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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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31 Theoretical Framework Examples

theoretical framework examples and definition, explained below

A theoretical framework is a theory that can be applied to interpret and understand data in your research study.

A useful working definition comes from Connaway and Radford (2021):

“…a theoretical framework utilizes theory/theories and their constituent elements as the presumed ‘working model’ that drives the investigation and analysis of a social phenomenon.” (Connaway & Radford, 2021)

There are a range of theories that each look at the world through different lenses. Each will shape how we look at and interpret our data.

For example:

  • Feminists look at the world through the lens of power and oppression of women. 
  • Functionalists look at the world and see how the concepts and ideas in our societies have a role in maintaining social order. 
  • Behaviorists look at the world and see how incentives – rewards and punishments – shape human behavior .
  • Postmodernists look at the world and see how language and discourse shape belief systems .

When selecting a theoretical framework, we’re making a conscious decision about our approach and focus. For example, ‘feminism’ and ‘ critical theory ’ are theoretical frameworks that will focus on how power functions in society. This might be useful in a sociological or cultural studies analysis. But they won’t be so useful in a study of classroom learning, which might best be served by ‘behaviorism’ or ‘constructivism’ as your theoretical frames.

Theoretical Framework Examples

1. constructivism.

Scholarly Fields: Psychology, Education

Constructivism is a theory in educational psychology about how people think and learn.

It states that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences.

When new information challenges past beliefs, cognitive dissonance occurs, which is overcome through processes of assimilation and accommodation until we develop a new understanding of what we observe, which is ideally a closer approximation of the truth.

It challenges the previously dominant concept in psychology, behaviorism , that states we learn best through rewards, punishments, and forming associations between concepts.

Example of Constructivism in the Classroom

A researcher examines how students learn about the concept of gravity in a physics classroom. The study would observe the process as the students first encounter basic information, then explore related concepts through hands-on experiments and classroom discussions. The focus of the study would be on how students construct their understanding utilizing prior knowledge and evolving their understanding through experience and reflection.

2. Behaviorism

Behaviorism is a learning theory in behavioral psychology that holds that behaviors are learned through association, trial and error.

This theory takes a principled stance that learning needs to be measurable . Inner cognitive states are not taken into account because thoughts are, to behaviorists, not possible to be measured. Therefore, the theory suggests that behavior must be studied in a systematic and observable manner with no consideration of internal mental states.

A famous behaviorist study is Pavlov’s study of how his dog learned to salivate when he heard a bell ringing, because the dog associated the bell with food. This is now known as a Pavlovian response .

Similarly, B.F. Skinner found that rewarding and punishing rats can lead them into learning how to navigate mazes at faster and faster speeds, demonstrating the observable effects of rewards and punishments in learning.

If you were to use Behaviorism as your theoretical framework, it would likely inform both your research question – where you may want to focus on a situation where you will measure changes in behaviors through rewards and punishments – as well as your research methods, where you’ll likely employ a quantitative research method that measures changes in behaviors, such as application of pre-tests and post-tests in an educational environment.

Example of a Study Using a Behaviorist Theoretical Framework

In a study using a behaviorist framework, a psychologist might investigate the effects of positive reinforcement on the classroom behavior of elementary school children. The experiment could involve implementing a rewards system for a selected behavior, such as raising a hand before speaking, and observing any changes in the frequency of this behavior. The behaviorist theoretical framework would guide the researcher’s expectation that the reinforcement (reward) would increase the occurrence of the desired behavior.

3. Psychoanalytic Theory

Scholarly Fields: Psychology, Social Work

Psychoanalytic and psychodynamic theories , originally proposed by Sigmund Freud, posit that human behavior is the result of the interactions among three component parts of the mind: the id, ego, and superego .

This theory might be used by a psychology student in their research project where they test patients’ behaviors, comparing them to Freud’s (or, for that matter, Carl Jung’s) theoretical ideas about stages of development, interaction between id, ego, and superego, or the power of the subconscious to affect thoughts and behavior.

This theoretical frame is rarely used today, although it acts as a foundation to subsequent theories that are held in higher esteem, such as psychosocial theory, explained next.

Example of a Study Using a Psychoanalytic Theoretical Framework

A researcher using a psychoanalytic framework might study the influence of early childhood experiences on adult relationship patterns. Through in-depth interviews, the study would examine participants’ recollections of their early relationships with their parents and the unconscious conflicts and defenses that may have arisen from these experiences. The study would then look for patterns in the participants’ current relationships that might reflect these early experiences and defense mechanisms.

4. Psychosocial Theory

Psychosocial theory builds upon (and, in some ways, rejects) Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. This theory maintains that subconscious thoughts affect behavior, but focuses on how early social interactions affect outcomes later in life.

Erik Erikson, a central figure in the history of psychosocial theory, theorized that humans go through roughly set-in-stone stages of life, where in each stage, we must overcome challenges like industry vs inferiority (where we need to learn to embrace an industrious and creative personality or else risk having an inferiority complex later in life).

Psychosocial theory can be applied in the study of how people develop psychological complexes in their lives and helps them overcome them by exploring the origins of these complexes.

Example of a Study Using a Psychosocial Theoretical Framework

A study based on a psychosocial framework could explore individual patients’ core challenges and relate them to Erikson’s psychosocial states. The psychosocial theory would guide the interpretation of the results, suggesting that past events, such as being berated by parents, can lead to increased psychological stress.

5. Feminist Theory

Scholarly Fields: Sociology, Cultural Studies, and more

Feminism is a social and political framework that analyzes the status of women and men in society with the purpose of using that knowledge to promote women’s rights and interests.

Generally, a person applying a feminist framework would have at the core of their research question an interest in how women are positioned in society in relation to men, and how their lives and personal agency is shaped and structured by a manufactured gender hirearchy.

Of course, within Feminism, there are a range of conflicting views and perspectives. The intersectional feminists are highly concerned with how black, working-class, and other marginalized women face compounding disadvantages; whereas other feminists might focus exclusively on gender in the workforce, or even how women’s rights intersect with, and are possibly impacted by, trans* rights.

Example of a Study Using a Feminist Theoretical Framework

A researcher could use a feminist theoretical framework to investigate gender bias in workplace promotions within a large corporation. The study might involve collecting and analyzing qualitative data and quantitative data on promotion rates, gender ratios in upper management, and employee experiences related to promotion opportunities. From a feminist perspective, the study would aim to identify any potential systemic inequalities and their impact on women’s career trajectories.

7. Conflict Theory

Scholarly Fields: Sociology, Cultural Studies

Conflict theory is a framework derived from Marxism’s teachings about the operation of power through economic and cultural apparatuses in a society.

It generally works to highlight the role of coercion and power, particularly as it relates to social class and possession of economic capital .

Generally, this approach will involve an examination of the ways the economy, policy documents, media, and so forth, distribute power in a capitalist context . Other conflict theorists might examine non-capitalist contexts, such as workers’ cooperatives with the intention of exploring possibilities for economic and cultural life in a post-capitalist society.

Example of a Study Using a Conflict Theory Framework

A sociologist might utilize conflict theory to study wealth and income disparities within a specific urban community. This study might involve the analysis of economic data, alongside a consideration of social and political structures in the community. The conflict theory would guide an understanding of how wealth and power disparities contribute to social tensions and conflict.

8. Functionalism

Scholarly Fields: Sociology (see the separate concept: Functionalism in Psychology )

Functionalism , based on the works of Durkheim. Merton and their contemporaries, is an approach to sociology that assumes each aspect of society is interdependent and contributes to society’s functioning as a whole.

Functionalism often leans on the analogy of the human body to describe society. Just as the human body has organs which each have a purpose (i.e. a function), each social institution also serves a function to support the whole.

So, a functionalist theoretical framework aims to examine social institutions and social structures (e.g. economic conditions, family relationships, religious practices, media outlets, etc.) to explore how they do or do not fulfill their purposes.

Building on Merton’s work in functionalism, many functionalist studies in sociology also explore how institutions have both manifest functions (intended purposes and consequences) and latent functions (unintended purposes and functions).

Key social institutions explored in functionalism in sociology include: the education system, hospitals, workplaces, factories, religion, and families.

Example of a Study Using a Functionalist Theoretical Framework

A  key question in functionalism is: “What is the role of this institution in upholding society, the status quo, and social hierarchies?” Following this approach, an educational researcher using a functionalist framework might study the role of schools in preparing students for various roles in society. They might collect data on curriculum, teaching methods, student performance, and post-graduation outcomes. Using a functionalist lens, the researcher would be interested in how each aspect of the education system contributes to the socialization process and preparation of individuals for adulthood and societal roles.

9. Symbolic Interactionism

Scholarly Fields: Sociology (see: symbolic interactionism in sociology )

The symbolic interaction theory states that the meaning we ascribe to objects, processes, ideas, concepts, and systems are subjective. They are constructed through language, words, and communication, and differ from context to context and culture to culture.

Symbolic interactionism is very common in qualitative research in the social sciences, especially work that involves interviews as a research method.

Symbolic interaction is a theoretical frame that challenges that of functionalism by focusing on microsociology rather than macrosociology .

Whereas functionalists are generally concerned with how social structures, institutions, and concepts have meaning on a social level , symbolic interactionists are concerned with how people make their own meanings of things in their surroundings.

For example, symbolic interactionism argues that people derive their understanding of their world through social interactions and personal experiences and interpretations.

Example of a Study Using a Symbolic Interactionist Framework

A researcher applying symbolic interactionist theory might investigate how medical patients and doctors negotiate understandings of illness during medical consultations. The study would likely involve observations and perhaps recordings of consultations, focusing on the language and symbols used by both parties. A symbolic interactionist approach would highlight how shared meanings and interpretations are built in these interactions, impacting the patient-doctor relationship and treatment decisions.

10. Postmodernism

Scholarly Fields: Sociology, Cultural Studies, Media Studies

Postmodern theory critiques social narratives, beliefs, and definitions, arguing that they’re historically, culturally and socially situated.

A key concept in postmodernism is discourse , which refers to how knowledge is constructed through language. The ways people talk about something constructs normative ideas about it (i.e. ideas, like gender, a socially constructed).

