How to discuss a seminal paper in your theoretical framework

Sample lesson

ThesisCore is an online course that helps you write your Bachelor’s or Master’s dissertation: from start to finish!

This is a sample lesson from the course:
How to write your theoretical framework.

This lesson shows you how to discuss a seminal paper in the theoretical framework, a.k.a. Literature Review section, of your dissertation.


This part of your theoretical framework should answer:

What is the most important study on: your topic.

This lesson includes an assignment.


In more established research fields, there often is a single study that has been so important for the study of a topic that is has influenced or even determined the bulk of the research on that topic. We call these papers seminal studies: highly influential studies that are considered to be scientific milestones. You simply cannot study the topic without discussing the seminal study!


  • Not all topics have a seminal study, but it’s certainly worth the effort to find this out for sure! Also see the Google Scholar tip below.
  • Discussing a seminal study in your thesis should be done on an ‘as-needed’ basis: it’s certainly not a requirement. Only add a seminal paper if you feel that it improves the reader’s understanding of your topic, or if you plan to use it more than once in your dissertation.

A seminal study

What is the most important study on: your topic?

An example of a seminal study is the paper ‘Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness’ by Mark Granovetter (1985).1] The Wikipedia page on this author gives a good description of what a seminal study is:

“In the field of economic sociology, Granovetter has been a leader since the publication in 1985 of an article that launched “new economic sociology”, “Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness”.This article caused Granovetter to be identified with the concept of “Embeddedness”, the idea that economic relations between individuals or firms are embedded in actual social networks and do not exist in an abstract idealized market. The concept of embeddedness originated with Karl Polanyi in his book The Great Transformation, where Polanyi posited that all economies are embedded in social relations and institutions.”

— From: Wikipedia, Mark Granovetter. Accessed October 2018.
— Note: emphasis added

Seminal is not first

As you can read, a seminal study often is not the first study on a topic. In this example, the topic embeddedness was first studied by Karl Polanyi). In 1985, Mark Granovetter published his paper, which afterwards was used by virtually all researchers that study embeddedness (over 35,000 references, and counting!). In fact, this seminal study has been so influential that a it helped establish a complete research field: “new economic sociology“. That’s what you would call a pretty important study !

Seminal studies like the one discussed are often cited more than 500 times. Added bonus: clicking the ‘Cited by’ link in Google Scholar will show you all articles that have cited the original work, which may contain relevant articles for your thesis!


Researchers typically describe a seminal study in 1 paragraph by answering the following two questions:

  • “Why did the author(s) study this topic?”
  • “How was the topic studied?”

Take for example the article by Chatterjee and Hambrick (2007) on narcissism, and the seminal contribution to the study of this topic by Freud. The authors write that Freud studied the topic out of intense curiosity. The word ‘clinical’ at the end of the quote reveals that similar to later articles, Freud studied it by looking at his patients.2

Ellis (1898) introduced narcissism to the psychology literature, drawing the label from the young man in Greek mythology, Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool and ultimately perished as a result of his self-preoccupation. The concept had a major influence on Freud’s (1957) thinking, and Freud ultimately identified various manifestations of narcissism, including self-admiration, self-aggrandizement, and a tendency to see others as an extension of one’s self. By 1980, according to Raskin and Terry (1988), over 1000 books and articles had been written on narcissism, almost all of which viewed it as a clinical disorder.

— From: p. 353, ‘It’s all about me: Narcissistic chief executive officers and their effects on company strategy and performance’
— Note: emphasis added


Given that the seminal study is usually not the first study on a topic, it is not uncommon to see researchers cite both the first (previous lesson) and a seminal study.

Google Scholar tip

Would you like to check whether a seminal study is available on your topic? There’s an easy way to verify this using Google Scholar. Let’s say you were interested in finding a seminal paper on the topic of narcissism:

narcissism ("seminal contribution" OR "seminal article" OR "seminal paper" OR "seminal study" OR "seminal work")

Result: link

With this approach, you will not find the seminal study directly: it is cited in another study (example below). You will have to open the study and check its Bibliography to get the title of the seminal study.

Open the full text to get the title of the study by Freud (1914).


If applicable to your topic, find a ‘Seminal Study’ and discuss (answer) the following two questions:

  • “Why did the author(s) study this topic?”
  • “How was the topic studied?”

You can be pragmatic when answering these questions. For example, for answering the second question you do not have to detail the exact research procedure that the article followed (unless that is what you are interested in studying). Don’t forget to include references to the articles that you discuss!

Back to Introduction


A. Chatterjee and D. C. Hambrick.
“It’s all about me: Narcissistic chief executive officers and their effects on company strategy and performance”.
In: Administrative science quarterly 52.3 (2007), pp. 351–386.
DOI: 10.2189/asqu.52.3.351.

M. Granovetter.
“Economic action and social structure: The problem of embeddedness”.
In: American journal of sociology 91.3 (1985), pp. 481–510.
DOI: 10.1086/228311.

Join ThesisCore