The theoretical framework of a dissertation: what and how?

Date published by Date updated: March 24, 2017

The theoretical framework is one of the more infamous components of a dissertation. A good theoretical framework gives you a strong scientific research base and provides support for the rest of your dissertation. But what exactly is a theoretical framework? And how do you write one?

The goal of a theoretical framework

After you have identified your problem statement and research question(s), it is important to determine what theories and ideas exist in relation to your chosen subject.

By presenting this information, you ‘frame’ your research and show that you are knowledgeable about the key concepts, theories, and models that relate to your topic.

The definitions and models you select also give your research direction, as you will continue to build on these choices in different stages of your project.

The theoretical framework also provides scientific justification for your investigation: it shows that your research is not just coming “out of the blue,” but that it is both grounded in and based on scientific theory.

How to determine the contents of a theoretical framework

As noted above, it is important that you cite existing theories and ideas that are relevant to your chosen topic within the theoretical framework. This includes defining key terms from your problem statement and research questions/hypotheses. An important first step is therefore to identify these concepts.

1. Select key concepts

Sample problem statement and research questions: Company X is struggling with the problem that many online customers do not return to make subsequent purchases. Management wants to increase customer loyalty and believes that improved customer satisfaction will play a major role in achieving this goal. To investigate this problem, you have identified and plan to focus on the following problem statement, objective, and research questions:

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

Objective: To increase customer loyalty and thereby generate more revenue.

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

Sub-questions:

  1. ‘What is the relationship between customer loyalty and costumer satisfaction?’
  2. ‘How satisfied and loyal are company X’s online costumers currently?’
  3. ‘What factors affect the satisfaction and loyalty of company X’s online costumers?’

The concepts of “customer loyalty” and “customer satisfaction” are critical to this study and will be measured as part of the research. As such they are key concepts to define within the theoretical framework.

2. Define and evaluate relevant concepts, theories, and models

A literature review is first used to determine how other researchers have defined these key concepts. You should then critically compare the definitions that different authors have proposed. The last step is to choose the definition that best fits your research and justify why this is the case.

It is also important to indicate if there are any notable links between these concepts.

Apart from that, you should describe any relevant theories and models that relate to your key concepts and argue why you are or are not applying them to your own research.

3. Consider adding other elements to your theoretical framework

Depending on your topic or discipline, a comprehensive review of the state of affairs in relation to your research topic may also be helpful to include in your theoretical framework.

Here it’s important to understand the expectations of your supervisor or program in advance. Theoretical problems are more likely to require a “state of affairs” overview than more practical problems.

Analyzing the research field will give you an idea of what similar studies have looked at and found regarding the problem. This will clarify the position of your research in relation to existing knowledge in the field.

Following these steps will help to ensure that you are presenting a solid overview:

  • Describe what discussions on the subject exist within the literature.
  • Explain what methods, theories, and models other authors have applied. In doing so, always argue why a particular theory or model is or is not appropriate for your own research.
  • Analyze the similarities and differences between your own research and earlier studies.
  • Explain how your study adds to knowledge that already exists on the subject.

What kinds of research questions can you answer within a theoretical framework?

The theoretical framework can be used to answer descriptive research questions that only require literature (or desk) research. For example, theory alone is sufficient to answer the research question: ‘What is the relationship between customer loyalty and customer satisfaction?’.

In contrast, sub-questions such as ‘How satisfied are company X’s online customers currently?’ cannot be answered in the theoretical framework, given that field research is needed.

The theoretical framework (and the literature review that serves as its backbone) can also be used to further analyze existing findings and hypotheses. It may also be used to formulate and evaluate hypotheses of your own, which you can later test during the qualitative or quantitative research of your study.

The structure of the theoretical framework

There are no fixed rules for structuring a theoretical framework. The important thing is to create a structure that is logical. One way to do this is to draw on your research questions/hypotheses and some of your key terms.

For example, you could create a section or paragraph that looks at each question, hypothesis, or key concept. Within that text, you could then explore the theories and models that are relevant to that particular item.

How long should the theoretical framework be?

The rules about length are not clear either, but a theoretical framework is on average three to five pages long.

