Developing your theoretical framework

Theories are developed by researchers to explain phenomena, draw connections, and make predictions. In the theoretical framework, you explain the theories that support your research, showing that your work is grounded in established ideas.

The goal of a theoretical framework

Before you start your research, you have to explore what theories and models other researchers have already developed. The goal of a theoretical framework is to present and explain this information.

There may be many different theories about your topic, so the theoretical framework also involves evaluating, comparing, and selecting 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.

This part of your dissertation lays the foundations that will support your analysis, helping you interpret your results and make broader generalizations.

Examples of theoretical frameworks in research
The same research topic can be approached very differently within different theoretical frameworks:

  • 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 methods and assumptions than a psychoanalytical approach.
  • In economics, wealth inequality would be explained and interpreted differently within classical economics and Keynesian economics frameworks.

In each of these cases, you would explain the theory you’re using in order to support your interpretations and explanations of the data.

How to create a theoretical framework

To build your theoretical framework, follow these three steps.

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 the theoretical framework involves clearly defining what you mean by each term.

Example: 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.

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

The concepts of “customer loyalty” and “customer satisfaction” are clearly central to this study. The theoretical framework will define these concepts and discuss theories about the relationship between them.

2. Evaluate and explain relevant theories

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

After discussing different models and theories, you establish the definitions that best fit your research and justify why this is the case. In more complex research projects, you might combine theories from different fields to build your own unique framework.

Make sure to mention the most important theories related to your key concepts. If there is a well-established theory or model 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 in

Apart from discussing other people’s theories, the theoretical framework should show how your own project will make use of these ideas.

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

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

If relevant, you can also use the theoretical framework to develop hypotheses for your research.

The structure of the theoretical framework

In a thesis or dissertation, the theoretical framework is sometimes integrated into a literature review chapter, but it can also be included as its own chapter or section. 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 a theoretical framework. The important thing is to create a clear, logical structure. One option is to draw on your research questions, structuring each section around a question or key concept.

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

Example of a theoretical framework

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

Sample theoretical framework

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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.

2 comments

ORJI, Emmanuel Ndumdi
February 28, 2020 at 4:47 AM

Please, I have the view that methodology is the study of methods that we employ in our researches. There, the title of that part of our research that deals with the method(s) that we used should better be titled, method(s) not methodology.

I wish to here from you, please.

Best regards.

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Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr Team)
February 28, 2020 at 10:39 AM

Hi,

You're right that there's a difference between method and methodology: "methods" are the specific tools, techniques and procedures used to conduct your research, while "methodology" is the study and development of methods in your field.

The title of this chapter or section depends on the content. For example, Methods is the standard heading for a short section of a paper that simply reports what was done in a specific study. However, in a longer and more complex work (such as a thesis or dissertation), there is often a chapter that explains, evaluates, and justifies the methods used, with reference to relevant methodological literature; in this case, Methodology is an appropriate chapter title.

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