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theoretical framework

What is a Theoretical Framework? How to Write It (with Examples) 

What is a Theoretical Framework? How to Write It (with Examples)

Theoretical framework 1,2 is the structure that supports and describes a theory. A theory is a set of interrelated concepts and definitions that present a systematic view of phenomena by describing the relationship among the variables for explaining these phenomena. A theory is developed after a long research process and explains the existence of a research problem in a study. A theoretical framework guides the research process like a roadmap for the research study and helps researchers clearly interpret their findings by providing a structure for organizing data and developing conclusions.   

A theoretical framework in research is an important part of a manuscript and should be presented in the first section. It shows an understanding of the theories and concepts relevant to the research and helps limit the scope of the research.  

Table of Contents

What is a theoretical framework ?  

A theoretical framework in research can be defined as a set of concepts, theories, ideas, and assumptions that help you understand a specific phenomenon or problem. It can be considered a blueprint that is borrowed by researchers to develop their own research inquiry. A theoretical framework in research helps researchers design and conduct their research and analyze and interpret their findings. It explains the relationship between variables, identifies gaps in existing knowledge, and guides the development of research questions, hypotheses, and methodologies to address that gap.  

what chapter is theoretical framework in research

Now that you know the answer to ‘ What is a theoretical framework? ’, check the following table that lists the different types of theoretical frameworks in research: 3

   
Conceptual  Defines key concepts and relationships 
Deductive  Starts with a general hypothesis and then uses data to test it; used in quantitative research 
Inductive  Starts with data and then develops a hypothesis; used in qualitative research 
Empirical  Focuses on the collection and analysis of empirical data; used in scientific research 
Normative  Defines a set of norms that guide behavior; used in ethics and social sciences 
Explanatory  Explains causes of particular behavior; used in psychology and social sciences 

Developing a theoretical framework in research can help in the following situations: 4

  • When conducting research on complex phenomena because a theoretical framework helps organize the research questions, hypotheses, and findings  
  • When the research problem requires a deeper understanding of the underlying concepts  
  • When conducting research that seeks to address a specific gap in knowledge  
  • When conducting research that involves the analysis of existing theories  

Summarizing existing literature for theoretical frameworks is easy. Get our Research Ideation pack  

Importance of a theoretical framework  

The purpose of theoretical framework s is to support you in the following ways during the research process: 2  

  • Provide a structure for the complete research process  
  • Assist researchers in incorporating formal theories into their study as a guide  
  • Provide a broad guideline to maintain the research focus  
  • Guide the selection of research methods, data collection, and data analysis  
  • Help understand the relationships between different concepts and develop hypotheses and research questions  
  • Address gaps in existing literature  
  • Analyze the data collected and draw meaningful conclusions and make the findings more generalizable  

Theoretical vs. Conceptual framework  

While a theoretical framework covers the theoretical aspect of your study, that is, the various theories that can guide your research, a conceptual framework defines the variables for your study and presents how they relate to each other. The conceptual framework is developed before collecting the data. However, both frameworks help in understanding the research problem and guide the development, collection, and analysis of the research.  

The following table lists some differences between conceptual and theoretical frameworks . 5

   
Based on existing theories that have been tested and validated by others  Based on concepts that are the main variables in the study 
Used to create a foundation of the theory on which your study will be developed  Visualizes the relationships between the concepts and variables based on the existing literature 
Used to test theories, to predict and control the situations within the context of a research inquiry  Helps the development of a theory that would be useful to practitioners 
Provides a general set of ideas within which a study belongs  Refers to specific ideas that researchers utilize in their study 
Offers a focal point for approaching unknown research in a specific field of inquiry  Shows logically how the research inquiry should be undertaken 
Works deductively  Works inductively 
Used in quantitative studies  Used in qualitative studies 

what chapter is theoretical framework in research

How to write a theoretical framework  

The following general steps can help those wondering how to write a theoretical framework: 2

  • Identify and define the key concepts clearly and organize them into a suitable structure.  
  • Use appropriate terminology and define all key terms to ensure consistency.  
  • Identify the relationships between concepts and provide a logical and coherent structure.  
  • Develop hypotheses that can be tested through data collection and analysis.  
  • Keep it concise and focused with clear and specific aims.  

Write a theoretical framework 2x faster. Get our Manuscript Writing pack  

Examples of a theoretical framework  

Here are two examples of a theoretical framework. 6,7

Example 1 .   

An insurance company is facing a challenge cross-selling its products. The sales department indicates that most customers have just one policy, although the company offers over 10 unique policies. The company would want its customers to purchase more than one policy since most customers are purchasing policies from other companies.  

Objective : To sell more insurance products to existing customers.  

Problem : Many customers are purchasing additional policies from other companies.  

Research question : How can customer product awareness be improved to increase cross-selling of insurance products?  

Sub-questions: What is the relationship between product awareness and sales? Which factors determine product awareness?  

Since “product awareness” is the main focus in this study, the theoretical framework should analyze this concept and study previous literature on this subject and propose theories that discuss the relationship between product awareness and its improvement in sales of other products.  

Example 2 .

A company is facing a continued decline in its sales and profitability. The main reason for the decline in the profitability is poor services, which have resulted in a high level of dissatisfaction among customers and consequently a decline in customer loyalty. The management is planning to concentrate on clients’ satisfaction and customer loyalty.  

Objective: To provide better service to customers and increase customer loyalty and satisfaction.  

Problem: Continued decrease in sales and profitability.  

Research question: How can customer satisfaction help in increasing sales and profitability?  

Sub-questions: What is the relationship between customer loyalty and sales? Which factors influence the level of satisfaction gained by customers?  

Since customer satisfaction, loyalty, profitability, and sales are the important topics in this example, the theoretical framework should focus on these concepts.  

Benefits of a theoretical framework  

There are several benefits of a theoretical framework in research: 2  

  • Provides a structured approach allowing researchers to organize their thoughts in a coherent way.  
  • Helps to identify gaps in knowledge highlighting areas where further research is needed.  
  • Increases research efficiency by providing a clear direction for research and focusing efforts on relevant data.  
  • Improves the quality of research by providing a rigorous and systematic approach to research, which can increase the likelihood of producing valid and reliable results.  
  • Provides a basis for comparison by providing a common language and conceptual framework for researchers to compare their findings with other research in the field, facilitating the exchange of ideas and the development of new knowledge.  

what chapter is theoretical framework in research

Frequently Asked Questions 

Q1. How do I develop a theoretical framework ? 7

A1. The following steps can be used for developing a theoretical framework :  

  • Identify the research problem and research questions by clearly defining the problem that the research aims to address and identifying the specific questions that the research aims to answer.
  • Review the existing literature to identify the key concepts that have been studied previously. These concepts should be clearly defined and organized into a structure.
  • Develop propositions that describe the relationships between the concepts. These propositions should be based on the existing literature and should be testable.
  • Develop hypotheses that can be tested through data collection and analysis.
  • Test the theoretical framework through data collection and analysis to determine whether the framework is valid and reliable.

Q2. How do I know if I have developed a good theoretical framework or not? 8

A2. The following checklist could help you answer this question:  

  • Is my theoretical framework clearly seen as emerging from my literature review?  
  • Is it the result of my analysis of the main theories previously studied in my same research field?  
  • Does it represent or is it relevant to the most current state of theoretical knowledge on my topic?  
  • Does the theoretical framework in research present a logical, coherent, and analytical structure that will support my data analysis?  
  • Do the different parts of the theory help analyze the relationships among the variables in my research?  
  • Does the theoretical framework target how I will answer my research questions or test the hypotheses?  
  • Have I documented every source I have used in developing this theoretical framework ?  
  • Is my theoretical framework a model, a table, a figure, or a description?  
  • Have I explained why this is the appropriate theoretical framework for my data analysis?  

Q3. Can I use multiple theoretical frameworks in a single study?  

A3. Using multiple theoretical frameworks in a single study is acceptable as long as each theory is clearly defined and related to the study. Each theory should also be discussed individually. This approach may, however, be tedious and effort intensive. Therefore, multiple theoretical frameworks should be used only if absolutely necessary for the study.  

Q4. Is it necessary to include a theoretical framework in every research study?  

A4. The theoretical framework connects researchers to existing knowledge. So, including a theoretical framework would help researchers get a clear idea about the research process and help structure their study effectively by clearly defining an objective, a research problem, and a research question.  

Q5. Can a theoretical framework be developed for qualitative research?  

A5. Yes, a theoretical framework can be developed for qualitative research. However, qualitative research methods may or may not involve a theory developed beforehand. In these studies, a theoretical framework can guide the study and help develop a theory during the data analysis phase. This resulting framework uses inductive reasoning. The outcome of this inductive approach can be referred to as an emergent theoretical framework . This method helps researchers develop a theory inductively, which explains a phenomenon without a guiding framework at the outset.  

what chapter is theoretical framework in research

Q6. What is the main difference between a literature review and a theoretical framework ?  

A6. A literature review explores already existing studies about a specific topic in order to highlight a gap, which becomes the focus of the current research study. A theoretical framework can be considered the next step in the process, in which the researcher plans a specific conceptual and analytical approach to address the identified gap in the research.  

Theoretical frameworks are thus important components of the research process and researchers should therefore devote ample amount of time to develop a solid theoretical framework so that it can effectively guide their research in a suitable direction. We hope this article has provided a good insight into the concept of theoretical frameworks in research and their benefits.  

References  

  • Organizing academic research papers: Theoretical framework. Sacred Heart University library. Accessed August 4, 2023. https://library.sacredheart.edu/c.php?g=29803&p=185919#:~:text=The%20theoretical%20framework%20is%20the,research%20problem%20under%20study%20exists .  
  • Salomao A. Understanding what is theoretical framework. Mind the Graph website. Accessed August 5, 2023. https://mindthegraph.com/blog/what-is-theoretical-framework/  
  • Theoretical framework—Types, examples, and writing guide. Research Method website. Accessed August 6, 2023. https://researchmethod.net/theoretical-framework/  
  • Grant C., Osanloo A. Understanding, selecting, and integrating a theoretical framework in dissertation research: Creating the blueprint for your “house.” Administrative Issues Journal : Connecting Education, Practice, and Research; 4(2):12-26. 2014. Accessed August 7, 2023. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1058505.pdf  
  • Difference between conceptual framework and theoretical framework. MIM Learnovate website. Accessed August 7, 2023. https://mimlearnovate.com/difference-between-conceptual-framework-and-theoretical-framework/  
  • Example of a theoretical framework—Thesis & dissertation. BacherlorPrint website. Accessed August 6, 2023. https://www.bachelorprint.com/dissertation/example-of-a-theoretical-framework/  
  • Sample theoretical framework in dissertation and thesis—Overview and example. Students assignment help website. Accessed August 6, 2023. https://www.studentsassignmenthelp.co.uk/blogs/sample-dissertation-theoretical-framework/#Example_of_the_theoretical_framework  
  • Kivunja C. Distinguishing between theory, theoretical framework, and conceptual framework: A systematic review of lessons from the field. Accessed August 8, 2023. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1198682.pdf  

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Theoretical Framework – Types, Examples and Writing Guide

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Theoretical Framework

Theoretical Framework

Definition:

Theoretical framework refers to a set of concepts, theories, ideas , and assumptions that serve as a foundation for understanding a particular phenomenon or problem. It provides a conceptual framework that helps researchers to design and conduct their research, as well as to analyze and interpret their findings.

In research, a theoretical framework explains the relationship between various variables, identifies gaps in existing knowledge, and guides the development of research questions, hypotheses, and methodologies. It also helps to contextualize the research within a broader theoretical perspective, and can be used to guide the interpretation of results and the formulation of recommendations.

Types of Theoretical Framework

Types of Types of Theoretical Framework are as follows:

Conceptual Framework

This type of framework defines the key concepts and relationships between them. It helps to provide a theoretical foundation for a study or research project .

Deductive Framework

This type of framework starts with a general theory or hypothesis and then uses data to test and refine it. It is often used in quantitative research .

Inductive Framework

This type of framework starts with data and then develops a theory or hypothesis based on the patterns and themes that emerge from the data. It is often used in qualitative research .

Empirical Framework

This type of framework focuses on the collection and analysis of empirical data, such as surveys or experiments. It is often used in scientific research .

Normative Framework

This type of framework defines a set of norms or values that guide behavior or decision-making. It is often used in ethics and social sciences.

Explanatory Framework

This type of framework seeks to explain the underlying mechanisms or causes of a particular phenomenon or behavior. It is often used in psychology and social sciences.

Components of Theoretical Framework

The components of a theoretical framework include:

  • Concepts : The basic building blocks of a theoretical framework. Concepts are abstract ideas or generalizations that represent objects, events, or phenomena.
  • Variables : These are measurable and observable aspects of a concept. In a research context, variables can be manipulated or measured to test hypotheses.
  • Assumptions : These are beliefs or statements that are taken for granted and are not tested in a study. They provide a starting point for developing hypotheses.
  • Propositions : These are statements that explain the relationships between concepts and variables in a theoretical framework.
  • Hypotheses : These are testable predictions that are derived from the theoretical framework. Hypotheses are used to guide data collection and analysis.
  • Constructs : These are abstract concepts that cannot be directly measured but are inferred from observable variables. Constructs provide a way to understand complex phenomena.
  • Models : These are simplified representations of reality that are used to explain, predict, or control a phenomenon.

How to Write Theoretical Framework

A theoretical framework is an essential part of any research study or paper, as it helps to provide a theoretical basis for the research and guide the analysis and interpretation of the data. Here are some steps to help you write a theoretical framework:

  • Identify the key concepts and variables : Start by identifying the main concepts and variables that your research is exploring. These could include things like motivation, behavior, attitudes, or any other relevant concepts.
  • Review relevant literature: Conduct a thorough review of the existing literature in your field to identify key theories and ideas that relate to your research. This will help you to understand the existing knowledge and theories that are relevant to your research and provide a basis for your theoretical framework.
  • Develop a conceptual framework : Based on your literature review, develop a conceptual framework that outlines the key concepts and their relationships. This framework should provide a clear and concise overview of the theoretical perspective that underpins your research.
  • Identify hypotheses and research questions: Based on your conceptual framework, identify the hypotheses and research questions that you want to test or explore in your research.
  • Test your theoretical framework: Once you have developed your theoretical framework, test it by applying it to your research data. This will help you to identify any gaps or weaknesses in your framework and refine it as necessary.
  • Write up your theoretical framework: Finally, write up your theoretical framework in a clear and concise manner, using appropriate terminology and referencing the relevant literature to support your arguments.

Theoretical Framework Examples

Here are some examples of theoretical frameworks:

  • Social Learning Theory : This framework, developed by Albert Bandura, suggests that people learn from their environment, including the behaviors of others, and that behavior is influenced by both external and internal factors.
  • Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs : Abraham Maslow proposed that human needs are arranged in a hierarchy, with basic physiological needs at the bottom, followed by safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization at the top. This framework has been used in various fields, including psychology and education.
  • Ecological Systems Theory : This framework, developed by Urie Bronfenbrenner, suggests that a person’s development is influenced by the interaction between the individual and the various environments in which they live, such as family, school, and community.
  • Feminist Theory: This framework examines how gender and power intersect to influence social, cultural, and political issues. It emphasizes the importance of understanding and challenging systems of oppression.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Theory: This framework suggests that our thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes influence our behavior, and that changing our thought patterns can lead to changes in behavior and emotional responses.
  • Attachment Theory: This framework examines the ways in which early relationships with caregivers shape our later relationships and attachment styles.
  • Critical Race Theory : This framework examines how race intersects with other forms of social stratification and oppression to perpetuate inequality and discrimination.

When to Have A Theoretical Framework

Following are some situations When to Have A Theoretical Framework:

  • A theoretical framework should be developed when conducting research in any discipline, as it provides a foundation for understanding the research problem and guiding the research process.
  • A theoretical framework is essential when conducting research on complex phenomena, as it helps to organize and structure the research questions, hypotheses, and findings.
  • A theoretical framework should be developed when the research problem requires a deeper understanding of the underlying concepts and principles that govern the phenomenon being studied.
  • A theoretical framework is particularly important when conducting research in social sciences, as it helps to explain the relationships between variables and provides a framework for testing hypotheses.
  • A theoretical framework should be developed when conducting research in applied fields, such as engineering or medicine, as it helps to provide a theoretical basis for the development of new technologies or treatments.
  • A theoretical framework should be developed when conducting research that seeks to address a specific gap in knowledge, as it helps to define the problem and identify potential solutions.
  • A theoretical framework is also important when conducting research that involves the analysis of existing theories or concepts, as it helps to provide a framework for comparing and contrasting different theories and concepts.
  • A theoretical framework should be developed when conducting research that seeks to make predictions or develop generalizations about a particular phenomenon, as it helps to provide a basis for evaluating the accuracy of these predictions or generalizations.
  • Finally, a theoretical framework should be developed when conducting research that seeks to make a contribution to the field, as it helps to situate the research within the broader context of the discipline and identify its significance.

Purpose of Theoretical Framework

The purposes of a theoretical framework include:

  • Providing a conceptual framework for the study: A theoretical framework helps researchers to define and clarify the concepts and variables of interest in their research. It enables researchers to develop a clear and concise definition of the problem, which in turn helps to guide the research process.
  • Guiding the research design: A theoretical framework can guide the selection of research methods, data collection techniques, and data analysis procedures. By outlining the key concepts and assumptions underlying the research questions, the theoretical framework can help researchers to identify the most appropriate research design for their study.
  • Supporting the interpretation of research findings: A theoretical framework provides a framework for interpreting the research findings by helping researchers to make connections between their findings and existing theory. It enables researchers to identify the implications of their findings for theory development and to assess the generalizability of their findings.
  • Enhancing the credibility of the research: A well-developed theoretical framework can enhance the credibility of the research by providing a strong theoretical foundation for the study. It demonstrates that the research is based on a solid understanding of the relevant theory and that the research questions are grounded in a clear conceptual framework.
  • Facilitating communication and collaboration: A theoretical framework provides a common language and conceptual framework for researchers, enabling them to communicate and collaborate more effectively. It helps to ensure that everyone involved in the research is working towards the same goals and is using the same concepts and definitions.

Characteristics of Theoretical Framework

Some of the characteristics of a theoretical framework include:

  • Conceptual clarity: The concepts used in the theoretical framework should be clearly defined and understood by all stakeholders.
  • Logical coherence : The framework should be internally consistent, with each concept and assumption logically connected to the others.
  • Empirical relevance: The framework should be based on empirical evidence and research findings.
  • Parsimony : The framework should be as simple as possible, without sacrificing its ability to explain the phenomenon in question.
  • Flexibility : The framework should be adaptable to new findings and insights.
  • Testability : The framework should be testable through research, with clear hypotheses that can be falsified or supported by data.
  • Applicability : The framework should be useful for practical applications, such as designing interventions or policies.

Advantages of Theoretical Framework

Here are some of the advantages of having a theoretical framework:

  • Provides a clear direction : A theoretical framework helps researchers to identify the key concepts and variables they need to study and the relationships between them. This provides a clear direction for the research and helps researchers to focus their efforts and resources.
  • Increases the validity of the research: A theoretical framework helps to ensure that the research is based on sound theoretical principles and concepts. This increases the validity of the research by ensuring that it is grounded in established knowledge and is not based on arbitrary assumptions.
  • Enables comparisons between studies : A theoretical framework provides a common language and set of concepts that researchers can use to compare and contrast their findings. This helps to build a cumulative body of knowledge and allows researchers to identify patterns and trends across different studies.
  • Helps to generate hypotheses: A theoretical framework provides a basis for generating hypotheses about the relationships between different concepts and variables. This can help to guide the research process and identify areas that require further investigation.
  • Facilitates communication: A theoretical framework provides a common language and set of concepts that researchers can use to communicate their findings to other researchers and to the wider community. This makes it easier for others to understand the research and its implications.

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What is a Theoretical Framework? | A Step-by-Step Guide

Published on 14 February 2020 by Shona McCombes . Revised on 10 October 2022.

A theoretical framework is a foundational review of existing theories that serves as a roadmap for developing the arguments you will use in your own work.

Theories are developed by researchers to explain phenomena, draw connections, and make predictions. In a theoretical framework, you explain the existing theories that support your research, showing that your work is grounded in established ideas.

In other words, your theoretical framework justifies and contextualises your later research, and it’s a crucial first step for your research paper , thesis, or dissertation . A well-rounded theoretical framework sets you up for success later on in your research and writing process.

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Why do you need a theoretical framework, how to write a theoretical framework, structuring your theoretical framework, example of a theoretical framework, frequently asked questions about theoretical frameworks.

Before you start your own research, it’s crucial to familiarise yourself with the theories and models that other researchers have already developed. Your theoretical framework is your opportunity to present and explain what you’ve learned, situated within your future research topic.

There’s a good chance that many different theories about your topic already exist, especially if the topic is broad. In your theoretical framework, you will evaluate, compare, and select the most relevant ones.

By “framing” your research within a clearly defined field, you make the reader aware of the assumptions that inform your approach, showing the rationale behind your choices for later sections, like methodology and discussion . This part of your dissertation lays the foundations that will support your analysis, helping you interpret your results and make broader generalisations .

  • In literature , a scholar using postmodernist literary theory would analyse The Great Gatsby differently than a scholar using Marxist literary theory.
  • In psychology , a behaviourist approach to depression would involve different research methods and assumptions than a psychoanalytic approach.
  • In economics , wealth inequality would be explained and interpreted differently based on a classical economics approach than based on a Keynesian economics one.

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To create your own theoretical framework, you can follow these three steps:

  • Identifying your key concepts
  • Evaluating and explaining relevant theories
  • Showing how your research fits into existing research

1. Identify your key concepts

The first step is to pick out the key terms from your problem statement and research questions . Concepts often have multiple definitions, so your theoretical framework should also clearly define what you mean by each term.

To investigate this problem, you have identified and plan to focus on the following problem statement, objective, and research questions:

Problem : Many online customers do not return to make subsequent purchases.

Objective : To increase the quantity of return customers.

Research question : How can the satisfaction of company X’s online customers be improved in order to increase the quantity of return customers?

2. Evaluate and explain relevant theories

By conducting a thorough literature review , you can determine how other researchers have defined these key concepts and drawn connections between them. As you write your theoretical framework, your aim is to compare and critically evaluate the approaches that different authors have taken.

After discussing different models and theories, you can establish the definitions that best fit your research and justify why. You can even combine theories from different fields to build your own unique framework if this better suits your topic.

Make sure to at least briefly mention each of the most important theories related to your key concepts. If there is a well-established theory that you don’t want to apply to your own research, explain why it isn’t suitable for your purposes.

3. Show how your research fits into existing research

Apart from summarising and discussing existing theories, your theoretical framework should show how your project will make use of these ideas and take them a step further.

You might aim to do one or more of the following:

  • Test whether a theory holds in a specific, previously unexamined context
  • Use an existing theory as a basis for interpreting your results
  • Critique or challenge a theory
  • Combine different theories in a new or unique way

A theoretical framework can sometimes be integrated into a literature review chapter , but it can also be included as its own chapter or section in your dissertation. As a rule of thumb, if your research involves dealing with a lot of complex theories, it’s a good idea to include a separate theoretical framework chapter.

