A conceptual framework is used to illustrate what you expect to find through your research, including how the variables you are considering might relate to each other.
You should construct one before you actually begin your investigation.
Whether constructing a conceptual framework will be a helpful exercise depends on the type of research you are doing. Conceptual frameworks are particularly common when the research involves hypothesis testing. In this situation, a framework can be used to review your hypotheses or explore if you can scientifically prove a particular idea.
The basis of testing research – and thus the start of constructing a conceptual framework – is often a cause-effect relationship. If your dissertation involves this kind of research, your goal is to try to prove such a relationship.
Example of a cause-effect relationship
Ben, a student, gets a perfect 100% on the big exam, which surprises his classmates. However, Ben has a very good explanation: he studied for many hours (the cause) and therefore scored well (the result).
Ben is so excited when he realizes that his hard work has resulted in a great score that he decides he wants to write his dissertation on the experience. His goal is to demonstrate scientifically that his high score was not just the result of luck, but rather of a cause-effect relationship.
The first step in scientifically demonstrating a cause-effect relationship is to map your expectations using a conceptual framework. Before doing so, it’s important to identify the relevant variables.
Variables are simply the characteristics that the cause-effect relationship is describing. In our example, the two variables are “hours of study” and “exam score.”
Independent and dependent variables
A cause-effect relationship always involves two types of variables: independent and dependent. In our example, “hours of study” is the independent variable, while “exam score” is the dependent variable. In other words, “exam score” depends on “hours of study.”
Cause-effect relationships frequently include several independent variables that affect the dependent variable. Another independent variable that we could add to our example would be “enough time to answer all of questions during the exam period.” However, to keep things simple we’ll work with just one independent variable, namely “hours of study.”
Designing a conceptual framework
Now that we have identified both an independent variable and a dependent variable, we can begin constructing a conceptual framework. The basic design components are boxes, arrows, and lines:
Create a box for each variable. Use arrows to indicate cause-effect relationships. Each arrow should start from the variable that has causal influence and point to the variable that is being affected. Use a line when you expect a correlation between two variables, but no cause-effect relationship.
These components can be summarized as follows:
|Arrow||Causal influence (cause-effect relationship)|
Here is a sample conceptual framework that represents the relationship between the independent variable of “hours of study” and the dependent variable of “exam score” from our example with Ben:
Expanding the conceptual framework
A conceptual framework doesn’t have to be limited to just independent and dependent variables; other types of variables can be incorporated as well. Depending on your research, you may wish to show additional facets of a cause-effect relationship by introducing one or more of the following:
Once your conceptual framework is complete, you’re ready to start undertaking scientific research that will prove the relationships you have illustrated. You can select from a number of qualitative and quantitative research methods, including:
- Literature reviews