Postmodernists are therefore skeptical of truth-claims made about anything. Their research aims to demonstrate how truth-claims, such as “men are natural-born leaders” emerge through language and social narratives that normalize such as belief.

Postmodernism’s role, therefore. Is to highlight the relativity of truths and social narratives propagated by media and culture.

Example of a Study Using a Postmodern Theoretical Framework

A researcher using a postmodernist framework might conduct a study analyzing the portrayal of reality in contemporary television news. They might examine the selection and presentation of stories, the use of imagery and language, and the underlying assumptions about truth and objectivity. From a postmodernist perspective, the study would not be looking for an objective reality represented in the news but would explore how the news constructs multiple, subjective realities.

List of Additional Theoretical Frameworks

In communication studies.

  • Uses and Gratifications Theory
  • Agenda-Setting Theory
  • Spiral of Silence Theory
  • Cultivation Theory
  • Muted Group Theory

In Psychology

  • Cognitive Development Theory
  • Evolutionary psychology
  • Socio-cultural Theory

In Sociology

  • Social Action Theory
  • Poststructuralism
  • Labeling Theory
  • Strain Theory
  • Differential Opportunity Theory
  • Differential Association Theory
  • Postcolonialism

In Economics

  • Keynesian Economics
  • Neoclassical Economics
  • Marxist Economics
  • Behavioral Economics

Choosing a theoretical framework is an early step in developing your research study. Once it is selected, it will go on to inform your research methodology and methods of data collection and analysis. Furthermore, in your analysis chapters of your dissertation, you will be regularly leaning upon the ideas and concepts within your chosen theoretical framework to shed light on your observations. Academic research that uses theoretical frameworks is all about using theory to interpret the world and shed new light on phenomena. With theory, we can develop a cohesive understanding of our subjects and construct detailed, well-thought-out arguments throughout our work.

Anfara Jr, V. A., & Mertz, N. T. (Eds.). (2014). Theoretical frameworks in qualitative research . Sage publications.

Borsboom, D., van der Maas, H. L., Dalege, J., Kievit, R. A., & Haig, B. D. (2021). Theory construction methodology: A practical framework for building theories in psychology.  Perspectives on Psychological Science ,  16 (4), 756-766.

Connaway, L. S., & Radford, M. L. (2016). Research methods in library and information science . Los Angeles: ABC-CLIO.

Given, L. M. (Ed.). (2008). The Sage encyclopedia of qualitative research methods . Sage publications.

Gelso, C. J. (2006). Applying theories to research.  The psychology research handbook: A guide for graduate students and research assistants ,  455 .

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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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Designing the Theoretical Framework

Theoretical framework guide, making a theoretical framework, example framework, additional framework resources.

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What is it?

  • A foundational review of existing theories. 
  • Serves as a roadmap or blueprint for developing arguments and supporting research.
  • Overview of the theory that the research is based on.
  • Can be made up of theories, principles, and concepts.

What does it do?

  • Explains the why and how of a particular phenomenon within a particular body of literature.
  • Connects the research subject with the theory.
  • Specifies the study’s scope; makes it more valuable and generalizable.
  • Guides further actions like framing the research questions, developing the literature review, and data collection and analyses.

What should be in it?

  • Theory or theories that the researcher considers relevant for their research, principles, and concepts.
  • Theoretical Framework Guide Use this guide to determine the guiding framework for your theoretical dissertation research.

How to make a theoretical framework

  • Specify research objectives.
  • Note the prominent variables under the study.
  • Explore and review the literature through keywords identified as prominent variables.
  • Note the theories that contain these variables or the keywords.
  • Review all selected theories again in the light of the study’s objectives, and the key variables identified.
  • Search for alternative theoretical propositions in the literature that may challenge the ones already selected.
  • Ensure that the framework aligns with the study’s objectives, problem statement, the main research question, methodology, data analysis, and the expected conclusion.
  • Decide on the final framework and begin developing.
  • Theoretical Framework Example for a Thesis or Dissertation This link offers an example theoretical framework.

Some additional helpful resources in constructing a theoretical framework for study:

  • https://www.scribbr.com/dissertation/theoretical-framework/
  • https://www.scribbr.com/dissertation/theoretical-framework-example/
  • https://www.projectguru.in/how-to-write-the-theoretical-framework-of-research/

Theoretical Framework Research

The term conceptual framework and theoretical framework are often and erroneously used interchangeably (Grant & Osanloo, 2014). 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.  The application of theory in traditional theoretical research is to understand, explain, and predict phenomena (Swanson, 2013).

Casanave, C.P.,& Li,Y.(2015). Novices’ struggles with conceptual and theoretical framing in writing  dissertations and papers for publication. Publications,3 (2),104-119.doi:10.3390/publications3020104

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

Swanson, R. (2013). Theory building in applied disciplines . San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

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sample theoretical framework of a research paper

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

sample theoretical framework of a research paper

  • 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
  • Introduction

Strategies for developing the theoretical framework

  • Literature reviews
  • Research question
  • Conceptual framework
  • Conceptual vs. theoretical framework
  • Data collection
  • Qualitative research methods
  • Focus groups
  • Observational research
  • Case studies
  • Ethnographical research
  • Ethical considerations
  • Confidentiality and privacy
  • Power dynamics
  • Reflexivity

Theoretical framework

The theoretical perspective provides the broader lens or orientation through which the researcher views the research topic and guides their overall understanding and approach. The theoretical framework, on the other hand, is a more specific and focused framework that connects the theoretical perspective to the data analysis strategy through pre-established theory.

A useful theoretical framework provides a structure for organizing and interpreting the data collected during the research study. Theoretical frameworks provide a specific lens through which the data is examined, allowing the researcher to identify recurring patterns, themes, and categories related to your research inquiry based on relevant theory.

sample theoretical framework of a research paper

Let's explore the idea of the theoretical framework in greater detail by exploring its place in qualitative research, particularly how it is generated and how it contributes to and guides your research study.

Theoretical framework vs. theoretical perspective

While these two terms may sound similar, they play very distinct roles in qualitative research . A theoretical perspective refers to the philosophical stance informing the methodology and thus provides a context for the research process. These perspectives could be rooted in various schools of thought like postmodernism, constructivism, or positivism, which fundamentally shape how researchers perceive reality and construct knowledge.

On the other hand, the theoretical framework represents the structure that can hold or support a theory of a research study. It presents a logical structure of connected concepts that help the researcher understand, explain, and predict how phenomena are interrelated. The theoretical framework can pull together various theories or ideas from different perspectives to provide a comprehensive approach to addressing the research problem.

Moreover, theoretical frameworks provide useful guidance as to which research methods are appropriate for your research project. If the theoretical framework you employ is relevant to individual perspectives and beliefs, then interviews may be more suitable for your research. On the other hand, if you are utilizing an existing theory about a certain social behavior, then ethnographic observations can help you more ably capture data from social interactions.

Later in this guide, we will also discuss conceptual frameworks , which help you visualize the essential concepts and data points in the context you are studying. For now, it is important to emphasize that these are all related but ultimately different ideas.

Example of a theoretical framework

Let's look at a simple example of a theoretical framework used to address a social science research problem. Consider a study examining the impact of social media on body image among adolescents. The theoretical perspective might be rooted in social constructivism, based on the assumption that our understanding of reality is shaped by social interactions and cultural context.

The theoretical framework, then, could draw on one or several theories to provide a comprehensive structure for examining this issue. For instance, it might combine elements of "social comparison theory" (which suggests that individuals determine their own social and personal worth based on how they stack up against others), "self-perception theory" (which posits that individuals develop their attitudes by observing their own behavior and concluding what attitudes must have caused it), and "cultivation theory" (which suggests that long-term immersion in a media environment leads to "cultivation", or adopting the attitudes and beliefs portrayed in the media).

This framework would provide the structure to understand how social media exposure influences adolescents' perceptions of their bodies, how they compare themselves to images seen on social media, and how these influences may shape their attitudes toward their own bodies.

sample theoretical framework of a research paper

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Other examples of theoretical frameworks

Let's briefly look at examples in other fields to put the idea of "theoretical framework" in greater context.

Political science

In a study investigating the influence of lobbying on legislative decisions, the theoretical framework could be rooted in the "pluralist theory" and "elite theory".

Pluralist theory views politics as a competition among groups, each one pressing for its preferred policies, while elite theory suggests that a small, cohesive elite group makes the most important decisions in society. The framework could combine these theories to examine the power dynamics in legislative decisions and the role of lobbying groups in influencing these outcomes.

Educational research

An educational research study aiming to understand the impact of parental involvement on children's academic success could employ a theoretical framework based on Bronfenbrenner's ecological systems theory and Epstein's theory of overlapping spheres of influence.

sample theoretical framework of a research paper

The ecological systems theory emphasizes the importance of multiple environmental systems on child development, while Epstein's theory focuses on the partnership between family, school, and community. The intersection of these theories allows for a comprehensive examination of parental involvement both in and outside of the school context.

Health services research

In a health services study exploring factors affecting patient adherence to medication regimes, the theoretical framework could draw from the health belief model and social cognitive theory.

The health belief model posits that people's beliefs about health problems, perceived benefits of action and barriers to action, and self-efficacy explain engagement in health-promoting behavior.

The social cognitive theory emphasizes the role of observational learning, social experience, and reciprocal determinism in behavior change. The framework combining these theories provides a holistic understanding of both personal and social influences on patient medication adherence.

Developing a theoretical framework involves a multi-step process that begins with a thorough literature review . This allows you to understand the existing theories and research related to your topic and identify gaps or unresolved puzzles that your study can address.

1. Identify key concepts: These might be the phenomena you are studying, the attributes of these phenomena, or the relationships between them. Identifying these can help you define the relevant data points to analyze.

2. Find relevant theories: Conduct a literature review to search for existing theories in academic research papers that relate to your key concepts. These theories might explain the phenomena you are studying, provide context for it, or suggest how the phenomena might be related. You can build off of one theory or multiple theories, but what is most important is that the theory is aligned with the concepts and research problem you are studying.

3. Map relationships: Outline how the theories you have found relate to one another and to your key concepts. This might involve drawing a diagram or writing a narrative that explains these relationships.

4. Refine the framework: As you conduct your research, refine your theoretical framework. This might involve adding new concepts or theories, removing concepts or theories that do not fit your data, or changing how you conceptualize the relationships between theories.