To makes things clearer, you might find it useful to include models or other graphics within the theoretical framework. However, if you are concerned about space, you can place these illustrations in an appendix (which you can then refer to in the main text).

Sample theoretical framework

We have prepared a sample theoretical framework that will give you a sense of what this important part of a dissertation may look like.

Sample theoretical framework

Checklist theoretical framework

Additional checklist points if you are analyzing existing knowledge within your field of research

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Article by Sarah Vinz

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.

48 comments

  1. eriele monterde:

    hi ! i’m currently doing my ungergrad thesis. I am completely lost when it comes to theoretical framework. I look it up in the internet and it would seem that it will be compose of paragraphs, but my other classmates presented it as a sort of map. what is a theoretical framework really is?

    • Bas Swaen (Scribbr-team):

      Hi Eriele, there are not a set of rules that you should follow when writing you framework. Both the options you give a pretty good structures of a framework. A map can be convenient when you have to use a lot of sources. When your framework is not that complex a map is not something you really need. Hope this helps!

  2. adnan ali:

    my concepts about theoretical framework are now more clear after reading it. thank you very much

  3. MAIYO JEROTICH:

    hello..i really dont understand what theoretical framework entails especially on my topic on effects of value added tax on product choice

    • Bas Swaen (Scribbr-team):

      Hi Maiyo, Then you should focus on the most important concepts in your thesis. For you that would be for instance, value added tax. What is the history of value added tax and what are the latest developments? Good luck!

  4. MAIYO JEROTICH:

    am very grateful..i can now understand

  5. Awinzure Ibrahim:

    I think this is very helpful. But my problem is how to search for the theoretical framework of my topic. For instance I am writing on the topic sum of interior angle is 180 degrees.

    • Bas Swaen (Scribbr-team):

      Dear Awinzure, You can try to look in several databases for the right info. For instance Google Scholar. Good luck!

  6. JcMeBlack:

    Hi! I hope you would help me in my thesis theoretical framework or you can give some ideas, my topic is about Profiling of Bicolano dishes,
    its focus on gathering and collecting Recipe.
    Thank you, God Bless

    • Bas Swaen (Scribbr-team):

      I am sorry. I do not know anything about this topic. Perhaps that someone else that is reading this article can help you?

  7. jenny:

    hi! can you give me some idea about theoretical framework my topic is all about effect of physical activity on the academic performance of students. can you help me please

  8. Geyrozaga Crish:

    Hi!good day sir .can you help me about how theoretical framework entails to my topic k  to 12 curriculum: its goals and benifits to the filipino learner and community

    • Michelle Mertens (Scribbr-team):

      Hello,

      Unfortunately, we cannot help you with the content of your thesis. Maybe someone else who reads the article and your question?

  9. Bronahlusulo Lisulo:

    How do I phrased my theoretical framework. My topic is human resource development and work performance

  10. onyinyechi:

    how do I construct my theoretical framework. my topic is evaluating profitability of maize processing.

  11. Esther Chinyere:

    How do I construct my theoretical framework. My topic is bank merger and it’s legal effect

  12. Kenny Martin:

    hi, am writing my bsc project on eGovernance for greater political participation. am stuck seeking theories, please help me. thanks

  13. Godwell:

    Thank you Sarah your tips are very clear and practical, be blessed.

  14. jonel legaspino:

    hi,,,,i’m an undergrad student and i am starting my thesis “Level of Security of ATM and PASSBOOK as perceive by the Depositors” is my topic,,,and i’m seeking on theories that would be interelated on my topic

  15. safia:

    hi! can you give me some idea
    about theoretical framework my
    topic is all about effect of problem solving instructional strategy on student academic acheivement and retention in chemistry.can you
    help me please

  16. vane:

    hi can u give me some ideas of my theoretical framework my topic is compliance on the prevention of contamination from equipments utensils and linens on the selected hotels thank u

  17. ahpz:

    Hello can you help us to construct or how to create theoretical framework
    With figure..Our topic / title is
    “An analysis of job satisfaction of company employee”
    Please i dont know if we get the factor affecting etc..
    Thanks I’ll be willing to wait your reply