There are no fixed rules for structuring your theoretical framework, but it’s best to double-check with your department or institution to make sure they don’t have any formatting guidelines. The most important thing is to create a clear, logical structure. There are a few ways to do this:

  • Draw on your research questions, structuring each section around a question or key concept
  • Organise by theory cluster
  • Organise by date

As in all other parts of your research paper , thesis, or dissertation , make sure to properly cite your sources to avoid plagiarism .

To get a sense of what this part of your thesis or dissertation might look like, take a look at our full example .

While a theoretical framework describes the theoretical underpinnings of your work based on existing research, a conceptual framework allows you to draw your own conclusions, mapping out the variables you may use in your study and the interplay between them.

A literature review and a theoretical framework are not the same thing and cannot be used interchangeably. While a theoretical framework describes the theoretical underpinnings of your work, a literature review critically evaluates existing research relating to your topic. You’ll likely need both in your dissertation .

A theoretical framework can sometimes be integrated into a  literature review chapter , but it can also be included as its own chapter or section in your dissertation . As a rule of thumb, if your research involves dealing with a lot of complex theories, it’s a good idea to include a separate theoretical framework chapter.

A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources (such as books, journal articles, and theses) related to a specific topic or research question .

It is often written as part of a dissertation , thesis, research paper , or proposal .

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Theoretical Framework Example for a Thesis or Dissertation

Published on October 14, 2015 by Sarah Vinz . Revised on July 18, 2023 by Tegan George.

Your theoretical framework defines the key concepts in your research, suggests relationships between them, and discusses relevant theories based on your literature review .

A strong theoretical framework gives your research direction. It allows you to convincingly interpret, explain, and generalize from your findings and show the relevance of your thesis or dissertation topic in your field.

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Sample problem statement and research questions, sample theoretical framework, your theoretical framework, other interesting articles.

Your theoretical framework is based on:

  • Your problem statement
  • Your research questions
  • Your literature review

A new boutique downtown is struggling with the fact that many of their online customers do not return to make subsequent purchases. This is a big issue for the otherwise fast-growing store.Management wants to increase customer loyalty. They believe that improved customer satisfaction will play a major role in achieving their goal of increased return customers.

To investigate this problem, you have zeroed in on the following problem statement, objective, and research questions:

  • Problem : Many online customers do not return to make subsequent purchases.
  • Objective : To increase the quantity of return customers.
  • Research question : How can the satisfaction of the boutique’s online customers be improved in order to increase the quantity of return customers?

The concepts of “customer loyalty” and “customer satisfaction” are clearly central to this study, along with their relationship to the likelihood that a customer will return. Your theoretical framework should define these concepts and discuss theories about the relationship between these variables.

Some sub-questions could include:

  • What is the relationship between customer loyalty and customer satisfaction?
  • How satisfied and loyal are the boutique’s online customers currently?
  • What factors affect the satisfaction and loyalty of the boutique’s online customers?

As the concepts of “loyalty” and “customer satisfaction” play a major role in the investigation and will later be measured, they are essential concepts to define within your theoretical framework .

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what chapter is theoretical framework in research

Below is a simplified example showing how you can describe and compare theories in your thesis or dissertation . In this example, we focus on the concept of customer satisfaction introduced above.

Customer satisfaction

Thomassen (2003, p. 69) defines customer satisfaction as “the perception of the customer as a result of consciously or unconsciously comparing their experiences with their expectations.” Kotler & Keller (2008, p. 80) build on this definition, stating that customer satisfaction is determined by “the degree to which someone is happy or disappointed with the observed performance of a product in relation to his or her expectations.”

Performance that is below expectations leads to a dissatisfied customer, while performance that satisfies expectations produces satisfied customers (Kotler & Keller, 2003, p. 80).

The definition of Zeithaml and Bitner (2003, p. 86) is slightly different from that of Thomassen. They posit that “satisfaction is the consumer fulfillment response. It is a judgement that a product or service feature, or the product of service itself, provides a pleasurable level of consumption-related fulfillment.” Zeithaml and Bitner’s emphasis is thus on obtaining a certain satisfaction in relation to purchasing.

Thomassen’s definition is the most relevant to the aims of this study, given the emphasis it places on unconscious perception. Although Zeithaml and Bitner, like Thomassen, say that customer satisfaction is a reaction to the experience gained, there is no distinction between conscious and unconscious comparisons in their definition.

The boutique claims in its mission statement that it wants to sell not only a product, but also a feeling. As a result, unconscious comparison will play an important role in the satisfaction of its customers. Thomassen’s definition is therefore more relevant.

Thomassen’s Customer Satisfaction Model

According to Thomassen, both the so-called “value proposition” and other influences have an impact on final customer satisfaction. In his satisfaction model (Fig. 1), Thomassen shows that word-of-mouth, personal needs, past experiences, and marketing and public relations determine customers’ needs and expectations.

These factors are compared to their experiences, with the interplay between expectations and experiences determining a customer’s satisfaction level. Thomassen’s model is important for this study as it allows us to determine both the extent to which the boutique’s customers are satisfied, as well as where improvements can be made.

Figure 1 Customer satisfaction creation 

Framework Thomassen

Of course, you could analyze the concepts more thoroughly and compare additional definitions to each other. You could also discuss the theories and ideas of key authors in greater detail and provide several models to illustrate different concepts.

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Theories are formulated to explain, predict, and understand phenomena and, in many cases, to challenge and extend existing knowledge within the limits of critical bounded assumptions or predictions of behavior. The theoretical framework is the structure that can hold or support a theory of a research study. The theoretical framework encompasses not just the theory, but the narrative explanation about how the researcher engages in using the theory and its underlying assumptions to investigate the research problem. It is the structure of your paper that summarizes concepts, ideas, and theories derived from prior research studies and which was synthesized in order to form a conceptual basis for your analysis and interpretation of meaning found within your research.

Abend, Gabriel. "The Meaning of Theory." Sociological Theory 26 (June 2008): 173–199; Kivunja, Charles. "Distinguishing between Theory, Theoretical Framework, and Conceptual Framework: A Systematic Review of Lessons from the Field." International Journal of Higher Education 7 (December 2018): 44-53; Swanson, Richard A. Theory Building in Applied Disciplines . San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers 2013; Varpio, Lara, Elise Paradis, Sebastian Uijtdehaage, and Meredith Young. "The Distinctions between Theory, Theoretical Framework, and Conceptual Framework." Academic Medicine 95 (July 2020): 989-994.

Importance of Theory and a Theoretical Framework

Theories can be unfamiliar to the beginning researcher because they are rarely applied in high school social studies curriculum and, as a result, can come across as unfamiliar and imprecise when first introduced as part of a writing assignment. However, in their most simplified form, a theory is simply a set of assumptions or predictions about something you think will happen based on existing evidence and that can be tested to see if those outcomes turn out to be true. Of course, it is slightly more deliberate than that, therefore, summarized from Kivunja (2018, p. 46), here are the essential characteristics of a theory.

  • It is logical and coherent
  • It has clear definitions of terms or variables, and has boundary conditions [i.e., it is not an open-ended statement]
  • It has a domain where it applies
  • It has clearly described relationships among variables
  • It describes, explains, and makes specific predictions
  • It comprises of concepts, themes, principles, and constructs
  • It must have been based on empirical data [i.e., it is not a guess]
  • It must have made claims that are subject to testing, been tested and verified
  • It must be clear and concise
  • Its assertions or predictions must be different and better than those in existing theories
  • Its predictions must be general enough to be applicable to and understood within multiple contexts
  • Its assertions or predictions are relevant, and if applied as predicted, will result in the predicted outcome
  • The assertions and predictions are not immutable, but subject to revision and improvement as researchers use the theory to make sense of phenomena
  • Its concepts and principles explain what is going on and why
  • Its concepts and principles are substantive enough to enable us to predict a future

Given these characteristics, a theory can best be understood as the foundation from which you investigate assumptions or predictions derived from previous studies about the research problem, but in a way that leads to new knowledge and understanding as well as, in some cases, discovering how to improve the relevance of the theory itself or to argue that the theory is outdated and a new theory needs to be formulated based on new evidence.

A theoretical framework consists of concepts and, together with their definitions and reference to relevant scholarly literature, existing theory that is used for your particular study. The theoretical framework must demonstrate an understanding of theories and concepts that are relevant to the topic of your research paper and that relate to the broader areas of knowledge being considered.

The theoretical framework is most often not something readily found within the literature . You must review course readings and pertinent research studies for theories and analytic models that are relevant to the research problem you are investigating. The selection of a theory should depend on its appropriateness, ease of application, and explanatory power.

The theoretical framework strengthens the study in the following ways :

  • An explicit statement of  theoretical assumptions permits the reader to evaluate them critically.
  • The theoretical framework connects the researcher to existing knowledge. Guided by a relevant theory, you are given a basis for your hypotheses and choice of research methods.
  • Articulating the theoretical assumptions of a research study forces you to address questions of why and how. It permits you to intellectually transition from simply describing a phenomenon you have observed to generalizing about various aspects of that phenomenon.
  • Having a theory helps you identify the limits to those generalizations. A theoretical framework specifies which key variables influence a phenomenon of interest and highlights the need to examine how those key variables might differ and under what circumstances.
  • The theoretical framework adds context around the theory itself based on how scholars had previously tested the theory in relation their overall research design [i.e., purpose of the study, methods of collecting data or information, methods of analysis, the time frame in which information is collected, study setting, and the methodological strategy used to conduct the research].

By virtue of its applicative nature, good theory in the social sciences is of value precisely because it fulfills one primary purpose: to explain the meaning, nature, and challenges associated with a phenomenon, often experienced but unexplained in the world in which we live, so that we may use that knowledge and understanding to act in more informed and effective ways.

The Conceptual Framework. College of Education. Alabama State University; Corvellec, Hervé, ed. What is Theory?: Answers from the Social and Cultural Sciences . Stockholm: Copenhagen Business School Press, 2013; Asher, Herbert B. Theory-Building and Data Analysis in the Social Sciences . Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1984; Drafting an Argument. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Kivunja, Charles. "Distinguishing between Theory, Theoretical Framework, and Conceptual Framework: A Systematic Review of Lessons from the Field." International Journal of Higher Education 7 (2018): 44-53; Omodan, Bunmi Isaiah. "A Model for Selecting Theoretical Framework through Epistemology of Research Paradigms." African Journal of Inter/Multidisciplinary Studies 4 (2022): 275-285; Ravitch, Sharon M. and Matthew Riggan. Reason and Rigor: How Conceptual Frameworks Guide Research . Second edition. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2017; Trochim, William M.K. Philosophy of Research. Research Methods Knowledge Base. 2006; Jarvis, Peter. The Practitioner-Researcher. Developing Theory from Practice . San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1999.

Strategies for Developing the Theoretical Framework

I.  Developing the Framework

Here are some strategies to develop of an effective theoretical framework:

  • Examine your thesis title and research problem . The research problem anchors your entire study and forms the basis from which you construct your theoretical framework.
  • Brainstorm about what you consider to be the key variables in your research . Answer the question, "What factors contribute to the presumed effect?"
  • Review related literature to find how scholars have addressed your research problem. Identify the assumptions from which the author(s) addressed the problem.
  • List  the constructs and variables that might be relevant to your study. Group these variables into independent and dependent categories.
  • Review key social science theories that are introduced to you in your course readings and choose the theory that can best explain the relationships between the key variables in your study [note the Writing Tip on this page].
  • Discuss the assumptions or propositions of this theory and point out their relevance to your research.

A theoretical framework is used to limit the scope of the relevant data by focusing on specific variables and defining the specific viewpoint [framework] that the researcher will take in analyzing and interpreting the data to be gathered. It also facilitates the understanding of concepts and variables according to given definitions and builds new knowledge by validating or challenging theoretical assumptions.

II.  Purpose

Think of theories as the conceptual basis for understanding, analyzing, and designing ways to investigate relationships within social systems. To that end, the following roles served by a theory can help guide the development of your framework.

  • Means by which new research data can be interpreted and coded for future use,
  • Response to new problems that have no previously identified solutions strategy,
  • Means for identifying and defining research problems,
  • Means for prescribing or evaluating solutions to research problems,
  • Ways of discerning certain facts among the accumulated knowledge that are important and which facts are not,
  • Means of giving old data new interpretations and new meaning,
  • Means by which to identify important new issues and prescribe the most critical research questions that need to be answered to maximize understanding of the issue,
  • Means of providing members of a professional discipline with a common language and a frame of reference for defining the boundaries of their profession, and
  • Means to guide and inform research so that it can, in turn, guide research efforts and improve professional practice.

Adapted from: Torraco, R. J. “Theory-Building Research Methods.” In Swanson R. A. and E. F. Holton III , editors. Human Resource Development Handbook: Linking Research and Practice . (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 1997): pp. 114-137; Jacard, James and Jacob Jacoby. Theory Construction and Model-Building Skills: A Practical Guide for Social Scientists . New York: Guilford, 2010; Ravitch, Sharon M. and Matthew Riggan. Reason and Rigor: How Conceptual Frameworks Guide Research . Second edition. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2017; Sutton, Robert I. and Barry M. Staw. “What Theory is Not.” Administrative Science Quarterly 40 (September 1995): 371-384.

Structure and Writing Style

The theoretical framework may be rooted in a specific theory , in which case, your work is expected to test the validity of that existing theory in relation to specific events, issues, or phenomena. Many social science research papers fit into this rubric. For example, Peripheral Realism Theory, which categorizes perceived differences among nation-states as those that give orders, those that obey, and those that rebel, could be used as a means for understanding conflicted relationships among countries in Africa. A test of this theory could be the following: Does Peripheral Realism Theory help explain intra-state actions, such as, the disputed split between southern and northern Sudan that led to the creation of two nations?

However, you may not always be asked by your professor to test a specific theory in your paper, but to develop your own framework from which your analysis of the research problem is derived . Based upon the above example, it is perhaps easiest to understand the nature and function of a theoretical framework if it is viewed as an answer to two basic questions:

  • What is the research problem/question? [e.g., "How should the individual and the state relate during periods of conflict?"]
  • Why is your approach a feasible solution? [i.e., justify the application of your choice of a particular theory and explain why alternative constructs were rejected. I could choose instead to test Instrumentalist or Circumstantialists models developed among ethnic conflict theorists that rely upon socio-economic-political factors to explain individual-state relations and to apply this theoretical model to periods of war between nations].

The answers to these questions come from a thorough review of the literature and your course readings [summarized and analyzed in the next section of your paper] and the gaps in the research that emerge from the review process. With this in mind, a complete theoretical framework will likely not emerge until after you have completed a thorough review of the literature .

Just as a research problem in your paper requires contextualization and background information, a theory requires a framework for understanding its application to the topic being investigated. When writing and revising this part of your research paper, keep in mind the following:

  • Clearly describe the framework, concepts, models, or specific theories that underpin your study . This includes noting who the key theorists are in the field who have conducted research on the problem you are investigating and, when necessary, the historical context that supports the formulation of that theory. This latter element is particularly important if the theory is relatively unknown or it is borrowed from another discipline.
  • Position your theoretical framework within a broader context of related frameworks, concepts, models, or theories . As noted in the example above, there will likely be several concepts, theories, or models that can be used to help develop a framework for understanding the research problem. Therefore, note why the theory you've chosen is the appropriate one.
  • The present tense is used when writing about theory. Although the past tense can be used to describe the history of a theory or the role of key theorists, the construction of your theoretical framework is happening now.
  • You should make your theoretical assumptions as explicit as possible . Later, your discussion of methodology should be linked back to this theoretical framework.
  • Don’t just take what the theory says as a given! Reality is never accurately represented in such a simplistic way; if you imply that it can be, you fundamentally distort a reader's ability to understand the findings that emerge. Given this, always note the limitations of the theoretical framework you've chosen [i.e., what parts of the research problem require further investigation because the theory inadequately explains a certain phenomena].

The Conceptual Framework. College of Education. Alabama State University; Conceptual Framework: What Do You Think is Going On? College of Engineering. University of Michigan; Drafting an Argument. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Lynham, Susan A. “The General Method of Theory-Building Research in Applied Disciplines.” Advances in Developing Human Resources 4 (August 2002): 221-241; Tavallaei, Mehdi and Mansor Abu Talib. "A General Perspective on the Role of Theory in Qualitative Research." Journal of International Social Research 3 (Spring 2010); Ravitch, Sharon M. and Matthew Riggan. Reason and Rigor: How Conceptual Frameworks Guide Research . Second edition. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2017; Reyes, Victoria. Demystifying the Journal Article. Inside Higher Education; Trochim, William M.K. Philosophy of Research. Research Methods Knowledge Base. 2006; Weick, Karl E. “The Work of Theorizing.” In Theorizing in Social Science: The Context of Discovery . Richard Swedberg, editor. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014), pp. 177-194.

Writing Tip

Borrowing Theoretical Constructs from Other Disciplines

An increasingly important trend in the social and behavioral sciences is to think about and attempt to understand research problems from an interdisciplinary perspective. One way to do this is to not rely exclusively on the theories developed within your particular discipline, but to think about how an issue might be informed by theories developed in other disciplines. For example, if you are a political science student studying the rhetorical strategies used by female incumbents in state legislature campaigns, theories about the use of language could be derived, not only from political science, but linguistics, communication studies, philosophy, psychology, and, in this particular case, feminist studies. Building theoretical frameworks based on the postulates and hypotheses developed in other disciplinary contexts can be both enlightening and an effective way to be more engaged in the research topic.

CohenMiller, A. S. and P. Elizabeth Pate. "A Model for Developing Interdisciplinary Research Theoretical Frameworks." The Qualitative Researcher 24 (2019): 1211-1226; Frodeman, Robert. The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity . New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Another Writing Tip

Don't Undertheorize!

Do not leave the theory hanging out there in the introduction never to be mentioned again. Undertheorizing weakens your paper. The theoretical framework you describe should guide your study throughout the paper. Be sure to always connect theory to the review of pertinent literature and to explain in the discussion part of your paper how the theoretical framework you chose supports analysis of the research problem or, if appropriate, how the theoretical framework was found to be inadequate in explaining the phenomenon you were investigating. In that case, don't be afraid to propose your own theory based on your findings.

Yet Another Writing Tip

What's a Theory? What's a Hypothesis?

The terms theory and hypothesis are often used interchangeably in newspapers and popular magazines and in non-academic settings. However, the difference between theory and hypothesis in scholarly research is important, particularly when using an experimental design. A theory is a well-established principle that has been developed to explain some aspect of the natural world. Theories arise from repeated observation and testing and incorporates facts, laws, predictions, and tested assumptions that are widely accepted [e.g., rational choice theory; grounded theory; critical race theory].

A hypothesis is a specific, testable prediction about what you expect to happen in your study. For example, an experiment designed to look at the relationship between study habits and test anxiety might have a hypothesis that states, "We predict that students with better study habits will suffer less test anxiety." Unless your study is exploratory in nature, your hypothesis should always explain what you expect to happen during the course of your research.

The key distinctions are:

  • A theory predicts events in a broad, general context;  a hypothesis makes a specific prediction about a specified set of circumstances.
  • A theory has been extensively tested and is generally accepted among a set of scholars; a hypothesis is a speculative guess that has yet to be tested.

Cherry, Kendra. Introduction to Research Methods: Theory and Hypothesis. About.com Psychology; Gezae, Michael et al. Welcome Presentation on Hypothesis. Slideshare presentation.

Still Yet Another Writing Tip

Be Prepared to Challenge the Validity of an Existing Theory

Theories are meant to be tested and their underlying assumptions challenged; they are not rigid or intransigent, but are meant to set forth general principles for explaining phenomena or predicting outcomes. Given this, testing theoretical assumptions is an important way that knowledge in any discipline develops and grows. If you're asked to apply an existing theory to a research problem, the analysis will likely include the expectation by your professor that you should offer modifications to the theory based on your research findings.

Indications that theoretical assumptions may need to be modified can include the following:

  • Your findings suggest that the theory does not explain or account for current conditions or circumstances or the passage of time,
  • The study reveals a finding that is incompatible with what the theory attempts to explain or predict, or
  • Your analysis reveals that the theory overly generalizes behaviors or actions without taking into consideration specific factors revealed from your analysis [e.g., factors related to culture, nationality, history, gender, ethnicity, age, geographic location, legal norms or customs , religion, social class, socioeconomic status, etc.].

Philipsen, Kristian. "Theory Building: Using Abductive Search Strategies." In Collaborative Research Design: Working with Business for Meaningful Findings . Per Vagn Freytag and Louise Young, editors. (Singapore: Springer Nature, 2018), pp. 45-71; Shepherd, Dean A. and Roy Suddaby. "Theory Building: A Review and Integration." Journal of Management 43 (2017): 59-86.

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Eureka! When I learnt how to write a theoretical framework

Feb 6, 2019

how to structure a theoretical framework

Have you checked out  the rest of  The PhD Knowledge Base ? It’s home to hundreds more free resources and guides, written especially for PhD students.  

Have you ever had a eureka moment? A moment where something that you’ve misunderstood for ages becomes crystal clear?

I did, about half way through my PhD.

Did I come up with a ground breaking discovery that would revolutionise my field? Did I develop a new theory that would change the way we think about the world?

I finally understood how to write a theoretical framework.

Sound silly? It isn’t. 

During the one-on-one PhD coaching sessions I run, the issue of how to write a theory framework comes up more frequently than any other. The theoretical framework is important, but many people find it difficult. I know I struggled with it. 

Then someone explained the theory framework to me in such a simple way. Here’s the eureka moment: The theoretical framework is like a toolbox.

Simple, right?

Let me explain. In the literature review you highlighted the problem that needs ‘fixing’. The theoretical framework – the ’toolbox’ – details the theories, propositions, hypotheses (if you’re using them) and concepts – the ’tools’ – that you will use to address or make sense of this problem.

So, your job in a theoretical framework chapter is to discuss in detail what the tools look like, how they behave, how they have been used before, how they relate to one another, how they are relevant to your aims and objectives and what the drawbacks are from using them. The methods chapter then discusses how you will use (operationalise) those tools.

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What is a theoretical framework?

In the literature review you highlighted the problem that needs ‘fixing’. The theoretical framework – the ’toolbox’ – details the theories, propositions, hypotheses (if you’re using them) and concepts – the ’tools’ – that you will use to address or make sense of this problem.

The list of potential explanations for why responses differ is enormous.

You could approach this question with a focus on, say, psychology, power, gender, economics, and so on. The best we can typically hope for – and this is particularly true in much of the social sciences – is an interpretation of the truth.

So – and this is important – we use theory to focus our attention on a small sub-set of all potential explanations, on one particular viewpoint.

Now I know I’m getting into messy epistemological and ontological waters here. I am an interpretivist, so I see theory as a ‘lens’ that you apply to make sense of the world. That’s the shape of my toolbox.