Remember, the theoretical framework is not set in stone. At the same time, it may start with existing knowledge, it is important to develop your own framework as you gather more data and gain a deeper understanding of your research topic and context.

In the end, a good theoretical framework guides your research question and methods so that you can ultimately generate new knowledge and theory that meaningfully contributes to the existing conversation around a topic.

sample theoretical framework of a research paper

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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?

sample theoretical framework of a research paper

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.

sample theoretical framework of a research paper

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 ...

19 Comments

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Muhammed Ebrahim Feto

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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

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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

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Example Theoretical Framework of a Dissertation or Thesis

Published on 8 July 2022 by Sarah Vinz . Revised on 10 October 2022.

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, allowing you to convincingly interpret, explain, and generalise from your findings.

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Table of contents

Sample problem statement and research questions, sample theoretical framework, your theoretical framework, frequently asked questions about sample theoretical frameworks.

Your theoretical framework is based on:

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

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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Below is a simplified example showing how you can describe and compare theories. 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 and 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 analyse 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.

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.

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 .

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Building and Using Theoretical Frameworks

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  • James Hiebert 6 ,
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Part of the book series: Research in Mathematics Education ((RME))

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Theoretical frameworks can be confounding. They are supposed to be very important, but it is not always clear what they are or why you need them. Using ideas from Chaps. 1 and 2 , we describe them as local theories that are custom-designed for your study. Although they might use parts of larger well-known theories, they are created by individual researchers for particular studies. They are developed through the cyclic process of creating more precise and meaningful hypotheses. Building directly on constructs from the previous chapters, you can think of theoretical frameworks as equivalent to the most compelling, complete rationales you can develop for the predictions you make. Theoretical frameworks are important because they do lots of work for you. They incorporate the literature into your rationale, they explain why your study matters, they suggest how you can best test your predictions, and they help you interpret what you find. Your theoretical framework creates an essential coherence for your study and for the paper you are writing to report the study.

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Part I. What Are Theoretical Frameworks?

As the name implies, a theoretical framework is a type of theory. We will define it as the custom-made theory that focuses specifically on the hypotheses you want to test and the research questions you want to answer. It is custom-made for your study because it explains why your predictions are plausible. It does no more and no less. Building directly on Chap. 2 , as you develop more complete rationales for your predictions, you are actually building a theory to support your predictions. Our goal in this chapter is for you to become comfortable with what theoretical frameworks are, with how they relate to the general concept of theory, with what role they play in scientific inquiry, and with why and how to create one for your study.

An example of a theoretical framework.

As you read this chapter, it will be helpful to remember that our definitions of terms in this book, such as theoretical framework, are based on our view of scientific inquiry as formulating, testing, and revising hypotheses. We define theoretical framework in ways that continue the coherent story we lay out across all phases of scientific inquiry and all the chapters this book. You are likely to find descriptions of theoretical frameworks in other sources that differ in some ways from our description. In addition, you are likely to see other terms that we would include as synonyms for theoretical framework, including conceptual framework. We suggest that when you encounter these special terms, make sure you understand how the authors are defining them.

Definitions of Theories

We begin by stepping back and considering how theoretical frameworks fit within the concept of theory, as usually defined. There are many definitions of theory; you can find a huge number simply by googling “theory.” Educational researchers and theorists often propose their own definitions but many of these are quite similar. Praetorius and Charalambous ( 2022 ) reviewed a number of definitions to set the stage for examining theories of teaching. Here are a few, beginning with a dictionary definition:

Lexico.com Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 2021 ): “A supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained.”

Biddle and Anderson ( 1986 ): “By scientific theory we mean the system of concepts and propositions that is used to represent, think about, and predict observable events. Within a mature science that theory is also explanatory and formalized. It does not represent ultimate ‘truth,’ however; indeed, it will be superseded by other theories presently. Instead, it represents the best explanation we have, at present, for those events we have so far observed” (p. 241).

Kerlinger ( 1964 ): “A theory is a set of interrelated constructs (concepts), definitions and propositions which presents a systematic view of phenomena by specifying relations among variables, with the purpose of explaining and predicting phenomena” (p. 11).

Colquitt and Zapata-Phelan ( 2007 ): The authors say that theories allow researchers to understand and predict outcomes of interest, describe and explain a process or sequence of events, raise consciousness about a specific set of concepts as well as prevent scholars from “being dazzled by the complexity of the empirical world by providing a linguistic tool for organizing it” (p. 1281).

For our purposes, it is important to notice two things that most definitions of theories share: They are descriptions of a connected set of facts and concepts, and they are created to predict and/or explain observed events. You can connect these ideas to Chaps. 1 and 2 by noticing that the language for the descriptors of scientific inquiry we suggested in Chap. 1 are reflected in the definitions of theories. In particular, notice in the definitions two of the descriptors: “Observing something and trying to explain why it is the way it is” and “Updating everyone’s thinking in response to more and better information.” Notice also in the definitions the emphasis on the elements of a theory similar to the elements of a rationale described in Chap. 2 : definitions, variables, and mechanisms that explain relationships.

Exercise 3.1

Before you continue reading, in your own words, write down a definition for “theoretical framework.”

Theoretical Frameworks Are Local Theories

There are strong similarities between building theories and doing scientific inquiry (formulating, testing, and revising hypotheses). In both cases, the researcher (or theorist) develops explanations for phenomena of interest. Building theories involves describing the concepts and conjectures that predict and later explain the events, and specifying the predictions by identifying the variables that will be measured. Doing scientific inquiry involves many of the same activities: formulating predictions for answers to questions about the research problem and building rationales to explain why the predictions are appropriate and reasonable.

As you move through the cycles described in Chap. 2 —cycles of asking questions, making predictions, writing out the reasons for these predictions, imagining how you would test the predictions, reading more about what scholars know and have hypothesized, revising your predictions (and maybe your questions), and so on—your theoretical rationales will become both more complete and more precise. They will become more complete as you find new arguments and new data in the literature and through talking with others, and they will become sharper as you remove parts of the rationales that originally seemed relevant but now create mostly distractions and noise. They will become increasingly customized local theories that support your predictions.

In the end, your framework should be as clean and frugal as possible without missing arguments or data that are directly relevant. In the language of mathematics, you should use an idea if and only if it makes your framework stronger, more convincing. On the one hand, including more than you need becomes a distraction and can confuse both you, as you try to conceptualize and conduct your research, and others, as they read your reports of your research. On the other hand, including less than you need means your rationale is not yet as convincing as it could be.

The set of rationales, blended together, constitute a precisely targeted custom-made theory that supports your predictions. Custom designing your rationales for your specific predictions means you probably will be drawing ideas from lots of sources and combining them in new ways. You are likely to end up with a unique local theory, a theoretical framework that has not been proposed in exactly the same way before.

A common misconception among beginning researchers is that they should borrow a theoretical framework from somewhere else, especially from well-known scholars who have theories named after them or well-known general theories of learning or teaching. You are likely to use ideas from these theories (e.g., Vygotsky’s theory of learning, Maslow’s theory of motivation, constructivist theories of learning), but you will combine specific ideas from multiple sources to create your own framework. When someone asks, “What theoretical framework are you using?” you would not say, “A Vygotskian framework.” Rather, you would say something like, “I created my framework by combining ideas from different sources so it explains why I am making these predictions.”

A theoretical framework.

You should think of your theoretical framework as a potential contribution to the field, all on its own. Although it is unique to your study, there are elements of your framework that other researchers could draw from to construct theoretical frameworks for their studies, just as you drew from others’ frameworks. In rare cases, other researchers could use your framework as is. This might happen if they want to replicate your study or extend it in very specific ways. Usually, however, researchers borrow parts of frameworks or modify them in ways that better fit their own studies. And, just as you are doing with your own theoretical framework, those researchers will need to justify why borrowing or modifying parts of your framework will help them explain the predictions they are making.

Considering your theoretical framework as a contribution to the field means you should treat it as a central part of scientific inquiry, not just as a required step that must be completed before moving to the next phase. To be useful, the theoretical framework should be constructed as a critical part of conceptualizing and carrying out the research (Cai et al., 2019c ). This also means you should write out your framework as you are developing it. This will be a key part of your evolving research paper. Because your framework will be adjusted multiple times, your written document will go through many drafts.

If you are a graduate student, do not think of the potential audience for your written framework as only your advisor and committee members. Rather, consider your audience to be the larger community of education researchers. You will need to be sure all the key terms are defined and each part of your argument is clear, even to those who are not familiar with your study. This is one place where writing out your framework can benefit your study—it is easy to assume key terms are clear, but then you find out they are not so clear, even to you, when trying to communicate them. Failing to notice this lack of clarity can create lots of problems down the road.

Exercise 3.2

Researchers have used a number of different metaphors to describe theoretical frameworks. Maxwell (2005) referred to a theoretical framework as a “coat closet” that provides “places to ‘hang’ data, showing their relationship to other data,” although he cautioned that “a theory that neatly organizes some data will leave other data disheveled and lying on the floor, with no place to put them” (p. 49). Lester (2005) referred to a framework as a “scaffold” (p. 458), and others have called it a “blueprint” (Grant & Osanloo, 2014). Eisenhart (1991) described the framework as a “skeletal structure of justification” (p. 209). Spangler and Williams (2019) drew an analogy to the role that a house frame provides in preventing the house from collapsing in on itself. What aspects of a theoretical framework does each of these metaphors capture? What aspects does each fail to capture? Which metaphor do you find best fits your definition of a theoretical framework? Why? Can you think of another metaphor to describe a theoretical framework?

Part II. Why Do You Need Theoretical Frameworks?

Theoretical frameworks do lots of work for you. They have four primary purposes. They ensure (1) you have sound reasons to expect your predictions will be accurate, (2) you will craft appropriate methods to test your predictions, (3) you can interpret appropriately what you find, and (4) your interpretations will contribute to the accumulation of a knowledge base that can improve education. How do they do this?

