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What Is a Theoretical Framework? | Guide to Organizing

Published on October 14, 2022 by Sarah Vinz . Revised on November 20, 2023 by Tegan George.

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

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

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

Table of contents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Identify your key concepts

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

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

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

Objective : To increase the quantity of return customers.

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

2. Evaluate and explain relevant theories

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

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

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

3. Show how your research fits into existing research

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s important that the information in your theoretical framework is clear for your reader. Make sure to ask a friend to read this section for you, or use a professional proofreading service .

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

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

If you want to know more about AI for academic writing, AI tools, or research bias, make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples or go directly to our tools!

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

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

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

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What is a Theoretical Framework?

We know based on the word ‘theoretical’ that this framework will deal with theories (that is, principles set to explain phenomena that have already been tested and are supported by data). This type of framework will provide your readers with an idea of what you expect to find throughout your research by focusing on the principles that have already been established that will help you evaluate, connect, clarify, and identify limits within the existing knowledge surrounding your research.

Theory vs. Hypothesis

Steps to finding a theoretical framework.

Here are some ways that you can develop a solid theoretical framework:

There is a disconnect between the perception of beneficial/effective feedback by graduate students and their instructors

Possible factors affecting perception of quality feedback: practicality, usefulness, andragogy, timeliness, hierarchical cultural power dynamic, the review of the literature should cover research that has already been conducted on how students and instructors perceive quality feedback, the common factors that influence perception of quality, how adult learning influences expectations in learning (andragogy), and how the hierarchical cultural power dynamic in the united states has influenced teacher/student interactions..

Make a list of the constructs and variables.

What constructs/variables do you believe may be important to your study? These variables should be grouped into two categories: dependent and independent.

Dependent variables are the variables that you are testing in your study (how they are impacted). In this study, my dependent variable could be the perception of the effectiveness of feedback. Independent variables are variables that the researcher manipulates in order to figure out how a dependent variable is affected. In this study, my independent variables could be adult expectations and feedback techniques.

Consider what theories you have encountered in your readings and decide which theory would best explain the relationships between the most important variables in your study.

Andragogy theory

Discuss how your chosen theory will help you answer your research question. then, discuss how this theory will assist you as you conduct your research. in other words, how will your chosen theory serve as a basis for your work in this study, i would look at how andragogy theory stipulates that adult learners have different needs in the educational setting. i would look at how such needs influence students’ perceptions of feedback as useful or effective for this stage of their life., purpose of the framework.

Theory can assist you because it can guide your theoretical framework. This allows:

  • New research data to be interpreted and coded for use in the future
  • A possible solution to new problems for which solutions have not yet been discovered
  • A way to put a name and definition to problems that are being researched
  • A way to prescribe (advise) or evaluate solutions to problems that are being researched
  • A way to learn about specific facts that are contained within the larger body of scholarship (and decide which are essential to a researcher’s project and which are not)
  • A way of interpreting old data using new methods
  • A way to identify new key issues and decide what are the key research questions that should be addressed to best understand the problem being studied
  • A way of giving members of a specific discipline a universal language and a conceptual frame for defining their profession’s specific boundaries
  • A way to give guidance and clarity to research so that it can assist researchers in their work and help them make improvements when practicing within their profession

Structure of a Theoretical Framework

The theoretical framework is the basis of a certain theory.

If this is so, make sure your research tests whether or not that existing theory is valid in relation to a specified phenomena, event, or issue that is studied in your dissertation.

Questions to Consider

  • What is the research problem or question?
  • Why is the use of this framework a good solution to the problem?

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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.

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 (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 used in high school social studies curriculum and, as a result, can come across as dubious 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 and so, 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 be understood as the foundation from which you conduct research to test existing assumptions or predictions about the research problem in a way that leads to new knowledge and understanding as well as, in some cases, discovering ways to improve the relevance of the theory itself.

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.

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; 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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Building a Dissertation Conceptual and Theoretical Framework: A Recent Doctoral Graduate Narrates Behind the Curtain Development

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Dr. Jordan Tegtmeyer

This article examines the development of conceptual and theoretical frameworks through the lens of one doctoral student’s qualitative dissertation. Using Ravitch and Carl’s (2021) conceptual framework guide, each key component is explored, using my own dissertation as an example. Breaking down each framework section step-by-step, my journey illustrates the iterative process that conceptual framework development requires. While not every conceptual framework is developed in the same way, this iterative approach allows for the production of a robust and sound conceptual framework.


While progressing on my doctoral journey I struggled to learn, and then navigate, what it meant to do quality academic research. While I had worked in higher education for over 15 years when I entered into my doctoral program in Higher Education at Penn, and had earned multiple master’s degrees, I felt wholly unprepared to complete a dissertation. It felt, at first, beyond my reach. Now that I have completed the dissertation, my hope is to pay it forward by sharing reflections on the process as a guide to help other researchers navigate the development of a robust conceptual and theoretical framework for their own dissertations.

My journey into this doctoral inquiry began before I even realized it. I entered the program with a strong idea of what I wanted to study but no “academic” frameworks to help me chart the journey. Little did I know that that is in fact what conceptual frameworks do, they help guide you from early ideation to a finalized study. The turning point in my own learning, let’s call it an epiphany of sorts, happened in a qualitative research methods course that introduced Ravitch and Carl’s Qualitative Research: Bridging the Conceptual, Theoretical, and Methodological. I was introduced to the basic concepts needed to turn my own research ideas into actionable research questions. While this was not the only source to guide me on this journey, conversations with peers and professionals, other courses and independent studies also moved me along, it was reading this text that gave me the academic terminology and frameworks I needed to build a robust and rigorous dissertation research design.

To guide the development of strong conceptual and theoretical frameworks I use Ravitch and Carl’s (2021) components of a conceptual framework graphic (p. 38) below:

theoretical framework for phd thesis

Using this visual of the framework as a guide, I share how I developed and used theoretical frameworks in a case study dissertation and how the development of my conceptual framework played out in my study. 

Building a Dissertation Study

For context, I describe my dissertation study to bridge the theoretical with the reality of my dissertation. Seeing these ideas and terms applied in a real-world context should provide some guidance on how to address them in the construction of your own conceptual framework.

My dissertation study examined gender equity in college sports, specifically examining institutional characteristics and their potential impact on Title IX compliance. Using case study research, I examined two institutions and then contrasted them to see if there were particular characteristics about those institutions that made them more likely to comply with Title IX’s three-part test. Overall, the study found that there are some institutional characteristics that impact Title IX compliance.

The evolution of a research idea into a study design is useful for understanding the impact that developing a conceptual framework has on this work. Adding the academic structure required to go from idea to fully realized conceptual framework is integral to a sound study. Going into the doctoral program I had a couple of broad ideas I wanted to bring together in a formal study. I knew I wanted to study college sports for a number of reasons including that I am a huge sports fan working in higher education who wanted to better understand the college sports context. I also wanted to integrate issues of gender disparities into my work to better understand disparities around athletic participation between the sexes as outlined by Title IX legislation. For me, the goal was  to bring these broad topics and interests together. Turning these topics into a problem my study could address was critical. Once I made this shift to problem statement, it became about transitioning from problem to research questions from which I could use to drive the potential study.

Understanding this evolution, from a research idea into a study design, is important as it speaks to the understanding the two are not the same. A researcher has to work through an iterative process in order to take a research idea, and through developing their study’s conceptual framework, turn it into a study. Starting with research interests you are passionate about is important, but it is only the first step in a journey to a high-quality research study. For me this meant understanding what made my ideas important and how they could be studied. Why was gender equity in college sports important and what was causing the inequities in athletic participation between the genders? Say a bit more on this–how did you do this?

Developing Guiding Research Questions        

I began with the Ravitch and Carl (2021) conceptual framework diagram as a guide, starting with the research questions positioned at the top. It's important to note that the development of research questions is an active and iterative process that evolves and changes over time. Looking back at notes I took throughout my dissertation journey, I found at least a dozen different iterations of my own research questions. Looking back at the evolution of my own research question, allowed me to see just how iterative of a process this really is. Second, developing research questions is largely about whittling down your broad ideas and interests into something that is scoped in such a way as to be doable.