But, even if you’re a positivist you still pick and choose theoretical concepts and hypotheses from a range of available options; you just use them in a different way (rather than a lens, they become testable propositions, or measurement tools).

Without a theoretical framework we are left with a potentially endless choice of potential viewpoints, which would make our data collection and analysis and our discussion hugely chaotic.

PhD Literature Review & Theory Framework Survival Pack

Master your lit review & theory framework.

Learn what goes where (and why), and how it all fit together with this free, interactive guide to the PhD literature review and theory framework.

In other words, if we don’t know how to focus our attention, how we can present a coherent explanation? 

The theoretical framework is a natural extension of the literature review. The purpose of the literature review, amongst other things, is to highlight gaps and shortcomings with the existing work in your field.

The theoretical framework details   the perspective you will take   to address that gap and shortcoming.

For example, in   my doctoral research,   my literature review focused on government responses to climate change and pointed out that there hadn’t been much discussion on local government.

The theoretical framework then made an informed decision to come at it from a particular theoretical perspective (institutional theory, if you’re interested) and then discussed what that theory looks like, highlighting the key concepts and ideas. 

In your own research you will also need to make an informed decision about the particular theory you will employ to guide you through the rest of the research.

The theoretical framework is a natural extension of the literature review. The purpose of the literature review, amongst other things, is to highlight gaps and shortcomings with the existing work in your field. The theoretical framework details the perspective you will take to address that gap and shortcoming.

So, the   job of the theoretical framework isn’t to repeat the literature review . Instead, think of it as a   separate, mini literature review , this time focusing on the theory you will employ. You don’t have to discuss every particular use and discussion of the theoretical position you employ. If you did, you’d quickly run out of space and time.

Remember, your examiners are likely to already be familiar with the theory, meaning that rather than discuss every possible thing that there is to discuss about it, you instead need to discuss how and why the theory has been adapted and adopted to the context of your research.

How to structure a theoretical framework

  • You need to have a solid grasp of your aims and objectives. These define the space in which your research will sit and your goals when conducting it. You will need to briefly recap these when you start writing your theoretical framework, both to remind the reader and so that you can relate your theory to these overarching aims.
  • What theory/theories are you using? Here you need to define and explain each theory you draw upon and, in doing so, discuss the leading proponents and applications. This shows that you understand the theory you are going to adopt.
  • You then need to spend time critically arguing why you are adopting this particular theory. There are a lot of potential theories you could use. Why this one? Importantly, you should relate your choice to the discussions in the literature review and your aims and objectives.
  • Can the theory/theories be broken down into different schools? Which one are you siding with and why?
  • A theory contains a number of concepts. Which will you be drawing upon? Why these ones? Have you defined them properly? The way you approach this section will be influenced by your epistemological and ontological perspective and, thus, whether you use hypotheses or not. If you are using hypotheses, you need to state them as such.
  • How do the concepts relate to your aims and objectives?
  • Have you clearly stated your ontological and epistemological perspective?
  • Are you the first to use this particular theory in this particular way? What benefits or drawbacks does that bring?
  • Can you spot any drawbacks with applying this theory? Does it fail to account for a particular dimension of a phenomenon? Is it difficult to operationalize?
  • How are your concepts related? Are you using them as hypotheses? Or as a model to make sense of the data? Somewhere in between? Be explicit about how they are all related and what you plan on doing with them.

what chapter is theoretical framework in research

The goal of writing up a theoretical framework is to tell the reader why you have chosen particular theories, how they relate to the gap in the literature, and how they relate to your aims and objectives.

A short (but necessary) note on ontology and epistemology 

How do i choose theories and create my framework.

Unless you are using an inductive methodological approach (where you generate theory from the data), you will likely approach your fieldwork with a theoretical framework in mind. Which theory or theories you choose is, in part, down to your aims and objectives and whether there is a relevant theory available ‘off-the-shelf’ that is appropriate for your needs.

There are generally three strategies that researchers use to develop their theoretical frameworks: 

  • There may be theories in your field that have arisen on the basis of repeated observation and testing and which are widely accepted.
  • Or, you might find that you need to select concepts from multiple theories and create a novel framework that is unique to your particular context.
  • A growing and important trend in social research is to adopt an interdisciplinary perspective when trying to understand the social world. This can be achieved by looking beyond the dominant, well-established theories and thinking about how other theories, particularly those from other disciplines or sub-disciplines, can be used.

In any case, you must consider the following when selecting a theory:  

  • Identify your ontological and epistemological beliefs.
  • List several theories that align with your epistemological position and which can aid your understanding of the phenomenon under investigation.
  • Engage in literature review around those theories, both to familiarise yourself with them but also to understand their relevance to your study.
  • Ask yourself how each theory connects to your problem, aims & objectives.
  • Select the theory or theories that provide more relevant tools for your thesis. 

I have more than one theory. What do I do?

  Often, you need to combine concepts, hypotheses or ideas from more than one theoretical school. Employing   more than one theory is entirely legitimate.   I did so in my PhD. 

  However, you need to  consider a few key questions : 

Are the theories you are bringing together epistemologically compatible? 

Have you discussed each theory in the same level of detail to adequately explain the theory, your justification for its inclusion, its relation to the literature and its potential drawbacks? 

What benefits does focusing on more than one theory bring? Perhaps one theory has shortcomings that the other addresses? 

What downsides are there to employing more than one theory? 

Has anyone else used this combination of theories before you? 

The theoretical framework is a tricky section to write, largely because the choice available to you is huge.

But   keep that toolbox metaphor in mind. 

  Each theory contains a number of tools. Your job in the theory framework is to take the tools you need for your project from the most relevant theory/theories and package them up into your own toolbox.

When you’re done, you should see that the theory framework offers:

  • Structure, by detailing the key concepts, tools and, where relevant, hypotheses
  • A way to connect to other research
  • A coherent, joined up set of ideas that structure the writing and help to create an argumentative streak that can run throughout your thesis
  • An approach that can be reused in additional contexts once you’re done

Along the way, you need to convince the reader that you’ve picked and applied the most appropriate tools possible, given your aims and objectives.

The theoretical framework frames the research. If you build that frame right, your research will shine. If you don’t then you’ll struggle.

If you need expert guidance to structure, plan or write your theory framework you can get in touch for a one-on-one coaching session . It’s like having a personal trainer, but for your PhD. 

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67 comments.

Kamara

A great read. Quite some insight into my Phd journey. The conceptual framework?

Dr. Max Lempriere

Glad you found it useful. You having trouble with your conceptual framework?

SHAMIN ALLY

This is enlightening. I was struggling with my Theoretical framework. I will apply the guidelines here and await feedback from my supervisor. Thanks

I’m glad you found the post useful. Thanks for your kind words.

Al

I came across your posts while helping my wife with her work (I finished my PhD two years ago), and I keep thinking…hmmm the pain I went through to learn this… thank you for making it so easy for others…

Thanks for the kind words. I remember how difficult I found my own PhD, so my motivation is to make life easier for as many other PhD students as possible.

umair rahmat

i need some more clear version to develop a theoretical framework. kindly contact me through email. thank you

Yvonne

Great insights. I have read through your thesis. You did a lot of quality work. I see the EM, Environmental Policy Capacity and the institutions theory all discussed. Really detailed and linked. Let me see how mine goes

I’ve sent you an email. I’d be glad to help.

Carolyne

This is very helpful because am really struggling to write my theoretical section. I have a question, I selected a framework but realised it has shortcomings, so I decided to include a model, but also I have another theory. All the three are confusing me how to structure them please I need your help. Thanks

Hi Carolyne,

Thanks for your email. Do you want to have a one-on-one coaching session with me? We’ll be able to get to the bottom of your confusion and clear up your theory problems once and for all. Click here for more details and to book yourself in.

Walter

Do you have a structured outline, similar to the overall diss outline, for the theoretical framework?

I sure do. You can find it here: https://www.thephdproofreaders.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Theoretical-Framework-Template_AW_20190208.pdf

Lindiwe Mpindiwa

What are the advantages of having a chapter on theoretical framework independent of the Literature Review chapter. Please assist.

Thanks for your comment. Whether or not you need a separate literature review and theory framework chapter depends on how distinct they are from one another and on how complex each chapter is. It may be the case that you need two chapters because to discuss both in one would make the chapter very large, complex and hard to follow. Also, it is often the case that the theory framework builds on and addresses gaps you’ve highlighted in your literature review, so for that reason it makes sense to keep them as two separate chapters.

But which one comes first? I thought theoretical framework comes earlier than literature review or is it in a proposal where it is structured that way?

Typically the lit review comes first, then the theory. The lit review makes the case for the research and the theory framework shows the approach you will take to conduct the research.

Thanks for the kind words :)

chidi

Dear Max, I am using multiple related concepts to frame my research. I am confused whether to dedicate a complete chapter to explain only these five concepts, or just operationalise them in one of the chapters. Again, is introducing these concepts early in my introductory chapter a good idea as it forms one of my research questions. This means I have answered the question in the introductory chapter

Thanks for your comment. Whether or not such concepts end up in your introduction/context discussion will depend in part on whether they are framing your research (as in, providing the background or context) or whether you’re using them to answer your research questions (in which case they’ll form part of your theory framework and will therefore come at a later stage).

sevda

Dear Max, I was searching how to structure Theoretical framework and came across your writing. Thank you for this, it is really helpful. I’m one of those phd students who struggles with Theoretical framework :/ I would appreciate your help if possible. Could you please outline, how can I reach you?

Thanks for your kind words. I’m glad you’re finding the phD Knowledge Base useful. You can reach me at max[at]thephdproofreaders.com

Speaks soon!

Naheed Akhtar

I’m so confused about my theoretical framework. Could you possibly help please?

Sure. Have you checked out the one-on-one PhD coaching service we offer? It sounds just that’s just what you need.

huei

I couldn’t express how grateful I am. MAY YOU BE SHOWERED WITH BLESSINGS

Thanks! I’m glad you found the advice useful.

Esther

wow!!! thank you very much , I have been struggling to write my theoretical framework . thank you.

You’re welcome!

Dr. Max I am expecting to learn more on how to pick the right literatures, related to my theme. all of them seem very nice and informative. I am having hard time to select them. and also I have difficulties in starting the sentence of my Introduction. I am researching on “the impact of Prosperity gospel in Tanzanian mainline churches”. my topic is very popular and many has been said … I feel like I am saying what has been said .

Thanks for your comment. I wish you the best of luck.

Kourteney

Hi Max, Great read. Doing my MA Thesis after years away from academia has been a challenge to say the least. Your article provided clarity that I have been asking for/seeking elsewhere (supervision/consultant) for months. Wish I had of found it earlier but glad I came across it.

Thank you and all the best in these uncertain times.

Great! Glad you’re finding the resources useful. Good luck with the rest of the thesis.

Seva

Dear Max, thank you very much, many things got clear after reading this. I have a question, I am using political capability approach as my theoretical foundation which is part of RBW theory. So technically it is not a theory but just an approach, so does this indirectly mean that I am USING RBW Theory? Many Thanks

Hi – glad you found it useful. Without knowing more about your project I’m afraid I can’t advise about your choice of theory framework. Have you approached your supervisor with this question?

Macdonald Muyabalo

This is a very helpful article.

Glad you enjoyed it!

Grace Magama

This has been one of the best articles that has clearly outlined the Theoretical framework. Kindly do a Youtibe video for auditory learners with real examples. It will greatly assist me especiall. I am glad I found this article.

Thanks for the kind words and for your feedback. I’ll take it on board for future guides.

Pauline McGonagle

Thanks so much for this which has helped me with a sticky bit as I move forward to discover new theoretical concepts from slightly outside my field that fit better than those I started out with. A part-time PhD has such a long life that it leaves too much room for changes and adaptations! A big thank you to Rebecca Baker on a Shut Up and Write Session who referred me to this!

I’m glad you found the guide useful. Thanks to you and to Rebecca Baker!

Jackson Isiko

I found this post very helpful, thanks for sharing

Thanks for reading!

Roshni Louis Alphanso

Thank you for this crisp advice on Theoretical framework. personally i have been experiencing difficulties selecting appropriate theory related to the study. However your advice was really beneficial. God bless you for your kindness towards us researchers.

Thanks for the kind words Roshni.

Ntele

Thank you so much for sharing this information regarding the theoretical framework. I revisited my chapter and strengthened it based on the pointers you outlined here. This is a must read before drafting the chapter. Very helpful ?

Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you found it useful.

Kam

This came just in time! I’m taking a research philosophy course and this week’s discussion is “Theory and Theoretical Frameworks”. I found this very helpful.

Great. I hope it helped deepen your understanding.

Channel Zhou

Thank you Dr Lempriere for this insightful article. I have just started my PhD journey and I found this article to be very useful and eye-opening.

Ehikioya Hilary Osolase

Interesting and excellent read.

Thank you so very much for sharing your intellectual insights on this.

PhD finisher

Hi this is really useful thank you. I have a question regarding one of my tools. I realise (quite late) that I am using one tool in a *generalised* way. I could put this another way – the context in which I found this tool constituted a more particular use of this more general tool, and I am seeking to retrieve it for a more general use. This opens the question – on what grounds am I employing a generalised form of this tool? What constraints govern this process of generalisation? Etc. I wish I’d dealt with this earlier… Do you have any thoughts on how I navigate this?

Hi – I’d love to give you advice, but without knowing more about your research and thesis any advice I would give wouldn’t be qualified. Sorry I can’t be of more help.

Doug

I loved your explanation, but what if you ARE doing an inductive project?

Ellana Delfino-Rice

I found your article very useful, thank you! I am currently building a Foucauldian theoretical framework through which to discuss a phenomena (“Karens”).

Do you any academic articles which I can use to justify using the interpretavist approach (using theory as a lens)? I cant find anything through my searches.

Hi – sorry, we don’t I’m afraid.

Roland

Surely, this is a great lesson offered. How I pray I had your email, I would love to learn more from you. Thank you

olivia komukama

Been struggling with my Phd and literature review . This has been very helpful. Is it possible for you to share your email so i can engage more with you and get some insights and help

Stephanie Green

Really really helpful guide, I am so grateful to you for providing this! It is helping me immensely in developing my own framework, a task which previously seemed scary, confusing and impossible!

Carmen van der Merwe

Thanks for this. It is very useful. So should I first write my Lit review and then only the theoretical framework? TIA

Thanks! It’s hard to say without knowing more about your project, I’m afraid!

Alhassan Mutawakilu

Thank you for the wonderful work. I want to know if theoretical frame work can presented in a diagram form

You’re welcome! Yes, your theory framework can be presented visually. It’s a great way of showing the framework in a clean, simplified way. It also serves as a useful reference guide for people to easily refer back to if they want to remind themselves of what your theory framework looks like.

ROBERT

I found your article highly informative. I recently enrolled for my PhD and my supervisor asked me to submit my Research outline. Does the outline have to have that detailed Theoretical framework. Again how best can I choose the theoretical framework suitable for my topic. If I may have a list of Theoretical frameworks I will be happy. I will also be grateful to have a direct contact with you.

Sethu

A great insight into how to write a theoretical framework, simple and jargon free, the article makes the purpose and the method of writing the chapter explicit. Thank you.

That’s so kind of you Sethu. I’m glad you found it useful.

P P Nemaenzhe

i WOULD LIKE TO KNOW WHAT IS THE IDEAL PLACE TO SITUATE THE THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK AND CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK WITHIN THE LITERATURE REVIEW? Peter Nemaenzhe

The theory/conceptual framework is often its own chapter between the lit review and methods. Sometimes though you can include it in the literature review, but I would suggest including it towards the end. I.e. do the lit review first, then introduce the theory framework.

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what chapter is theoretical framework in research

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Guide for Thesis Research

  • Introduction to the Thesis Process
  • Project Planning
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Some Articles About Theory

The following are articles that may help you understand the importance of theory as a fundamental aspect of academic research.

  • It's Just a Theory
  • Literature Reviews, Conceptual Frameworks, and Theoretical Frameworks: Terms, Functions, and Distinctions
  • Use of Theoretical Frameworks in Research

Why is theory important?

what chapter is theoretical framework in research

Theories reflect previous study and analysis that has been conducted in your field.  They propose explanations for phenomena that occur in an area of study. Over time, theories are reexamined, refined, and sometimes discarded in favor of new ones, always with the purpose of providing ever more accurate explanations for the dynamics that operate in our world.

The following quote, taken from John Kuada's book Research Methodology: A Project Guide for University Students , helps to explain the importance of theory when developing a research project:

“Theory provides the language, the concepts, and assumptions that help researchers to make sense of the phenomenon that they seek to investigate. It enables researchers to connect the issues they are investigating to the existing body of knowledge in the area” (Kuada, 2012, p. 64).

A theory can help researchers make predictions about the phenomena they are setting out to study. They can be informative in terms of determining what variables should be observed, as well as how data should be collected, analyzed, and interpreted on the way to presenting and justifying conclusions. 

As a researcher working on a project, it is essential that you be aware of theories that have gained prominence in your field. Think of scholarship as an ongoing conversation. As people publish ideas and develop theories, they help shape that conversation. When you do research and present your findings and ideas, you are joining in on those discussions. You become a contributor. Therefore, it is good to have a sense of what has been said before.

Identify major theories in your field. Be conscious of the fundamental concepts that have guided scholars in your area, and be aware of emerging perspectives and trends. Try to identify a theoretical base from which you can develop your arguments. This will greatly strengthen your positions when the time comes to present your thesis.

Resources About Theory and Theoretical Frameworks

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what chapter is theoretical framework in research

The Ultimate Guide to Qualitative Research - Part 1: The Basics

what chapter is theoretical framework in research

  • Introduction and overview
  • What is qualitative research?
  • What is qualitative data?
  • Examples of qualitative data
  • Qualitative vs. quantitative research
  • Mixed methods
  • Qualitative research preparation
  • Theoretical perspective
  • Theoretical framework
  • Literature reviews
  • Research question
  • Conceptual framework
  • Introduction

Revisiting theoretical frameworks

Revisiting conceptual frameworks, differences between conceptual and theoretical frameworks, examples of theoretical and conceptual frameworks, developing frameworks for your study.

  • Data collection
  • Qualitative research methods
  • Focus groups
  • Observational research
  • Case studies
  • Ethnographical research
  • Ethical considerations
  • Confidentiality and privacy
  • Power dynamics
  • Reflexivity

Conceptual vs. theoretical framework

Theoretical and conceptual frameworks are both essential components of research, guiding and structuring the research. Although they are closely related, the conceptual and theoretical framework in any research project serve distinct purposes and have different characteristics. In this section, we provide an overview of the key differences between theoretical and conceptual frameworks.

what chapter is theoretical framework in research

Theoretical and conceptual frameworks are foundational components of any research study. They each play a crucial role in guiding and structuring the research, from the formation of research questions to the interpretation of results .

While both the theoretical and conceptual framework provides a structure for a study, they serve different functions and can impact the research in distinct ways depending on how they are combined. These differences might seem subtle, but they can significantly impact your research design and outcomes, which is why it is important to think through each one of them.

what chapter is theoretical framework in research

The theoretical framework describes the broader lens through which the researcher views the topic and guides their overall understanding and approach. It connects the theoretical perspective to the data collection and data analysis strategy and offers a structure for organizing and interpreting the collected data.

On the other hand, the conceptual framework describes in detail and connects specific concepts and variables to illustrate potential relationships between them. It serves as a guide for assessing which aspects of the data are relevant and specifying how the research question is being answered. While the theoretical framework outlines how more abstract-level theories shape the study, the conceptual framework operationalizes the empirical observations that can be connected to theory and broader understanding.

Understanding these differences is crucial when designing and conducting your research study. In this chapter, we will look deeper at the distinctions between these types of frameworks, and how they interplay in qualitative research . We aim to provide you with a solid understanding of both, allowing you to effectively utilize them in your own research.

Theoretical frameworks play a central role in research, serving as the bedrock of any investigation. This section offers a refresher on the essential elements and functions of theoretical frameworks in research.

A theoretical framework refers to existing theory, concepts, and definitions that you use to collect relevant data and offer meaningful empirical findings. Providing an overall orientation or lens, it guides your understanding of the research problem and directs your approach to data collection and analysis .

Your chosen theoretical framework directly influences your research questions and methodological choices . It contains specific theories or sets of assumptions drawn from relevant disciplines—such as sociology, psychology, or economics—that you apply to understand your research topic. These existing models and concepts are tools to help you organize and make sense of your data.

The theoretical framework also plays a key role in crafting your research questions and objectives. By determining the theories that are relevant to your research, the theoretical framework shapes the nature and direction of your study. It's essential to note, however, that the theoretical framework's role in qualitative research is not to predict outcomes. Instead, it offers a broader structure to understand and interpret your data, enabling you to situate your findings within the broader academic discourse in a way that makes your research findings meaningful to you and your research audience.

Conceptual frameworks , though related to theoretical frameworks , serve distinct functions within research. This section reexamines the characteristics and functions of conceptual frameworks to provide a better understanding of their roles in qualitative research .

A conceptual framework, in essence, is a system of concepts, assumptions, and beliefs that supports and informs your research. It outlines the specific variables or concepts you'll examine in your study and proposes relationships between them. It's more detailed and specific than a theoretical framework, acting as a contextualized guide for the collection and interpretation of empirical data.

The main role of a conceptual framework is to illustrate the presumed relationships between the variables or concepts you're investigating. These variables or concepts, which you derive from your theoretical framework, are integral to your research questions , objectives, and hypotheses . The conceptual framework shows how you theorize these concepts are related, providing a visual or narrative model of your research.

what chapter is theoretical framework in research

A study's own conceptual framework plays a vital role in guiding the data collection process and the subsequent analysis . The conceptual framework specifies which data you need to collect and provides a structure for interpreting and making sense of the collected data. For instance, if your conceptual framework identifies a particular variable as impacting another, your data collection and analysis will be geared towards investigating this relationship.

what chapter is theoretical framework in research

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Though interconnected, theoretical and conceptual frameworks have distinct roles in research and contribute differently to the research. This section will contrast the two in terms of scope, purpose, their role in the research process, and their relationship to the data analysis strategy and research question .

Scope and purpose of theoretical and conceptual frameworks

Theoretical and conceptual frameworks differ fundamentally in their scope. Theoretical frameworks provide a broad and general view of the research problem, rooted in established theories. They explain phenomena by applying a particular theoretical lens. Conceptual frameworks, on the other hand, offer a more focused view of the specific research problem. They explicitly outline the concrete concepts and variables involved in the study and the relationships between them.

While both frameworks guide the research process, they do so in different ways. Theoretical frameworks guide the overall approach to understanding the research problem by indicating the broader conversation the researcher is contributing to and shaping the research questions.

Conceptual frameworks provide a map for the study, guiding the data collection and interpretation process, including what variables or concepts to explore and how to analyze them.

Study design and data analysis

The two types of frameworks relate differently to the research question and design. The theoretical framework often inspires the research question based on previous theories' predictions or understanding about the phenomena under investigation. A conceptual framework then emerges from the research question, providing a contextualized structure for what exactly the research will explore.