Supporting Your Predictions

In previous chapters and earlier in this chapter, we described how theoretical frameworks are built along with your predictions. In fact, the rationales you develop for convincing others (and yourself) that your predictions are accurate are used to refine your predictions, and vice versa. So, it is not surprising that your refined framework provides a rationale that is fully aligned with your predictions. In fact, you could think of your theoretical framework as your best explanation, at any given moment during scientific inquiry, for why you will find what you think you will find.

Throughout this book, we are using “explanation” in a broad sense. As we noted earlier, an explanation for why your predictions are accurate includes all the concepts and definitions about mechanisms (Kerlinger’s, 1964 definition of “theory”) that help you describe why you think the predictions you are making are the best predictions possible. The explanation also identifies and describes all the variables that make up your predictions, variables that will be measured to test your predictions.

Crafting Appropriate Methods

Critical decisions you make to test your hypotheses form the methods for your scientific inquiry. As we have noted, imagining how you will test your hypotheses helps you decide whether the empirical observations you make can be compared with your predictions or whether you need to revise the methods (or your predictions). Remember, the theoretical framework is the coherent argument built from the rationales you develop as part of each hypothesis you formulate. Because each rationale explains why you make that prediction, it contains helpful cues for which methods would provide the fairest and most complete test of that prediction. In fact, your theoretical framework provides a logic against which you can check every aspect of the methods you imagine using.

You might find it helpful to ask yourself two questions as you think about which methods are best aligned with your theoretical framework. One is, “After reading my theoretical framework, will anyone be surprised by the methods I use?” If so, you should look back at your framework and make sure the predictions are clear and the rationales include all the reasons for your predictions. Your framework should telegraph the methods that make the most sense. The other question is, “Are there some predictions for which I can’t imagine appropriate methods?” If so, we recommend you return to your hypotheses—to your predictions and rationales (theoretical framework)—to make sure the predictions are phrased as precisely as possible and your framework is fully developed. In most cases, this will help you imagine methods that could be used. If not, you might need to revise your hypotheses.

Exercise 3.3

Kerlinger ( 1964 ) stated, “A theory is a set of interrelated constructs (concepts), definitions and propositions which presents a systematic view of phenomena by specifying relations among variables, with the purpose of explaining and predicting phenomena” (p. 11). What role do definitions play in a theoretical framework and how do they help in crafting appropriate methods?

Exercise 3.4

Sarah is in the beginning stages of developing a study. Her initial prediction is: There is a relationship between pedagogical content knowledge and ambitious teaching. She realizes that in order to craft appropriate measures, she needs to develop definitions of these constructs. Sarah’s original definitions are: Pedagogical content knowledge is knowledge about subject matter that is relevant to teaching. Ambitious teaching is teaching that is responsive to students’ thinking and develops a deep knowledge of content. Sarah recognizes that her prediction and her definitions are too broad and too general to work with. She wants to refine the definitions so they can guide the refinement of her prediction and the design of the study. Develop definitions of these two constructs that have clearer implications for the design and that would help Sarah to refine her prediction. (tip: Sarah may need to reduce the scope of her prediction by choosing to focus only on one aspect of pedagogical content knowledge and one aspect of ambitious teaching. Then, she can more precisely define those aspects.)

Guiding Interpretations of the Data

By providing rationales for your predictions, your theoretical framework explains why you think your predictions will be accurate. In education, researchers almost always find that if they make specific predictions (which they should), the predictions are not entirely accurate. This is a consequence of the fact that theoretical frameworks are never complete. Recall the definition of theories from Biddle and Anderson ( 1986 ): A theory “does not represent ultimate ‘truth,’ however; indeed, it will be superseded by other theories presently. Instead, it represents the best explanation we have, at present, for those events we have so far observed” (p. 241). If you have created your best developed and clearly stated theoretical framework that explains why you expected certain results, you can focus your interpretation on the ways in which your theoretical framework should be revised.

Focusing on realigning your theoretical framework with the data you collected produces the richest interpretation of your results. And it prevents you from making one of the most common errors of beginning researchers (and veteran researchers, as well): claiming that your results say more than they really do. Without this anchor to ground your interpretation of the data, it is easy to overgeneralize and make claims that go beyond the evidence.

In one of the definitions of theory presented earlier, Colquitt and Zapata-Phelan ( 2007 ) say that theories prevent scholars from “being dazzled by the complexity of the empirical world” (p. 1281). Theoretical frameworks keep researchers grounded by setting parameters within which the empirical world can be interpreted.

Exercise 3.5

Find two published articles that explicitly present theoretical frameworks (not all articles do). Where do you see evidence of the researchers using their theoretical frameworks to inform, shape, and connect other parts of their articles?

Showing the Contribution of Your Study

Theoretical frameworks contain the arguments that define the contribution of research studies. They do this in two ways, by showing how your study extends what is known and by setting the parameters for your contribution.

Showing How Your Study Extends What Is Known

Because your theoretical framework is built from what is already known or has been proposed, it situates your study in work that has occurred before. A clearly written framework shows readers how your study will take advantage of what is known to extend it further. It reveals what is new about what you are studying. The predictions that are generated from your framework are predictions that have never been made in quite the same way. They predict you will find something that has not been found previously in exactly this way. Your theoretical framework allows others to see the contributions that your study is likely to make even before the study has been conducted.

Setting the Parameters for Your Contribution

Earlier we noted that theoretical frameworks keep researchers grounded by setting parameters within which they should interpret their data. They do this by providing an initial explanation for why researchers expect to find particular results. The explanation is custom-built for each study. This means it uniquely explains the expected results. The results will almost surely turn out somewhat differently than predicted. Interpreting the data includes revising the initial explanation. So, you will end up with two versions of your theoretical framework, one that explains what you expected to find plus a second, updated framework that explains what you actually found.

The two frameworks—the initial version and the updated version—define the parameters of your study’s contribution. The difference between the two frameworks is what can be learned from your study. The first framework is a claim about what is known before you conduct your study about the phenomenon you are studying; the updated framework is a claim about how what is known has changed based on your results. It is the new aspects of the updated framework that capture the important contribution of your work.

Here is a brief example. Suppose you study the errors fourth graders make after receiving ordinary instruction on adding and subtracting decimal fractions. Based on empirical findings from past research, on theories of student learning, and on your own experience, you develop a rationale which predicts that a common error on “ragged” addition problems will be adding the wrong numerals. One of the reasons for this prediction is that students are likely to ignore the values of the digit positions and “line up” the numerals as they do with whole numbers. For instance, if they are asked to add 53.2 + .16, they are likely to answer either 5.48 or 54.8.

When you conduct your study, you present problems, handwritten, in both horizontal and vertical form. The horizontal form presents the numbers using the format shown above. The vertical form places one numeral over the other but not carefully aligned:

The picture represents the addition of 53.2 and 0.16.

You find the predicted error occurs, but only for problems written in vertical form. To interpret these data, you look back at your theoretical framework and realize that students might ignore the value of the digits if the format reminded them of the way they lined up digits for whole number addition but might consider the value of the digits if they are forced to align the digits themselves, either by rewriting the problem or by just adding in their heads. A measure of what you (and others) learned from this study is the change in possible explanations (your theoretical frameworks). This does not mean your updated theoretical framework is “correct” or will make perfectly accurate predictions next time. But, it does mean that you are very likely moving toward more accurate predictions and toward a deeper understanding of how students think about adding decimal fractions.

Anchoring the Coherence of Your Study (and Your Evolving Research Paper)

Your theoretical framework serves as the anchor or center point around which all other aspects of your study should be aligned. This does not mean it is created first or that all other aspects are changed to align with the framework after it is created. The framework also changes as other aspects are considered. However, it is useful to always check alignment by beginning with the framework and asking whether other aspects are aligned and, if not, adjusting one or the other. This process of checking alignment is equally true when writing your evolving research paper as when planning and conducting your study.

Part III. How Do You Construct a Theoretical Framework for Your Study?

How do you start the process? Because constructing a theoretical framework is a natural extension of constructing rationales for your predictions, you already started as soon as you began formulating hypotheses: making predictions for what you will find and writing down reasons for why you are making these predictions. In Chap. 2 , we talked about beginning this process. In this section, we will explore how you can continue building out your rationales into a full-fledged theoretical framework.

Building a Theoretical Framework in Phases

Building your framework will occur in phases and proceed through cycles of clarifying your questions, making more precise and explicit your predictions, articulating reasons for making these predictions, and imagining ways of testing the predictions. The major source for ideas that will shape the framework is the research literature. That said, conversations with colleagues and other experts can help clarify your predictions and the rationales you develop to justify the predictions.

As you read relevant literature, you can ask: What have researchers found that help me predict what I will find? How have they explained their findings, and how might those explanations help me develop reasons for my predictions? Are there new ways to interpret past results so they better inform my predictions? Are there ways to look across previous results (and claims) and see new patterns that I can use to refine my predictions and enrich my rationales? How can theories that have credibility in the research community help me understand what I might find and help me explain why this is the case? As we have said, this process will go back and forth between clarifying your predictions, adjusting your rationales, reading, clarifying more, adjusting, reading, and so on.

One Researcher’s Experience Constructing a Theoretical Framework: The Continuing Case of Martha

In Chap. 2 , we followed Martha, a doctoral student in mathematics education, as she was working out the topic for her study, asking questions she wanted to answer, predicting the answers, and developing rationales for these predictions. Our story concluded with a research question, a sample set of predictions, and some reasons for Martha’s predictions. The question was: “Under what conditions do middle school teachers who lack conceptual knowledge of linear functions benefit from five 2-hour learning opportunity (LO) sessions that engage them in conceptual learning of linear functions as assessed by changes in their teaching toward a more conceptual emphasis of linear functions?” Her predictions focused on particular conditions that would affect the outcomes in particular ways. She was beginning to build rationales for these predictions by returning to the literature and identifying previous research and theory that were relevant. We continue the story here.

Imagine Martha continuing to read as she develops her theoretical framework—the rationales for her predictions. She tweaks some of her predictions based on what other researchers have already found. As she continues reading, she comes across some related literature on learning opportunities for teachers. A number of articles describe the potential of another form of LOs that might help teachers teach mathematics more conceptually—analyzing videos of mathematics lessons.

