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.
The theoretical framework is one of the more infamous components of a dissertation. A good theoretical framework gives you a strong scientific research base and provides support for the rest of your dissertation. But what exactly is a theoretical framework? And how do you write one?
The goal of a theoretical framework
After you have identified your problem statement and research question(s), it is important to determine what theories and ideas exist in relation to your chosen subject.
By presenting this information, you ‘frame’ your research and show that you are knowledgeable about the key concepts, theories, and models that relate to your topic.
The definitions and models you select also give your research direction, as you will continue to build on these choices in different stages of your project.
The theoretical framework also provides scientific justification for your investigation: it shows that your research is not just coming “out of the blue,” but that it is both grounded in and based on scientific theory.
How to determine the contents of a theoretical framework
As noted above, it is important that you cite existing theories and ideas that are relevant to your chosen topic within the theoretical framework. This includes defining key terms from your problem statement and research questions/hypotheses. An important first step is therefore to identify these concepts.
1. Select key concepts
Sample problem statement and research questions: Company X is struggling with the problem that many online customers do not return to make subsequent purchases. Management wants to increase customer loyalty and believes that improved customer satisfaction will play a major role in achieving this goal. To investigate this problem, you have identified and plan to focus on the following problem statement, objective, and research questions:
Problem: Many online customers do not return to make subsequent purchases.
Objective: To increase customer loyalty and thereby generate more revenue.
Research question: ‘How can the satisfaction of company X’s online customers be improved in order to increase customer loyalty?’
- ‘What is the relationship between customer loyalty and costumer satisfaction?’
- ‘How satisfied and loyal are company X’s online costumers currently?’
- ‘What factors affect the satisfaction and loyalty of company X’s online costumers?’
The concepts of “customer loyalty” and “customer satisfaction” are critical to this study and will be measured as part of the research. As such they are key concepts to define within the theoretical framework.
2. Define and evaluate relevant concepts, theories, and models
A literature review is first used to determine how other researchers have defined these key concepts. You should then critically compare the definitions that different authors have proposed. The last step is to choose the definition that best fits your research and justify why this is the case.
It is also important to indicate if there are any notable links between these concepts.
Apart from that, you should describe any relevant theories and models that relate to your key concepts and argue why you are or are not applying them to your own research.
3. Consider adding other elements to your theoretical framework
Depending on your topic or discipline, a comprehensive review of the state of affairs in relation to your research topic may also be helpful to include in your theoretical framework.
Here it’s important to understand the expectations of your supervisor or program in advance. Theoretical problems are more likely to require a “state of affairs” overview than more practical problems.
Analyzing the research field will give you an idea of what similar studies have looked at and found regarding the problem. This will clarify the position of your research in relation to existing knowledge in the field.
Following these steps will help to ensure that you are presenting a solid overview:
- Describe what discussions on the subject exist within the literature.
- Explain what methods, theories, and models other authors have applied. In doing so, always argue why a particular theory or model is or is not appropriate for your own research.
- Analyze the similarities and differences between your own research and earlier studies.
- Explain how your study adds to knowledge that already exists on the subject.
What kinds of research questions can you answer within a theoretical framework?
The theoretical framework can be used to answer descriptive research questions that only require literature (or desk) research. For example, theory alone is sufficient to answer the research question: ‘What is the relationship between customer loyalty and customer satisfaction?’.
In contrast, sub-questions such as ‘How satisfied are company X’s online customers currently?’ cannot be answered in the theoretical framework, given that field research is needed.
The theoretical framework (and the literature review that serves as its backbone) can also be used to further analyze existing findings and hypotheses. It may also be used to formulate and evaluate hypotheses of your own, which you can later test during the qualitative or quantitative research of your study.
The structure of the theoretical framework
There are no fixed rules for structuring a theoretical framework. The important thing is to create a structure that is logical. One way to do this is to draw on your research questions/hypotheses and some of your key terms.
For example, you could create a section or paragraph that looks at each question, hypothesis, or key concept. Within that text, you could then explore the theories and models that are relevant to that particular item.
How long should the theoretical framework be?
The rules about length are not clear either, but a theoretical framework is on average three to five pages long.
To makes things clearer, you might find it useful to include models or other graphics within the theoretical framework. However, if you are concerned about space, you can place these illustrations in an appendix (which you can then refer to in the main text).
Sample theoretical framework
We have prepared a sample theoretical framework that will give you a sense of what this important part of a dissertation may look like.
Sample theoretical framework