Theoretical and conceptual frameworks also play distinct roles in data analysis. Theoretical frameworks provide the lens for interpreting the data, informing what kinds of themes and patterns might be relevant. Conceptual frameworks, however, present the variables concepts and variables and the relationships among them that will be analyzed. Conceptual frameworks may illustrate concepts and relationships based on previous theory, but they can also include novel concepts or relationships that stem from the particular context being studied.

Finally, the two types of frameworks relate differently to the research question and design. The theoretical framework basically differs from the conceptual framework in that it often inspires the research question based on the theories' predictions about the phenomena under investigation. A conceptual framework, on the other hand, emerges from the research question, providing a structure for investigating it.

Using case studies , we can effectively demonstrate the differences between theoretical and conceptual frameworks. Let’s take a look at some real-world examples that highlight the unique role and function of each framework within a research context.

Consider a study exploring the impact of classroom environments on student learning outcomes. The theoretical framework might be grounded in Piaget's theory of cognitive development, which offers a broad lens for understanding how students learn and process information.

Within this theoretical framework, the researcher formulates the conceptual framework. The conceptual framework identifies specific variables to study such as classroom layout, teacher-student ratio, availability of learning materials, and student performance as the dependent variable. It then outlines the expected relationships between these variables, such as proposing that a lower teacher-student ratio and well-equipped classrooms positively impact student performance.

what chapter is theoretical framework in research

Another study might aim to understand the factors influencing the job satisfaction of employees in a corporate setting. The theoretical framework could be based on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, interpreting job satisfaction in terms of fulfilling employees' physiological, safety, social, esteem, and self-actualization needs.

From this theoretical perspective, the researcher constructs the conceptual framework, identifying specific variables such as salary (physiological needs), job security (safety needs), teamwork (social needs), recognition (esteem needs), and career development opportunities (self-actualization needs). The conceptual framework proposes relationships among these variables and job satisfaction, such as higher salaries and more recognition being related to higher job satisfaction.

what chapter is theoretical framework in research

After understanding the unique roles and functions of these types of frameworks, you might ask: How do I develop them for my study? It's essential to remember that it's not a question of choosing one over the other, as both frameworks can and often do coexist within the same research project.

The choice of a theoretical and a conceptual framework often depends on the nature of your research question . If your research question is more exploratory and requires a broad understanding of the problem, a theoretical framework can provide a useful lens for interpretation. However, your conceptual framework may end up looking rather different to previous theory as you collect data and discover new concepts or relationships.

Consider the nature of your research problem as well. If you are studying a well-researched problem and there are established theories about it, using a theoretical framework to interpret your findings in light of these theories might be beneficial. But if your study explores a novel problem or aims to understand specific processes or relationships, developing a conceptual framework that maps these specific elements could prove more effective.

what chapter is theoretical framework in research

Your research methodology could also inform your choice. If your study is more interpretive and aims to understand people's experiences and perceptions, a theoretical framework can outline broader concepts that are relevant to approaching your study. Your conceptual framework can then shed light on the specific concepts that emerged in your data. By carefully thinking through your theoretical and conceptual frameworks, you can effectively utilize both types of frameworks in your research, ensuring a solid foundation for your study.

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what chapter is theoretical framework in research

Theoretical vs Conceptual Framework

What they are & how they’re different (with examples)

By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | Reviewed By: Eunice Rautenbach (DTech) | March 2023

If you’re new to academic research, sooner or later you’re bound to run into the terms theoretical framework and conceptual framework . These are closely related but distinctly different things (despite some people using them interchangeably) and it’s important to understand what each means. In this post, we’ll unpack both theoretical and conceptual frameworks in plain language along with practical examples , so that you can approach your research with confidence.

Overview: Theoretical vs Conceptual

What is a theoretical framework, example of a theoretical framework, what is a conceptual framework, example of a conceptual framework.

  • Theoretical vs conceptual: which one should I use?

A theoretical framework (also sometimes referred to as a foundation of theory) is essentially a set of concepts, definitions, and propositions that together form a structured, comprehensive view of a specific phenomenon.

In other words, a theoretical framework is a collection of existing theories, models and frameworks that provides a foundation of core knowledge – a “lay of the land”, so to speak, from which you can build a research study. For this reason, it’s usually presented fairly early within the literature review section of a dissertation, thesis or research paper .

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Let’s look at an example to make the theoretical framework a little more tangible.

If your research aims involve understanding what factors contributed toward people trusting investment brokers, you’d need to first lay down some theory so that it’s crystal clear what exactly you mean by this. For example, you would need to define what you mean by “trust”, as there are many potential definitions of this concept. The same would be true for any other constructs or variables of interest.

You’d also need to identify what existing theories have to say in relation to your research aim. In this case, you could discuss some of the key literature in relation to organisational trust. A quick search on Google Scholar using some well-considered keywords generally provides a good starting point.

foundation of theory

Typically, you’ll present your theoretical framework in written form , although sometimes it will make sense to utilise some visuals to show how different theories relate to each other. Your theoretical framework may revolve around just one major theory , or it could comprise a collection of different interrelated theories and models. In some cases, there will be a lot to cover and in some cases, not. Regardless of size, the theoretical framework is a critical ingredient in any study.

Simply put, the theoretical framework is the core foundation of theory that you’ll build your research upon. As we’ve mentioned many times on the blog, good research is developed by standing on the shoulders of giants . It’s extremely unlikely that your research topic will be completely novel and that there’ll be absolutely no existing theory that relates to it. If that’s the case, the most likely explanation is that you just haven’t reviewed enough literature yet! So, make sure that you take the time to review and digest the seminal sources.

Need a helping hand?

what chapter is theoretical framework in research

A conceptual framework is typically a visual representation (although it can also be written out) of the expected relationships and connections between various concepts, constructs or variables. In other words, a conceptual framework visualises how the researcher views and organises the various concepts and variables within their study. This is typically based on aspects drawn from the theoretical framework, so there is a relationship between the two.

Quite commonly, conceptual frameworks are used to visualise the potential causal relationships and pathways that the researcher expects to find, based on their understanding of both the theoretical literature and the existing empirical research . Therefore, the conceptual framework is often used to develop research questions and hypotheses .

Let’s look at an example of a conceptual framework to make it a little more tangible. You’ll notice that in this specific conceptual framework, the hypotheses are integrated into the visual, helping to connect the rest of the document to the framework.

example of a conceptual framework

As you can see, conceptual frameworks often make use of different shapes , lines and arrows to visualise the connections and relationships between different components and/or variables. Ultimately, the conceptual framework provides an opportunity for you to make explicit your understanding of how everything is connected . So, be sure to make use of all the visual aids you can – clean design, well-considered colours and concise text are your friends.

Theoretical framework vs conceptual framework

As you can see, the theoretical framework and the conceptual framework are closely related concepts, but they differ in terms of focus and purpose. The theoretical framework is used to lay down a foundation of theory on which your study will be built, whereas the conceptual framework visualises what you anticipate the relationships between concepts, constructs and variables may be, based on your understanding of the existing literature and the specific context and focus of your research. In other words, they’re different tools for different jobs , but they’re neighbours in the toolbox.

Naturally, the theoretical framework and the conceptual framework are not mutually exclusive . In fact, it’s quite likely that you’ll include both in your dissertation or thesis, especially if your research aims involve investigating relationships between variables. Of course, every research project is different and universities differ in terms of their expectations for dissertations and theses, so it’s always a good idea to have a look at past projects to get a feel for what the norms and expectations are at your specific institution.

Want to learn more about research terminology, methods and techniques? Be sure to check out the rest of the Grad Coach blog . Alternatively, if you’re looking for hands-on help, have a look at our private coaching service , where we hold your hand through the research process, step by step.

what chapter is theoretical framework in research

Psst... there’s more!

This post was based on one of our popular Research Bootcamps . If you're working on a research project, you'll definitely want to check this out ...

21 Comments

CIPTA PRAMANA

Thank you for giving a valuable lesson

Muhammed Ebrahim Feto

good thanks!

Benson Wandago

VERY INSIGHTFUL

olawale rasaq

thanks for given very interested understand about both theoritical and conceptual framework

Tracey

I am researching teacher beliefs about inclusive education but not using a theoretical framework just conceptual frame using teacher beliefs, inclusive education and inclusive practices as my concepts

joshua

good, fantastic

Melese Takele

great! thanks for the clarification. I am planning to use both for my implementation evaluation of EmONC service at primary health care facility level. its theoretical foundation rooted from the principles of implementation science.

Dorcas

This is a good one…now have a better understanding of Theoretical and Conceptual frameworks. Highly grateful

Ahmed Adumani

Very educating and fantastic,good to be part of you guys,I appreciate your enlightened concern.

Lorna

Thanks for shedding light on these two t opics. Much clearer in my head now.

Cor

Simple and clear!

Alemayehu Wolde Oljira

The differences between the two topics was well explained, thank you very much!

Ntoks

Thank you great insight

Maria Glenda O. De Lara

Superb. Thank you so much.

Sebona

Hello Gradcoach! I’m excited with your fantastic educational videos which mainly focused on all over research process. I’m a student, I kindly ask and need your support. So, if it’s possible please send me the PDF format of all topic provided here, I put my email below, thank you!

Pauline

I am really grateful I found this website. This is very helpful for an MPA student like myself.

Adams Yusif

I’m clear with these two terminologies now. Useful information. I appreciate it. Thank you

Ushenese Roger Egin

I’m well inform about these two concepts in research. Thanks

Omotola

I found this really helpful. It is well explained. Thank you.

olufolake olumogba

very clear and useful. information important at start of research!!

Chris Omira

Wow, great information, clear and concise review of the differences between theoretical and conceptual frameworks. Thank you! keep up the good work.

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Chapter 4: Theoretical frameworks for qualitative research

Tess Tsindos

Learning outcomes

Upon completion of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Describe qualitative frameworks.
  • Explain why frameworks are used in qualitative research.
  • Identify various frameworks used in qualitative research.

What is a Framework?

A framework is a set of broad concepts or principles used to guide research.  As described by Varpio and colleagues 1 , a framework is a logically developed and connected set of concepts and premises – developed from one or more theories – that a researcher uses as a scaffold for their study. The researcher must define any concepts and theories that will provide the grounding for the research and link them through logical connections, and must relate these concepts to the study that is being carried out. In using a particular theory to guide their study, the researcher needs to ensure that the theoretical framework is reflected in the work in which they are engaged.

It is important to acknowledge that the terms ‘theories’ ( see Chapter 3 ), ‘frameworks’ and ‘paradigms’ are sometimes used interchangeably. However, there are differences between these concepts. To complicate matters further, theoretical frameworks and conceptual frameworks are also used. In addition, quantitative and qualitative researchers usually start from different standpoints in terms of theories and frameworks.

A diagram by Varpio and colleagues demonstrates the similarities and differences between theories and frameworks, and how they influence research approaches. 1(p991) The diagram displays the objectivist or deductive approach to research on the left-hand side. Note how the conceptual framework is first finalised before any research is commenced, and it involves the articulation of hypotheses that are to be tested using the data collected. This is often referred to as a top-down approach and/or a general (theory or framework) to a specific (data) approach.

The diagram displays the subjectivist or inductive approach to research on the right-hand side. Note how data is collected first, and through data analysis, a tentative framework is proposed. The framework is then firmed up as new insights are gained from the data analysis. This is referred to as a specific (data) to general (theory and framework) approach .

Why d o w e u se f rameworks?

A framework helps guide the questions used to elicit your data collection. A framework is not prescriptive, but it needs to be suitable for the research question(s), setting and participants. Therefore, the researcher might use different frameworks to guide different research studies.

A framework informs the study’s recruitment and sampling, and informs, guides or structures how data is collected and analysed. For example, a framework concerned with health systems will assist the researcher to analyse the data in a certain way, while a framework concerned with psychological development will have very different ways of approaching the analysis of data. This is due to the differences underpinning the concepts and premises concerned with investigating health systems, compared to the study of psychological development. The framework adopted also guides emerging interpretations of the data and helps in comparing and contrasting data across participants, cases and studies.

Some examples of foundational frameworks used to guide qualitative research in health services and public health:

  • The Behaviour Change Wheel 2
  • Consolidated Framework for Implementation Research (CFIR) 3
  • Theoretical framework of acceptability 4
  • Normalization Process Theory 5
  • Candidacy Framework 6
  • Aboriginal social determinants of health 7(p8)
  • Social determinants of health 8
  • Social model of health 9,10
  • Systems theory 11
  • Biopsychosocial model 12
  • Discipline-specific models
  • Disease-specific frameworks

E xamples of f rameworks

In Table 4.1, citations of published papers are included to demonstrate how the particular framework helps to ‘frame’ the research question and the interpretation of results.

Table 4.1. Frameworks and references




Suits research exploring:

• Changing behaviours within health contexts to address patient and carer practices

• Changing behaviours regarding environmental concerns

• Barriers and enablers to behaviour/ practice/ implementation

• Intervention planning and implementation

• Post-evaluation

• Promoting physical activity











This study examined how the COM-B model could be used to increase children’s hand-washing and improve disinfecting surfaces in seven countries. Each country had a different result based on capability, opportunity and/or motivation.


This study examined the barriers and facilitators to talking about death and dying among the general population in Northern Ireland. The findings were mapped across the COM-B behaviour change model and the theoretical domains framework.


This study explored women’s understanding of health and health behaviours and the supports that were important to promote behavioural change in the preconception period. Coding took place and a deductive process identified themes mapped to the COM-B framework.


Identified perceived barriers and enablers of the implementation of a falls-prevention program to inform the implementation in a randomised controlled trial. Strategies to optimise the successful implementation of the program were also sought. Results were mapped against the COM-B framework.


Great for:

• Evaluation

• Intervention and implementation planning















Explored participants’ experiences with the program (ceasing smoking) to inform future implementation efforts of combined smoking cessation and alcohol abstinence interventions, guided by the CFIR. Key findings from the interviews are presented in relation to overarching CFIR domains.


This mixed-methods study drew upon the CFIR combined with the concept of ‘intervention fidelity’ to evaluate the quality of the interprofessional counselling sessions, to explore the perspective of, directly and indirectly, involved healthcare staff, as well as to analyse the perceptions and experiences of the patients.


This is a protocol for a scoping study to identify the topics in need of study and areas for future research on barriers to and facilitators of the implementation of workplace health-promoting interventions. Data analysis was aligned to the CFIR.


This study examined the utility of the CFIR in identifying and comparing barriers and facilitators influencing the implementation of participatory research trials, by employing an adaptation of the CFIR to assess the implementation of a multi-component, urban public school-based participatory health intervention. Adapted CFIR constructs guided the largely deductive approach to thematic data analysis.


Good for:

• Pre-implementation, implementation and post-implementation studies

• Feasibility studies

• Intervention development

















This study aimed to develop and assess the psychometric properties of a measurement scale for acceptance of a telephone-facilitated health coaching intervention, based on the TFA; and to determine the acceptability of the intervention among participants living with diabetes or having a high risk of diabetes in socio-economically disadvantaged areas in Stockholm. A questionnaire using TFA was employed.


This paper reported patients’ perceived acceptability of the use of PINCER in primary care and proposes suggestions on how delivery of PINCER-related care could be delivered in a way that is acceptable and not unnecessarily burdensome.


This study describes the nationwide implementation of a program targeting physical activity and sedentary behaviour in vocational schools (Lets’s Move It; LMI). Results showed high levels of acceptability and reach of training.


This study drew on established models such TFA to assess the acceptability of SmartNet in Ugandan households. Results showed the monitor needs to continue to be optimised to make it more acceptable to users and to accurately reflect standard insecticide-treated nets use to improve understanding of prevention behaviours in malaria-endemic settings.


Good for:

• Implementation

• Evaluation
























This pre-implementation evaluation of an integrated, shared decision-making personal health record system (e-PHR) was underpinned by NPT. The theory provides a framework to analyse cognitive and behavioural mechanisms known to influence implementation success. It was extremely valuable for informing the future implementation of e-PHR, including perceived benefits and barriers.


This study assessed the impact of an intervention combining health literacy colorectal cancer-screening (CRC) training for GPs, using a pictorial brochure and video targeting eligible patients, to increase screening and other secondary outcomes, after 1 year, in several underserved geographic areas in France. They propose to evaluate health literacy among underserved populations to address health inequalities and improve CRC screening uptake and other outcomes.


This study aimed to ascertain acceptability among pregnant smokers receiving the intervention. Interview schedules were informed by NPT and theoretical domains framework; interviews were analysed thematically, using the framework method and NPT. Findings are grouped according to the four NPT concepts.


The study sought to understand how the implementation of primary care services for transgender individuals compares across various models of primary care delivery in Ontario, Canada. Using the NPT framework to guide analysis, key themes emerged about the successful implementation of primary care services for transgender individuals.


Good for:

• Patient experiences

• Evaluation of health services

• Evaluation


























The study used the candidacy framework to explore how the doctor–patient relationship can influence perceived eligibility to visit their GP among people experiencing cancer alarm symptoms. A valuable theoretical framework for understanding the interactional factors of the doctor–patient relationship which influence perceived eligibility to seek help for possible cancer alarm symptoms.


The study aimed to understand ways in which a mHealth intervention could be developed to overcome barriers to existing HIV testing and care services and promote HIV self-testing and linkage to prevention and care in a poor, HIV hyperendemic community in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Themes were identified from the interview transcripts, manually coded, and thematically analysed informed by the candidacy framework.


This study explored the perceived problems of non-engagement that outreach aims to address and specific mechanisms of outreach hypothesised to tackle these. Analysis was thematically guided by the concept of 'candidacy', which theorises the dynamic process through which services and individuals negotiate appropriate service use.


This was a theoretically informed examination of experiences of access to secondary mental health services during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in England. Findings affirm the value of the construct of candidacy for explaining access to mental health care, but also enable deepened understanding of the specific features of candidacy.


Good for:

• Examining how social injustice affects health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from a non-medical model

• Examining how inequalities in illness and mortality rates result from personal context within communities characterised by social, economic and political inequality, factors





















Culture had a strong presence in program delivery and building social cohesion, and social capital emerged as themes. As a primary health care provider, the ACCHO sector addresses the social determinants of health and health inequity experienced by Indigenous communities.


The community-controlled service increased their breadth of strategies used to address primary health care indicates the need for greater understanding of the benefits of this model, as well as advocacy to safeguard it from measures that may undermine its equity performance.


The primary health care delivered by ACCHOs is culturally appropriate because they are incorporated Aboriginal organisations, initiated by local Aboriginal communities and based in local Aboriginal communities, governed by Aboriginal bodies elected by the local Aboriginal community, delivering a holistic and culturally appropriate health service to the community that controls it.


After investigation, the authors state that failure to recognise the intersection of culture with other structural and societal factors creates and compounds poor health outcomes, thereby multiplying financial, intellectual and humanitarian cost. They review health and health practices as they relate to culture.


Good for:

• Understanding the non-medical factors that influence health and social outcomes










The study identifies and describes the social determinants of health.



This study examines a socio-ecological approach to healthy eating and active living, a model of health that recognises the interaction between individuals and their greater environment and its impact on health.


The study considers the healthcare screening and referral of families to resources that are critical roles for pediatric healthcare practices to consider as part of addressing social determinants of health.



This study examines how (apart from age) social and economic factors contribute to disability differences between older men and women.


Good for:


• Examining all the factors that contribute to health, such as social, cultural, political and environmental factors










Participants provided narratives of the pictures, using pre-identified themes and the different levels of the social-ecological model.


The study tested a socioecological model of the determinants of health literacy with a special focus on geographical differences in Europe.


This study investigated the interaction of family support, transport cost (ex-post) and disabilities on health service-seeking behaviour among older people, from the perspective of the social ecological model.


The study examined the factors that contributed to low birth weight in babies, including age, gestational age, birth spacing, age at marriage, history of having a low birth weight infant, miscarriage and stillbirth, mean weight before pregnancy, body mass index, hemoglobin and hematocrit, educational level, family size, number of pregnancies, husband’s support during pregnancy and husband’s occupation.


Good for:

• Using a new way of thinking to understand the whole rather than individual parts

















The study outlines a systems theory of mental health care and promotion that is specific to needs of the recreational sport system, so that context-specific, effective policies, interventions and models of care can be articulated and tested.


This study uses a systems-thinking approach to consider the person–environment transaction and to focus on the underlying processes and patterns of human behaviour of flight attendants.


The study examines the family as a system and proposes that family systems theory is a formal theory that can be used to guide family practice and research.


The authors examine the meta-theoretical, theoretical and methodological foundations of the literature base of hope. They examine the intersection of positive psychology with systems thinking.


Good for:

• Understanding the many factors that affect health, including biological, psychological and social factors














The biopsychosocial model was used to guide the entire research study: background, question, tools and analysis.


The biopsychosocial model was used to guide the researchers’ understanding of ‘health’ and the many factors that affect it, including the wider determinants of health in the discussion.


The biopsychosocial model is not specifically mentioned; however, factors such as depression, age, social support, income, co-morbidities including diabetes and hypertension, and sex were measured and analysed.


The study uses the Survey of Unmet Needs for data collection, which determines needs across impairment, activities of daily living, occupational activities, psychological needs, and community access. Data was analysed across the full spectrum of needs.

As discussed in Chapter 3, qualitative research is not an absolute science. While not all research may need a framework or theory (particularly descriptive studies, outlined in Chapter 5), the use of a framework or theory can help to position the research questions, research processes and conclusions and implications within the relevant research paradigm. Theories and frameworks also help to bring to focus areas of the research problem that may not have been considered.

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Qualitative Research – a practical guide for health and social care researchers and practitioners Copyright © 2023 by Tess Tsindos is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Research Process Guide

  • Step 1 - Identifying and Developing a Topic
  • Step 2 - Narrowing Your Topic
  • Step 3 - Developing Research Questions
  • Step 4 - Conducting a Literature Review
  • Step 5 - Choosing a Conceptual or Theoretical Framework
  • Step 6 - Determining Research Methodology
  • Step 6a - Determining Research Methodology - Quantitative Research Methods
  • Step 6b - Determining Research Methodology - Qualitative Design
  • Step 7 - Considering Ethical Issues in Research with Human Subjects - Institutional Review Board (IRB)
  • Step 8 - Collecting Data
  • Step 9 - Analyzing Data
  • Step 10 - Interpreting Results
  • Step 11 - Writing Up Results

Step 5: Choosing a Conceptual or Theoretical Framework

For all empirical research, you must choose a conceptual or theoretical framework to “frame” or “ground” your study. Theoretical and/or conceptual frameworks are often difficult to understand and challenging to choose which is the right one (s) for your research objective (Hatch, 2002). Truthfully, it is difficult to get a real understanding of what these frameworks are and how you are supposed to find what works for your study. The discussion of your framework is addressed in your Chapter 1, the introduction and then is further explored through in-depth discussion in your Chapter 2 literature review.