For me, I started with these broad areas of interest and whittled them down from there, focusing and iterating. Next, I sought to understand the goals of my study and who the intended audiences were (Ravitch & Carl, 2021). I knew I wanted to develop something that was useful for practitioners. Being a higher education practitioner myself, I wanted something people in the field could use and learn from. Knowing this was extremely important to developing the study’s research questions since it helped me to map them onto the goals and audiences I imagined for the study.

The research questions should address the problem you are trying to solve and why it's important (Ravitch & Carl, 2021). For me, the goal was to explore what was causing gender athletic participation inequities and how that fit into broader gender disparities in higher education and the country .

My final research questions show how far they had come from my topics of interest.

  • What is the relationship between gender and varsity participation opportunities in collegiate sports?
  • What is the relationship of institutional characteristics to gender equity in collegiate sports participation?

Additional questions related to institutional characteristics are:

  • What is the range and variation of institutional characteristics among schools that are in compliance with the three-part test of Title IX?
  • How do contextual factors mediate their compliance?

theoretical framework for phd thesis

At first these questions focused on understanding gender disparities in regards to athletic participation opportunities in college sports. I sought to understand the extent of the disparities and which institutions had them. From there I wanted to understand potential institutional characteristics that could serve as predictors of Title IX compliance. For this, I wanted to explore the impact general institutional characteristics like, undergraduate gender breakdown, might have on creating potential difficulties with navigating Title IX compliance. It was important to investigate the similarities and differences between the two cases in my study. This would help inform whether there were unique things about each institution that were having an effect on Title IX compliance at that institution. This was about understanding what is happening at each of the cases and the reason I chose the methodological approach I did.

Developing Study Goals

A study’s goals are the central part of the conceptual framework as they help turn an interest or concern into a research study. Goal mapping for a study is this process that maps out, or theoretically frames the key goals of the study (Ravitch & Carl, 2021). The study’s goals come from many different sources including personal and professional goals, prior research, existing theory, and a researcher’s own thoughts, interests, and values (Ravitch & Carl, 2021). In my dissertation study, it was a combination of all of those things, although I didn’t realize it at first. The truth is, I didn’t realize I was building conceptual and theoretical frameworks at the time, but in fact I was incrementally building up to them. I talked with experts, advisors, my professors, mentors, academic peers and practitioners to slowly build my own contextual understanding of the research questions, theory, and methodology along the way.

The study goals for my dissertation emerged from multiple vantage points. I thought it was senseless that after 50 years of Title IX, schools were still ignoring the law (willfully or not). Some of the best athletes I’ve known have been women, including my sister. This gave me an appreciation for women’s sports at an early age. From a practitioner-scholar’s standpoint, I didn’t see anything that was usable in “real life.” At least nothing that didn’t require a law degree or extensive knowledge of the law, something most people do not have. I had also come across Charles Kennedy’s 2007 Gender Equity Scorecard in a prior class that gave me the idea for the compliance model. This study was designed to measure schools’ compliance with various aspects of Title IX, but only examined the proportionality requirement of the three-part test (Kennedy, 2007). This was a good start because it provided a template from which to assess compliance when examining gender equity in college sports but helped me to see the need for an easy-to-understand model that covered all aspects of the three-part test that practitioners could use on their own campuses. As a way to better understand Title IX compliance among institutions I then built the compliance model that addressed the entire three-part test with a lawyer friend and used it to do an almost test run of the sampling.

Lastly, as I refined my topic, there seemed to be something missing from the literature. This missing piece gave me the idea for merging the theoretical and the practical dimensions of Title IX compliance within the context of college athletics. A compliance model, using a legal and statutory approach but also grounded in theory, that could be used by practitioners in real life. This model could then help researchers understand why Title IX non-compliance was still an issue today. For me and my study, applying this model to publicly available data, helped to understand why women athletes are not getting their fair share of athletic participation opportunities guaranteed by a law passed over 50 years ago. This process of having to seek out data, taught me the continued need for a proactive approach to measuring compliance with all the participation aspects of Title IX.

Understanding Contexts of the Work

Understanding the contexts of your intended study is critical as it helps set the stage for your study’s position in the real world. Knowing the actual setting of your study and its context are important as it speaks to the micro contexts. The who and what aspects of that setting are central to your research. It is this context within the context that helps us understand the aspects that influence what we study and how we frame the study (Ravitch & Carl, 2021). At the micro level, my study sought to focus on the institutional structures and workings of two universities. I chose case study research because it allowed me to focus on those two institutions, and that was very intentional, as I wanted to understand their specific institutional structures and their potential impacts on Title IX compliance.

Understanding the macro level contexts impacting my study was also important. It is the combination of social, historical, national, international, and global level contexts that create the conditions in which your study is conducted. As Ravitch and Carl (2021) state it is these broad contexts “that shape society and social interactions, influence the research topic, and affect the structure and conditions of the settings and the lives of the people at the center of your research and you” (p. 52). This has two important implications for conceptual framework development. First, it is important to investigate and thoroughly understand the setting of the study that reflects the conditions as lived by the stakeholders (Ravitch & Carl, 2021). As you design your study it is important to consider what’s happening in that moment and how your study is situated in a specific moment in time which impacts both the context and setting of your study but also how you come to view and approach it (Ravitch & Carl, 2021).

For my dissertation, understanding college sports and higher education in the broadest sense was important when thinking about the macro contexts influencing my study. Things like: how does the NCAA and conferences play a role in this area? How does higher education handle gender equity in college sports as it relates to the missions of the institutions? And even more broadly, how does this study fit into broader societal structures regarding equality? Given everything that was going on in college sports at the time (issues at the NCAA’s women’s basketball tournament, volleyball, softball), the contexts illustrated the broader need for understanding this issue in that moment of time. This illuminates the importance of taking the time to understand the different contexts impacting your study and why they are important.

Researcher Reflexivity

When thinking about social identity and positionality, it is vital to understand that the researcher is viewed as a vital part of the study itself, the primary instrument and filter of interpretation (Ravitch & Carl, 2021). Positionality refers to the researcher’s role and social identity in relationship to the context and setting of the research. I think of this as what we as researchers bring to the table—who we are and what we know and how that impacts what we do and how we do it. Understanding how these aspects of oneself all interact and make me who I am, while also understanding my potential impact on my research is critical to a strong conceptual framework.

For my study, I worried about my positionality in particular: my gender and my fandom. I was worried my various identities would influence my approach negatively in ways I would be unaware of. I, someone who identifies as male, wanted to be taken seriously while addressing a gender equity issue from a privileged gender position. I also didn’t want to overlook or discount anything because of who I am and how I viewed the world of college sports. This illuminates the importance of understanding one’s identities and their potential impact on the study. There were numerous ways I addressed this through the study including engaging my critical inquiry group, drafting memos, and using a researcher interview to elicit self-reflection.

Theoretical Framework Development

When working through the development of a theoretical framework within a conceptual framework, one must account for the integration of formal theory and the use of the literature review. Formal theory is those established theories that come together to create the frame for your research questions. The researcher must seek out formal theories to help understand what they are studying and why they are studying it (Ravitch & Carl, 2021). Ravitch & Carl said this best, “the theoretical framework is how you weave together or integrate existing bodies of literature…to frame the topic, goals, design, and findings of your specific study” (p. 58).

It is important to point out that the process of creating a theoretical framework is separate from a literature review. The theoretical framework does impact the literature review and the literature review impacts it, but they are separate. You may discover theories that strengthen your theoretical framework as you review literature, and you may seek out theories to validate a hypothesis you have related to your study. This is important because your formal theories do not encompass all the theories related to your topic, but the specific theories that bind your study together and give it structure.

For my study, formal theories ended up being an equity-equality framework developed by Espinoza (2007) and a structuralism-subordination framework derived from Chamallas (1994). The equity-equality framework was used to address what I had seen as confusion between the two terms, using them interchangeably, when reviewing literature examining Title IX. I wanted to understand if the confusion about the terms, equity and equality, led to a misunderstanding about the true intent of Title IX and intercollegiate athletics. For the structuralism-subordination framework, I wanted to understand if there were institutional structures that institutions had built that led to the subordination of women. I also wanted to understand if those structures manifest themselves in ways that hinder institutions’ Title IX compliance, leaving women without the participation opportunities required by law.