The data suggested that teachers can improve their teaching by analyzing videos of other teachers’ lessons as well as their own. However, the results were mixed so researchers did not seem to know exactly what makes the difference. Martha also read that teachers who already can analyze videos of lessons and spontaneously describe the mathematics that students are struggling with and offer useful suggestions for how to improve learning opportunities for students teach toward more conceptual learning goals, and their students learn more (Kersting et al., 2010 , 2012 ). These findings caught Martha’s attention because it is unusual to find correlates with conceptual teaching and better achievement. What is not known, realized Martha, is whether teachers who learn to analyze videos in this way, through specially designed LOs, would look like the teachers who already could analyze them. Would teachers who learned to analyze videos teach more conceptually?

It occurred to Martha she could bring these lines of research together by extending what is known along both lines. Recall our earlier suggestion of looking across the literature and noticing new patterns that can inform your work. Martha thought about studying how, exactly, these two skills are related: analyzing videos in particular ways and teaching conceptually. Would the relationships reported in the literature hold up for teachers who learn to describe the mathematics students are struggling with and make useful suggestions for improving students’ LOs?

Martha was now conflicted. She was well on her way to developing a testable hypothesis about the effects of learning about linear functions, but she was really intrigued by the work on analyzing videos of teaching. In addition, she saw several advantages of switching to this new topic:

The research question could be formulated quite easily. It would be something like: “What are the relationships between learning to analyze videos of mathematics teaching in particular ways (specified from prior research) and teaching for conceptual understanding?”

She could imagine predicting the answers to this question based directly on previous research. She would predict connections between particular kinds of analysis skills and levels of conceptual teaching of mathematics in ways that employed these skills.

The level of conceptual teaching, a challenging construct to define with her previous topic (the effects of professional development on the teaching of linear functions), was already defined in the work on analyzing videos of mathematics teaching, so that would solve a big problem. The definition foregrounded particular sets of behaviors and skills such as identifying key learning moments in a lesson and focusing on students’ thinking about the key mathematical idea during these moments. In other words, Martha saw ways to adapt a definition that had already been used and tested.

The issue of transfer—another challenging issue in her original hypothesis—was addressed more directly in this setting because the learning environment—analyzing videos of classroom teaching—is quite close to the classroom environment in which participants’ conceptual teaching would be observed.

Finally, the nature of learning opportunities, an aspect of her original idea she still needed to work through, had been explored in previous studies on this new topic, and connections were found between studying videos and changes in teaching.

Given all these advantages, Martha decided to change her topic and her research question. We applaud this decision for two major reasons. First, Martha’s interest grew as she explored this new topic. She became excited about conducting a study that might answer the research question she posed. It is always good to be passionate about what you study. Second, Martha was more likely to contribute important new insights if she could extend what is already known rather than explore a new area. Exploring something quite new requires lots of effort defining terms, creating measures, making new predictions, developing reasons for the predictions, and so on. Sometimes, exploring a new area has payoffs. But, as a beginning researcher, we suggest you take advantage of work that has already been done and extend it in creative ways.

Although Martha’s idea of extending previous work came with real advantages, she still faced a number of challenges. A first, major challenge was to decide whether she could build a rationale that would predict learning to analyze videos caused more conceptual teaching. Or, could she only build a rationale that would predict that there was a relationship between changes in analyzing videos and level of conceptual teaching? Perhaps a cause-effect relationship existed but in the opposite direction: If teachers learned to teach more conceptually, their analysis of teaching videos would improve. Although most of the literature described learning to analyze videos as the potential cause of teaching conceptually, Martha did not believe there was sufficient evidence to build a rationale for this prediction. Instead, she decided to first determine if a relationship existed and, if so, to understand the relationship. Then, if warranted, she could develop and test a hypothesis of causation in a future study. In fact, the direction of the causation might become clearer when she understood the relationship more clearly.

A second major challenge was whether to study the relationship as it existed or as one (or both) of the constructs was changing. Past research had explored the relationship as it existed, without inducing changes in either analyzing videos or teaching conceptually. So, Martha decided she could learn more about the relationship if one of the constructs was changing in a planned way. Because researchers had argued that teachers’ analysis of video could be changed with appropriate LOs, and because changing teachers’ teaching practices has resisted simple interventions, Martha decided to study the relationship as she facilitated changes in teachers’ analysis of videos. This would require gathering data on the relationship at more than one point in time.

Even after resolving these thorny issues, Martha faced many additional challenges. Should she predict a closer relationship between learning to analyze video and teaching for conceptual understanding before teachers began learning to analyze videos or after? Perhaps the relationship increases over time because conceptual teaching often changes slowly. Should she predict a closer relationship if the content of the videos teachers analyzed was the same as the content they would be teaching? Should she predict the relationship will be similar across pairs of similar topics? Should she predict that some analysis skills will show closer relationships to levels of conceptual teaching than others? These questions and others occurred to Martha as she was formulating her predictions, developing justifications for her predictions, and considering how she would test the predictions.

Based on her reading and discussions with colleagues, Martha phrased her initial predictions as follows:

There will be a significant positive correlation between teachers’ performance on analysis of videos and the extent to which they create conceptual learning opportunities for their students both before and after proposed learning experiences.

The relationship will be stronger:

Before the proposed opportunities to learn to analyze videos of teaching;

When the videos and the instruction are about similar mathematical topics; and,

When the videos analyzed display conceptual misunderstandings among students.

Of the video analysis skills that will be assessed, the two that will show the strongest relationship are spontaneously describing (1) the mathematics that students are struggling with and (2) useful suggestions for how to improve the conceptual learning opportunities for students.

Martha’s rationales for these predictions—her theoretical framework—evolved along with her predictions. We will not detail the framework here, but we will note that the rationale for the first prediction was based on findings from past research. In particular, the prediction is generated by reasoning that if there has been no special intervention, the tendency to analyze videos in particular ways and to teach conceptually develop together. This might explain Kersting’s findings described earlier. The second and third predictions were based on the literature on teachers’ learning, especially their learning from analyzing videos of teaching.

Before leaving Martha at this point in her journey, we want to make an important point about the change she made to her research topic. Changes like this occur quite often as researchers do the hard intellectual work of developing testable hypotheses that guide research studies. When this happens to you, it can feel like you have lost ground. You might feel like you wasted your time on the original topic. In Chap. 1 , we described inevitable “failure” when engaged in scientific inquiry. Failure is often associated with realizing the data you collected do not come close to supporting your predictions. But a common kind of failure occurs when researchers realize the direction they have been pursuing should change before they collect data. This happened in Martha’s case because she came across a topic that was more intriguing to her and because it helped solve some problems she was facing with the previous topic. This is an example of “failing productively” (see Chap. 1 ). Martha did not succeed in pursuing her original idea, but while she was recognizing the problems, she was also seeing new possibilities.

Constantly Improving Your Framework

We will use Martha’s experience to be more specific about the back-and-forth process in which you will engage as you flesh out your framework. We mentioned earlier your review of the literature as a major source of ideas and evidence that will affect your framework.

Reviewing Published Empirical Evidence

One of the best sources for helping you specify your predictions are studies that have been conducted on related topics. The closer to your topic, the more helpful will be the evidence for anticipating what you will find. Many beginning researchers worry they will locate a study just like the one they are planning. This (almost) never happens. Your study will be different in some ways, and a study that is very similar to yours can be extraordinarily helpful in specifying your predictions. Be excited instead of terrified when you come across a study with a title similar to yours.

Try to locate all the published research that has been conducted on your topic. What does “on your topic” mean? How widely should you cast your net? There are no rules here; you will need to use your professional judgment. However, here is a general guide: If the study does not help you clarify your predictions, change your confidence in them, or strengthen your rationale, then it falls outside your net.

In addition to helping specify your predictions, prior research studies can be a goldmine for developing and strengthening your theoretical framework. How did researchers justify their predictions or explain why they found what they did? How can you use these ideas to support (or change) your own predictions?

By reading research on similar topics, you might also imagine ways of testing your predictions. Maybe you learn of ways you could design your study, measures you could use to collect data, or strategies you could use to analyze your data. As you find helpful ideas, you will want to keep track of where you found these ideas so you can cite the appropriate sources as you write drafts of your evolving research paper.

Examining Theories

You will read a wide range of theories that provide insights into why things might work like they do. When the phenomena addressed by the theory are similar to those you will study, the associated theories can help you think through your own predictions and why you are making them. Returning to Martha’s situation, she could benefit from reading theories on adult learning, especially teacher learning, on transferring knowledge from one setting to another, on professional development for teachers, on the role of videos in learning, on the knowledge needed to teach conceptually, and so on.

Focusing on Variables and Mechanisms

As you review the literature and search for evidence and ideas that could strengthen your predictions and rationales, it is useful to keep your eyes on two components: the variables you will attend to and the mechanisms that might explain the relationships between the variables. Predictions could be considered statements about expected behaviors of the variables. The theoretical framework could be thought of as a description of all the variables that will be deliberately attended to plus the mechanisms conjectured to account for these relationships.

In Martha’s case, the most obvious variables are the responses teachers give to questions about their analysis of the videos and the features observed in their teaching practices. The mechanism of primary interest is the (mental and social) process that transforms the skills, knowledge, and attention involved in analyzing videos into particular kinds of teaching practices—or vice versa. The definition of conceptual teaching she adopted from previous studies gave her a clue about the mechanisms—about how and why learning to analyze videos might affect classroom teaching. The definition included attending to key learning moments in a lesson and tracking students’ thinking during these moments. Martha predicted that if teachers learned to attend to these aspects of teaching when viewing videos, they might attend to them when planning and implementing their own teaching.

As Martha reviewed the literature, she identified a number of variables that might affect the likelihood and extent of this translation. Here are some examples: how well teachers understand the mathematics in the videos and the mathematics they will teach; the nature of the videos themselves; the number of opportunities teachers have to analyze videos and the ways in which these opportunities are structured; teachers’ analysis of videos and their teaching practices before the learning opportunities begin; and how much time they have to apply what they learn to their own teaching.

Martha identified these additional variables because she learned they might have a direct influence on the mechanisms that could explain the relationship between analyzing videos and teaching. Some variables might support these mechanisms, and some might interfere. Martha’s task at this point in her work is to identify and describe all the variables that could play a meaningful role in the outcome of her study. This means to identify each variable for which it is possible to establish a clear and direct connection between the variable and the relationship she planned to investigate. Using the outcome of this task, Martha then needs to update her description of the mechanisms that could account for the relationships she expects to see and review her predictions and theoretical framework with these variables and mechanisms in mind.

