The Role of Theory in Qualitative Research: Insights from Studies on Chinese International Students in Higher Education

Research Highlighted

Heng, T. T. (2020). The Role of Theory in Qualitative Research: Insights from Studies on Chinese International Students in Higher Education. Journal of International Students. doi:

Dr Tang T. Heng, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore


Given the historic high in international student numbers in higher education institutions worldwide, research on international students has likewise kept up with the growth. However, scholars observe that research in both higher education and international students lacks theoretical engagement and exhibits narrow epistemological framing. Drawing on Tight’s (2004) and Abdullah et. al’s (2014) approach, this article examined 43 qualitative research articles about Chinese international students to investigate the role of theory in influencing research designs, aims, and findings. Using research on Chinese international students as an analytic example, this study found that twenty-eight percent of the articles lacked theoretical engagement, and that acculturation and sociocultural theories were most popular. Further, more than half of the articles focused on Chinese international students’ challenges, in contrast to their changes or agentic potential. These findings are discussed in light of the implicit assumptions scholars make, with the conclusion that there is an urgent need for scholars to grow, diversify, and create theories relating to research on international students.


Theory in research is defined as “a set of concepts and the proposed relationships among these, a structure that is intended to represent or model something about the world” (Maxwell, 2005, p. 42). Typically, research studies are guided by a theoretical or conceptual framing that draws on relevant theories and ideas—with their attendant assumptions—to inform research design, focus, method(s), and, eventually, data analysis. Other than framing research, theories can also be generated, for instance, through the grounded theory technique (Strauss & Corbin, 1994). Theoretical or conceptual frameworks are closely bound to the researcher’s paradigm, which, in turn, is shaped by the researcher’s personality, experiences, culture, and external environment. Qualitative educational research, in particular, thus is assumed to be value-laden (Lather, 1992; Pillow, 2003).

Theoretical engagement in qualitative research is essential. Without it, studies have limited reach and a field’s maturation can be inhibited (Abdullah et al., 2014; Kuhn, 1970; Rocco & Plakhotnik, 2009). Yet, Tight (2004) found that more than half of higher education research is atheoretical. Likewise, Abdullah et al. (2014) found 66% of articles on international students reflected low theoretical engagement and attributed this to the peripheral and economic lens through which international students are frequently viewed. As both studies offered macro perspectives around the issue of theory, this article drew on the method of both studies to offer a more intimate analysis of the theory-research nexus in the literature on Chinese international students. Chinese international students are used as an analytic case as they are the largest source of international students worldwide.


Taking reference from Tight’s (2004) and Abdullah et al.’s (2014) research approach, a literature review was conducted on Chinese international students in 16 higher education journals. Included in the review was qualitative research articles between 2005 and 2017 that involved more than 50% Chinese international students as participants, and that focused on their experiences. Forty three articles were analysed for general publication trends, method/ologies, degree of theoretical explicitness (implicit, some, explicit), research focus, and theoretical perspectives.


General publication, method, participant, and location trends

There was a growing number of research on Chinese international students with 67% of the articles published after 2010. Interview was the most popular data collection method (84%), followed by descriptive survey (39%), and focus group (14%). More studies involved graduate students (47%) as opposed to undergraduate (19%). The largest proportion of studies was located in the United Kingdom (26%), followed by the United States (16%) and Australia (16%), New Zealand (12%), and Canada (9%).

Theoretical engagement

Thirty nine percent of the articles was theoretically explicit, 33% provided some evidence, and 28% was theoretically implicit. The most popular theories were sociocultural theories (39%) and acculturation theories (33%).

Theory-research focus nexus

Sixty percent of the articles focused primarily on challenges or issues faced by Chinese international students, with 38% of these articles offering an extended explanation for the challenges. Articles published after 2010 were more predisposed to acknowledging students’ agency (59%). Research using sociocultural theories tended to feature students’ agency more than those using acculturation theories.


Only 39% of articles on Chinese international students explicitly used theories to frame the research or engaged deeply in theoretical discussions, highlighting, again, the marginalized role of theory in research. Low theoretical engagement in research could spell implications for research design. For instance, the aggregation of undergraduates with graduates reveals an assumption that the experiences of these two groups are similar (but are they?) and the under-utilization of methods like reflections and action research may suggest that scholars assume Chinese international students are to be researched on (but not with?). That most research tended to focus on students’ challenges (60%) as opposed to changes/agency (40%) invites us to ponder what assumptions we hold around Chinese international students and how research may unknowingly perpetuate implicit bias around them. Further, that research using acculturation theories appear less predisposed to examine student agency may reveal the underlying assumption of the theory that adaptation to a dominant culture is ideal. This holds consequences for how international students are portrayed—as meeting, or not, the standards of their new environment—possibly illuminating hidden assumptions we make of Chinese (and other) international students.

In sum, this article invites us to reflect on the assumptions scholars make in their choice of theory, the assumptions a theory is premised on, as well as the consequences of chosen theories on international student research. Such reflexivity can guard against narrow ways of researching and knowing, and are essential in elevating research and helping the international student field mature.


Abdullah, D., Abd Aziz, M. I., & Mohd Ibrahim, A. L. (2014). A “research” into international student-related research: (Re)visualising our stand? Higher Education, 67(3), 235–253. doi:10.1007/s10734-013-9647-3

Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions (2nd ed.). University of Chicago Press.

Lather, P. (1992). Critical frames in educational research: Feminist and poststructural perspectives. Theory into Practice, 31(2), 87–99.

Maxwell, J. A. (2005). Qualitative research design: An interactive approach. SAGE.

Pillow, W. (2003). Confession, catharsis, or cure? Rethinking the uses of reflexivity as methodological power in qualitative research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 16(2), 175–196.

Rocco, T. S., & Plakhotnik, M. S. (2009). Literature reviews, conceptual frameworks, and theoretical frameworks: Terms, functions, and distinctions. Human Resource Development Review, 8(1), 120–130.

Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1994). Grounded theory methodology: An overview. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (pp. 273–285). SAGE.

Tight, M. (2004). Research into higher education: An atheoretical community of practice? Higher Education Research & Development, 23(4), 395–411.

Author Bio

Tang T. Heng is an Assistant Professor at the Nanyang Technological University—National Institute of Education. By studying what happens when people and ideas circulate across borders, she highlights issues related to diversity and education through a comparative and international education lens. Concurrently, her research foregrounds the role sociocultural contexts play in shaping the values and behaviors of learners/teachers, and how they adapt to different contexts. Tang was conferred the Comparative and International Education Society’s Study Abroad and International Students SIG Early Career Award in 2019. Her research has been published in international refereed journals like Journal of Studies in International Education and Studies in Higher Education. She can be reached via email at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: