendleton, D. (1993). A Psychometric assessment of the Belbin team-role self-perception inventory.  Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, 66, 245-257.

In Tuckman and Jensen’s (1977) model,  a team that survives will go through these stages many times. As new members join, as others leave, as circumstances or the task change, new tensions arise that take the group back to an earlier stage. A new member implies that the team needs to revisit, however briefly, the forming and norming stages. This ensures the new member is brought psychologically into the team and understands how they are expected to behave. A change in task or a conflict over priorities can take a group back to the storming stage, from which it needs to work forward again. The process will, therefore, be more like Figure 17.6 than the linear progression implied by the original theory.

Body, D. (2005). Management: An introduction. London: Prentice Hall.

Tuckman & Jensen’s (1997) stages of group development particularly apply to relatively small groups (3 to 12 people). This study investigated how group dynamics would evolve in larger groups. It appears that group processes do not evolve as linearly as Tuckman & Jensen describe as they tend to evolve more cyclically.

Body, D. (2005). Management: An introduction. London: Prentice Hall.

SWOT analysis (Stanford Research Institute, 2005), which delves into a business‘s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, is used widely in firms and classrooms to distil fragmentary facts and figures into concise depictions of the strategic landscape. Yet despite its popularity and longevity, the SWOT approach to situation assessment often is ineffective. This study has critiqued the SWOT framework and proposed Defensive/Offensive Evaluation (DOE) as an effective alternative.

Stanford Research Institute (2005). SWOT analysis for management consulting. SRI Alumni Association Newsletter, December 2005.

The finding that performance is superior for moderate incentives relative to very high incentives is consistent with the “Yerkes–Dodson law” (Yerkes and Dodson, 1908), according to which, beyond an optimal level of arousal for executing tasks, further increases in arousal can lead to a decrement in performance.

Yerkes, R. M, & Dodson, J. D. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18, 459–482. 

Ariely, D., Gneezy, U., Loewenstein, G. & Mazar, N. (2009). Large stakes and big mistakes. Review of Economic Studies, 76, 451–469.


Statement of Theory

Before you can discuss/apply a principle/model/theory, you need to present it and explain it, at the same time making it clear from whom and where you have obtained the ideas you are discussing . For example

According to Darwin’s (1859) ...

Porter’s (1980) Five Forces model refers to ...

The Theorem of Pythagoras states that ...

Brown (1983, p. 231) states that ...

Here are some more expressions you can use to introduce and explain a theory or principle.

The work of X indicates that ...

The work of X reveals that ...

The work of X shows that ...

Turning to X, one finds that ...

Reference to X reveals that ...

In a study of Y, X found that ...

As X points out, ...

As X states, ...

As X has indicated, ...

A study by X shows that ...

X has drawn attention to the fact that ...

X correctly argues that ...

X rightly points out that ...

X makes clear that ...

According to X...

It is the view of X that ...

The opinion of X is that ...

In an article by X, ...

Research by X suggests that ...

X has expressed a similar view.

X reports that ...

X notes that ...

X states that ...

X observes that ...

X concludes that ...

X argues that ...

X found that ...

X discovered that ...


You can then apply it to your own context.

This seems to indicate that...

This means that ...

Therefore ...

According to this theory ...

Here we see ...

From this, we can understand ...

In other words ...

It follows that ...

The implications are therefore that ...

It must therefore be the case that...

The indications are therefore that...

It is clear therefore that ...

On this basis it may be inferred that...

Given this ..., it can be seen that...

As a result ...

As a consequence ...

This leads to ...


In short,
In a word,
In brief,
To sum up,
To conclude,
To summarise
In conclusion,
On the whole,
In all,


It is



that ....

On this basis,
Given this,





that... .


Table 1





that ....



In conclusion,

we/may say
it can/may be said

that ....

Further details

You can evaluate theories.

See:Writing Functions 12: Evaluating

You can use theories to justify the present or further work by indicating a gap.

See: Writing Functions 19: Indicating a Gap

When you are working with theories, you will compare and contrast the different ideas and your own, discussing advantages and disadvantages.

See: Writing Functions 13: Comparing

You will need to summarise other people's ideas, combine them with theories and come to conclusions.

See: Writing Reporting Synthesis

In most cases, the conclusions you come to from your theories and the points of view you hold will be qualified and generalisations will be made.

See: Writing Functions 14: Generalising

You may also have different degrees of certainty about your claims based on your theories.

See: Writing Functions 15: Certainty

Theories will usually be involved in providing evidence to support your points of view and conclusions in an argument.

See: Writing Functions 11: Arguing and discussing

You can use theories to provide evidence to support your points of view and conclusions.

See: Writing Functions 18: Supporting

One thing that you learn in higher education is how to analyse. It is an essential part of writing critically. You can analyse theories.

See: Writing Functions 17: Analysis

You can use theories as examples or illustrations to support your conclusions.

See: Writing Functions 8: Examples

And you will always give reasons and explanations for your claims and points of view. Theories can be used.

See: Writing Functions 16: Reasons

At various stages during your writing, you will need to sum up your argument and come to a conclusion based on your theories.

See: Writing Functions 23: Concluding


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