Exercise 3.6

Review the predictions that Martha made and identify the variables that play a role in these predictions. Even though you might not be immersed in this literature, think about the alignment between the variables included in the predictions and those that could impact the relationships in which Martha is interested. Are there other missing variables that should be included in her predictions?

How Do You Know When You Have Finished Building Your Theoretical Framework?

The question of when your theoretical framework is finished could be answered in several ways. First, it is never really finished. As you continue to write your evolving research paper, you will continue strengthening your framework. You might even refine the framework as you write the final draft of your paper, after you have collected and analyzed your data. Furthermore, if you do follow-up studies, you will continue to build your framework.

A second answer is that you should invest the time and effort to build a theoretical framework that is as finished as possible at each point in the research process. As you write each draft of your evolving research paper, you should feel as if you have the strongest, most robust rationale you can have for your current predictions. In other words, you should feel that with each succeeding draft you have finished building your framework, even though you are quite sure you have not.

A third answer addresses a common, related question: “How do I know when I have included enough ideas and borrowed from enough sources? Would including another idea or citing another source be useful?” The answer is that you should include only those ideas that contribute to building a stronger framework. When you wonder whether you should include another idea or reference, ask yourself whether doing so would make your framework stronger in all the ways we described earlier.

Exercise 3.7

In 2–3 pages (single spaced), write out the plan for your study. The plan should include your research questions, your predictions of the answers, your rationale for the predictions (i.e., your theoretical framework), and your imagined plan for testing the predictions. Be as explicit and precise as you can. Be sure you have identified the critical variables and described the mechanism(s) that could explain the phenomena, the relationships, and/or the changes you predict. Look back to see if the logic connecting the parts is obvious. Ask yourself whether the tests you plan are what anyone familiar with your framework would expect (i.e., there should be no surprises).

Part IV. Refining a Theoretical Framework: A Scholarly Dialogue

As we noted above, conversations with colleagues and other experts can help you refine your theoretical framework by clarifying your predictions and digging into the details of the rationales you develop to justify those predictions. This is as true for experienced researchers as it is for beginning researchers. The dialogue below is an example of how two colleagues, Adrian (A) and Corin (C), work together to gradually formulate a testable hypothesis. Some of their conversation will look familiar as they refine their prediction through multiple steps of discussion:

Narrowing the focus of their prediction.

Making their prediction more testable.

Being more specific about what they want to study.

Engaging their prediction in cycles of refinements.

Determining the appropriate level/grainsize of their prediction (zoom in, zoom out).

Adding more predictions.

Thinking about underlying mechanisms (i.e., what explains the relationships between their variables).

Putting their predictions on a continuum (going from black and white to grey).

In addition, they construct their theoretical framework to match their hypotheses through multiple steps:

Defining and rationalizing their variables.

Re-evaluating their initial rationales in response to changes in their initial predictions.

Asking themselves “why” questions about predictions and rationales.

Finding empirical evidence and theory that better supports their evolving predictions.

Keeping in mind what they are going to be measuring.

Making sure their rationales support each link in their chain of reasoning.

Identifying underlying mechanisms.

Making sure that statements are included in their rationale if and only if they directly support their predictions and are essential to the argument.

They begin with the following hypothesis:

Prediction: Students will exhibit more persistence in mathematical course taking in high school if they work in groups.

Brief Description of Rationale: When people work in groups, they feel more competent and learn better (Cohen & Lotan, 2014 ; Jansen, 2012). When people feel more competent, they persist in additional mathematical course taking (Bandura & Schunk, 1981 ; Dweck, 1986 ).

So, do we think this hypothesis is testable?

Well actually, who these students are is probably something we need to be more specific about.

Good point, and also, since Algebra 2 is the bridge to additional course taking (i.e., the first course students don’t have to take), perhaps we should target Algebra 2. How about if we change our prediction to the following: Algebra 2 students will exhibit more mathematical persistence in mathematical course taking in high school if they work in groups in Algebra 2.

Okay, but another problem is that it would take a long time to collect data that would inform a prediction about the courses students take, and over that amount of time I’m not sure we could even tell if groupwork was responsible. What if we limited our prediction to: Algebra 2 students will exhibit more mathematical persistence in Algebra 2 if they work in groups.

Good idea! But when we talk about persistence, do we mean students don’t quit, or that they don’t drop the course, or productively struggle during class, or turn in their homework, or is it something else we mean? To me, what would be testable about mathematical persistence would be persistence at the problem level, such as when students get stuck on a problem, but they don’t give up.

I agree. So, let’s predict the following: Algebra 2 students will exhibit more mathematical persistence in Algebra 2 when they get stuck on problems if they work in groups. That’s something I think we could test.

Yes, but I think we need to be even more specific about what we mean by mathematical persistence when students get stuck on problems.

Hmm, what if we focused specifically on mathematical persistence that involves staying engaged in trying to solve a problem for the duration of a problem-solving session or until the problem gets solved? But that also makes me wonder if we want to be focusing on persistence at the individual level or at the group level?

Umm, I think we should focus on persistence at the individual level, because that’s more consistent with our original interest in persistence in course taking, which is about individual students, not about groups.

Okay, that makes sense. So then how about this for a prediction: If Algebra 2 students work in groups, they will be more likely to stay engaged in trying to solve problems for the duration of a problem-solving session or until they solve the problem.

To this point in the dialogue, Adrian and Corin are developing a theoretical framework by sharpening what they mean by their prediction and making sure their prediction is testable. In the next part, they return to their original idea to make sure they have not strayed too far by making their prediction more precise. The dialogue illustrates how making predictions should support the goal of understanding the relationship between variables and the mechanisms for change.

Yes, I’m liking the way this prediction is evolving. However, I also feel like our prediction is now so focused that we’ve lost a bit of our initial idea of competence and learning, which is what we were initially interested in. Could we do something to bring those ideas back? Perhaps we could create more predictions to get at more of those ideas?

Great idea! Okay, so to help us see what we are missing now, let’s look back at the initial links in our chain of reasoning. We initially said that Working in Groups leads to Feeling Competent & Learning Better leads to Persistence in Math Course Taking. But our chain of reasoning has changed. I think it’s more like this: Working in Groups on Problems leads to Staying Engaged in Problem Solving leads to Greater Sense of Competence and Learning Better leads to More Persistence in Course Taking.

Okay, so if that’s the case, it looks like our new prediction just tests the first link in this chain, the link between Working in Groups on Problems and Staying Engaged in Problem Solving. It looks like there are three other potential predictions we could make; we could make a prediction about the relationship between Staying Engaged in Problem Solving and having a Greater Sense of Competence, between Staying Engaged in Problem Solving and Learning Better, and between having a Greater Sense of Competence/Learning Better and More Persistence in Course Taking.

Clearly that’s too many predictions for us to tackle in one study and actually I am aware of several studies that already address the third prediction. So, we can use those studies as part of our rationale and don’t need to study that link.

I agree. Let’s just add one prediction, one about the link between Staying Engaged and Sense of Competence. In our initial prediction, we just had a vague connection between Working in Groups and Sense of Competence. But in our new prediction, we were more specific that working in groups helps students stay engaged until the end of a problem-solving session. So, I guess we could say for a second prediction then that When Algebra 2 students stay engaged in problem solving until the end of a problem-solving session, they develop a greater sense of competence.

Okay so we will have two predictions to examine with our study: Prediction 1 is: If Algebra 2 students work in groups, they will be more likely to stay engaged in trying to solve problems for the duration of a problem-solving session or until they solve the problem. This prediction deals with the first link in our chain of reasoning. And then Prediction 2 is: If Algebra 2 students try to solve problems for the duration of a problem-solving session or until they solve the problem, they will be more likely to develop a sense of competence. Oh, as soon as I finished stating that prediction, the thought just came to me, “sense of competence about what?”

How about if we focused on sense of competence in being able to solve similar problems in the future? Actually, maybe that’s too limited. Maybe we should expand our prediction a bit more so we include a sense of competence that’s at least somewhat closer to more course taking? Something like sense of competence that involves feeling capable of understanding future Algebra 2 concepts. That’s at least bigger than sense of competence at solving similar problems. If students feel they’re capable of understanding future Algebra 2 concepts, then they will probably be more likely to persist in course taking too.

Okay, that makes sense. So, then our Prediction 2 could be: If Algebra 2 students try to solve problems for the duration of a problem-solving session or until they solve the problem, they will be more likely to feel they will be capable of understanding future Algebra 2 concepts.

Oh, I just had an additional idea! What if we changed the two predictions one more time to allow for more or less of the variables? For example, Prediction 1 could be: The more Algebra 2 students work in groups, the more likely they will stay engaged in trying to solve problems for the duration of a problem-solving session or until they solve the problem.

Yes, great. So, that would mean Prediction 2 could be: The more Algebra 2 students try to solve problems for the duration of a problem-solving session or until they solve the problem, the more likely they will feel they are capable of understanding future Algebra 2 concepts.

So, I think we’re happy with our predictions for now, but I think we need to work on our rationales for those predictions because they no longer apply very well.

Okay, to recap, our original chain of reasoning was Working in Groups leads to Feeling Competent & Learning Better leads to Persistence in Math Course Taking. Our initial rationales were the following: For the link between working in groups and feeling competent, we based that link on Cohen and Lotan’s ( 2014 ) book on Designing Groupwork, in which they explain why and how all students can feel competent through their engagement in groupwork. We also based this link on that 2012 Jansen study that found that groupwork helped students enact their competence in math. Then, for the link between competence and persistence, we based that link on the Bandura and Schunk ( 1981 ) study and on the work by Carol Dweck ( 1986 ) that show that children who feel more competent in arithmetic, tend to persist more.

Corin and Adrian have looked back at their initial research idea. In doing so, they illustrated how developing a theoretical framework involves developing and refining a chain of reasoning. They continue by working on developing rationales for their predictions.