“Theory is supposed to help researchers of any persuasion clarify what they are up to and to help them to explain to others what they are up to” (Walcott, 1995, p. 189, as cited in Fallon, 2016). It is important to discuss in the beginning to help researchers “clarify what they are up to” and important at the writing stage to “help explain to others what they are up to” (Fallon, 2016).  

What is the difference between the conceptual and the theoretical framework?

Often, the terms theoretical framework and conceptual framework are used interchangeably, which, in this author’s opinion, makes an already difficult to understand idea even more confusing. According to Imenda (2014) and Mensah et al. (2020), there is a very distinct difference between conceptual and theoretical frameworks, not only how they are defined but also, how and when they are used in empirical research.

Imenda (2014) contends that the framework “is the soul of every research project” (p.185). Essentially, it determines how the researcher formulates the research problem, goes about investigating the problem, and what meaning or significance the research lends to the data collected and analyzed investigating the problem.  

Very generally, you would use a theoretical framework if you were conducting deductive research as you test a theory or theories. “A theoretical framework comprises the theories expressed by experts in the field into which you plan to research, which you draw upon to provide a theoretical coat hanger for your data analysis and interpretation of results” (Kivunja, 2018, p.45 ).  Often this framework is based on established theories like, the Set Theory, evolution, the theory of matter or similar pre-existing generalizations like Newton’s law of motion (Imenda, 2014). A good theoretical framework should be linked to, and possibly emerge from your literature review.

Using a theoretical framework allows you to (Kivunja, 2018):

  • Increase the credibility and validity of your research
  • Interpret meaning found in data collection
  • Evaluate solutions for solving your research problem

According to Mensah et al.(2020) the theoretical framework for your research is not a summary of your own thoughts about your research. Rather, it is a compilation of the thoughts of giants in your field, as they relate to your proposed research, as you understand those theories, and how you will use those theories to understand the data collected.

Additionally, Jabareen (2009) defines a conceptual framework as interlinked concepts that together provide a comprehensive  understanding of a phenomenon. “A conceptual framework is the total, logical orientation and associations of anything and everything that forms the underlying thinking, structures, plans and practices and implementation of your entire research project” (Kivunja, 2018, p. 45). You would largely use a conceptual framework when conducting inductive research, as it helps the researcher answer questions that are core to qualitative research, such as the nature of reality, the way things are and how things really work in a real world (Guba & Lincoln, 1994).

Some consideration of the following questions can help define your conceptual framework (Kinvunja, 2018):

  • What do you want to do in your research? And why do you want to do it?
  • How do you plan to do it?
  • What meaning will you make of the data?
  • Which worldview will you situate your study in? (i.e. Positivist? Interpretist? Constructivist?)

Examples of conceptual frameworks include the definitions a sociologist uses to describe a culture and the types of data an economist considers when evaluating a country’s industry. The conceptual framework consists of the ideas that are used to define research and evaluate data. Conceptual frameworks are often laid out at the beginning of a paper or an experiment description for a reader to understand the methods used (Mensah et al., 2020).

You do not need to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. See what theoretical and conceptual frameworks are used in the really robust research in your field on your topic. Then, examine whether those frameworks would work for you. Keep searching for the framework(s) that work best for your study.

Writing it up

After choosing your framework is to articulate the theory or concept that grounds your study by defining it and demonstrating the rationale for this particular set of theories or concepts guiding your inquiry.  Write up your theoretical perspective sections for your research plan following your choice of worldview/ research paradigm. For a quantitative study you are particularly interested in theory using the procedures for a causal analysis. For qualitative research, you should locate qualitative journal articles that use a priori theory (knowledge that is acquired not through experience) that is modified during the process of research (Creswell & Creswell, 2018). Also, you should generate or develop a theory at the end of your study. For a mixed methods study which uses a transformative (critical theoretical lens) identify how the lens specifically shapes the research process.                                   

Creswell, J. W., & Creswell, J. D. (2 018). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Sage.

Fallon, M. (2016). Writing up quantitative research in the social and behavioral sciences. Sense. https://kean.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=cookie,ip,url,cpid&custid=keaninf&db=nlebk&AN=1288374&site=ehost-live&scope=site&ebv=EB&ppid=pp_C1

Guba, E. G., & Lincoln, Y. S. (1994). Competing paradigms in qualitative research. Handbook of Qualitative Research, 2 (163-194), 105.

Hatch, J. A. ( 2002). Doing qualitative research in education settings. SUNY Press.

Imenda, S. (2014). Is there a conceptual difference between theoretical and conceptual frameworks?  Journal of Social Sciences, 38 (2), 185-195.

Jabareen, Y. (2009). Building a conceptual framework: Philosophy, definitions, and procedure. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 8 (4), 49-62.

Kivunja, C. ( 2018, December 3). Distinguishing between theory, theoretical framework, and conceptual framework. The International Journal of Higher Education, 7 (6), 44-53. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1198682.pdf  

Mensah, R. O., Agyemang, F., Acquah, A., Babah, P. A., & Dontoh, J. (2020). Discourses on conceptual and theoretical frameworks in research: Meaning and implications for researchers. Journal of African Interdisciplinary Studies, 4 (5), 53-64.

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Additional Guidance

  • Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: Theoretical Framework University of Southern California
  • The Research Planning Process: Theoretical Framework (video)
  • Theoretical Framework (video)
  • Understanding, selecting, and integrating a Theoretical framework in dissertation research: Creating the blueprint for your “house” Grant, C., & Osanloo, A. (2014). Understanding, Selecting, and Integrating a Theoretical Framework in Dissertation Research: Creating the Blueprint for Your "House". Administrative Issues Journal: Connecting Education, Practice, And Research, 4(2), 12-26.
  • What is a Theoretical Framework? Merriam, S. B., & Tisdell, E. J. (2015). Qualitative research: A guide to design and implementation. John Wiley & Sons.

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If you are looking for a document in the Dissertation Center or Applied Doctoral Center and can't find it please contact your Chair or The Center for Teaching and Learning at [email protected]

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  • Applied Doctoral Center Collection of resources to support students in completing their project/dissertation-in-practice as part of the Applied Doctoral Experience (ADE).

Theoretical Frameworks

Theoretical frameworks provide a particular perspective, or lens, through which to examine a topic. There are many different lenses, such as psychological theories, social theories, organizational theories and economic theories, which may be used to define concepts and explain phenomena. Sometimes these frameworks may come from an area outside of your immediate academic discipline. Using a theoretical framework for your dissertation can help you to better analyze past events by providing a particular set of questions to ask, and a particular perspective to use when examining your topic.

Traditionally, Ph.D. and Applied Degree research must include relevant theoretical framework(s) to frame, or inform, every aspect of the dissertation. Further, Ph.D. dissertations should make an original contribution to the field by adding support for the theory, or, conversely, demonstrating ways in which the theory may not be as explanatory as originally thought. You can learn more about the theoretical framework requirements in the NU Dissertation Center .

It can be difficult to find scholarly work that takes a particular theoretical approach because articles, books, and book chapters are typically described according to the topics they tackle rather than the methods they use to tackle them. Further, there is no single database or search technique for locating theoretical information. However, the suggestions below provide techniques for locating possible theoretical frameworks and theorists in the Library databases. In addition to your Library research, you should discuss possible theories your Dissertation Chair to ensure they align with your study. Also, keep in mind that you will probably find and discard several potential theoretical frameworks before one is finally chosen.

  • The Theoretical Framework Guide from the NU Center for Teaching and Learning
  • Theoretical Frameworks Entry from the The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods
  • Theoretical Frameworks in Qualitative Research Book effectively explains, through discussion and example, what a theoretical framework is, how it is used in qualitative research, and the effects it has on the research process.

Conceptual Frameworks

A conceptual framework provides the concept or set of related concepts supporting the basis or foundation of a study. It creates a conceptual model for possible strategies or courses of action identified as important for researching a particular problem or issue. While a conceptual framework is often referred to interchangeably with a theoretical framework, it maintains a distinct purpose. A conceptual framework is used to clarify concepts, organize ideas, and identify relationships with which to frame a study. Concepts are logically developed and organized to support an overall framework and often exhibited graphically within dissertation research. Note that a dissertation may include both a theoretical framework and a conceptual framework.

The suggestions below provide techniques for locating possible conceptual frameworks in the Library databases. Note when examples may use the term "theoretical framework," you may change your search terms to "conceptual framework." In addition to your Library research, you should discuss possible frameworks your Dissertation Chair to ensure they align with your study. Also, keep in mind that you will probably find and discard several potential conceptual frameworks before one is finally chosen.

  • The Conceptual Framework Guide from the NU Center for Teaching and Learning
  • Conceptual Framework Entry from the SAGE Encyclopedia of Educational Research, Measurement, and Evaluation
  • E-Book Databases
  • ProQuest Dissertations & Theses
  • NavigatorSearch
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e-Book

Content: A reference database useful for accessing scholarly definitions, background and contextual information. Subjects covered include art, biography, business, economics, education, history, literature, music, psychology, religion, and science and technology.

Purpose: An excellent starting point for brainstorming a research topic and building out your initial search terms list.

Special Features: Mindmap; related articles; image search

Current Coverage

Content: Ebooks with coverage across all academic disciplines. The collection offers a critical mass of more than 150,000 foundational scholarly ebooks with balanced quantity and quality to improve teaching, learning and research workflow and outcomes.

Purpose: Provides access to multidisciplinary ebooks for download or to be read online.

Special Features: Browse by subject option; highlight and take notes in text.

Help using this database.

Content : Books, chapters, and peer-reviewed content about a diverse range of topics.

Purpose: Users may access full text, and authoritative information about many topics.

Special Features: Users may explore topics and subjects.

Use the Library’s e-book databases to gather background information on a particular theory or theorist. Since the e-book databases will contain fewer resources than a database containing thousands of scholarly journal articles, it is best to keep your search terms a little more broad.

For example, a search for education theory in the Ebook Central database results in many relevant e-books, as shown below. Expanding the Table of Contents will provide additional details about the e-book.

Ebook Central search results screen showing books related to education theories.

Encyclopedias and handbooks will also provide reliable background information on particular theories. For example, a search for cognitive developmental theory in the Credo Reference database results in a number of reference entries which discuss the history of the theory, identify relevant theorists, and cite seminal research studies.

Credo Reference search results screen for cognitive developmental theory.

You may search for theorists and theoretical information using Google and Google Scholar , as well. However, please keep in mind that you will need to be more discriminating when it comes to using material found on open access websites. We recommend reviewing the Website Evaluation guidelines when considering online sources.

One method that may be used in Google is limiting your search by a particular domain name. If a website ends in .org, .gov, or .edu, it is more likely to be a scholarly source. If it ends in .com or .net it is less likely to be a scholarly source. In the search below, for example, we have limited our search for "leadership theories" to just those websites ending with .edu. You may also find this domain limiter under Tools>Advanced Search.

Note: Limiting to a particular domain is not necessary in Google Scholar, as all results in Google Scholar may be considered scholarly. This may include articles, theses, books, abstracts and court opinions, material from academic publishers, professional societies, online repositories, universities and other web sites.

Google search box with example search terms "leadership theories" site:.edu

For additional information, see the following:

  • Google for School LibGuide
  • Google Scholar Quick Tutorial Video A short video demonstration of using Google Scholar for academic research.
  • Limit By Domain FAQ

Content: National University & NCU student dissertations and literature reviews.

Purpose: Use for foundational research, to locate test instruments and data, and more. 

Special Features: Search by advisor (chair), degree, degree level, or department. Includes a read-aloud feature.

Content: Global student dissertations and literature reviews.

Special Features: Search by advisor (chair), degree, degree level, or department. Includes a read-aloud feature

The ProQuest Dissertations & Theses database (PQDT) is the world's most comprehensive collection of dissertations and theses. It is the database of record for graduate research, with over 2.3 million dissertations and theses included from around the world.

Since most doctoral research requires a theoretical framework, looking at completed dissertations related to your topic is an effective way to identify relevant theories and theorists. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global provides access to over 3 million full text doctoral dissertations and graduate theses. You may limit your search to only doctoral dissertations by using the Advanced Search screen. Look at the table of contents or abstract for reference to theoretical framework, as shown below. The dissertation’s references/bibliography will have a full citation to the original theorist’s research.

Screenshot of a dissertation abstract highlighting the theoretical framework.

Content: Scholarly journals, e-books, videos and more. 

Purpose: A key multidisciplinary database for most topics. It is one of the library’s main search engines and the most comprehensive single search. 

Note: Certain library databases and publisher content are not searchable in NavigatorSearch, and individual databases may need to be searched to retrieve information due to unique content. NavigatorSearch can be found at https://resources.nu.edu .

On the NavigatorSearchscreen, include theor* as one your search terms, as shown below. It will retrieve results that include one of the following keywords: theory, theories, theoretical, theorist, or theorists . It is important to keep in mind, however, that this is not a foolproof method for locating theoretical frameworks. Scholars will often cite theory or theorists in order to refute them, or because they are saying something that's tangentially related, or they may even just refer to theory briefly in passing. In our example, we have selected the field for AB Abstract because if theory is mentioned within the abstract, the study is more likely to take a theoretical approach.  

Screenshot of Roadrunner Advanced Search with example search for theor*.

As shown below, results from our example search clearly include articles which apply theory to the topic of curriculum design.  

NavigatorSearch results screen showing article titles related to theory.

Remember to look past the article title. Theoretical information may be mentioned in a subheading, or referred to elsewhere in the document. Use the FIND feature in your PDF viewer or internet browser to scan the document for terms such as theor*  (to pull up theory, theorist, theoretical), framework, conceptual, perspective , etc., as shown below.

Screenshot of an article PDF showing the Find feature.

Content: Books, reference works, journal articles, and instructional videos on research methods and design. 

Purpose: Use to learn more about qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods research. 

Special Features: Includes a methods map, project planner, and "which stats" test

SAGE Research Methods  is a multimedia database containing more than 1,000 books, reference works, journal articles, and instructional videos covering every step of the research process. It includes e-books and e-book chapters which may help you better understand the theoretical framework aspect of your research study. A selection of resources is included below:

Searching in SAGE Research Methods

Use the main search bar to locate information about theoretical frameworks. Search the general phrase "theoretical frameworks," or the name of a specific theoretical framework like "social cognitive theory," in quotation marks to yield results with that specific phrase. See the example below.

Image of SAGE Research Methods search screen

You may also browse content in this database by Discipline . Select  Browse  on the top navigation to view a list of key topics.

Browse by Topic or Discipline screen in SAGE Research Methods

  • Anfara, V. (2008). Theoretical frameworks. In L. M. Given (Ed.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods. (pp. 870-874). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
  • Anfara, V. A., & Mertz, N. T. (Eds.). (2006). Theoretical frameworks in qualitative research. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
  • Theoretical framework. (2014). In Walker, R., & Solvason, C. Success with your early years research project (pp. 21-32). London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Content: Citations and articles in multi-disciplines not found through a NavigatorSearch.

Purpose: Used to conduct topic searches as well as find additional resources that have cited a specific resource (citation network).

You may conduct a Cited Reference Search in Web of Science to find articles that cite a primary theorist in your area. These articles are likely to tackle your topic through your theoretical lens, or will point you toward another article that does. To access Web of Knowledge, go to A-Z Databases from the Library’s home page.

On the Web of Science home page, click on Cited Reference Search  to search for articles that cite a person's work. 

Enter the name of a key theorist in your area (in our example, John Dewey) in the format they specify (in this case Dewey J*), as shown below, and press "Search."

what chapter is theoretical framework in research

On the results screen, select the appropriate Web of Science category under Refine Results. For example, we could select “Education Educational Research” and then click “Refine.” You may wish to further refine by Document Type, Research Area, Author, etc. (also located on the left hand menu). Sorting your results by “Times Cited - Oldest to Newest"  is an effective way to discover the most frequently cited works. 

what chapter is theoretical framework in research

  • 12Manage Global knowledge platform on management and business administration, including descriptions of frameworks. Requires free email sign up.
  • Academic Theories Includes alphabetical listing of theories, as well as grouping by type.
  • Communication Theories Provides list of communication theories grouped according to topic.
  • Psychological Theories Browse alphabetically or use the clusters feature to view theories grouped by similar topics or approaches.
  • Theories Used in Information Systems (IS) Research Click on a linked theory name to find details about the theory, some examples of IS papers using the theory, and links to related sites.

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  • Roberta Heale 1 ,
  • Helen Noble 2
  • 1 Laurentian University , School of Nursing , Sudbury , Ontario , Canada
  • 2 Queens University Belfast , School of Nursing and Midwifery , Belfast , UK
  • Correspondence to Dr Roberta Heale, School of Nursing, Laurentian University, Ramsey Lake Road, Sudbury, P3E2C6, Canada; rheale{at}laurentian.ca

https://doi.org/10.1136/ebnurs-2019-103077

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Often the most difficult part of a research study is preparing the proposal based around a theoretical or philosophical framework. Graduate students ‘…express confusion, a lack of knowledge, and frustration with the challenge of choosing a theoretical framework and understanding how to apply it’. 1 However, the importance in understanding and applying a theoretical framework in research cannot be overestimated.

The choice of a theoretical framework for a research study is often a reflection of the researcher’s ontological (nature of being) and epistemological (theory of knowledge) perspective. We will not delve into these concepts, or personal philosophy in this article. Rather we will focus on how a theoretical framework can be integrated into research.

The theoretical framework is a blueprint for your research project 1 and serves several purposes. It informs the problem you have identified, the purpose and significance of your research demonstrating how your research fits with what is already known (relationship to existing theory and research). This provides a basis for your research questions, the literature review and the methodology and analysis that you choose. 1 Evidence of your chosen theoretical framework should be visible in every aspect of your research and should demonstrate the contribution of this research to knowledge. 2

What is a theory?

A theory is an explanation of a concept or an abstract idea of a phenomenon. An example of a theory is Bandura’s middle range theory of self-efficacy, 3 or the level of confidence one has in achieving a goal. Self-efficacy determines the coping behaviours that a person will exhibit when facing obstacles. Those who have high self-efficacy are likely to apply adequate effort leading to successful outcomes, while those with low self-efficacy are more likely to give up earlier and ultimately fail. Any research that is exploring concepts related to self-efficacy or the ability to manage difficult life situations might apply Bandura’s theoretical framework to their study.

Using a theoretical framework in a research study

Example 1: the big five theoretical framework.

The first example includes research which integrates the ‘Big Five’, a theoretical framework that includes concepts related to teamwork. These include team leadership, mutual performance monitoring, backup behaviour, adaptability and team orientation. 4 In order to conduct research incorporating a theoretical framework, the concepts need to be defined according to a frame of reference. This provides a means to understand the theoretical framework as it relates to a specific context and provides a mechanism for measurement of the concepts.

In this example, the concepts of the Big Five were given a conceptual definition, that provided a broad meaning and then an operational definition, which was more concrete. 4 From here, a survey was developed that reflected the operational definitions related to teamwork in nursing: the Nursing Teamwork Survey (NTS). 5 In this case, the concepts used in the theoretical framework, the Big Five, were the used to develop a survey specific to teamwork in nursing.

The NTS was used in research of nurses at one hospital in northeastern Ontario. Survey questions were grouped into subscales for analysis, that reflected the concepts of the Big Five. 6 For example, one finding of this study was that the nurses from the surgical unit rated the items in the subscale of ’team leadership' (one of the concepts in the Big Five) significantly lower than in the other units. The researchers looked back to the definition of this concept in the Big Five in their interpretation of the findings. Since the definition included a person(s) who has the leadership skills to facilitate teamwork among the nurses on the unit, the conclusion in this study was that the surgical unit lacked a mentor, or facilitator for teamwork. In this way, the theory of teamwork was presented through a set of concepts in a theoretical framework. The Theoretical Framework (TF)was the foundation for development of a survey related to a specific context, used to measure each of the concepts within the TF. Then, the analysis and results circled back to the concepts within the TF and provided a guide for the discussion and conclusions arising from the research.

Example 2: the Health Decisions Model

In another study which explored adherence to intravenous chemotherapy in African-American and Caucasian Women with early stage breast cancer, an adapted version of the Health Decisions Model (HDM) was used as the theoretical basis for the study. 7 The HDM, a revised version of the Health Belief Model, incorporates some aspects of the Health Belief Model and factors relating to patient preferences. 8 The HDM consists of six interrelated constituents that might predict how well a person adheres to a health decision. These include sociodemographic, social interaction, experience, knowledge, general and specific health beliefs and patient preferences, and are clearly defined. The HDM model was used to explore factors which might influence adherence to chemotherapy in women with breast cancer. Sociodemographic, social interaction, knowledge, personal experience and specific health beliefs were used as predictors of adherence to chemotherapy.

The findings were reported using the theoretical framework to discuss results. The study found that delay to treatment, health insurance, depression and symptom severity were predictors to starting chemotherapy which could potentially be adapted with clinical interventions. The findings from the study contribute to the existing body of literature related to cancer nursing.

Example 3: the nursing role effectiveness model

In this final example, research was conducted to determine the nursing processes that were associated with unexpected intensive care unit admissions. 9 The framework was the Nursing Role Effectiveness Model. In this theoretical framework, the concepts within Donabedian’s Quality Framework of Structure, Process and Outcome were each defined according to nursing practice. 10 11  Processes defined in the Nursing Role Effectiveness Model were used to identify the nursing process variables that were measured in the study.

A theoretical framework should be logically presented and represent the concepts, variables and relationships related to your research study, in order to clearly identify what will be examined, described or measured. It involves reading the literature and identifying a research question(s) while clearly defining and identifying the existing relationship between concepts and theories (related to your research questions[s] in the literature). You must then identify what you will examine or explore in relation to the concepts of the theoretical framework. Once you present your findings using the theoretical framework you will be able to articulate how your study relates to and may potentially advance your chosen theory and add to knowledge.

  • Kalisch BJ ,
  • Parent M , et al
  • Strickland OL ,
  • Dalton JA , et al
  • Eraker SA ,
  • Kirscht JP ,
  • Lightfoot N , et al
  • Harrison MB ,
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Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

Competing interests None declared.

Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

Patient and public involvement Not required.

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  • v.21(3); Fall 2022

Literature Reviews, Theoretical Frameworks, and Conceptual Frameworks: An Introduction for New Biology Education Researchers

Julie a. luft.

† Department of Mathematics, Social Studies, and Science Education, Mary Frances Early College of Education, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602-7124

Sophia Jeong

‡ Department of Teaching & Learning, College of Education & Human Ecology, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH 43210

Robert Idsardi

§ Department of Biology, Eastern Washington University, Cheney, WA 99004

Grant Gardner

∥ Department of Biology, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, TN 37132

Associated Data

To frame their work, biology education researchers need to consider the role of literature reviews, theoretical frameworks, and conceptual frameworks as critical elements of the research and writing process. However, these elements can be confusing for scholars new to education research. This Research Methods article is designed to provide an overview of each of these elements and delineate the purpose of each in the educational research process. We describe what biology education researchers should consider as they conduct literature reviews, identify theoretical frameworks, and construct conceptual frameworks. Clarifying these different components of educational research studies can be helpful to new biology education researchers and the biology education research community at large in situating their work in the broader scholarly literature.