Both of these formal theories had an impact on and were impacted by my literature review. The structuralism-subordination framework was discovered after my initial review of Title IX literature, while the equity-equality framework was needed to reflect inconsistencies in the use of those terms in texts reviewed for the literature review. These formal theories also helped me refine my research questions and the purpose of my study. The formal theories impact on the different aspects of my conceptual framework then required me to refine and redefine by literature in order to incorporate their impact. This understanding of formal theory as the framework to construct a study is central to constructing a robust theoretical framework.

What helped me arrive at these theories in the great morass of theories was Title IX’s application to college sports, feminist scholar’s work related to college sports, and the use and misuse of the equity and equality in the literature.

Naming Tacit Theories

It is not just your role as the researcher that impacts your study, it is also all the informal ways in which we understand the world. We all have working hypotheses, assumptions, or conceptualizations about why things occur and how they operate (Ravitch & Carl, 2021). This is a result of how we were raised and socialized which has a direct impact on the ways that we see our work and the contexts in which it takes place. For me as the researcher for this study, three tacit theories emerged upon examination through memos and dialogic engagement with peers and advisors, described in the next section. One, was related to what I call, college sports fandom or the ESPN culture. For me, I grew up on ESPN as did many of my friends. We got most of our sports news through these mediums and it greatly impacted how we viewed and thought of college sports. The problem with this is that ESPN has helped propagate many false narratives and misconceptions about college sports. A few examples include: big time college sports and programs make money (most do not), men’s sports are more popular than women’s (men get the majority of airtime), and college sports make a lot of money (where it gets its “money” is not where you think). There was also the continual sexualization and diminishment of women athletes.

Family dynamics also played a major role in my sports fandom and its importance. Sports were big in my family as most members played but we also watched a lot together. It was a bonding mechanism for us. For our family, my sister was our best athlete. This meant attending a lot of her games which led to an appreciation of women’s sports at an early age. Lastly, I had a general lack of knowledge around gender equity in college sports, mostly related to my fandom described above. I didn’t develop a true understanding until graduate school when I went out of my way to do deep dives into the topic whenever I could. This process of self-discovery and reflection with my own tacit theories teaches the importance of examining oneself, our socialization and its impact on your research. The dissertation reflection process was cathartic, it brought together these various strands of my identity, history, and interests and helped me to identify and then reckon with my unconscious biases, assumptions, and drivers.

Structured Reflexivity and Dialogic Engagement

I relied on structured reflexivity and dialogic engagement as my main reflexivity strategy, reflecting on my research through purposeful engagement with others a lot throughout my study. I went back and forth many times between different aspects of my conceptual framework as “new” information was discovered. Sometimes this reflexivity was planned, for example, after completing one part of my conceptual framework I would review other aspects to consider the impact. This would help me to ensure the potential impact of this new information was assessed against all parts of the conceptual framework. Other times it was completely spontaneous such as an illuminating reading or discovery would spark me to think about a piece of conceptual framework differently and adjust. In one particular moment, I came across some conflicting information during one of the cases that required me to rethink aspects of my entire conceptual framework. This conflicting information indicated another approach to measuring Title IX compliance which was at conflict with mine. I met with various members of my critical inquiry group to decide on a path forward and then wrote a memo outlining what happened and the decision made. This incident caused me to not only conduct dialogic engagement but also structured reflexivity as I reviewed all aspects of my conceptual framework to ensure everything still made sense as it was structured given the new information.

The key structured reflexivity mechanisms I used in my study were memos, a critical inquiry group, a researcher interview and case reports. Each of these proved to be an invaluable resource when navigating the construction of my conceptual framework. I used different kinds of memos to highlight key decisions which were useful later when writing my dissertation.

My critical inquiry group, composed of college sports experts, peers, women’s rights advocates, Title IX consultants and lawyers, had multiple functions throughout my study. They challenged me on assumptions and decision making, helped me work through challenges and served as sounding boards to bounce ideas off of. My researcher interview, which is when the researcher is interviewed to pull out tacit knowledge and assumptions, was particularly useful as it allowed for a non-biased critique to focus on process, procedure, and theory (both the theoretical and conceptual). My interviewer also called out my tacit theories and biases which were helpful in structuring that section of my conceptual framework. Lastly, I used case reports as a way to summarize my cases individually in their own distinct process guaranteeing each received a deep dive. This also allowed me to make refinements after the first case and also helped lay the groundwork for a cross-case analysis. The entire process taught me that having these structured mechanisms adds validation points and reflection opportunities from which I could refine my work.

Methodological Approach and Research Methods

For any researcher the methodological approach is guided by the study’s research questions. This section is also partly shaped and derived from the conceptual framework. For some, they will arrive at the methodological approach that best fits their study along the way, picking it up from other pieces of their conceptual framework. For others, the approach is clear from the beginning and drives some of their conceptual framework decision making. For me, I arrived at my methodological approach as it became clear as my conceptual framework developed. As I worked through the interactions of my research questions, informed by my developing conceptual framework, it became clear that case study research was the right methodological approach for my study.

The methodological approach I chose for my dissertation was case study research, which made sense given that the primary goal was to gain a clear understanding of the “how” and “why” of each case, which is especially important when examining the two cases in this study (Yin, 2018). Understanding the complexities and contextual circumstances of Title IX cases is especially crucial given its real-world impact on universities (Yin, 2018). The in-depth focus of case study research allowed for a much richer understanding of the potential impacts of institutional and athletics department characteristics impacting Title IX compliance today (Yin, 2018).

I used a multi-case approach because I wanted to compare and contrast one school that was “good” at Title IX compliance and one that was not. Each case was completed separately for a deep dive and better understanding using thematic analysis for the data analysis. After each case report was completed, themes were reviewed. After both cases were completed a cross-case analysis was done to compare and contrast the cases using the themes derived from each case. For the data collection process, I used the following: archival records and documents including meeting minutes and institutional reports, memos for data collection and data analysis, dialogic engagement, and a researcher interview. My learning throughout the dissertation process illuminates the importance and generative value of using a methodological approach that aligns with the goals of the study and is guided by the research questions.

Key Takeaways

If you remember anything from this, please remember these three things:

  • Developing a conceptual framework is an iterative process. It will feel like you are constantly making changes. That’s ok. That’s what good research is, constantly evolving and getting better. My research questions looked nothing like what they started as. They evolved and were informed by newer and better research over time. That is what this process is meant to do, make your research better as you move along.
  • When you get a new piece of information, use it to inform the next part of your process and refine the last. You should use each new finding or insight to refine your work and inform the next piece.
  • Engage your classmates and professors for guidance. You have access to incredible resources in these two populations, use them to help you along the way. And of course, be a resource to them as well. I can’t remember how many times I sought out a classmate who shared something insightful in class to find out more information. You are surrounded by smart, motivated people, who want you to succeed, actively use that support system.

Parting Wisdom

My last bits of wisdom as you are embarking on this journey are meant to serve as things that I wish I had known at the beginning that I wanted to be sure others knew too.