Okay, so let’s think if any of our previous rationales still work. How about Elizabeth Cohen’s work? I still think her work applies because it shows that groupwork can affect engagement. But now that I think about it, another part of her work indicates that groupwork needs particular norms in order to be effective. So maybe we should tighten up our predictions to focus just on groupwork that has particular norms?

But, on the other hand, what about Jo Boaler’s ( 1998 ) “Open and Closed Mathematics” article? In that study, students at the Phoenix Park School did not have much structure, and in spite of that, groupwork worked quite well for those students, better than individual work did for students at the Amber Hill School who had highly structured instruction.

That’s a good point. So maybe we should leave our predictions about groupwork as is (i.e., not focus on particular norms). Also, the ideas in the Boaler article would be good to add to our theoretical framework because it deals with secondary students, which aligns better with the ages of the Algebra 2 students we are planning on studying.

Okay, so we’re adding the ideas in the Boaler article. I also think we need to find literature that specifies the kind of engagement we want to focus on. Looking at the engagement literature would sharpen our thinking about the engagement we are most interested in. We should consider Brigid Barron’s ( 2003 ) study, “When Smart Groups Fail.” In her study, students produced better products if they engaged with each other and with the content. But that makes me think that we are mostly just focused on the latter, namely on how individuals engage with the content.

I agree we’re focused on individuals’ engagement with the content. Come to think of it, the fact that we’re focused on how individuals engage with content rather than how groups engage further justifies why we’re not looking at groupwork norms. But let me ask a question we need to answer. Why are we focusing on how individuals engage with content? It’s not just a preference. It’s because we think individual engagement with content is related to feeling capable. So, our decision to focus on individual engagement aligns with our predictions. And even though we’re not including Barron’s work in our framework, considering her work helped sharpen our thinking about what we’re focusing on.

You know, we are kind of in a weird space because we’re focusing on individual engagement with content at the same time as we are predicting that groupwork leads to more engagement. In other words, we are and aren’t taking a social perspective. But what this reminds me of is how, from the perspective of the theory of constructivism, even though individuals have to make sense of things for themselves, social interactions are what drives sense making. In fact, here’s a quote from von Glasersfeld ( 1995 ): “Piaget has stressed many times that the most frequent cause of accommodation is the interaction” (p. 66). So, I think we can use constructivism as a theoretical justification for predicting that the social activity of groupwork is what is related to individual engagement with content.

Interesting! Yes, makes sense. When you were describing that, I had another insight from constructivism. You know how when someone experiences a perturbation, it also creates a need in them to resolve the perturbation, right? So maybe perturbations are the mechanism explaining why groupwork leads to more individual engagement with content. Groupwork potentially generates perturbations, meaning the person engages more to try to resolve those perturbations.

Okay, now that we have brought in the idea of perturbations as potentially being the mechanism that drives how working in groups leads to staying more engaged, perhaps we need to reconsider what we will be measuring in our study. Will it be perturbations, or will it be staying engaged that we should be measuring?

I think what we are saying is that the need to resolve perturbations is part of the underlying mechanism, but measuring the need to resolve perturbations would be difficult if not impossible. So, instead, I think we should focus on measuring the variable staying engaged , a variable we can measure. And then if we find that more working in groups leads to more staying engaged, that also gives us more evidence that our theoretical framework with perturbations as a mechanism is viable. In other words, mechanisms are part of our framework and by testing our prediction, we are testing our theoretical framework (i.e., our rationales) too.

This final part of the dialogue illustrates that the rationale for a study continues to develop as the predictions continue to be refined and testability continues to be considered. In other words, the development of the predictions and rationale (i.e., the theoretical framework) should be iterative and ongoing.

Through their discussion, Adrian and Corin have refined both their predictions and their rationales. In the process, the key ideas they have drawn on contributed to their rationales and thus to constructing their theoretical framework.

Part V. Distinctions Between Rationales, Theoretical Frameworks, and Literature Reviews

We have introduced a number of terms that play critical roles in the scientific inquiry process. Because they refer to related and sometimes overlapping ideas, keeping straight their meanings and uses can be challenging. It might be helpful to revisit each of them briefly to describe how they are similar to, and different from, each other.

To distinguish between rationales, theoretical frameworks, and literature reviews, it is useful to consider the roles they play as you plan and conduct a study compared to the roles they play when you write the report of your study.

Thinking Through a Study

The chronology of the thinking process often moves through many cycles of identifying a research problem or asking a question, and then reading the literature to learn more about the problem, and then refining and narrowing the scope of a question that would add to or extend what is known, and then predicting (guessing) an answer to the question and asking yourself why you predicted this answer and writing a first draft of your rationale, and then reading the literature to improve your rationale, and then realizing you can refine the question further along with specifying a clearer and more targeted prediction, and then reading the literature to further improve your rationale, and then realizing you can refine the question further along with a clearer and more targeted prediction, and so on.

The primary activity that generates more specific and clearer hypotheses is searching and reviewing literature . You can return to the literature as often as you need to build your rationales . As your rationales develop, they morph into your theoretical framework . The theoretical framework is a coherent argument that threads together the individual rationales and explains why your predictions are the best predictions the field can make at this time.

If you have one research question and one prediction you will have one rationale. In this case, your rationale is essentially the same as your theoretical framework. If you have more than one research question, you will have multiple predictions and multiple rationales. As you develop rationales for each prediction, you might find lots of overlap. Maybe the literatures you read to refine each prediction and develop each rationale overlap, and maybe the arguments you piece together include many of the same elements. Your theoretical framework emerges from weaving the rationales together into one coherent argument. Although this process is more complicated than the thinking process for one prediction, it is more common. If you find few connections among the rationales for each prediction, we recommend stepping back and asking whether you are conducting more than one study. It might make more sense to sort the questions into two or more studies because the rationales for the predicted answers are drawing from different literatures.

Writing the Evolving Research Paper

We recommend that you write drafts of the research report as you think through your study and make decisions about how to proceed. Although your thinking will be fluid and evolving, we recommend that you follow the conventions of academic writing as you write drafts. For example, we recommend that you structure the paper using the five typical major sections of a journal article: introduction, theoretical framework, methods, results, and discussion. Each of these sections will go through multiple drafts as you plan your study, collect the data, analyze the data, and interpret the results.

In the introduction, you will present the research problem you are studying. This includes describing the problem, explaining why it is significant, defining the special terms you use, and often presenting the research questions you will address along with the answers you predict. Sometimes the questions and predictions are part of the next section—the theoretical framework.

In the theoretical framework, you will present your best arguments for expecting the predicted answers to the research questions. You will not trace the many cycles in which you engaged to get to the best versions of your arguments but rather present the latest and best version. The report of a study does not describe the chronology of the back-and-forth messiness always involved in thinking through all aspects of the study. What you learned from reviewing the literature will be an integral part of your arguments. In other words, the review of research will be included in the presentation of your theoretical framework rather than in a separate section.

A framework for study report.

The literature you choose to include to present your theoretical framework is not all the literature you reviewed for conducting your study. Rather, the literature cited in your paper should be the literature that contributed to building your theoretical framework, and only that literature. In other words, the theoretical framework places the boundaries on what you should review in the paper.

Beginning researchers are often tempted to review much of what they read. Researchers put lots of time into reading, and leaving lots of it out when writing the paper can make all that reading feel like a waste of time. It is not a waste of time; it is always part of the research process. But, reviewing more than you need in the paper becomes a distraction and diverts the reader from the main points.

A framework for literature.

What should you do if the editor of the journal requires, or recommends, a section titled “review of research”? We recommend you create a somewhat more elaborated review for this section and then show exactly how you used the literature to build your rationale in the theoretical framework section.

Reviewers notice when the theoretical framework and the literature reviewed do not provide sufficient justification for the research questions (or the hypotheses). We found that about 13% of JRME reviews noted an especially important gap—the research questions in a paper were not sufficiently motivated. We expect the same would be true for other research journals. Reviewers also note when manuscripts either do not have an explicit theoretical framework or when they seem to be juggling more than one theoretical framework.

Part VI. Moving to Methods

A significant benefit of building rich and precise theoretical frameworks is the guidance they provide for selecting and creating the methods you will use to test your hypotheses. The next phase in the process of scientific inquiry is crafting your methods: choosing your research design, selecting your sample, developing your measures, deciding on your data analysis strategies, and so on. In Chap. 4 , we discuss how you can do this in ways that keep your story coherent.

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Hiebert, J., Cai, J., Hwang, S., Morris, A.K., Hohensee, C. (2023). Building and Using Theoretical Frameworks. In: Doing Research: A New Researcher’s Guide. Research in Mathematics Education. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-19078-0_3

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Organizing Academic Research Papers: Theoretical Framework

  • Purpose of Guide
  • Design Flaws to Avoid
  • Glossary of Research Terms
  • Narrowing a Topic Idea
  • Broadening a Topic Idea
  • Extending the Timeliness of a Topic Idea
  • Academic Writing Style
  • Choosing a Title
  • Making an Outline
  • Paragraph Development
  • Executive Summary
  • Background Information
  • The Research Problem/Question
  • Theoretical Framework
  • Citation Tracking
  • Content Alert Services
  • Evaluating Sources
  • Primary Sources
  • Secondary Sources
  • Tertiary Sources
  • What Is Scholarly vs. Popular?
  • Qualitative Methods
  • Quantitative Methods
  • Using Non-Textual Elements
  • Limitations of the Study
  • Common Grammar Mistakes
  • Avoiding Plagiarism
  • Footnotes or Endnotes?
  • Further Readings
  • Annotated Bibliography
  • Dealing with Nervousness
  • Using Visual Aids
  • Grading Someone Else's Paper
  • How to Manage Group Projects
  • Multiple Book Review Essay
  • Reviewing Collected Essays
  • About Informed Consent
  • Writing Field Notes
  • Writing a Policy Memo
  • Writing a Research Proposal
  • Acknowledgements

Theories are formulated to explain, predict, and understand phenomena and, in many cases, to challenge and extend existing knowledge, within the limits of the critical bounding assumptions. The theoretical framework is the structure that can hold or support a theory of a research study. The theoretical framework introduces and describes the theory which explains why the research problem under study exists.

Importance of Theory

A theoretical framework consists of concepts, together with their definitions, and existing theory/theories that are 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 will relate it to the broader fields of knowledge in the class you are taking.

