The theoretical framework: what and how?
Theories are developed by researchers to explain phenomena, draw connections and make predictions. They are based on existing knowledge, observations, and ideas.
In your thesis or dissertation, the theoretical framework is where you define, discuss and evaluate theories relevant to your research problem. You explain the key concepts, models and assumptions that guide your project, and show that your work is grounded in established ideas.
A strong theoretical framework shows why you have chosen a particular approach to answering your research question. It also provides a clear basis for interpreting and understanding the relevance of your findings.
The goal of a theoretical framework
After refining your problem statement and research question(s), you have to explore what theories, ideas and models other researchers have already developed. Often there will be a lot of different possible approaches to the topic, so you have to select the ideas that you find most useful.
By presenting this information, you ‘frame’ your research and justify your overall approach. The main goals of a theoretical framework are to:
- Define key concepts
- Evaluate, select, and/or combine relevant theories
- Explain your assumptions and expectations
The theoretical framework shows that your research is not just coming ‘out of the blue,’ but that it has a clear rationale based on existing theory. The definitions and models you select give your project direction, and you will build on these choices at later stages.
This part of your dissertation lays the foundations that will support your analysis, helping you interpret your results and make broader generalizations.
How to create a theoretical framework
The first step is to identify 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.
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?
The concepts of “customer loyalty” and “customer satisfaction” are clearly central to this study. The theoretical framework should define these concepts and discuss theories about the relationship between them.
2. Define and evaluate relevant concepts, theories, and models
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 what your research will contribute
Apart from discussing other people’s theories and ideas, the theoretical framework should aim to show how your own project fits in.
- Will you test a theory or contribute new evidence by collecting original (qualitative or quantitative) data?
- Will you use theory as a basis for interpreting and understanding your data?
- Will you analyze, critique or challenge established theory?
- Will you combine theoretical approaches in a new or unique way?
If relevant, you can also use the theoretical framework to develop hypotheses for your research. A hypothesis makes a testable prediction about the outcome of a specific study, while a theory is the overarching explanation for why and how certain outcomes happen in general.
That means you can use the theory to determine what you expect to happen.
The structure of the theoretical framework
There are no fixed rules for structuring a theoretical framework. The important thing is to create a clear, logical structure. 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 each section, you would then explore the theories and models that are relevant to that particular item.
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 theoretical framework.