  • First and foremost, love your topic. I cannot stress this enough. You are going to be spending a lot of time and investing a lot of energy in it, you should love it. That’s not to say you won’t be frustrated, tired and “over it” at times, but at the end of the day you should love it.
  • Second, use your classmates as a resource and be a resource to them. Although they aren’t likely to know your topic as in-depth as you do, they can offer valuable insights, largely because they are not you. You can “stress test” your ideas, research questions, frameworks or just have a fresh set of eyes on your work. You should be the same for them as it only makes your own work stronger as well. Reciprocity is key.
  • Third, don’t be afraid to ask questions. The old adage is true, there are no dumb questions. Ask all of your questions, in whatever manner you are comfortable doing so, just be sure to ask them. You’ll find that once you give them air, they do get answered and the path gets that much more clear.
  • Fourth, don’t be afraid to admit possible mistakes or confusions and ask for help mid-concern. No one is perfect and mistakes happen. Acknowledging those mistakes sooner rather than later can only make your work stronger. I had a setback towards the end of my dissertation that at first froze me and I didn’t know what to do. It was only after I acknowledged the mistake and talked with my advisor and critical inquiry group that I could come up with a path forward. My work was better and stronger because of the help I received, even though in the moment I felt vulnerable fessing up.
  • Fifth, memos are your best friends. I cannot stress this enough. I wish I could go back and tell myself this at the very beginning of my journey to chart more at that stage. Documenting decision making, mistakes, rationales, conversations and anything else of even possible importance to your methods is invaluable when you get to the writing stage. Being able to refer to those documents and reflect on them makes your methods more specific and your dissertation stronger.
  • Sixth, know when to stop. This is especially true during your literature review. There is so much material out there, you will never read it all. Take that in. Knowing when you should stop and move on is extremely important. For me, I read about 2 months too long and it set me behind. I still had huge stacks of reading that I could have done but pulling more and more sources from more and more readings was a never-ending path. Get what you need, cover your ground, trust yourself to call it when it's covered. Ask people if you can stop if you aren’t sure.

Finally, and this may feel challenging, let yourself enjoy the ride! Parts will be smooth, others bumpy. By the end you will be tired, burnt out and just want to be done. But stop along the way and enjoy the moments of learning and connection. Those middle of the night texting sessions with your classmates about some obstacle or interesting article you found do matter. Those coffees with professors discussing your topic (and your passion for it) stay with you. Those classes with other really smart and engaged classmates continue to teach you. I can tell you that, looking back almost a year after defending, I miss it all. You will never have this moment in your life again, try to enjoy it.

theoretical framework for phd thesis

Chamallas, M. (1994). Structuralist and cultural domination theories meet Title VII: Some contemporary influences. Michigan Law Review , 92(8), 2370–2409.

Espinoza, O. (2007). Solving the equity-equality conceptual dilemma: A new model for analysis of the educational process. Educational Research , 49(4), 343–363.

Kennedy, C. L. (2007). The Gender Equity Scorecard V. York, PA. Retrieved from  http://ininet.org/the-gender-equity-scorecard-v.html .

Ravitch S. M. & Carl, M. N. (2021). Qualitative Research: Bridging the Conceptual, Theoretical, and Methodological. (2nd Ed.). Sage Publications.

Yin, R. K. (2018). Case study research and applications: Design and methods (6th ed.). Sage.

Articles in this Volume

[tid]: building a dissertation conceptual and theoretical framework: a recent doctoral graduate narrates behind the curtain development, [tid]: family income status in early childhood and implications for remote learning, [tid]: the theater of equity, [tid]: including students with emotional and behavioral disorders: case management work protocol, [tid]: loving the questions: encouraging critical practitioner inquiry into reading instruction, [tid]: supporting the future: mentoring pre-service teachers in urban middle schools, [tid]: embracing diversity: immersing culturally responsive pedagogy in our school systems, [tid]: college promise programs: additive to student loan debt cancellation, [tid]: book review: critical race theory in education: a scholar's journey. gloria ladson-billings. teachers college press, 2021, 233 pp., [tid]: inclusion census: how do inclusion rates in american public schools measure up, [tid]: in pursuit of revolutionary rest: liberatory retooling for black women principals, [tid]: “this community is home for me”: retaining highly qualified teachers in marginalized school communities, [tid]: a conceptual proposition to if and how immigrants' volunteering influences their integration into host societies.

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Conceptual and Theoretical Frameworks for Thesis Studies: What you must know

theoretical framework for phd thesis

A theoretical framework is a conceptual model that provides a systematic and structured way of thinking about a research problem or question. It helps to identify key variables and the relationships between them and to guide the selection and interpretation of data. Theoretical frameworks draw on existing theories and research and can be used to develop new hypotheses or test existing ones. They provide a foundation for research design, data collection, and analysis and can help to ensure that research is relevant, rigorous, and coherent. Theoretical frameworks are common in many disciplines, including social sciences, natural sciences, and humanities, and are essential for building knowledge and advancing understanding in a field.

This article explains the importance of frameworks in a thesis study and the differences between conceptual frameworks and theoretical frameworks. It provides guidelines on how to write a thesis framework, definitions of variable types, and examples of framework types.

What is a research framework and why do I need one?

When planning your thesis study, you need to justify your research and explain its design to your readers. This is called the research framework.

When planning your thesis study, you need to justify your research and explain its design to your readers. This is called the research framework. Think of it as the foundation of a building. A good building needs a strong foundation. Similarly, your research needs to be supported by reviewing and explaining the existing knowledge in the field, describing how your research study will fit within or contribute to the existing literature (e.g., it could challenge or test an existing theory or address a knowledge gap), and informing the reader how your study design aligns with your thesis question or hypothesis.

Important components of the framework are a literature review of recent studies associated with your thesis topic as well as theories/models used in your field of research. The literature review acts as a filtering tool to select appropriate thesis questions and guide data collection, analysis, and interpretation of your findings. Think broadly! Apart from reviewing relevant published papers in your field of research, also explore theories that you have come across in your undergraduate courses, other published thesis studies, encyclopedias, and handbooks.

There are two types of research frameworks: theoretical and conceptual .

What is a conceptual framework?

A conceptual framework is a written or visual representation that explains the study variables and their relationships with each other. The starting point is a literature review of existing studies and theories about your topic.

Steps to develop a conceptual framework

  • Clarify your study topic by identifying and defining key concepts in your thesis problem statement and thesis question. Essentially, your thesis should address a knowledge gap.
  • Perform a literature review to provide a background to interpret and explain the study findings. Also, draw on empirical knowledge that you have gained from personal experience.
  • Identify crucial variables from the literature review and your empirical knowledge, classify them as dependent or independent variables, and define them.
  • Brainstorm all the possible factors that could affect each dependent variable.
  • Propose relationships among the variables and determine any associations that exist between all variables.
  • Use a flowchart or tree diagram to present your conceptual framework.

Types of variables

When developing a conceptual framework, you will need to identify the following:

  • Independent variables
  • Dependent variables
  • Moderating variables
  • Mediating variables
  • Control variables

First, identify the independent (cause) and dependent (effect) variables in your study. Then, identify variables that influence this relationship, such as moderating variables, mediating variables, and control variables. A moderating variable changes the relationship between independent and dependent variables when its value increases or decreases. A mediating variable links independent and dependent variables to better explain the relationship between them. A control variable could potentially impact the cause-and-effect relationship but is kept constant throughout the study so that its effects on the findings/outcomes can be ruled out.

Example of a conceptual framework

You want to investigate the hours spent exercising (cause) on childhood obesity (effect).

theoretical framework for phd thesis

Now, you need to consider moderating variables that affect the cause-and-effect relationship. In our example, the amount of junk food eaten would affect the level of obesity.

theoretical framework for phd thesis

Next, you need to consider mediating variables. In our example, the maximum heart rate during exercise would affect the child’s weight.

theoretical framework for phd thesis

Finally, you need to consider control variables. In this example, because we do not want to investigate the role of age in obesity, we can use this as a control variable. Thus, the study subjects would be children of a specific age (e.g., aged 6–10 years).

theoretical framework for phd thesis

What is a theoretical framework?

A theoretical framework provides a general framework for data analysis. It defines the concepts used and explains existing theories and models in your field of research.

A theoretical framework provides a general framework for data analysis. It defines the concepts used and explains existing theories and models in your field of research. It also explains any assumptions that were used to inform your approach and your choice of specific rationales. Theoretical frameworks are often used in the fields of social sciences.

Purpose of a theoretical framework

  • Test and challenge existing theories
  • Establish orderly connections between observations and facts
  • Predict and control situations
  • Develop hypotheses

Steps to develop a theoretical framework

  • Identify and define key concepts in your thesis problem statement and thesis question.
  • Explain and evaluate existing theories by writing a literature review that describes the concepts, models, and theories that support your study.
  • Choose the theory that best explains the relationships between the key variables in your study.
  • Explain how your research study fills a knowledge gap or fits into existing studies (e.g., testing if an established theory applies to your thesis context).
  • Discuss the relevance of any theoretical assumptions and limitations.

A thesis topic can be approached from a variety of angles, depending on the theories used.

  • In psychology, a behavioral approach would use different methods and assumptions compared with a cognitive approach when treating anxiety.
  • In literature, a book could be analyzed using different literary theories, such as Marxism or poststructuralism.

Structuring a theoretical framework

The structure of a theoretical framework is fluid, and there are no specific rules that need to be followed, as long as it is clearly and logically presented.

The theoretical framework is a natural extension of your literature review. The literature review should identify gaps in the field of your research, and reviewing existing theories will help to determine how these can be addressed. The structure of a theoretical framework is fluid, and there are no specific rules that need to be followed, as long as it is clearly and logically presented. The theoretical framework is sometimes integrated into the literature review chapter of a thesis, but it can also be included as a separate chapter, depending on the complexity of the theories.

Example of a theoretical framework

The sales staff at Company X are unmotivated and struggling to meet their monthly targets. Some members of the management team believe that this could be achieved by implementing a comprehensive product-training program, but others believe that introducing a sales commission structure will help.

Company X is not achieving their monthly sales targets

To increase monthly sales.

Research question:

How can Company X motivate their sales team to achieve its monthly sales targets?


  • Why do the sales staff feel unmotivated?
  • What is the relationship between motivation and monetary rewards?
  • Do the sales staff feel that they have sufficient product knowledge?

Theoretical framework:

A literature search will need to be performed to understand the background of the many different theories of motivation in psychology. For example, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (basic human needs—physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization—have to be fulfilled before one can live up to their true potential), Vroom’s Theory of Expectancy (people decide upon their actions based on the outcomes they expect), and Locke’s Goal-Setting Theory (goals are a key driver of one’s behavior). These theories would need to be investigated to determine which would be the best approach to increase the motivation of the sales staff in Company X so that the monthly sales targets are met.

A robust conceptual or theoretical framework is crucial when writing a thesis/dissertation. It defines your research gap, identifies your approach, and guides the interpretation of your results.

A thesis is the most important document you will write during your academic studies. For professional thesis editing and thesis proofreading services, check out Enago's Thesis Editing service s for more information.

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What type of framework is used in the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) domain? +

Theoretical frameworks are typically used in the HSS domain, while conceptual frameworks are used in the Sciences domain.

What is the difference between mediating versus moderating variables? +

The difference between mediators and moderators can be confusing. A moderating variable is unaffected by the independent variable and can increase or decrease the strength of the relationship between the independent and dependent variables. A mediating variable is affected by the independent variable and can explain the relationship between the independent and dependent variables. T he statistical correlation between the independent and dependent variables is higher when the mediating variable is excluded.

What software should I use to present my conceptual framework? +

The software program Creately provides some useful templates that can help you get started. Other recommended programs are SmartDraw , Inkscape , and diagrams.net .

Educational resources and simple solutions for your research journey

theoretical framework

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

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

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

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

Table of Contents

What is a theoretical framework ?  

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

theoretical framework for phd thesis

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

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

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

Importance of a theoretical framework  

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

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

Theoretical vs. Conceptual framework  

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

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

theoretical framework for phd thesis

How to write a theoretical framework  

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

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

Examples of a theoretical framework  

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

Example 1 .   

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

Objective : To sell more insurance products to existing customers.  

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

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

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

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

Example 2 .

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

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

Problem: Continued decrease in sales and profitability.  

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

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

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

Benefits of a theoretical framework  

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

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

theoretical framework for phd thesis

Frequently Asked Questions 

Q1. How do I develop a theoretical framework ? 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

theoretical framework for phd thesis

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

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

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


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

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Writing theoretical frameworks, analytical frameworks and conceptual frameworks

Three of the most challenging concepts for me to explain are the interrelated ideas of a theoretical framework, a conceptual framework, and an analytical framework. All three of these tend to be used interchangeably. While I find these concepts somewhat fuzzy and I struggle sometimes to explain the differences between them and clarify their usage for my students (and clearly I am not alone in this challenge), this blog post is an attempt to help discern these analytical categories more clearly.

A lot of people (my own students included) have asked me if the theoretical framework is their literature review. That’s actually not the case. A theoretical framework , the way I define it, is comprised of the different theories and theoretical constructs that help explain a phenomenon. A theoretical framework sets out the various expectations that a theory posits and how they would apply to a specific case under analysis, and how one would use theory to explain a particular phenomenon. I like how theoretical frameworks are defined in this blog post . Dr. Cyrus Samii offers an explanation of what a good theoretical framework does for students .

For example, you can use framing theory to help you explain how different actors perceive the world. Your theoretical framework may be based on theories of framing, but it can also include others. For example, in this paper, Zeitoun and Allan explain their theoretical framework, aptly named hydro-hegemony . In doing so, Zeitoun and Allan explain the role of each theoretical construct (Power, Hydro-Hegemony, Political Economy) and how they apply to transboundary water conflict. Another good example of a theoretical framework is that posited by Dr. Michael J. Bloomfield in his book Dirty Gold, as I mention in this tweet:

In Chapter 2, @mj_bloomfield nicely sets his theoretical framework borrowing from sociology, IR, and business-strategy scholarship pic.twitter.com/jTGF4PPymn — Dr Raul Pacheco-Vega (@raulpacheco) December 24, 2017

An analytical framework is, the way I see it, a model that helps explain how a certain type of analysis will be conducted. For example, in this paper, Franks and Cleaver develop an analytical framework that includes scholarship on poverty measurement to help us understand how water governance and poverty are interrelated . Other authors describe an analytical framework as a “conceptual framework that helps analyse particular phenomena”, as posited here , ungated version can be read here .

I think it’s easy to conflate analytical frameworks with theoretical and conceptual ones because of the way in which concepts, theories and ideas are harnessed to explain a phenomenon. But I believe the most important element of an analytical framework is instrumental : their purpose is to help undertake analyses. You use elements of an analytical framework to deconstruct a specific concept/set of concepts/phenomenon. For example, in this paper , Bodde et al develop an analytical framework to characterise sources of uncertainties in strategic environmental assessments.

A robust conceptual framework describes the different concepts one would need to know to understand a particular phenomenon, without pretending to create causal links across variables and outcomes. In my view, theoretical frameworks set expectations, because theories are constructs that help explain relationships between variables and specific outcomes and responses. Conceptual frameworks, the way I see them, are like lenses through which you can see a particular phenomenon.

A conceptual framework should serve to help illuminate and clarify fuzzy ideas, and fill lacunae. Viewed this way, a conceptual framework offers insight that would not be otherwise be gained without a more profound understanding of the concepts explained in the framework. For example, in this article, Beck offers social movement theory as a conceptual framework that can help understand terrorism . As I explained in my metaphor above, social movement theory is the lens through which you see terrorism, and you get a clearer understanding of how it operates precisely because you used this particular theory.

Dan Kaminsky offered a really interesting explanation connecting these topics to time, read his tweet below.

I think this maps to time. Theoretical frameworks talk about how we got here. Conceptual frameworks discuss what we have. Analytical frameworks discuss where we can go with this. See also legislative/executive/judicial. — Dan Kaminsky (@dakami) September 28, 2018

One of my CIDE students, Andres Ruiz, reminded me of this article on conceptual frameworks in the International Journal of Qualitative Methods. I’ll also be adding resources as I get them via Twitter or email. Hopefully this blog post will help clarify this idea!

You can share this blog post on the following social networks by clicking on their icon.

Posted in academia .

Tagged with analytical framework , conceptual framework , theoretical framework .

By Raul Pacheco-Vega – September 28, 2018

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Thanks, this had some useful clarifications for me!


No need to be confused!

Thanks for the Clarification, Dr Raul. My cluttered mind is largely cleared, now.

Thanks,very helpful

I too was/am confused but this helps 🙂

Thank you very much, Dr.

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6 Steps to Mastering the Theoretical Framework of a Dissertation

Tonya Thompson

As the pivotal section of your dissertation, the theoretical framework will be the lens through which your readers should evaluate your research. It's also a necessary part of your writing and research processes from which every written section will be built.

