What Is a Theoretical Framework? | Guide to Organizing

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 work is 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.

Why do you need a theoretical framework?

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.

Examples: Theoretical frameworks in research
The same research topic can be approached very differently depending on which theoretical approach you take, even within the same field. For example:

  • 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.

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

How to write a theoretical framework

To create your own theoretical framework, you can 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 your theoretical framework should also clearly define what you mean by each term.

Example: Problem statement and research questions
A new boutique downtown is struggling with the problem that many of their online customers do not return to make subsequent purchases. This is a big issue for the otherwise fast-growing store. Management wants to increase customer loyalty, and they believe that improved customer satisfaction will play a major role in achieving their goal of increased return customers.

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?

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.

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.

Note
A literature review and a theoretical framework are not the same thing and cannot be used interchangeably. A theoretical framework describes the theoretical underpinnings of your work, while a literature review critically evaluates existing research relating to your topic.

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
Tip
As you write your theoretical framework, keep an eye out for potential hypotheses for your own research.

Structuring your theoretical framework

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.

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 full example.

Frequently asked questions about theoretical frameworks

What is the difference between a conceptual framework and a theoretical framework?

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.

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

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.

Is a theoretical framework part of a literature review?

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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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.