The theoretical framework is not something that is found readily available in the literature . You must review course readings and pertinent research literature 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 move from simply describing a phenomenon observed to generalizing about various aspects of that phenomenon.
  • Having a theory helps you to identify the limits to those generalizations. A theoretical framework specifies which key variables influence a phenomenon of interest. It alerts you to examine how those key variables might differ and under what circumstances.

By virtue of its application nature, good theory in the social sciences is of value precisely because it fulfills one primary purpose: to explain the meaning, nature, and challenges of 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; Drafting an Argument . Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Trochim, William M.K. Philosophy of Research. Research Methods Knowledge Base. 2006.

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 on 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 answers to your research question.
  • List  the constructs and variables that might be relevant to your study. Group these variables into independent and dependent categories.
  • Review the key social science theories that are introduced to you in your course readings and choose the theory or theories 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, understanding concepts and variables according to the given definitions, and building 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 the 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,
  • Way of telling us that certain facts among the accumulated knowledge 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 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; 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, you are expected to test the validity of an 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 between 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 growing split between southern and northern Sudan that may likely lead 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 . Given this, it is perhaps easiest to understand the nature and function of a theoretical framework if it is viewed as the 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 could choose 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 .

In writing 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 . 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 framework you've chosen is the appropriate one.
  • The present tense is used when writing about theory.
  • 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 limitiations of the theoretical framework you've chosen [i.e., what parts of the research problem require further investigation because the theory does not explain 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); Trochim, William M.K. Philosophy of Research. Research Methods Knowledge Base. 2006.

Writing Tip

Borrowing Theoretical Constructs from Elsewhere

A growing and increasingly important trend in the social sciences is to think about and attempt to understand specific research problems from an interdisciplinary perspective. One way to do this is to not rely exclusively on the theories you've read about in a particular class, 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 incumbants 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 fully engaged in the research topic.

Another Writing Tip

Don't Undertheorize!

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

Still Another Writing Tip

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

The terms theory and hypothesis are often used interchangeably in everyday use. However, the difference between them 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 hypotheses that are widely accepted [e.g., rational choice theory; grounded 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 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.

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Example-of-a-Theoretical-Framework-Definition

An example of a theoretical framework anchors a research paper to a specific theory. Researchers use theoretical frameworks in various fields to provide a premise for the ideas proposed in a research publication. It typically entails the key concepts, theories, and ideas that shape the methodology and research question.   This article delves into an example of a theoretical framework, exploring how it functions as an integral component of research design, leading to the conclusion.

Inhaltsverzeichnis

  • 1 Example of a Theoretical Framework – In a Nutshell
  • 2 Definition: Example of a theoretical framework
  • 3 Example of a theoretical framework – Problem statement & research questions

Example of a Theoretical Framework – In a Nutshell

  • An example of a theoretical framework outlines the theory-based approach taken when conducting research.
  • The example of a theoretical framework comprises the problem statement , research question, and relevant literature review .
  • A well formulated example of a theoretical framework is essential to guide your research and methodology to explain and summarize your findings convincingly.

Definition: Example of a theoretical framework

An example of a theoretical framework is a structure that defines the main ideas in a thesis or dissertation . It limits the breadth of the study by narrowing the focus to key variables and their relationship. Theoretical frameworks also give a researcher the specific structure that guides the collection and interpretation of the relevant data in a research proposal .

Example of a theoretical framework – Problem statement & research questions

The example of a theoretical framework is based on:

  • The problem statement – involves contextualizing the research problem . The researcher describes the specific issue that the study seeks to address and justifies the study’s relevance and primary objectives.
  • The research questions – are focused on a specific issue, and they should be feasible and researchable using various credible sources.
  • The literature review – is an overview of published works about a certain topic, and it outlines what is currently known versus the existing gaps.

Examples of a problem statement and research questions

Find an example of a research question and problem statement below:

An insurance company is having a hard time cross-selling its products. The sales department has realized that most of the customers hold just one policy, although the company offers over ten unique policies. The company would like to have its customers purchase more than one policy since it is clear most customers are purchasing other policies from other companies.

The sales and marketing department wants to increase product awareness. They have concluded that more product awareness will improve the uptake of other products by the existing customers.

Example-of-a-Theoretical-Framework-Problem-statement

To analyze this problem, you have formulated a problem statement, objective, and a research question as follows:

  • Problem: Many customers are purchasing additional policies from other companies.
  • Objective: Selling more products to existing customers.
  • Research question: How can customer product awareness be improved to increase cross-selling of insurance products?

In this study, the concept of “product awareness” is the main focus, alongside the chances that it will improve sales across other products. The example of a theoretical framework should analyze this concept and propose theories that discuss the relationship between the two variables.

  • What is the relationship between product awareness and sales ?
  • How informed are the existing customers about the company’s products?
  • Which factors determine product awareness?

Example of a theoretical framework

In the following example, we define the concept of product awareness mentioned above.

Spacey’s description is more compatible with the study as it highlights the importance of conscious marketing strategies to improve product awareness. Although Kopp and Marrs clearly define product awareness, they don’t propose an actionable step in analyzing product awareness.

The insurance company wants to maximize product awareness as part of its long-term strategy. As a result, targeted marketing will ensure the products are divided and advertised to the most potential buyers.

Spacey’s Product Awareness Work Plan

According to Spacey, the more aware your target customer base is of your range of products, the easier it is to sell more products to an individual customer. Spacey explains that product awareness simplifies promoting your products through different mediums, introducing new products, building a strong reputation, and retaining customers.

What is an example of a theoretical framework based on?

An example of a theoretical framework is based on the problem statemen t, research questions , and review of literature sources . These essential elements guide data collection , analysis, and generalization of the findings.

What is a research question?

A research question is a component of an example of a theoretical framework in research. It is the specific question that forms the basis of the solution proposed by a researcher at the end of a study.

When do you need an example of a theoretical framework?

You need an example of a theoretical framework when undertaking a study with several existing theories. The theoretical framework assists you in reviewing your sources and creating the most relevant research questions.

How do you create an example of a theoretical framework?

Begin by identifying your main concepts and variables. Evaluate and summarize probable theories and show how your findings correspond to the identified theories.

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COMMENTS

  1. Theoretical Framework Example for a Thesis or Dissertation

    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.

  2. 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 ...

  3. 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.

  4. 31 Theoretical Framework Examples (2024)

    A theoretical framework is a theory that can be applied to interpret and understand data in your research study. A useful working definition comes from Connaway and Radford (2021): "…a theoretical framework utilizes theory/theories and their constituent elements as the presumed 'working model' that drives the investigation and analysis ...

  5. 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 ...

  6. Theoretical Framework

    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.

  7. Theoretical Framework

    The term conceptual framework and theoretical framework are often and erroneously used interchangeably (Grant & Osanloo, 2014). 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 ...

  8. What Is A Theoretical Framework? A Practical Answer

    The framework may actually be a theory, but not necessarily. This is especially true for theory driven research (typically quantitative) that is attempting to test the validity of existing theory. However, this narrow definition of a theoretical framework is commonly not aligned with qualitative research paradigms that are attempting to develop ...

  9. Theoretical Frameworks

    Theoretical framework. The theoretical perspective provides the broader lens or orientation through which the researcher views the research topic and guides their overall understanding and approach. The theoretical framework, on the other hand, is a more specific and focused framework that connects the theoretical perspective to the data analysis strategy through pre-established theory.

  10. PDF The Theoretical Framework

    The 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 under study within theoretical underpinnings and to frame the inquiry for data analysis and interpretation.

  11. Literature Reviews, Theoretical Frameworks, and Conceptual Frameworks

    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.

  12. Theoretical vs Conceptual Framework (+ Examples)

    Example of a theoretical framework. 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 ...

  13. Example Theoretical Framework of a Dissertation or Thesis

    Example Theoretical Framework of a Dissertation or Thesis. Published on 8 July 2022 by Sarah Vinz . Revised on 10 October 2022. 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 ...

  14. Building and Using Theoretical Frameworks

    Exercise 3.2. Researchers have used a number of different metaphors to describe theoretical frameworks. Maxwell (2005) referred to a theoretical framework as a "coat closet" that provides "places to 'hang' data, showing their relationship to other data," although he cautioned that "a theory that neatly organizes some data will leave other data disheveled and lying on the floor ...

  15. Organizing Academic Research Papers: Theoretical Framework

    The theoretical framework may be rooted in a specific theory, in which case, you are expected to test the validity of an 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 between nation-states as those that give orders, those that obey ...

  16. PDF The structure of a theoretical research/thesis paper

    The introduction generally ends with a brief overview of the analytical approach/strategy to be pursued and the outline of the thesis. Review of literature: The aim of the literature review is to provide theoretical background to the solution of the problem anticipated in the introduction. It offers a critical review of the various treatments ...

  17. Example Of A Theoretical Framework In A Dissertation

    The example of a theoretical framework is based on: The problem statement - involves contextualizing the research problem. The researcher describes the specific issue that the study seeks to address and justifies the study's relevance and primary objectives. The research questions - are focused on a specific issue, and they should be ...

  18. (Pdf) Theoretical and Conceptual Frameworks in Research: Conceptual

    conceptual and theoretical frameworks. As conceptual defines the key co ncepts, variables, and. relationships in a research study as a roadmap that outlines the researcher's understanding of how ...

  19. What Is a Conceptual Framework?

    Developing a conceptual framework in research. Step 1: Choose your research question. Step 2: Select your independent and dependent variables. Step 3: Visualize your cause-and-effect relationship. Step 4: Identify other influencing variables. Frequently asked questions about conceptual models.

  20. (PDF) The Theoretical Framework in Phenomenological Research

    The Theoretical Framework in Phenomenological Research: Development and Application is an introduction to phenomenology in which the authors overview its origin, main ideas and core concepts.

  21. (PDF) THEORETICAL AND CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORKS AND MODELS ...

    The conceptual framework supported the explanation of the multiple theoretical frameworks and literature base, as well as the professional educational context of the study.

  22. Theoretical and Conceptual Framework: Mandatory Ingredients of A

    Theoretical and conceptual frameworks play a crucial role in research, providing a foundation for the study, guiding the research process, and establishing its credibility (Oppong, 2013; Adom et ...