In their journal article titled Understanding, selecting, and integrating a theoretical framework in dissertation research: Creating the blueprint for your "house" , authors Cynthia Grant and Azadeh Osanloo write:

The theoretical framework is one of the most important aspects in the research process, yet is often misunderstood by doctoral candidates as they prepare their dissertation research study. The importance of theory-driven thinking and acting is emphasized in relation to the selection of a topic, the development of research questions, the conceptualization of the literature review, the design approach, and the analysis plan for the dissertation study. Using a metaphor of the "blueprint" of a house, this article explains the application of a theoretical framework in a dissertation. Administrative Issues Journal

They continue in their paper to discuss how architects and contractors understand that prior to building a house, there must be a blueprint created. This blueprint will then serve as a guide for everyone involved in the construction of the home, including those building the foundation, installing the plumbing and electrical systems, etc. They then state, We believe the blueprint is an appropriate analogy of the theoretical framework of the dissertation.

As with drawing and creating any blueprint, it is often the most difficult part of the building process. Many potential conflicts must be considered and mitigated, and much thought must be put into how the foundation will support the rest of the home. Without proper consideration on the front end, the entire structure could be at risk.

Your theoretical framework is the blueprint for your entire dissertation.

With this in mind, I'm going to discuss six steps to mastering the theoretical framework section—the "blueprint" for your dissertation. If you follow these steps and complete the checklist included, your blueprint is guaranteed to be a solid one.

Complete your review of literature first

In order to identify the scope of your theoretical framework, you'll need to address research that has already been completed by others, as well as gaps in the research. Understanding this, it's clear why you'll need to complete your review of literature before you can adequately write a theoretical framework for your dissertation or thesis.

Simply put, before conducting any extensive research on a topic or hypothesis, you need to understand where the gaps are and how they can be filled. As will be mentioned in a later step, it's important to note within your theoretical framework if you have closed any gaps in the literature through your research. It's also important to know the research that has laid a foundation for the current knowledge, including any theories, assumptions, or studies that have been done that you can draw on for your own. Without performing this necessary step, you're likely to produce research that is redundant, and therefore not likely to be published.

Understand the purpose of a theoretical framework

When you present a research problem, an important step in doing so is to provide context and background to that specific problem. This allows your reader to understand both the scope and the purpose of your research, while giving you a direction in your writing. Just as a blueprint for a home needs to provide needed context to all of the builders and professionals involved in the building process, so does the theoretical framework of your dissertation.

So, in building your theoretical framework, there are several details that need to be considered and explained, including:

  • The definition of any concepts or theories you're building on or exploring (this is especially important if it is a theory that is taken from another discipline or is relatively new).
  • The context in which this concept has been explored in the past.
  • The important literature that has already been published on the concept or theory, including citations.
  • The context in which you plan to explore the concept or theory. You can briefly mention your intended methods used, along with methods that have been used in the past—but keep in mind that there will be a separate section of your dissertation to present these in detail.
  • Any gaps that you hope to fill in the research
  • Any limitations encountered by past researchers and any that you encountered in your own exploration of the topic.
  • Basically, your theoretical framework helps to give your reader a general understanding of the research problem, how it has already been explored, and where your research falls in the scope of it. In such, be sure to keep it written in present tense, since it is research that is presently being done. When you refer to past research by others, you can do so in past tense, but anything related to your own research should be written in the present.

Use your theoretical framework to justify your research

In your literature review, you'll focus on finding research that has been conducted that is pertinent to your own study. This could be literature that establishes theories connected with your research, or provides pertinent analytic models. You will then mention these theories or models in your own theoretical framework and justify why they are the basis of—or relevant to—your research.

Basically, think of your theoretical framework as a quick, powerful way to justify to your reader why this research is important. If you are expanding upon past research by other scholars, your theoretical framework should mention the foundation they've laid and why it is important to build on that, or how it needs to be applied to a more modern concept. If there are gaps in the research on certain topics or theories, and your research fills these gaps, mention that in your theoretical framework, as well. It is your opportunity to justify the work you've done in a scientific context—both to your dissertation committee and to any publications interested in publishing your work.

Keep it within three to five pages

While there are usually no hard and fast rules related to the length of your theoretical framework, it is most common to keep it within three to five pages. This length should be enough to provide all of the relevant information to your reader without going into depth about the theories or assumptions mentioned. If you find yourself needing many more pages to write your theoretical framework, it is likely that you've failed to provide a succinct explanation for a theory, concept, or past study. Remember—you'll have ample opportunity throughout the course of writing your dissertation to expand and expound on these concepts, past studies, methods, and hypotheses. Your theoretical framework is not the place for these details.

If you've written an abstract, consider your theoretical framework to be somewhat of an extended abstract. It should offer a glimpse of the entirety of your research without going into a detailed explanation of the methods or background of it. In many cases, chiseling the theoretical framework down to the three to five-page length is a process of determining whether detail is needed in establishing understanding for your reader.

Reducing your theoretical framework to three to five pages is a process of chiseling down the excess details that should be included in the separate sections of your dissertation

Use models and other graphics

Since your theoretical framework should clarify complicated theories or assumptions related to your research, it's often a good idea to include models and other helpful graphics to achieve this aim. If space is an issue, most formats allow you to include these illustrations or models in the appendix of your paper and refer to them within the main text.

Use a checklist after completing your first draft

You should consider the following questions as you draft your theoretical framework and check them off as a checklist after completing your first draft:

  • Have the main theories and models related to your research been presented and briefly explained? In other words, does it offer an explicit statement of assumptions and/or theories that allows the reader to make a critical evaluation of them?
  • Have you correctly cited the main scientific articles on the subject?
  • Does it tell the reader about current knowledge related to the assumptions/theories and any gaps in that knowledge?
  • Does it offer information related to notable connections between concepts?
  • Does it include a relevant theory that forms the basis of your hypotheses and methods?
  • Does it answer the question of "why" your research is valid and important? In other words, does it provide scientific justification for your research?
  • If your research fills a gap in the literature, does your theoretical framework state this explicitly?
  • Does it include the constructs and variables (both independent and dependent) that are relevant to your study?
  • Does it state assumptions and propositions that are relevant to your research (along with the guiding theories related to these)?
  • Does it "frame" your entire research, giving it direction and a backbone to support your hypotheses?
  • Are your research questions answered?
  • Is it logical?
  • Is it free of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and syntax errors?

A final note

In conclusion, I would like to leave you with a quote from Grant and Osanloo:

The importance of utilizing a theoretical framework in a dissertation study cannot be stressed enough. The theoretical framework is the foundation from which all knowledge is constructed (metaphorically and literally) for a research study. It serves as the structure and support for the rationale for the study, the problem statement, the purpose, the significance, and the research questions. The theoretical framework provides a grounding base, or an anchor, for the literature review, and most importantly, the methods and analysis. Administrative Issues Journal

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Theoretical Framework: Research Writing Guide

theoretical framework

In a thesis or dissertation, a theoretical framework is a section where the writer evaluates or discusses the most relevant theories to their study.

The purpose of this section is to: 

  • Define the key concepts
  • Combine and evaluate relevant models and theories
  • Explain expectations and assumptions that guide the project

The proper presentation of this information frames the research while justifying the approach taken by the writer. This section does this by showing the established ideas on which you ground your work.

Essentially, this section of a dissertation a foundation that supports the analysis that follows. It also allows the author to convincingly interpret their results and state or explain their relevance in a larger context.

When properly written, this section works like the software or buildings that provide critical support to the other aspects of the study. Writing a strong framework with a strong theoretical basis enhances investigations that lead to the achievement of specific study goals.

A well-written framework reduces a dreadful research topic into two basic concepts. These are:

  • The study problem
  • The rationale behind its investigation

When writing the framework section, focus on creating a piece that connects you with the existing knowledge via the guidance of relevant theories. Also, provide the basis of your hypothesis and your chosen research methods. A professional dissertation writer will help, if you’re in trouble.

What Is a Theoretical Framework?

  • The Length of a Theoretical Framework

Theoretical or Conceptual Framework?

