A simple way to understand what a theoretical framework is is to imagine what your research would be like if you didn’t have it.

Imagine that you are studying local governments’ responses to climate change. The question you want to answer is “why do local governments differ in their responses to climate change? (the subject of my own doctoral research).

In the review of the bibliography you have highlighted the problem that must be “solved”. The theoretical framework – the “toolbox” – details the theories, propositions, hypotheses (if you use them) and concepts – the “tools” – that you will use to address or make sense of this problem.

The list of possible explanations for why the answers differ is huge.

You could address this issue by focusing, for example, on psychology, power, gender, economics, etc. The best we can normally expect – and this is particularly true in much of the social sciences – is an interpretation of the truth.

How we use theory

So — and this is important — we use theory to focus our attention on a small subset of all potential explanations, on a particular point of view.

But, even if you’re a positivist, you still choose theoretical concepts and hypotheses from a number of available options. Only you use them in a different way (instead of a lens, they become testable propositions, or measurement tools).

According to Yin (1994), without a theoretical framework, we are faced with a potentially endless selection of views, which would make our data collection and analysis and our debate enormously chaotic.

In other words, if we don’t know how to focus our attention, how can we present a coherent explanation?

What does the Theoretical Framework represent?

The theoretical framework is a natural extension of the literature review.  In this regard, the aim of the literature review, among other things, is to highlight the gaps and deficiencies of the existing work in its field.

In this way, the theoretical framework details the perspective you will adopt to address that gap and that lack.

For example, in a doctoral research, a literature review can focus on governments’ responses to climate change and noted that there had not been much discussion about local governments.

In your own research you will also have to make an informed decision about the specific theory that you will use to guide you through the rest of the research.

The theoretical framework details the perspective that will be adopted to address these gaps and shortcomings.

What is the task of the Theoretical Framework

Therefore, the task of the theoretical framework is not to repeat the review of the literature. Instead, think of it as an independent mini-literature review, this time focused on the theory you’re going to employ. You don’t have to discuss every particular use and discussion of the theoretical position you employ. If you did, you would quickly run out of space or time.

Remember that your examiners are likely already familiar with the theory, which means that instead of talking about everything that can be talked about, you need to talk about how and why the theory has been adapted and adopted to the context of your research.

How to structure a Theoretical Framework

The key when writing the bibliographic review is to show your understanding of the theoretical school in general and define the key concepts, both in relation to the existing bibliography and to your research questions and the approach to the problem.

You have to have a solid knowledge of the goals and objectives. These define the space in which your research will be located and your goals in carrying it out. You should remember them briefly when you start writing the theoretical framework, both to remind the reader of it and to be able to relate your theory to these general goals.

What theory or theories do you use? Here you have to define and explain each of the theories on which you rely and, in doing so, talk about their main proponents and applications. This shows that you understand the theory you are going to adopt.

Next, you have to spend time critically arguing why this particular theory is adopted. There are many possible theories that you could use Why this? It is important that you relate your choice to the discussions of the literature review and its goals and objectives.

Objectives of the Drafting of the Theoretical Framework

The objective of writing a theoretical framework is to explain to the reader why certain theories have been chosen, how they relate to the gap in the literature and how they relate to the objectives. Following these ten steps is a good way to achieve that goal.

You are likely to shape and interpret the theory to suit your purposes, which requires you to discuss your view of the theory. So, read the bibliography firsthand; you want to get to the source of the theory and, as far as possible, avoid relying on other people’s literature reviews. However, try not to fill your debate on the theoretical framework with citations (the same goes for your literature review). Examiners want to see that you have understood the theory, not that you are able to regurgitation it.

The objective of writing a theoretical framework is to explain to the reader why certain theories have been chosen, how they relate to the bibliographic gap and how they relate to goals and objectives.

Can you divide the theory or theories into different schools? Which one do you stay with and why?

A theory contains a number of concepts. Which ones will it be based on? Why these? Have you defined them correctly? The way you approach this section will be influenced by your epistemological and ontological perspective and, therefore, by whether or not you use hypotheses. If you use hypotheses, you should state them as such.

How do the concepts relate to your goals and objectives?

Have you clearly stated your ontological and epistemological perspective?