  18. Mercee:

    Theoretical frameworks on use of language in A Grain of wheat by Ngugi Wa Thiongo

  19. Gibbi Bah:

    please can you help me construct a theoretical framework on the topic: the role of community base organization in rural development a case study of the republic of the Gambia

  20. pard:

    how to formulate research objectives using a theoretical framework , im facing some challenges please help me

  21. safaa suliman:

    hi can u give me some ideas of my theoretical framework my topic is the role of stakeholders inertia in software product innovation process

  22. joseph:

    hi! can you give me some ideas about theoretical framework? my topic is all about enhancing the nutritive value at the same time reduction of sugar. Please I really need it now. Thanks

  23. Tijan:

    What is the theoretical framework for PPP

  24. Maryam:

    Hi again: I forgot to mention that my topic is ethnic parent’s views on heritage language maintenance and their practices and challenges in the U.S. My theoretical framework is Ecological Systems Theory by Bronfenbrenner. As I said before I talked about my framework in chapter 2, then analyzed my data in chapter 4 without mentioning this theory. I am now planning to talk about my results in the discussion chapter ad it relates to my theoretical framework. Does this make sense? I hope I am doing it correctly.

  25. Ellis Kofi Akwaa-Sekyi:

    The information on the topic above (Theoretical framework) has been very useful. The communication is straight-forward and in simple and understandable language. I think you have succeeded in demystifying one big problematic area in research. Thumbs up!!!

  26. IJEOMA EZENNIA:

    Please what could be the theoretical frame work of my thesis problems of teaching English language in secondary schools

    • adrian (Scribbr-team):

      Hello Ijeoma,
      Thank you very much for contacting us. Due to the fact that we are not specialists in your field of study and we do not know the requirements of your university, we cannot help you with a question that specific. However, a literature review will help you finding key concepts other researchers defined.

  27. Ada:

    Pls, I just need help on how to go about my theoretical framework on the role of mass media in entrepreneurial development amongst women. I don’t know how and where to start from. Thanks

    • Lucy Vleeshouwers (Scribbr-team):

      Hi Ada,
      I’m sorry, we can’t help you with this question, as it is quite specific.
      Maybe your mentor or professor can provide some ideas?
      Kind regards,
      Lucy

  28. dennis:

    Hi ! I don’t really know what is the true structure of theoretical framework? Can you give me some sample theoretical framework? Ang also i need some ideas on how i will work on my topic about effectiveness of water conservation campaign.. Thanks in advance😊

    • Wouter (Scribbr-team):

      Hi Dennis,
      On this page you can find an example of a theoretical framework. Unfortunately, I cannot help you with the content as I am not familiar with your topic and field of study.
      Good luck!
      Cheers,
      Wouter

  29. Gloria:

    Good evening

    I’m writing a research proposal and my topic is “the impact of gender based violence on first year university Students’ so what I would like to know is what my theoretical framework would be. I read but I’m not quite sure if I understand.
    please help.

    • Wouter (Scribbr-team):

      Dear Gloria,
      With the theoretical framework you frame your research and show that you are knowledgeable about the key concepts, theories, and models that relate to your topic. So I advise you to start looking for the most important and influential sources and authors in the field of gender and gender based violence. Make sure to cover the theories and ideas that exist in relation to the chosen subject. In short: lots of reading :).
      Good luck!
      Cheers,
      Wouter

  30. erica:

    hello . can you teach how to construct a theoretical framework??

    • Wouter (Scribbr-team):

      Hi Erica, the tips and explanations in the article above should help you a long way. Next to that, it might help to take a look at the example of a theoretical framework.
      Good luck!
      Wouter

  31. Irish:

    Hi! I’m currently writing a research paper about the “Most effective method of teaching between Traditional and Modern method”. What I would like to know is what will my theoretical framework would be. Thank youu!

    • Wouter (Scribbr-team):

      Hi Irish,
      On this page you can find an example of a theoretical framework. Unfortunately, I cannot help you with the content as I am not familiar with your topic nor field of study.
      Good luck!
      Cheers,
      Wouter

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