INTRODUCTION

Discipline-based education research (DBER) involves the purposeful and situated study of teaching and learning in specific disciplinary areas ( Singer et al. , 2012 ). Studies in DBER are guided by research questions that reflect disciplines’ priorities and worldviews. Researchers can use quantitative data, qualitative data, or both to answer these research questions through a variety of methodological traditions. Across all methodologies, there are different methods associated with planning and conducting educational research studies that include the use of surveys, interviews, observations, artifacts, or instruments. Ensuring the coherence of these elements to the discipline’s perspective also involves situating the work in the broader scholarly literature. The tools for doing this include literature reviews, theoretical frameworks, and conceptual frameworks. However, the purpose and function of each of these elements is often confusing to new education researchers. The goal of this article is to introduce new biology education researchers to these three important elements important in DBER scholarship and the broader educational literature.

The first element we discuss is a review of research (literature reviews), which highlights the need for a specific research question, study problem, or topic of investigation. Literature reviews situate the relevance of the study within a topic and a field. The process may seem familiar to science researchers entering DBER fields, but new researchers may still struggle in conducting the review. Booth et al. (2016b) highlight some of the challenges novice education researchers face when conducting a review of literature. They point out that novice researchers struggle in deciding how to focus the review, determining the scope of articles needed in the review, and knowing how to be critical of the articles in the review. Overcoming these challenges (and others) can help novice researchers construct a sound literature review that can inform the design of the study and help ensure the work makes a contribution to the field.

The second and third highlighted elements are theoretical and conceptual frameworks. These guide biology education research (BER) studies, and may be less familiar to science researchers. These elements are important in shaping the construction of new knowledge. Theoretical frameworks offer a way to explain and interpret the studied phenomenon, while conceptual frameworks clarify assumptions about the studied phenomenon. Despite the importance of these constructs in educational research, biology educational researchers have noted the limited use of theoretical or conceptual frameworks in published work ( DeHaan, 2011 ; Dirks, 2011 ; Lo et al. , 2019 ). In reviewing articles published in CBE—Life Sciences Education ( LSE ) between 2015 and 2019, we found that fewer than 25% of the research articles had a theoretical or conceptual framework (see the Supplemental Information), and at times there was an inconsistent use of theoretical and conceptual frameworks. Clearly, these frameworks are challenging for published biology education researchers, which suggests the importance of providing some initial guidance to new biology education researchers.

Fortunately, educational researchers have increased their explicit use of these frameworks over time, and this is influencing educational research in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. For instance, a quick search for theoretical or conceptual frameworks in the abstracts of articles in Educational Research Complete (a common database for educational research) in STEM fields demonstrates a dramatic change over the last 20 years: from only 778 articles published between 2000 and 2010 to 5703 articles published between 2010 and 2020, a more than sevenfold increase. Greater recognition of the importance of these frameworks is contributing to DBER authors being more explicit about such frameworks in their studies.

Collectively, literature reviews, theoretical frameworks, and conceptual frameworks work to guide methodological decisions and the elucidation of important findings. Each offers a different perspective on the problem of study and is an essential element in all forms of educational research. As new researchers seek to learn about these elements, they will find different resources, a variety of perspectives, and many suggestions about the construction and use of these elements. The wide range of available information can overwhelm the new researcher who just wants to learn the distinction between these elements or how to craft them adequately.

Our goal in writing this paper is not to offer specific advice about how to write these sections in scholarly work. Instead, we wanted to introduce these elements to those who are new to BER and who are interested in better distinguishing one from the other. In this paper, we share the purpose of each element in BER scholarship, along with important points on its construction. We also provide references for additional resources that may be beneficial to better understanding each element. Table 1 summarizes the key distinctions among these elements.

Comparison of literature reviews, theoretical frameworks, and conceptual reviews

Literature reviewsTheoretical frameworksConceptual frameworks
PurposeTo point out the need for the study in BER and connection to the field.To state the assumptions and orientations of the researcher regarding the topic of studyTo describe the researcher’s understanding of the main concepts under investigation
AimsA literature review examines current and relevant research associated with the study question. It is comprehensive, critical, and purposeful.A theoretical framework illuminates the phenomenon of study and the corresponding assumptions adopted by the researcher. Frameworks can take on different orientations.The conceptual framework is created by the researcher(s), includes the presumed relationships among concepts, and addresses needed areas of study discovered in literature reviews.
Connection to the manuscriptA literature review should connect to the study question, guide the study methodology, and be central in the discussion by indicating how the analyzed data advances what is known in the field.  A theoretical framework drives the question, guides the types of methods for data collection and analysis, informs the discussion of the findings, and reveals the subjectivities of the researcher.The conceptual framework is informed by literature reviews, experiences, or experiments. It may include emergent ideas that are not yet grounded in the literature. It should be coherent with the paper’s theoretical framing.
Additional pointsA literature review may reach beyond BER and include other education research fields.A theoretical framework does not rationalize the need for the study, and a theoretical framework can come from different fields.A conceptual framework articulates the phenomenon under study through written descriptions and/or visual representations.

This article is written for the new biology education researcher who is just learning about these different elements or for scientists looking to become more involved in BER. It is a result of our own work as science education and biology education researchers, whether as graduate students and postdoctoral scholars or newly hired and established faculty members. This is the article we wish had been available as we started to learn about these elements or discussed them with new educational researchers in biology.

LITERATURE REVIEWS

Purpose of a literature review.

A literature review is foundational to any research study in education or science. In education, a well-conceptualized and well-executed review provides a summary of the research that has already been done on a specific topic and identifies questions that remain to be answered, thus illustrating the current research project’s potential contribution to the field and the reasoning behind the methodological approach selected for the study ( Maxwell, 2012 ). BER is an evolving disciplinary area that is redefining areas of conceptual emphasis as well as orientations toward teaching and learning (e.g., Labov et al. , 2010 ; American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2011 ; Nehm, 2019 ). As a result, building comprehensive, critical, purposeful, and concise literature reviews can be a challenge for new biology education researchers.

Building Literature Reviews

There are different ways to approach and construct a literature review. Booth et al. (2016a) provide an overview that includes, for example, scoping reviews, which are focused only on notable studies and use a basic method of analysis, and integrative reviews, which are the result of exhaustive literature searches across different genres. Underlying each of these different review processes are attention to the s earch process, a ppraisa l of articles, s ynthesis of the literature, and a nalysis: SALSA ( Booth et al. , 2016a ). This useful acronym can help the researcher focus on the process while building a specific type of review.

However, new educational researchers often have questions about literature reviews that are foundational to SALSA or other approaches. Common questions concern determining which literature pertains to the topic of study or the role of the literature review in the design of the study. This section addresses such questions broadly while providing general guidance for writing a narrative literature review that evaluates the most pertinent studies.

The literature review process should begin before the research is conducted. As Boote and Beile (2005 , p. 3) suggested, researchers should be “scholars before researchers.” They point out that having a good working knowledge of the proposed topic helps illuminate avenues of study. Some subject areas have a deep body of work to read and reflect upon, providing a strong foundation for developing the research question(s). For instance, the teaching and learning of evolution is an area of long-standing interest in the BER community, generating many studies (e.g., Perry et al. , 2008 ; Barnes and Brownell, 2016 ) and reviews of research (e.g., Sickel and Friedrichsen, 2013 ; Ziadie and Andrews, 2018 ). Emerging areas of BER include the affective domain, issues of transfer, and metacognition ( Singer et al. , 2012 ). Many studies in these areas are transdisciplinary and not always specific to biology education (e.g., Rodrigo-Peiris et al. , 2018 ; Kolpikova et al. , 2019 ). These newer areas may require reading outside BER; fortunately, summaries of some of these topics can be found in the Current Insights section of the LSE website.

In focusing on a specific problem within a broader research strand, a new researcher will likely need to examine research outside BER. Depending upon the area of study, the expanded reading list might involve a mix of BER, DBER, and educational research studies. Determining the scope of the reading is not always straightforward. A simple way to focus one’s reading is to create a “summary phrase” or “research nugget,” which is a very brief descriptive statement about the study. It should focus on the essence of the study, for example, “first-year nonmajor students’ understanding of evolution,” “metacognitive prompts to enhance learning during biochemistry,” or “instructors’ inquiry-based instructional practices after professional development programming.” This type of phrase should help a new researcher identify two or more areas to review that pertain to the study. Focusing on recent research in the last 5 years is a good first step. Additional studies can be identified by reading relevant works referenced in those articles. It is also important to read seminal studies that are more than 5 years old. Reading a range of studies should give the researcher the necessary command of the subject in order to suggest a research question.

Given that the research question(s) arise from the literature review, the review should also substantiate the selected methodological approach. The review and research question(s) guide the researcher in determining how to collect and analyze data. Often the methodological approach used in a study is selected to contribute knowledge that expands upon what has been published previously about the topic (see Institute of Education Sciences and National Science Foundation, 2013 ). An emerging topic of study may need an exploratory approach that allows for a description of the phenomenon and development of a potential theory. This could, but not necessarily, require a methodological approach that uses interviews, observations, surveys, or other instruments. An extensively studied topic may call for the additional understanding of specific factors or variables; this type of study would be well suited to a verification or a causal research design. These could entail a methodological approach that uses valid and reliable instruments, observations, or interviews to determine an effect in the studied event. In either of these examples, the researcher(s) may use a qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods methodological approach.

Even with a good research question, there is still more reading to be done. The complexity and focus of the research question dictates the depth and breadth of the literature to be examined. Questions that connect multiple topics can require broad literature reviews. For instance, a study that explores the impact of a biology faculty learning community on the inquiry instruction of faculty could have the following review areas: learning communities among biology faculty, inquiry instruction among biology faculty, and inquiry instruction among biology faculty as a result of professional learning. Biology education researchers need to consider whether their literature review requires studies from different disciplines within or outside DBER. For the example given, it would be fruitful to look at research focused on learning communities with faculty in STEM fields or in general education fields that result in instructional change. It is important not to be too narrow or too broad when reading. When the conclusions of articles start to sound similar or no new insights are gained, the researcher likely has a good foundation for a literature review. This level of reading should allow the researcher to demonstrate a mastery in understanding the researched topic, explain the suitability of the proposed research approach, and point to the need for the refined research question(s).

The literature review should include the researcher’s evaluation and critique of the selected studies. A researcher may have a large collection of studies, but not all of the studies will follow standards important in the reporting of empirical work in the social sciences. The American Educational Research Association ( Duran et al. , 2006 ), for example, offers a general discussion about standards for such work: an adequate review of research informing the study, the existence of sound and appropriate data collection and analysis methods, and appropriate conclusions that do not overstep or underexplore the analyzed data. The Institute of Education Sciences and National Science Foundation (2013) also offer Common Guidelines for Education Research and Development that can be used to evaluate collected studies.

Because not all journals adhere to such standards, it is important that a researcher review each study to determine the quality of published research, per the guidelines suggested earlier. In some instances, the research may be fatally flawed. Examples of such flaws include data that do not pertain to the question, a lack of discussion about the data collection, poorly constructed instruments, or an inadequate analysis. These types of errors result in studies that are incomplete, error-laden, or inaccurate and should be excluded from the review. Most studies have limitations, and the author(s) often make them explicit. For instance, there may be an instructor effect, recognized bias in the analysis, or issues with the sample population. Limitations are usually addressed by the research team in some way to ensure a sound and acceptable research process. Occasionally, the limitations associated with the study can be significant and not addressed adequately, which leaves a consequential decision in the hands of the researcher. Providing critiques of studies in the literature review process gives the reader confidence that the researcher has carefully examined relevant work in preparation for the study and, ultimately, the manuscript.

A solid literature review clearly anchors the proposed study in the field and connects the research question(s), the methodological approach, and the discussion. Reviewing extant research leads to research questions that will contribute to what is known in the field. By summarizing what is known, the literature review points to what needs to be known, which in turn guides decisions about methodology. Finally, notable findings of the new study are discussed in reference to those described in the literature review.

Within published BER studies, literature reviews can be placed in different locations in an article. When included in the introductory section of the study, the first few paragraphs of the manuscript set the stage, with the literature review following the opening paragraphs. Cooper et al. (2019) illustrate this approach in their study of course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs). An introduction discussing the potential of CURES is followed by an analysis of the existing literature relevant to the design of CUREs that allows for novel student discoveries. Within this review, the authors point out contradictory findings among research on novel student discoveries. This clarifies the need for their study, which is described and highlighted through specific research aims.

A literature reviews can also make up a separate section in a paper. For example, the introduction to Todd et al. (2019) illustrates the need for their research topic by highlighting the potential of learning progressions (LPs) and suggesting that LPs may help mitigate learning loss in genetics. At the end of the introduction, the authors state their specific research questions. The review of literature following this opening section comprises two subsections. One focuses on learning loss in general and examines a variety of studies and meta-analyses from the disciplines of medical education, mathematics, and reading. The second section focuses specifically on LPs in genetics and highlights student learning in the midst of LPs. These separate reviews provide insights into the stated research question.

Suggestions and Advice

A well-conceptualized, comprehensive, and critical literature review reveals the understanding of the topic that the researcher brings to the study. Literature reviews should not be so big that there is no clear area of focus; nor should they be so narrow that no real research question arises. The task for a researcher is to craft an efficient literature review that offers a critical analysis of published work, articulates the need for the study, guides the methodological approach to the topic of study, and provides an adequate foundation for the discussion of the findings.

In our own writing of literature reviews, there are often many drafts. An early draft may seem well suited to the study because the need for and approach to the study are well described. However, as the results of the study are analyzed and findings begin to emerge, the existing literature review may be inadequate and need revision. The need for an expanded discussion about the research area can result in the inclusion of new studies that support the explanation of a potential finding. The literature review may also prove to be too broad. Refocusing on a specific area allows for more contemplation of a finding.

It should be noted that there are different types of literature reviews, and many books and articles have been written about the different ways to embark on these types of reviews. Among these different resources, the following may be helpful in considering how to refine the review process for scholarly journals:

  • Booth, A., Sutton, A., & Papaioannou, D. (2016a). Systemic approaches to a successful literature review (2nd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage. This book addresses different types of literature reviews and offers important suggestions pertaining to defining the scope of the literature review and assessing extant studies.
  • Booth, W. C., Colomb, G. G., Williams, J. M., Bizup, J., & Fitzgerald, W. T. (2016b). The craft of research (4th ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. This book can help the novice consider how to make the case for an area of study. While this book is not specifically about literature reviews, it offers suggestions about making the case for your study.
  • Galvan, J. L., & Galvan, M. C. (2017). Writing literature reviews: A guide for students of the social and behavioral sciences (7th ed.). Routledge. This book offers guidance on writing different types of literature reviews. For the novice researcher, there are useful suggestions for creating coherent literature reviews.

THEORETICAL FRAMEWORKS

Purpose of theoretical frameworks.

As new education researchers may be less familiar with theoretical frameworks than with literature reviews, this discussion begins with an analogy. Envision a biologist, chemist, and physicist examining together the dramatic effect of a fog tsunami over the ocean. A biologist gazing at this phenomenon may be concerned with the effect of fog on various species. A chemist may be interested in the chemical composition of the fog as water vapor condenses around bits of salt. A physicist may be focused on the refraction of light to make fog appear to be “sitting” above the ocean. While observing the same “objective event,” the scientists are operating under different theoretical frameworks that provide a particular perspective or “lens” for the interpretation of the phenomenon. Each of these scientists brings specialized knowledge, experiences, and values to this phenomenon, and these influence the interpretation of the phenomenon. The scientists’ theoretical frameworks influence how they design and carry out their studies and interpret their data.

Within an educational study, a theoretical framework helps to explain a phenomenon through a particular lens and challenges and extends existing knowledge within the limitations of that lens. Theoretical frameworks are explicitly stated by an educational researcher in the paper’s framework, theory, or relevant literature section. The framework shapes the types of questions asked, guides the method by which data are collected and analyzed, and informs the discussion of the results of the study. It also reveals the researcher’s subjectivities, for example, values, social experience, and viewpoint ( Allen, 2017 ). It is essential that a novice researcher learn to explicitly state a theoretical framework, because all research questions are being asked from the researcher’s implicit or explicit assumptions of a phenomenon of interest ( Schwandt, 2000 ).

Selecting Theoretical Frameworks

Theoretical frameworks are one of the most contemplated elements in our work in educational research. In this section, we share three important considerations for new scholars selecting a theoretical framework.

The first step in identifying a theoretical framework involves reflecting on the phenomenon within the study and the assumptions aligned with the phenomenon. The phenomenon involves the studied event. There are many possibilities, for example, student learning, instructional approach, or group organization. A researcher holds assumptions about how the phenomenon will be effected, influenced, changed, or portrayed. It is ultimately the researcher’s assumption(s) about the phenomenon that aligns with a theoretical framework. An example can help illustrate how a researcher’s reflection on the phenomenon and acknowledgment of assumptions can result in the identification of a theoretical framework.

In our example, a biology education researcher may be interested in exploring how students’ learning of difficult biological concepts can be supported by the interactions of group members. The phenomenon of interest is the interactions among the peers, and the researcher assumes that more knowledgeable students are important in supporting the learning of the group. As a result, the researcher may draw on Vygotsky’s (1978) sociocultural theory of learning and development that is focused on the phenomenon of student learning in a social setting. This theory posits the critical nature of interactions among students and between students and teachers in the process of building knowledge. A researcher drawing upon this framework holds the assumption that learning is a dynamic social process involving questions and explanations among students in the classroom and that more knowledgeable peers play an important part in the process of building conceptual knowledge.

It is important to state at this point that there are many different theoretical frameworks. Some frameworks focus on learning and knowing, while other theoretical frameworks focus on equity, empowerment, or discourse. Some frameworks are well articulated, and others are still being refined. For a new researcher, it can be challenging to find a theoretical framework. Two of the best ways to look for theoretical frameworks is through published works that highlight different frameworks.

When a theoretical framework is selected, it should clearly connect to all parts of the study. The framework should augment the study by adding a perspective that provides greater insights into the phenomenon. It should clearly align with the studies described in the literature review. For instance, a framework focused on learning would correspond to research that reported different learning outcomes for similar studies. The methods for data collection and analysis should also correspond to the framework. For instance, a study about instructional interventions could use a theoretical framework concerned with learning and could collect data about the effect of the intervention on what is learned. When the data are analyzed, the theoretical framework should provide added meaning to the findings, and the findings should align with the theoretical framework.

A study by Jensen and Lawson (2011) provides an example of how a theoretical framework connects different parts of the study. They compared undergraduate biology students in heterogeneous and homogeneous groups over the course of a semester. Jensen and Lawson (2011) assumed that learning involved collaboration and more knowledgeable peers, which made Vygotsky’s (1978) theory a good fit for their study. They predicted that students in heterogeneous groups would experience greater improvement in their reasoning abilities and science achievements with much of the learning guided by the more knowledgeable peers.

In the enactment of the study, they collected data about the instruction in traditional and inquiry-oriented classes, while the students worked in homogeneous or heterogeneous groups. To determine the effect of working in groups, the authors also measured students’ reasoning abilities and achievement. Each data-collection and analysis decision connected to understanding the influence of collaborative work.

Their findings highlighted aspects of Vygotsky’s (1978) theory of learning. One finding, for instance, posited that inquiry instruction, as a whole, resulted in reasoning and achievement gains. This links to Vygotsky (1978) , because inquiry instruction involves interactions among group members. A more nuanced finding was that group composition had a conditional effect. Heterogeneous groups performed better with more traditional and didactic instruction, regardless of the reasoning ability of the group members. Homogeneous groups worked better during interaction-rich activities for students with low reasoning ability. The authors attributed the variation to the different types of helping behaviors of students. High-performing students provided the answers, while students with low reasoning ability had to work collectively through the material. In terms of Vygotsky (1978) , this finding provided new insights into the learning context in which productive interactions can occur for students.

Another consideration in the selection and use of a theoretical framework pertains to its orientation to the study. This can result in the theoretical framework prioritizing individuals, institutions, and/or policies ( Anfara and Mertz, 2014 ). Frameworks that connect to individuals, for instance, could contribute to understanding their actions, learning, or knowledge. Institutional frameworks, on the other hand, offer insights into how institutions, organizations, or groups can influence individuals or materials. Policy theories provide ways to understand how national or local policies can dictate an emphasis on outcomes or instructional design. These different types of frameworks highlight different aspects in an educational setting, which influences the design of the study and the collection of data. In addition, these different frameworks offer a way to make sense of the data. Aligning the data collection and analysis with the framework ensures that a study is coherent and can contribute to the field.

New understandings emerge when different theoretical frameworks are used. For instance, Ebert-May et al. (2015) prioritized the individual level within conceptual change theory (see Posner et al. , 1982 ). In this theory, an individual’s knowledge changes when it no longer fits the phenomenon. Ebert-May et al. (2015) designed a professional development program challenging biology postdoctoral scholars’ existing conceptions of teaching. The authors reported that the biology postdoctoral scholars’ teaching practices became more student-centered as they were challenged to explain their instructional decision making. According to the theory, the biology postdoctoral scholars’ dissatisfaction in their descriptions of teaching and learning initiated change in their knowledge and instruction. These results reveal how conceptual change theory can explain the learning of participants and guide the design of professional development programming.

The communities of practice (CoP) theoretical framework ( Lave, 1988 ; Wenger, 1998 ) prioritizes the institutional level , suggesting that learning occurs when individuals learn from and contribute to the communities in which they reside. Grounded in the assumption of community learning, the literature on CoP suggests that, as individuals interact regularly with the other members of their group, they learn about the rules, roles, and goals of the community ( Allee, 2000 ). A study conducted by Gehrke and Kezar (2017) used the CoP framework to understand organizational change by examining the involvement of individual faculty engaged in a cross-institutional CoP focused on changing the instructional practice of faculty at each institution. In the CoP, faculty members were involved in enhancing instructional materials within their department, which aligned with an overarching goal of instituting instruction that embraced active learning. Not surprisingly, Gehrke and Kezar (2017) revealed that faculty who perceived the community culture as important in their work cultivated institutional change. Furthermore, they found that institutional change was sustained when key leaders served as mentors and provided support for faculty, and as faculty themselves developed into leaders. This study reveals the complexity of individual roles in a COP in order to support institutional instructional change.

It is important to explicitly state the theoretical framework used in a study, but elucidating a theoretical framework can be challenging for a new educational researcher. The literature review can help to identify an applicable theoretical framework. Focal areas of the review or central terms often connect to assumptions and assertions associated with the framework that pertain to the phenomenon of interest. Another way to identify a theoretical framework is self-reflection by the researcher on personal beliefs and understandings about the nature of knowledge the researcher brings to the study ( Lysaght, 2011 ). In stating one’s beliefs and understandings related to the study (e.g., students construct their knowledge, instructional materials support learning), an orientation becomes evident that will suggest a particular theoretical framework. Theoretical frameworks are not arbitrary , but purposefully selected.