Types of theoretical framework, how to write a theoretical framework.

  • Summary of a Theoretical Framework Sample

Just like the name suggests, this part of a dissertation or thesis is about theories. Researchers develop theories to draw connections, explain phenomena, and make predictions.

The simplest theoretical framework definition describes it as a collection of theories or interrelated concepts. It comprises concepts and their definitions, as well as, a reference to existing theory and scholarly literature that will be used in a particular study. Your content in this section of a thesis or dissertation must show your understanding of concepts and theories relevant to your research topic. It must also relate them to the considered broader field of knowledge.
  • Some students confuse conceptual vs. theoretical framework. In some cases, learners use these terms interchangeably. But though these terms help readers understand the research problem while guiding the collection, as well as, analysis of information, they are different.
  • According to the above definition of theoretical framework, it comprises concepts or theories relevant to a study. It highlights how the author will understand and investigate the research problem.
  • On the other hand, a conceptual framework can include several formal theories partly or entirely, and other empirical findings and concepts from the field’s literature. The main difference between theoretical and conceptual framework is that the latter demonstrates the relationships among ideas and their relationship with the study.
  • A conceptual framework is commonly used in qualitative research. Although some researchers use a theoretical framework in qualitative research, it is common in quantitative research. A conceptual framework is commonly used in qualitative research, especially in behavioral and social science studies.

The Length of a Theoretical Framework

The complexity and length of this section depend on the topic and study field. Some fields and topics have an obvious and well-established theoretical basis. Others need a more detailed justification and explanation.

Maybe you already know that you will apply a specific theory or several theories to your specific context. For instance, you may intend to use the social impact theory when conducting your market research. In that case, the main task is to discuss the main aspects of this theory and then convince the readers that it offers a solid basis that will enable you to answer the research question. It’s also crucial that you evaluate more theories, as long as, they are relevant to your study. Also, tell your readers why you’ve chosen that specific approach.

In some cases, authors draw on different theories and then combine ideas. This approach can lead to strong research. However, it may require more work because you have to implement the theories in your work.

Most theoretical framework examples range between three and five pages. However, no rules govern the length of this section of a dissertation. Nevertheless, try to keep yours within the range of 3-5 pages. This length is adequate for providing all the relevant information your reader wants to know about your chosen theories and assumptions.

Perhaps, you are torn between a theoretical and conceptual framework. Well, the best approach for deciding what to use in your paper is determining the kind of study you want to conduct. If you must use a theoretical framework in qualitative research, determine the theories you intend to use.

That’s because most types of theoretical framework in qualitative research are found in studies based on existing theories. For instance, you can use this framework when your study is based on motivation theory.

On the other hand, a conceptual framework is ideal for something you will develop based on a theory. Thus, you can use some or all concepts of this theory. Thus, you develop a conceptual framework to solve a problem for which you’re doing the study to find a solution.

At this point, you’re no longer asking, ‘what is theoretical framework?’ But, you most likely want to know the types of frameworks that you can consider for your research. Well, this framework provides a lens or a perspective via which you will examine your topic. And this perspective can be from any study field depending on your academic paper.

For instance, a nursing student can use a theoretical framework in nursing research as long as it defines the concepts while explaining the phenomena in question. However, learners can consider other categories and types of theoretical framework in research.

They include: 

  • Dynamic and sustainability framework
  • Implementation results framework
  • Theoretical domains validation framework
  • Consolidated implementation research and theoretical domains framework
  • Active research implementation framework
  • Evaluation framework

The internet has many resources with examples of theoretical framework in qualitative research and quantitative research. Check them out before you use any framework in your research to know what it entails.

This article has already answered the question, ‘what is theoretical framework in research?’ It has also highlighted the types of this framework. But, how do you complete your theoretical framework research work?

Here is a guide for creating this framework for your research: 

  • Identify the main concepts : Start by picking the main terms of your research problem or research questions. Some concepts can have several definitions. Your framework should define what each concept means clearly. For instance, if concepts like “customer satisfaction” and “customer loyalty” are central to your study, define them and discuss theories that explain their relationship.
  • Explain and evaluate relevant theories : Engage in an extensive literature review to find out the definition of the connections between theories and concepts by other researchers. As you compose your framework, focus on critically evaluating different approaches and comparing them. Establish the most appropriate definitions for your research after discussing different theories and models. Mention all important concepts that are connected to the theories that you discuss in your framework. Explain why you choose a well-established theory for your study and what makes it the most suitable for that purpose. If unsure about the best way to do this, check a theoretical framework example online first.
  • Demonstrate how your study fits in : In addition to discussing theories by other people, your framework should demonstrate how your project will implement these ideas. That means you have to test whether your chosen theory holds in your specific context. Also, use this theory to interpret the findings of your study. It’s also crucial to challenge or critique the theory. What’s more, combine various theories in a unique or new way. If possible and relevant, use your framework to come up with your research hypothesis.
  • Structure your framework : When writing a dissertation or a thesis paper, you can integrate your framework in the literature review chapter. However, you can have it as a separate section or chapter of your paper. If you will be dealing with several complex theories in your paper, have a separate chapter or section for the framework. Nevertheless, you don’t have to follow specific, fixed rules when it comes to structuring the research theoretical framework section. But, your framework should have a logical, clear structure. For instance, you can draw on your study problems or questions and then structure every section around a major concept or question.

These tips should guide you in writing a framework with the theories or concepts you intend to use in your thesis or dissertation. However, you can apply them differently depending on the nature of your study. For instance, a business paper framework may not be the same as a nursing theoretical framework because these are different study fields. However, the concept of creating this framework is the same.

Summary of a Theoretical Framework Sample

For some researchers, an ideal approach is to define theoretical framework. However, some researchers assume the reader already knows what this framework is all about. As such, they go straight to the details. Below is a summary of a theoretical framework in research example.

Company Y wants to resolve the problem of having many customers buy its products online without returning for subsequent purchases. As such, the company management is looking for ways to enhance customer loyalty, hoping that better customer satisfaction will lead to the achievement of this goal.

In your research, you have developed a problem statement, research question, and research question as follows: 

  • Research problem : Most online buyers do not come back for subsequent purchases.
  • Objective : To boost customer loyalty hoping to increase revenue through online sales
  • Research questions : How can company Y improve the satisfaction of online customers to enhance customer loyalty?

Your framework should focus on answering these questions: 

  • Is there a relationship between customer satisfaction and customer loyalty?
  • How loyal and satisfied are the online customers of company Y currently?
  • What are some of the factors affecting the loyalty and satisfaction of the online customers of company Y?

Customer satisfaction and customer loyalty are major concepts that play a role in such a research paper. Therefore, they should be investigated and measured using theories or concepts that should be featured in the framework.

The information contained in this framework could be different from that of a theoretical framework nursing educators expect. That’s because this framework is meant for a business-oriented research paper. Nevertheless, the approach for writing both frameworks is the same.

The framework section of a thesis or dissertation paper clarifies implicit theories or concepts in a clearly defined manner. It also shows how they connect to the current research and why they are suitable for it. Your academic supervisor will most likely check this section first. Therefore, understanding its purpose and how to write it properly is very important.

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The theoretical framework for your Ph.D. Research

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Theoretical framework

In general, theories are constructed in order to explain and predict phenomena. In many instances, we are constructing models of reality. A theory generalizes about observations and consists of an interrelated, coherent set of ideas and models.

The theoretical framework is a structure that can support the research and make scientific findings meaningful and generalizable. The theoretical framework also explains the reason for the problem existing. It also summarizes existing knowledge into coherent systems and stimulates new research by providing both direction and impetus. Yet, all theories and frameworks are considered tentative.

A well-established theory can be used as a framework to look at the problem or view the topic qualitatively or deductively where a researcher can test the theory in a specific circumstance quantitatively or it can be looked at an inductively as an emerging pattern.