Are you the first to use this particular theory in this particular way? What advantages or disadvantages does it bring?

Can you detect any drawbacks in the application of this theory? Does it not account for a specific dimension of a phenomenon? Is it difficult to operationalize?

How do their concepts relate? Do you use them as a hypothesis? Or as a model for making sense of the data? Somewhere in between? Explain how they are related and what you plan to do with them.

A brief note on ontology and epistemology

There will be differences in the way the theory is approached and in the use of the toolbox. This is due to the different ontological and epistemological positions.

Those at the most realistic end of the spectrum (e.g., positivists) see the theory as a set of testable propositions. In this tradition, concepts are considered variable and are checked by quantitative measurements. Those at the most idealistic end of the spectrum (e.g., interpretiveism) see theory as embodying a lens that can be applied to the world and used to make sense of it.

In this tradition, concepts are there to make sense of the world by focusing attention on a particular aspect of reality. There are no hypotheses to prove or refute, only an interpretation. The interpretation you take depends on the tools you have in your toolbox. Each tool does a job. The same goes for concepts.

In any case, theories are meant to be tested and questioned. They are fluid and change over time in the light of new evidence and new empirical applications. If you are explicitly testing a new or old theory, this is obvious. But even if theory is used to interpret the world, something will have to be said about the relevance of certain theories and concepts. Although it may not seem so, this is a test of the theory and advances our knowledge.

How do I choose theories and create my framework?

Unless you use an inductive methodological approach (in which you generate the theory from the data), you are likely to approach your fieldwork with a theoretical framework in mind. According to Merriam (1998), the theory or theories you choose will depend, in part, on your goals and objectives, and whether there is a relevant “out-of-the-box” theory that fits your needs.

In general, researchers use three strategies to develop their theoretical frameworks:

There may be theories in your field that have emerged on the basis of repeated observations and evidence and are widely accepted.

Or you may need to select concepts from multiple theories and create a novel framework that is unique to your particular context.

A growing and important trend in social research is to adopt an interdisciplinary perspective when trying to understand the social world. This can be achieved by looking beyond dominant and well-established theories and thinking about how other theories can be used, particularly those of other disciplines or subdisciplines.

Recommended Steps

In any case, the following must be taken into account when selecting a theory:

Identify your ontological and epistemological beliefs.

List several theories that fit your epistemological position and that can help you understand the phenomenon investigated.

Conduct a literature review of these theories, both to familiarize yourself with them and to understand their relevance to their study.

Ask yourself how each theory relates to its problem, goals, and objectives.

Select the theory or theories that provide the most relevant tools for your thesis.

I have more than one theory What do I do?

Often you have to combine concepts, hypotheses or ideas from more than one theoretical school. According to Lincoln (2013), employing more than one theory is entirely legitimate.

However, there are a few key issues to consider:

Are the theories that come to one side compatible from an epistemological point of view?

Have you discussed each theory in the same level of detail to adequately explain the theory, your justification for its inclusion, its relationship to the literature, and its possible drawbacks?

What are the advantages of focusing on more than one theory?

Perhaps one theory has shortcomings that the other addresses?

What are the disadvantages of employing more than one theory?

Has anyone else used this combination of theories before you?

Some Recommendations

The theoretical framework is a difficult section to write, largely because the choice is enormous.

But don’t forget the metaphor of the toolbox.

Each theory contains a number of tools. Your job in the theoretical framework is to take the tools you need for your most relevant theory project or theories and package them in your own toolbox.

When you’re done, you should see that the theoretical framework offers

Structure, by detailing key concepts, tools and, where appropriate, hypotheses

A way to connect with other research

A coherent set of ideas that structure the writing and help create an argumentative line that can be applied to the entire thesis.

An approach that can be reused in other contexts once you’re done.

Throughout the process, you have to convince the reader that you have chosen and applied the most appropriate tools possible, taking into account your goals and objectives.

The theoretical framework frames the research. If you build that framework well, your research will shine. If you don’t, you’ll have problems.

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Bibliographic References

Yin RK. Case Study Research: Design and Methods. 1994. 2nd ed. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications;

Merriam S. Qualitiative Research and Case Study Applications in Education. 1998 San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass;

Lincoln YS, Guba EG. The Constructivist Credo. 2013. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press;

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