With experience, a researcher may find expanded roles for theoretical frameworks. Researchers may revise an existing framework that has limited explanatory power, or they may decide there is a need to develop a new theoretical framework. These frameworks can emerge from a current study or the need to explain a phenomenon in a new way. Researchers may also find that multiple theoretical frameworks are necessary to frame and explore a problem, as different frameworks can provide different insights into a problem.

Finally, it is important to recognize that choosing “x” theoretical framework does not necessarily mean a researcher chooses “y” methodology and so on, nor is there a clear-cut, linear process in selecting a theoretical framework for one’s study. In part, the nonlinear process of identifying a theoretical framework is what makes understanding and using theoretical frameworks challenging. For the novice scholar, contemplating and understanding theoretical frameworks is essential. Fortunately, there are articles and books that can help:

  • Creswell, J. W. (2018). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches (5th ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage. This book provides an overview of theoretical frameworks in general educational research.
  • Ding, L. (2019). Theoretical perspectives of quantitative physics education research. Physical Review Physics Education Research , 15 (2), 020101-1–020101-13. This paper illustrates how a DBER field can use theoretical frameworks.
  • Nehm, R. (2019). Biology education research: Building integrative frameworks for teaching and learning about living systems. Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Science Education Research , 1 , ar15. https://doi.org/10.1186/s43031-019-0017-6 . This paper articulates the need for studies in BER to explicitly state theoretical frameworks and provides examples of potential studies.
  • Patton, M. Q. (2015). Qualitative research & evaluation methods: Integrating theory and practice . Sage. This book also provides an overview of theoretical frameworks, but for both research and evaluation.

CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORKS

Purpose of a conceptual framework.

A conceptual framework is a description of the way a researcher understands the factors and/or variables that are involved in the study and their relationships to one another. The purpose of a conceptual framework is to articulate the concepts under study using relevant literature ( Rocco and Plakhotnik, 2009 ) and to clarify the presumed relationships among those concepts ( Rocco and Plakhotnik, 2009 ; Anfara and Mertz, 2014 ). Conceptual frameworks are different from theoretical frameworks in both their breadth and grounding in established findings. Whereas a theoretical framework articulates the lens through which a researcher views the work, the conceptual framework is often more mechanistic and malleable.

Conceptual frameworks are broader, encompassing both established theories (i.e., theoretical frameworks) and the researchers’ own emergent ideas. Emergent ideas, for example, may be rooted in informal and/or unpublished observations from experience. These emergent ideas would not be considered a “theory” if they are not yet tested, supported by systematically collected evidence, and peer reviewed. However, they do still play an important role in the way researchers approach their studies. The conceptual framework allows authors to clearly describe their emergent ideas so that connections among ideas in the study and the significance of the study are apparent to readers.

Constructing Conceptual Frameworks

Including a conceptual framework in a research study is important, but researchers often opt to include either a conceptual or a theoretical framework. Either may be adequate, but both provide greater insight into the research approach. For instance, a research team plans to test a novel component of an existing theory. In their study, they describe the existing theoretical framework that informs their work and then present their own conceptual framework. Within this conceptual framework, specific topics portray emergent ideas that are related to the theory. Describing both frameworks allows readers to better understand the researchers’ assumptions, orientations, and understanding of concepts being investigated. For example, Connolly et al. (2018) included a conceptual framework that described how they applied a theoretical framework of social cognitive career theory (SCCT) to their study on teaching programs for doctoral students. In their conceptual framework, the authors described SCCT, explained how it applied to the investigation, and drew upon results from previous studies to justify the proposed connections between the theory and their emergent ideas.

In some cases, authors may be able to sufficiently describe their conceptualization of the phenomenon under study in an introduction alone, without a separate conceptual framework section. However, incomplete descriptions of how the researchers conceptualize the components of the study may limit the significance of the study by making the research less intelligible to readers. This is especially problematic when studying topics in which researchers use the same terms for different constructs or different terms for similar and overlapping constructs (e.g., inquiry, teacher beliefs, pedagogical content knowledge, or active learning). Authors must describe their conceptualization of a construct if the research is to be understandable and useful.

There are some key areas to consider regarding the inclusion of a conceptual framework in a study. To begin with, it is important to recognize that conceptual frameworks are constructed by the researchers conducting the study ( Rocco and Plakhotnik, 2009 ; Maxwell, 2012 ). This is different from theoretical frameworks that are often taken from established literature. Researchers should bring together ideas from the literature, but they may be influenced by their own experiences as a student and/or instructor, the shared experiences of others, or thought experiments as they construct a description, model, or representation of their understanding of the phenomenon under study. This is an exercise in intellectual organization and clarity that often considers what is learned, known, and experienced. The conceptual framework makes these constructs explicitly visible to readers, who may have different understandings of the phenomenon based on their prior knowledge and experience. There is no single method to go about this intellectual work.

Reeves et al. (2016) is an example of an article that proposed a conceptual framework about graduate teaching assistant professional development evaluation and research. The authors used existing literature to create a novel framework that filled a gap in current research and practice related to the training of graduate teaching assistants. This conceptual framework can guide the systematic collection of data by other researchers because the framework describes the relationships among various factors that influence teaching and learning. The Reeves et al. (2016) conceptual framework may be modified as additional data are collected and analyzed by other researchers. This is not uncommon, as conceptual frameworks can serve as catalysts for concerted research efforts that systematically explore a phenomenon (e.g., Reynolds et al. , 2012 ; Brownell and Kloser, 2015 ).

Sabel et al. (2017) used a conceptual framework in their exploration of how scaffolds, an external factor, interact with internal factors to support student learning. Their conceptual framework integrated principles from two theoretical frameworks, self-regulated learning and metacognition, to illustrate how the research team conceptualized students’ use of scaffolds in their learning ( Figure 1 ). Sabel et al. (2017) created this model using their interpretations of these two frameworks in the context of their teaching.

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Conceptual framework from Sabel et al. (2017) .

A conceptual framework should describe the relationship among components of the investigation ( Anfara and Mertz, 2014 ). These relationships should guide the researcher’s methods of approaching the study ( Miles et al. , 2014 ) and inform both the data to be collected and how those data should be analyzed. Explicitly describing the connections among the ideas allows the researcher to justify the importance of the study and the rigor of the research design. Just as importantly, these frameworks help readers understand why certain components of a system were not explored in the study. This is a challenge in education research, which is rooted in complex environments with many variables that are difficult to control.

For example, Sabel et al. (2017) stated: “Scaffolds, such as enhanced answer keys and reflection questions, can help students and instructors bridge the external and internal factors and support learning” (p. 3). They connected the scaffolds in the study to the three dimensions of metacognition and the eventual transformation of existing ideas into new or revised ideas. Their framework provides a rationale for focusing on how students use two different scaffolds, and not on other factors that may influence a student’s success (self-efficacy, use of active learning, exam format, etc.).

In constructing conceptual frameworks, researchers should address needed areas of study and/or contradictions discovered in literature reviews. By attending to these areas, researchers can strengthen their arguments for the importance of a study. For instance, conceptual frameworks can address how the current study will fill gaps in the research, resolve contradictions in existing literature, or suggest a new area of study. While a literature review describes what is known and not known about the phenomenon, the conceptual framework leverages these gaps in describing the current study ( Maxwell, 2012 ). In the example of Sabel et al. (2017) , the authors indicated there was a gap in the literature regarding how scaffolds engage students in metacognition to promote learning in large classes. Their study helps fill that gap by describing how scaffolds can support students in the three dimensions of metacognition: intelligibility, plausibility, and wide applicability. In another example, Lane (2016) integrated research from science identity, the ethic of care, the sense of belonging, and an expertise model of student success to form a conceptual framework that addressed the critiques of other frameworks. In a more recent example, Sbeglia et al. (2021) illustrated how a conceptual framework influences the methodological choices and inferences in studies by educational researchers.

Sometimes researchers draw upon the conceptual frameworks of other researchers. When a researcher’s conceptual framework closely aligns with an existing framework, the discussion may be brief. For example, Ghee et al. (2016) referred to portions of SCCT as their conceptual framework to explain the significance of their work on students’ self-efficacy and career interests. Because the authors’ conceptualization of this phenomenon aligned with a previously described framework, they briefly mentioned the conceptual framework and provided additional citations that provided more detail for the readers.

Within both the BER and the broader DBER communities, conceptual frameworks have been used to describe different constructs. For example, some researchers have used the term “conceptual framework” to describe students’ conceptual understandings of a biological phenomenon. This is distinct from a researcher’s conceptual framework of the educational phenomenon under investigation, which may also need to be explicitly described in the article. Other studies have presented a research logic model or flowchart of the research design as a conceptual framework. These constructions can be quite valuable in helping readers understand the data-collection and analysis process. However, a model depicting the study design does not serve the same role as a conceptual framework. Researchers need to avoid conflating these constructs by differentiating the researchers’ conceptual framework that guides the study from the research design, when applicable.

Explicitly describing conceptual frameworks is essential in depicting the focus of the study. We have found that being explicit in a conceptual framework means using accepted terminology, referencing prior work, and clearly noting connections between terms. This description can also highlight gaps in the literature or suggest potential contributions to the field of study. A well-elucidated conceptual framework can suggest additional studies that may be warranted. This can also spur other researchers to consider how they would approach the examination of a phenomenon and could result in a revised conceptual framework.

It can be challenging to create conceptual frameworks, but they are important. Below are two resources that could be helpful in constructing and presenting conceptual frameworks in educational research:

  • Maxwell, J. A. (2012). Qualitative research design: An interactive approach (3rd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage. Chapter 3 in this book describes how to construct conceptual frameworks.
  • Ravitch, S. M., & Riggan, M. (2016). Reason & rigor: How conceptual frameworks guide research . Los Angeles, CA: Sage. This book explains how conceptual frameworks guide the research questions, data collection, data analyses, and interpretation of results.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

Literature reviews, theoretical frameworks, and conceptual frameworks are all important in DBER and BER. Robust literature reviews reinforce the importance of a study. Theoretical frameworks connect the study to the base of knowledge in educational theory and specify the researcher’s assumptions. Conceptual frameworks allow researchers to explicitly describe their conceptualization of the relationships among the components of the phenomenon under study. Table 1 provides a general overview of these components in order to assist biology education researchers in thinking about these elements.

It is important to emphasize that these different elements are intertwined. When these elements are aligned and complement one another, the study is coherent, and the study findings contribute to knowledge in the field. When literature reviews, theoretical frameworks, and conceptual frameworks are disconnected from one another, the study suffers. The point of the study is lost, suggested findings are unsupported, or important conclusions are invisible to the researcher. In addition, this misalignment may be costly in terms of time and money.

Conducting a literature review, selecting a theoretical framework, and building a conceptual framework are some of the most difficult elements of a research study. It takes time to understand the relevant research, identify a theoretical framework that provides important insights into the study, and formulate a conceptual framework that organizes the finding. In the research process, there is often a constant back and forth among these elements as the study evolves. With an ongoing refinement of the review of literature, clarification of the theoretical framework, and articulation of a conceptual framework, a sound study can emerge that makes a contribution to the field. This is the goal of BER and education research.

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5.5 Developing a theoretical framework

Social work researchers develop theoretical frameworks based on social science theories and empirical literature. A study’s theory describes the theoretical foundations of the research and consists of the big-T theory(ies) that guide the investigation. It provides overarching perspectives, explanations, and predictions about the social problem and research topic.

In deductive research (e.g., quantitative research), researchers create a theoretical framework to explain the thought process behind the study’s research questions and hypotheses. The theoretical framework includes the constructs of interest in the study and the associations the researchers expect to find. These constructs and their relations are based on the broader theory, but likely do not entail all the components of the theory.  The theoretical framework is specific to a particular study or analysis and provides the rationale for the research question(s). In inductive studies such as grounded theory, a theoretical framework can be the final result of the research.  In this case, the theoretical framework is also a combination of concepts and their associations, but it is derived from the data collected during the research. This contrasts to theoretical frameworks in deductive research, which are created before collecting data and derive from theories and other empirical findings.

In Chapter 8, we will develop your quantitative theoretical framework further, identifying associations or causal relations in a research question. Developing a quantitative theoretical framework is also instructive for revising and clarifying your working research question and identifying concepts that serve as keywords for additional literature searching. But first, we will consider identifying your theory. The greater clarity you have with your theoretical perspective, the easier each subsequent step in the research process will be. Getting acquainted with the important theoretical concepts in a new area can be challenging. While social work education provides a broad overview of social theory, you will find much greater fulfillment out of reading about the theories related to your topic area. We discussed some strategies for finding theoretical information in Chapter 3 as part of literature searching. To extend that conversation a bit, some strategies for searching for theories in the literature include:

  • Consider searching for these keywords in the title or abstract, specifically
  • Looking at the references and cited by links within theoretical articles and textbooks
  • Looking at books, edited volumes, and textbooks that discuss theory
  • Talking with a scholar on your topic, or asking a professor if they can help connect you to someone
  • It is helpful when authors are clear about how they use theory to inform their research project, usually in the introduction and discussion section.
  • For example, from the broad umbrella of systems theory, you might pick out family systems theory if you want to understand the effectiveness of a family counseling program.

It’s important to remember that knowledge arises within disciplines, and that disciplines have different theoretical frameworks for explaining the same topic. While it is certainly important for the social work perspective to be a part of your analysis, social workers benefit from searching across disciplines to come to a more comprehensive understanding of the topic. Reaching across disciplines can provide uncommon insights during conceptualization, and once the study is completed, a multidisciplinary researcher will be able to share results in a way that speaks to a variety of audiences. A study by An and colleagues (2015) [1] uses game theory from the discipline of economics to understand problems in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. In order to receive TANF benefits, mothers must cooperate with paternity and child support requirements unless they have “good cause,” as in cases of domestic violence, in which providing that information would put the mother at greater risk of violence. Game theory can help us understand how TANF recipients and caseworkers respond to the incentives in their environment, and highlight why the design of the “good cause” waiver program may not achieve its intended outcome of increasing access to benefits for survivors of family abuse.

Of course, there are natural limits on the depth with which student researchers can and should engage in a search for theory about their topic. At minimum, you should be able to draw connections across studies and be able to assess the relative importance of each theory within the literature. Just because you found one article applying your theory (like game theory, in our example above) does not mean it is important or often used in the domestic violence literature. Indeed, it would be much more common in the family violence literature to find psychological theories of trauma, feminist theories of power and control, and similar theoretical perspectives used to inform research projects rather than game theory, which is equally applicable to survivors of family violence as workers and bosses at a corporation. Consider using the Cited By feature to identify articles, books, and other sources of theoretical information that are seminal or well-cited in the literature. Similarly, by using the name of a theory in the keywords of a search query (along with keywords related to your topic), you can get a sense of how often the theory is used in your topic area. You should have a sense of what theories are commonly used to analyze your topic, even if you end up choosing a different one to inform your project.

what chapter is theoretical framework in research

Theories that are not cited or used as often are still immensely valuable. As we saw before with TANF and “good cause” waivers, using theories from other disciplines can produce uncommon insights and help you make a new contribution to the social work literature. Given the privileged position that the social work curriculum places on theories developed by white men, students may want to explore Afrocentricity as a social work practice theory (Pellebon, 2007) [2] or abolitionist social work (Jacobs et al., 2021) [3] when deciding on a theoretical framework for their research project that addresses concepts of racial justice. Start with your working question, and explain how each theory helps you answer your question. Some explanations are going to feel right, and some concepts will feel more salient to you than others. Keep in mind that this is an iterative process. Your theoretical framework will likely change as you continue to conceptualize your research project, revise your research question, and design your study.

By trying on many different theoretical explanations for your topic area, you can better clarify your own theoretical framework. Some of you may be fortunate enough to find theories that match perfectly with how you think about your topic, are used often in the literature, and are therefore relatively straightforward to apply. However, many of you may find that a combination of theoretical perspectives is most helpful for you to investigate your project. For example, maybe the group counseling program for which you are evaluating client outcomes draws from both motivational interviewing and cognitive behavioral therapy. In order to understand the change happening in the client population, you would need to know each theory separately as well as how they work in tandem with one another. Because theoretical explanations and even the definitions of concepts are debated by scientists, it may be helpful to find a specific social scientist or group of scientists whose perspective on the topic you find matches with your understanding of the topic. Of course, it is also perfectly acceptable to develop your own theoretical framework, though you should be able to articulate how your framework fills a gap within the literature.

Much like paradigm, theory plays a supporting role for the conceptualization of your research project. Recall the ice float from Figure 5.1. Theoretical explanations support the design and methods you use to answer your research question. In projects that lack a theoretical framework, you may see the biases and errors in reasoning that we discussed in Chapter 1 that get in the way of good social science. That’s because theories mark which concepts are important, provide a framework for understanding them, and measure their interrelationships. If research is missing this foundation, it may instead operate on informal observation, messages from authority, and other forms of unsystematic and unscientific thinking we reviewed in Chapter 1.

Theory-informed inquiry is incredibly helpful for identifying key concepts and how to measure them in your research project, but there is a risk in aligning research too closely with theory. The theory-ladenness of facts and observations produced by social science research means that we may be making our ideas real through research. This is a potential source of confirmation bias in social science. Moreover, as Tan (2016) [4] demonstrates, social science often proceeds by adopting as true the perspective of Western and Global North countries, and cross-cultural research is often when ethnocentric and biased ideas are most visible . In her example, a researcher from the West studying teacher-centric classrooms in China that rely partially on rote memorization may view them as less advanced than student-centered classrooms developed in a Western country simply because of Western philosophical assumptions about the importance of individualism and self-determination. Developing a clear theoretical framework is a way to guard against biased research, and it will establish a firm foundation on which you will develop the design and methods for your study.

Key Takeaways

  • Just as empirical evidence is important for conceptualizing a research project, so too are the key concepts and relationships identified by social work theory.
  • Using theory your theory textbook will provide you with a sense of the broad theoretical perspectives in social work that might be relevant to your project.
  • Try to find small-t theories that are more specific to your topic area and relevant to your working question.

TRACK 1 (IF YOU ARE CREATING A RESEARCH PROPOSAL FOR THIS CLASS):

In Chapter 2, you developed a concept map for your proposal.

  • Take a moment to revisit your concept map now as your theoretical framework is taking shape. Make any updates to the key concepts and relationships in your concept map.

If you need a refresher, we have embedded a short how-to video from the University of Guelph Library (CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0) that we also used in Chapter 2.

TRACK 2 (IF YOU AREN’T CREATING A RESEARCH PROPOSAL FOR THIS CLASS):

You are interested in researching bullying among school-aged children, and how this impacts students’ academic success.

  • Find two theoretical frameworks that have been used in published articles on this topic. Identify similarities and differences between the frameworks.

5.6 Designing your project using theory and paradigm

Learning Objectives

Learners will be able to…

  • Apply the assumptions of each paradigm to your project
  • Summarize what aspects of your project stem from positivist, constructivist, or critical assumptions

In the previous sections, we reviewed the major paradigms and theories in social work research. In this section, we will provide an example of how to apply theory and paradigm in research. This process is depicted in Figure 5.2 below with some quick summary questions for each stage. Some questions in the figure below have example answers like designs (i.e., experimental, survey) and data analysis approaches (i.e., discourse analysis). These examples are arbitrary. There are a lot of options that are not listed. So, don’t feel like you have to memorize them or use them in your study.

A linear process moving from initial research questions (defining the purpose of research and its context), then moving to paradigmatic questions of ontology and epistemology which help us refine research questions; then moving to methodology, methods, and data analysis.

This diagram (taken from an archived Open University (UK) course entitled E89 ​- Educational Inquiry ) ​ shows one way to visualize the research design process. While research is far from linear, in general, this is how research projects progress sequentially. Researchers begin with a working question, and through engaging with the literature, develop and refine those questions into research questions (a process we will finalize in Chapter 9). But in order to get to the part where you gather your sample, measure your participants, and analyze your data, you need to start with paradigm. Based on your work in section 5.3, you should have a sense of which paradigm or paradigms are best suited to answering your question. The approach taken will often reflect the nature of the research question; the kind of data it is possible to collect; and work previously done in the area under consideration. When evaluating paradigm and theory, it is important to look at what other authors have done previously and the framework used by studies that are similar to the one you are thinking of conducting.

Once you situate your project in a research paradigm, it becomes possible to start making concrete choices about methods. Depending on the project, this will involve choices about things like:

  • What is my final research question?
  • What are the key variables and concepts under investigation, and how will I measure them?
  • How do I find a representative sample of people who experience the topic I’m studying?
  • What design is most appropriate for my research question?
  • How will I collect and analyze data?
  • How do I determine whether my results describe real patterns in the world or are the result of bias or error?

The data collection phase can begin once these decisions are made. It can be very tempting to start collecting data as soon as possible in the research process as this gives a sense of progress. However, it is usually worth getting things exactly right before collecting data as an error found in your approach further down the line can be harder to correct or recalibrate around.

Designing a study using paradigm and theory: An example

Paradigm and theory have the potential to turn some people off since there is a lot of abstract terminology and thinking about real-world social work practice contexts. In this section, I’ll use an example from my own research, and I hope it will illustrate a few things. First, it will show that paradigms are really just philosophical statements about things you already understand and think about normally. It will also show that no project neatly sits in one paradigm and that a social work researcher should use whichever paradigm or combination of paradigms suit their question the best. Finally, I hope it is one example of how to be a pragmatist and strategically use the strengths of different theories and paradigms to answering a research question. We will pick up the discussion of mixed methods in the next chapter.

Thinking as an expert: Positivism

In my undergraduate research methods class, I used an open textbook much like this one and wanted to study whether it improved student learning. You can read a copy of the article we wrote on based on our study . We’ll learn more about the specifics of experiments and evaluation research in Chapter 13, but you know enough to understand what evaluating an intervention might look like. My first thought was to conduct an experiment, which placed me firmly within the positivist or “expert” paradigm.

Experiments focus on isolating the relationship between cause and effect. For my study, this meant studying an open textbook (the cause, or intervention) and final grades (the effect, or outcome). Notice that my position as “expert” lets me assume many things in this process. First, it assumes that I can distill the many dimensions of student learning into one number—the final grade. Second, as the “expert,” I’ve determined what the intervention is: indeed, I created the book I was studying, and applied a theory from experts in the field that explains how and why it should impact student learning.

Theory is part of applying all paradigms, but I’ll discuss its impact within positivism first. Theories grounded in positivism help explain why one thing causes another. More specifically, these theories isolate a causal relationship between two (or more) concepts while holding constant the effects of other variables that might confound the relationship between the key variables. That is why experimental design is so common in positivist research. The researcher isolates the environment from anything that might impact or bias the cause and effect relationship they want to investigate.

But in order for one thing to lead to change in something else, there must be some logical, rational reason why it would do so. In open education, there are a few hypotheses (though no full-fledged theories) on why students might perform better using open textbooks. The most common is the access hypothesis , which states that students who cannot afford expensive textbooks or wouldn’t buy them anyway can access open textbooks because they are free, which will improve their grades. It’s important to note that I held this theory prior to starting the experiment, as in positivist research you spell out your hypotheses in advance and design an experiment to support or refute that hypothesis.