Best and unique Ph.D. Dissertation theoretical framework Analysis

Most of the students face an extremely confused and frustrated situation when working on the framework for the theoretical concept. As theoretical framework forms the base for any research,, the journey towards theoretical ‘know what’ or know how’ is worth planning. It needs to be started with reviewing the wide literature on the topic and asking for basic questions, describing and defining relationships and finally proposing potential links between factors. The sound theoretical base research is the absorption of knowledge that merges into the thought processes At Ph.D. Assistance; we offer theoretical development for your proposed research.

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Fortunately, we manage to complete Ph.D. theoretical framework as per the expectations of your guide and the topic being researched, due to the professional work of our experienced, knowledgeable and qualified staff of subject matter expertise. In order to remain our position in the high level, we assign assignment orders of students to the most talented UK and US theoretical framework researchers and writers. These writers have many years of experience in research writing field in UK and US with profound knowledge of their disciplines and years of experience working with students of world-class Universities. We firmly believe working in the stress-free environment and make sure the same for all your students seeking our profession. Our in-depth knowledge of the research subject, meticulous planning, organizing and presentation skills, 100% client commitment have always been handy in completing all our student’s research projects well ahead of the deadline.

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At Ph.D. Assistance, our expert course writers have vast experience in handling specialized areas like research methodology, statistical analysis using sophisticated software like SPSS, statistical review, citation review, etc. Our course writers possess the domestic, US and UK industry standard qualification and possess excellent ability and skills to articulate complex ideas in a clear and concise writing style.

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Your theoretical framework will simply fulfill the research need. Yet, its contribution will be made visible – better research, underpinned by sound theory and leading to demonstrable effects on practice.


Outstanding Service features

We identify relevant theory underpinning the knowledge base of the phenomenon being researched.

Further, we develop a loosely structured theoretical framework as emphasized by Slevin & Basford (1999:298).

  • What do I know about the phenomenon that I want to study?
  • What types of knowledge are available to me (empirical, non-empirical, tacit, intuitive, moral or ethical)?
  • What theory will best guide my practice?
  • Is this theory proven through theory-linked research?
  • What other theories are relevant to this practice?
  • How can I apply these theories and findings in practice?
  • Examining your thesis title and research problem. Brainstorming about what you consider to be the key variables in your research.
  • Reviewing related literature
  • Listing the constructs and variables
  • Reviewing key social science theories
  • Discussing the assumptions or propositions
  • A theoretical framework to limit the scope of the relevant data

Ph.D. Assistance focuses four levels of theory development: –

  • Factor isolating (describe phenomena) –
  • Factor relating (explain phenomena) –
  • Situation relating (predict the relationships between/among phenomena) –
  • Situation producing (control phenomena and relationships)

We design theoretical framework for

A Quantitative study: A theoretical framework is used to make the hypothesis or prediction of the outcome of the study. We apply the theory to see whether the theory applied in a specific situation produces a result. The quantitative data collected will either disagree the theory or support the theory. Ph.D. Assistance formulates hypotheses derived from literature to test a logically conjectured relationship between two or more variables expressed in the form of a testable statement. The hypotheses focus on determinant variables that have been identified in the previous literature which has been associated with factors.

A Qualitative study: In this study, we do not develop theoretical framework rather apply the conceptual framework.

Examples of common theoretical frameworks cited by LII students include; Connectivist, Constructivist, Cognitive Load Theory, Social Learning Theory, Sociocultural Learning Theory, Self-Efficacy Theory, Transformational Learning, Transactional Distance Theory, Systems Theory, Diffusion of Innovation Theory, and Experiential Learning Theory. Based Adoption Model (CBAM); Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPCK), Community of Inquiry (3 presences; teacher, social, and cognitive presence), Five Factor Mentor Model, and Technology Acceptance Model (TAM).

Our team has offered Theoretical framework for 2000+ dissertation projects successfully.

We formulate theory by specifying the theory used, mentioning the proponents, citingi the main points, supporting exposition of the theory, illustrating the framework by means of a diagram and reiterating the theoretical proposition..

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All our academic mentoring, whether an essay, report, dissertation or any other form of academic writing that are built on other’s thoughts and ideas, are acknowledged appropriately. This is necessary to the reader in identifying and finding the relevant sources. We ensure that the usage of references would be largely within the main body of your report while the introduction and the conclusion are largely based on the ideas. This is to ensure avoiding plagiarism. Acknowledgment is done in the text (i.e., in work) and subsequently linked to the full lists presented under the references lists section (end of your work of all sources you refer to).

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The research report is formatted based on the recommended formatting guidelines. Since, there are many different guidelines available including APA, MLA, Harvard , we strictly follow the guideline given by the scholars. Based on the referencing style (e.g. APA, Harvard, MLA, Oxford), the report will be formatted. Further, we also format to ensure (1) avoiding plagiarism (2) assigning proper authority to a statement, (3) sentence structuring and finally adding a table of content, and Lists of Tables & Figures. Footnotes or endnotes are also being taken care by our formatting team.

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We not only deliver the work that you ordered but also we take one step forward to ensure that you are aware of reference materials used in the research work. Every article whether a journal article, textbook, PhD dissertation, translated works, newspaper articles, dictionary, or web pages, lectures (usually includes speaker name, date, name and the location) encyclopaedia entries, legal or historical text, PDFs, PPTs, YouTube Videos, annual reports and many more– will be shared to the research scholar for future reference. On a special request, we also mark / highlight the articles that are most important for the student to read and understand. Additional reference materials will be shared via zipping file through Google drive or drop box so you can use it again during the viva or any other process.

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As a PhD Candidate in legal history, you will analyse the historical use of emergency powers and emergency legislation during the 20th century and early 21st century in Europe. The project EMERGE hypothesizes that the enactment of emergency legislation determines substantial and lasting changes to fundamental rights, the principle of the rule of law as well as the commitment to liberal values of equality before the law and universalism of rights. This hypothesis will be tested against five key moments in the constitutional and legal history of five European jurisdictions during the last century (c.1914-c.2020). You will be part of an international team of researchers analysing the historical context, the law and the practice of emergency in five countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Romania, and the United Kingdom). The first PhD position is concerned with Belgium, the second PhD position with Germany (including the GDR). An appropriate level of familiarity with the law, language(s), legal and political culture of the relevant country is required. Your key responsibility is to develop and complete a doctoral dissertation under the supervision of the Project Leader and within the framework of the project. Doctoral students are expected to publish and disseminate their research findings in close co-operation with the other research group members.

Job profile

  • You hold a university degree in history, law, or other related field that has been completed with above-average success. Applicants should hold a master’s degree at the time the PhD contract is signed.
  • A good knowledge of English is expected. Knowledge of additional languages relevant to the regional focus is required, as follows: Belgium (Dutch and French); Germany (German).
  • Your curriculum vitae shows the potential to conduct research internationally at a high level. You work rigorously and are able to handle deadlines. You work independently and have a strong interest in theoretical, interdisciplinary, archival, and comparative work. You have the ability to play an active collaborative role in the research group.
  • We offer a full-time position as a doctoral scholarship holder consisting of an initial period of 12 months - which, after positive evaluation, is extended to a period of maximum 48 months in total.
  • Employment can be commenced at the earliest from  01/02/2024
  • The scholarship amount is 100% of the net salary of an AAP member in equal family circumstances. The individual grant amount is determined by the Personnel and Organisation Directorate on the basis of family status and seniority.  etc. 

How to apply

The application should be in English and should contain the following documents:

  • A Cover letter naming your research project and explaining to what extent your profile meets the selection criteria.
  • A detailed CV including a list of any publications you might have.
  • Copies of your university certificates.
  • An outline of the planned research project (up to 3 pages, not including bibliography). In this document you explain briefly the theoretical background and the aims of your research in the history of emergency powers and legislation of the respective country/jurisdiction.

Your application must be submitted to  Prof Dr. Cosmin Cercel ( [email protected] ) by the closing date of 7 January 2023. Outstanding candidates will be invited to an interview. You are encouraged to contact project leader Prof Dr. Cosmin Cercel ([email protected]) for any inquiries regarding the project’s scientific aspects.

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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.

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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Sarah's academic background includes a Master of Arts in English, a Master of International Affairs degree, and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. She loves the challenge of finding the perfect formulation or wording and derives much satisfaction from helping students take their academic writing up a notch.

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