Notice that the hypothesis here applies not only to the people in my experiment, but to any student in higher education. Positivism seeks generalizable truth, or what is true for everyone. The results of my study should provide evidence that  anyone  who uses an open textbook would achieve similar outcomes. Of course, there were a number of limitations as it was difficult to tightly control the study. I could not randomly assign students or prevent them from sharing resources with one another, for example. So, while this study had many positivist elements, it was far from a perfect positivist study because I was forced to adapt to the pragmatic limitations of my research context (e.g., I cannot randomly assign students to classes) that made it difficult to establish an objective, generalizable truth.

Thinking like an empathizer: constructivism

One of the things that did not sit right with me about the study was the reliance on final grades to signify everything that was going on with students. I added another quantitative measure that measured research knowledge, but this was still too simplistic. I wanted to understand how students used the book and what they thought about it. I could create survey questions that ask about these things, but to get at the subjective truths here, I thought it best to use focus groups in which students would talk to one another with a researcher moderating the discussion and guiding it using predetermined questions. You will learn more about focus groups in Chapter 18.

Researchers spoke with small groups of students during the last class of the semester. They prompted people to talk about aspects of the textbook they liked and didn’t like, compare it to textbooks from other classes, describe how they used it, and so forth. It was this focus on  understanding and subjective experience that brought us into the constructivist paradigm. Alongside other researchers, I created the focus group questions but encouraged researchers who moderated the focus groups to allow the conversation to flow organically.

We originally started out with the assumption, for which there is support in the literature, that students would be angry with the high-cost textbook that we used prior to the free one, and this cost shock might play a role in students’ negative attitudes about research. But unlike the hypotheses in positivism, these are merely a place to start and are open to revision throughout the research process. This is because the researchers are not the experts, the participants are! Just like your clients are the experts on their lives, so were the students in my study. Our job as researchers was to create a group in which they would reveal their informed thoughts about the issue, coming to consensus around a few key themes.

what chapter is theoretical framework in research

When we initially analyzed the focus groups, we uncovered themes that seemed to fit the data. But the overall picture was murky. How were themes related to each other? And how could we distill these themes and relationships into something meaningful? We went back to the data again. We could do this because there isn’t one truth, as in positivism, but multiple truths and multiple ways of interpreting the data. When we looked again, we focused on some of the effects of having a textbook customized to the course. It was that customization process that helped make the language more approachable, engaging, and relevant to social work practice.

Ultimately, our data revealed differences in how students perceived a free textbook versus a free textbook that is customized to the class. When we went to interpret this finding, the remix  hypothesis of open textbook was helpful in understanding that relationship. It states that the more faculty incorporate editing and creating into the course, the better student learning will be. Our study helped flesh out that theory by discussing the customization process and how students made sense of a customized resource.

In this way, theoretical analysis operates differently in constructivist research. While positivist research tests existing theories, constructivist research creates theories based on the stories of research participants. However, it is difficult to say if this theory was totally emergent in the dataset or if my prior knowledge of the remix hypothesis influenced my thinking about the data. Constructivist researchers are encouraged to put a box around their previous experiences and beliefs, acknowledging them, but trying to approach the data with fresh eyes. Constructivists know that this is never perfectly possible, though, as we are always influenced by our previous experiences when interpreting data and conducting scientific research projects.

Thinking like an activist: Critical

Although adding focus groups helped ease my concern about reducing student learning down to just final grades by providing a more rich set of conversations to analyze. However, my role as researcher and “expert” was still an important part of the analysis. As someone who has been out of school for a while, and indeed has taught this course for years, I have lost touch with what it is like to be a student taking research methods for the first time. How could I accurately interpret or understand what students were saying? Perhaps I would overlook things that reflected poorly on my teaching or my book. I brought other faculty researchers on board to help me analyze the data, but this still didn’t feel like enough.

By luck, an undergraduate student approached me about wanting to work together on a research project. I asked her if she would like to collaborate on evaluating the textbook with me. Over the next year, she assisted me with conceptualizing the project, creating research questions, as well as conducting and analyzing the focus groups. Not only would she provide an “insider” perspective on coding the data, steeped in her lived experience as a student, but she would serve as a check on my power through the process.

Including people from the group you are measuring as part of your research team is a common component of critical research. Ultimately, critical theorists would find my study to be inadequate in many ways. I still developed the research question, created the intervention, and wrote up the results for publication, which privileges my voice and role as “expert.” Instead, critical theorists would emphasize the role of students (community members) in identifying research questions, choosing the best intervention to used, and so forth. But collaborating with students as part of a research team did address some of the power imbalances in the research process.

Critical research projects also aim to have an impact on the people and systems involved in research. No students or researchers had profound personal realizations as a result of my study, nor did it lessen the impact of oppressive structures in society. I can claim some small victory that my department switched to using my textbook after the study was complete (changing a system), though this was likely the result of factors other than the study (my advocacy for open textbooks).

Social work research is almost always designed to create change for people or systems. To that end, every social work project is at least somewhat critical. However, the additional steps of conducting research with people rather than on people reveal a depth to the critical paradigm. By bringing students on board the research team, study had student perspectives represented in conceptualization, data collection, and analysis. That said, there was much to critique about this study from a critical perspective. I retained a lot of the power in the research process, and students did not have the ability to determine the research question or purpose of the project. For example, students might likely have said that textbook costs and the quality of their research methods textbook were less important than student debt, racism, or other potential issues experienced by students in my class. Instead of a ground-up research process based in community engagement, my research included some important participation by students on project created and led by faculty.

Designing research is an iterative process

I hope this conversation was useful in applying paradigms to a research project. While my example discusses education research, the same would apply for social work research about social welfare programs, clinical interventions, or other topics. Paradigm and theory are covered at the beginning of the project because these assumptions will structure the rest of the project. Each of the research steps that occur after this chapter (e.g., forming a question, choosing a design) rely upon philosophical and theoretical assumptions. As you continue designing a project, you may find yourself shifting between paradigms. That is normal, as conceptualization is not a linear process. As you move through the next steps of conceptualizing and designing a project, you’ll find philosophies and theories that best match how you want to study your topic.

Viewing theoretical and empirical arguments through this lens is one of the true gifts of the social work approach to research. The multi-paradigmatic perspective is a hallmark of social work research and one that helps us contribute something unique on research teams and in practice.

  • Multi-paradigmatic research is a distinguishing hallmark of social work research. Understanding the limitations and strengths of each paradigm will help you justify your research approach and strategically choose elements from one or more paradigms to answer your question.
  • Paradigmatic assumptions help you understand the “blind spots” in your research project and how to adjust and address these areas. Keep in mind, it is not necessary to address all of your blind spots, as all projects have limitations.

Post-awareness check (Emotion)

Of the introduced social science paradigms, which would you say aligns with your current perspective on your research topic?

  • Sketch out which paradigm applies best to your project. Second, building on your answer to the exercise in section 6.3, identify how the theory you chose and the paradigm in which you find yourself are consistent or are in conflict with one another. For example, if you are using systems theory in a positivist framework, you might talk about how they both rely on a deterministic approach to human behavior with a focus on the status-quo and social order.
  • Select one paradigm and one theoretical framework. How does your selected theoretical framework align with your paradigm? How could the theory and paradigm together inform the overall research design?
  • An, S., Yoo, J., & Nackerud, L. G. (2015). Using game theory to understand screening for domestic violence under the TANF family violence option.  Advances in Social Work ,  16 (2), 338-357. ↵
  • Pellebon, D. A. (2007). An analysis of Afrocentricity as theory for social work practice.  Advances in Social Work ,  8 (1), 169-183. ↵
  • Jacobs, L. A., Kim, M. E., Whitfield, D. L., Gartner, R. E., Panichelli, M., Kattari, S. K., ... & Mountz, S. E. (2021). Defund the police: Moving towards an anti-carceral social work.  Journal of Progressive Human Services ,  32 (1), 37-62. ↵
  • Tan, C. (2016). Investigator bias and theory-ladenness in cross-cultural research: Insights from Wittgenstein. Current Issues in Comparative Education ,  18 (1), 83-95. ↵

a network of linked concepts that together provide a rationale for a research project or analysis; theoretical frameworks are based in theory and empirical literature

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what chapter is theoretical framework in research

  • > An Introduction to Interdisciplinary Research
  • > Theoretical Framework and Research Question

what chapter is theoretical framework in research

Book contents

  • Frontmatter
  • Acknowledgements
  • Part 1 The Handbook - ‘The What’
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 What is Science? A Brief Philosophy of Science
  • 3 The Disciplines
  • 4 Interdisciplinarity
  • 5 Complexity: The Main Driving Force Behind Interdisciplinarity
  • 6 Interdisciplinary Integration
  • Part 2 The Manual - ‘The How’
  • 7 The Interdisciplinary Research Process
  • 8 The Problem
  • 9 Theoretical Framework and Research Question
  • 10 How to Collect and Analyze your Data
  • 11 Discussion and Conclusion(s)
  • Part 3 Interdisciplinary Research in Practice
  • 12 Interdisciplinary Research Example: Fogponics
  • 13 Interdisciplinary Careers
  • Further Reading

9 - Theoretical Framework and Research Question

It is now time to turn the preliminary research question into a researchable research question. By developing a theoretical framework that addresses your preliminary research question, you will be able to describe the ‘state of the art’ in your field of interest, sharpen your ideas, and then formulate a better, more specified research question. This part of the research process is described in this paragraph (and displayed in figure 17).

Considerations:

□ Consider all relevant theories, concepts, and assumptions that each discipline can contribute.

□ Where do disciplinary theories overlap? Where can you find or create common ground?

□ Is it possible to integrate the theoretical frameworks of the relevant disciplines?

As discussed in chapter 6, communication between (disciplinary) perspectives is a first important step towards integrating these perspectives. So an important question is how to enhance communication within your interdisciplinary research group? First and foremost, an understanding of one's own discipline is needed if a useful conversation between academics from different disciplines is to occur. In other words, one should be familiar with the theories, concepts, and methodologies that are central to one's discipline and realize how these and other ingredients make up the Science Cycle according to which scientific research of your topic is conducted (see chapter 2 on what science is). One could also answer the following questions as a way of bringing the disciplinary perspective to the forefront (partly after Paul & Elder, 2014):

□ What is your disciplinary perspective on the problem?

□ Which insights is this perspective based on?

□ What are the strengths and weaknesses of this perspective?

□ What are the borders of your disciplinary perspective in researching the problem? That is to say: where do you see opportunities to collaborate with other disciplines?

The second and arguably the most important skill to enhance communication (and thus integration) across disciplines is critical self-reflection. Different methodologies to enhance conversation between academics of different disciplines have emerged, and they all stress the importance of academics’ self-reflection on their (disciplinary) assumptions, mindset, and background. Lélé and Norgaard (2005), for example, emphasize that all researchers operate with implicit assumptions that are based on personal values and are guided by their discipline, to the exclusion of others. Reflecting on your personal values and assumptions can be a daunting task: how can you reflect on ideas you may not hold on a conscious level?

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  • Theoretical Framework and Research Question
  • Edited by Machiel Keestra , Steph Menken
  • Book: An Introduction to Interdisciplinary Research
  • Online publication: 12 December 2020
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9789048531615.010

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Transitional and Post-Mining Land Uses: A Global Review of Regulatory Frameworks, Decision-Making Criteria, and Methods

what chapter is theoretical framework in research

Reviewer 1 Report

  I have carefully reviewed this article, which provides a comprehensive and valuable overview of post-mining land management, regulatory frameworks in various countries, decision-making criteria, and land use, among other topics. However, there are areas where the paper could be further improved. Here are my suggestions for revision:

  1. The article offers a global review, but it may lack in-depth analysis of specific cases. Incorporating case studies could help readers better understand the connection between policy theory and practice.

  2. The paper mentions multi-criteria decision-making methods, yet the rationale behind the selection of these criteria and their limitations are not sufficiently discussed. It is recommended to include this discussion.

  Additionally, there are some language and formatting issues that need to be addressed, such as the formatting of figures in Table 4   “ (Aquatic Land Use Sub-Classes ” .

  In summary, my opinion is that the paper could be accepted after minor revision.

Author Response

Dear Reviewer,

all authors of the article want to express our thanks for the constructive comments you made, which helped us upgrade the content of our article. Below we describe the changes made in our manuscript, which are shown in detail in the attached (as a supplementary file) MS Word file with the track changes option activated.

Comments 1: I have carefully reviewed this article, which provides a comprehensive and valuable overview of post-mining land management, regulatory frameworks in various countries, decision-making criteria, and land use, among other topics.

Response 1: Thank you for your comment.

Comments 2: The article offers a global review, but it may lack in-depth analysis of specific cases. Incorporating case studies could help readers better understand the connection between policy theory and practice.

Response 2: We attempted to consider this comment together with a comment by the second reviewer who asked for the discussion section to be separated from the conclusions. Thus, section 7 presents now a synopsis of the literature review as well as a discussion of about one page, which is based on case studies from a Greek asbestos quarry, the German and Greek lignite open-pit mines, and the regional strategies applicable in Queensland, Australia.

Comments 3: The paper mentions multi-criteria decision-making methods, yet the rationale behind the selection of these criteria and their limitations are not sufficiently discussed. It is recommended to include this discussion.

Response 3: A brief introduction to these issues is provided by two paragraphs that have been added in the sections presenting land use selection criteria and MCDA methods (with relevant references).

Comments 4: There are some language and formatting issues that need to be addressed, such as the formatting of figures in Table 4 (Aquatic Land Use Sub-Classes).

Response 4: The text was checked using Grammarly software and the font was changed to the one suggested by the journal’s template in the tables where a different font had been used.

Comments 5: In summary, my opinion is that the paper could be accepted after minor revision.

Response 5: Thank you very much for allowing us to improve our article.

Yours sincerely,

C. Pagouni, F. Pavloudakis, I. Kapageridis, A. Giannakou

Reviewer 2 Report

All stages of mining activity, from the exploration phase to the completion of mining works, lead to significant changes in the natural landscape and the appearance of new, anthropogenic surface features. As a result of mining activities, large areas of land are often permanently excluded from further use. Due to the extensively transformed landscape, it is necessary to implement revitalization processes. In order to mitigate mining activities around the world, a number of legal regulations have been developed, which mainly oblige mining entrepreneurs to restore utility values ​​to degraded or devastated areas. This process is long-lasting, complex and covers large areas. Appropriate design and investment activities, combined with the cooperation of specialists such as architects, construction engineers, geotechnicians, hydrotechnicians and environmental engineers, as well as local authorities, can offer a comprehensive functional program for areas degraded by mining activities.

The paper reviews the literature, focusing on the issues of developing new areas in the transitional period and after the final closure of open-pit mines and quarries. Four main aspects were analyzed: (1) the current legal framework, (2) alternative land uses, (3) land use selection criteria, (4) decision-making methods to select the most appropriate land use.

The authors did a great job analyzing 99, mostly recent, scientific articles. As a reviewer, I have a few comments or suggestions regarding the manuscript under review:

Chapter 3 "Legislation" - is interesting, the reader can get acquainted with the legal regulations in various countries of the world in one place, but I suggest clarifying or changing the title of the chapter, because these are selected legal regulations, in the case of some countries incomplete or no longer valid. It should be considered whether the content of the chapter should be extended to include European Union legal regulations.

Chapter 7 "Discussion and conclusions" - there is no discussion in the chapter, it is a summary of the content of the article, the title should be changed to "summary" or the content of the chapter should be reworded. It would be advisable to have a separate section "Conclusions"

Please check whether the references to the cited publications are correct in the "References" section

Comment 1: All stages of mining activity, from the exploration phase to the completion of mining works, lead to significant changes in the natural landscape and the appearance of new, anthropogenic surface features. As a result of mining activities, large areas of land are often permanently excluded from further use. Due to the extensively transformed landscape, it is necessary to implement revitalization processes. In order to mitigate mining activities around the world, a number of legal regulations have been developed, which mainly oblige mining entrepreneurs to restore utility values ​​to degraded or devastated areas. This process is long-lasting, complex and covers large areas. Appropriate design and investment activities, combined with the cooperation of specialists such as architects, construction engineers, geotechnicians, hydrotechnicians and environmental engineers, as well as local authorities, can offer a comprehensive functional program for areas degraded by mining activities.

Response 1: Thank you very much for this introductory paragraph. As you will see, we have incorporated some of your pertinent comments into section 7, where the findings of the literature review are discussed, as well as into section 8.

Comment 2: The paper reviews the literature, focusing on the issues of developing new areas in the transitional period and after the final closure of open-pit mines and quarries. Four main aspects were analyzed: (1) the current legal framework, (2) alternative land uses, (3) land use selection criteria, (4) decision-making methods to select the most appropriate land use. The authors did a great job analyzing 99, mostly recent, scientific articles.

Response 2: Thank you very much for acknowledging the effort made.

Comment 3: Chapter 3 "Legislation" - is interesting, the reader can get acquainted with the legal regulations in various countries of the world in one place, but I suggest clarifying or changing the title of the chapter because these are selected legal regulations, in the case of some countries incomplete or no longer valid. It should be considered whether the content of the chapter should be extended to include European Union legal regulations.

Response 3: The title of the section has been changed, and a paragraph was added describing the difficulties and limitations encountered during the review of the legal framework. A paragraph on the legal framework of the European Union, based on Directive 2006/21/EC, has also been added.

Comment 4: Chapter 7 "Discussion and conclusions" - there is no discussion in the chapter, it is a summary of the content of the article, the title should be changed to "summary" or the content of the chapter should be reworded. It would be advisable to have a separate section "Conclusions".

Response 4: The title of the section has been changed (the Greek word ‘Synopsis’ has been used instead of summary!) and the conclusions are now a separate section. Moreover, considering the comment of the first reviewer about the “lack of in-depth analysis of specific cases”, we decided to add a discussion of about one page, based on case studies from a Greek asbestos quarry, the German and Greek lignite open-pit mines, and the regional strategies applicable in Queensland, Australia.  

Comment 5: Please check whether the references to the cited publications are correct in the "References" section.

Response 5: The literature was prepared using Zotero YEE, which is one of the systems proposed by the Journal. Two references, which were written in Greek have been translated into English. Also, some minor modifications have been made.

C. Pagouni, F. Pavloudakis, I. Kapageridis, A. Yiannakou

Pagouni, C.; Pavloudakis, F.; Kapageridis, I.; Yiannakou, A. Transitional and Post-Mining Land Uses: A Global Review of Regulatory Frameworks, Decision-Making Criteria, and Methods. Land 2024 , 13 , 1051. https://doi.org/10.3390/land13071051

Pagouni C, Pavloudakis F, Kapageridis I, Yiannakou A. Transitional and Post-Mining Land Uses: A Global Review of Regulatory Frameworks, Decision-Making Criteria, and Methods. Land . 2024; 13(7):1051. https://doi.org/10.3390/land13071051

Pagouni, Chrysoula, Francis Pavloudakis, Ioannis Kapageridis, and Athena Yiannakou. 2024. "Transitional and Post-Mining Land Uses: A Global Review of Regulatory Frameworks, Decision-Making Criteria, and Methods" Land 13, no. 7: 1051. https://doi.org/10.3390/land13071051

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COMMENTS

  1. What is a Theoretical Framework? How to Write It (with Examples)

    A theoretical framework guides the research process like a roadmap for the research study and helps researchers clearly interpret their findings by providing a structure for organizing data and developing conclusions. A theoretical framework in research is an important part of a manuscript and should be presented in the first section. It shows ...

  2. Theoretical Framework

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  3. What Is a Theoretical Framework?

    A theoretical framework is a foundational review of existing theories that serves as a roadmap for developing the arguments you will use in your own work. Theories are developed by researchers to explain phenomena, draw connections, and make predictions. In a theoretical framework, you explain the existing theories that support your research ...

  4. What is a Theoretical Framework?

    A theoretical framework is a foundational review of existing theories that serves as a roadmap for developing the arguments you will use in your own work. Theories are developed by researchers to explain phenomena, draw connections, and make predictions. In a theoretical framework, you explain the existing theories that support your research ...

  5. Theoretical Framework Example for a Thesis or Dissertation

    A strong theoretical framework gives your research direction. It allows you to convincingly interpret, explain, and generalize from your findings and show the relevance of your thesis or dissertation topic in your field.

  6. Theoretical Framework

    The theoretical framework is the structure that can hold or support a theory of a research study. The theoretical framework encompasses not just the theory, but the narrative explanation about how the researcher engages in using the theory and its underlying assumptions to investigate the research problem.

  7. Theoretical Framework

    A theoretical framework provides the theoretical assumptions for the larger context of a study, and is the foundation or 'lens' by which a study is developed. This framework helps to ground the research focus understudy within theoretical underpinnings and to frame the inquiry for data analysis and interpretation.

  8. How to write a theoretical framework

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  10. PDF Building and Using Theoretical Frameworks

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  11. PDF The Theoretical Framework

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  12. Conceptual vs Theoretical Frameworks

    The theoretical framework basically differs from the conceptual framework in that it often inspires the research question based on the theories' predictions about the phenomena under investigation. A conceptual framework, on the other hand, emerges from the research question, providing a structure for investigating it.

  13. Theoretical vs Conceptual Framework

    Theoretical framework vs conceptual framework. As you can see, the theoretical framework and the conceptual framework are closely related concepts, but they differ in terms of focus and purpose. The theoretical framework is used to lay down a foundation of theory on which your study will be built, whereas the conceptual framework visualises ...

  14. Chapter 4: Theoretical frameworks for qualitative research

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    Step 5: Choosing a Conceptual or Theoretical Framework For all empirical research, you must choose a conceptual or theoretical framework to "frame" or "ground" your study. Theoretical and/or conceptual frameworks are often difficult to understand and challenging to choose which is the right one (s) for your research objective (Hatch, 2002). Truthfully, it is difficult to get a real ...

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  18. Literature Reviews, Theoretical Frameworks, and Conceptual Frameworks

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  20. 5.5 Developing a theoretical framework

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  21. PDF CHAPTER 2 Theoretical Framework and Literature Review

    This chapter also helps to gain understanding of the conditions under which the enabling potential of technology will be realised and further, establish the purpose of this study. In order to establish the rationale of placing blended learning at the core of this study, this chapter proposes a theoretical framework that serves as the foundation ...

  22. Theoretical Framework and Research Question (Chapter 9)

    Summary It is now time to turn the preliminary research question into a researchable research question. By developing a theoretical framework that addresses your preliminary research question, you will be able to describe the 'state of the art' in your field of interest, sharpen your ideas, and then formulate a better, more specified research question. This part of the research process is ...

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  24. Land

    A paragraph on the legal framework of the European Union, based on Directive 2006/21/EC, has also been added. Comment 4: Chapter 7 "Discussion and conclusions" - there is no discussion in the chapter, it is a summary of the content of the article, the title should be changed to "summary" or the content of the chapter should be reworded.