Among the generalized definitions of a theoretical framework, we can extract that it means an explanation of how things work. The source, size, and power of these explanations vary. But they all relate to an attempt to understand some phenomena. Academics have varied perspectives on the use of the theoretical framework in qualitative research.

Currently, the use of theory in qualitative approaches has included:

  • Clarification of epistemological provisions.
  • Identification of the logic behind methodological choices.
  • Construction of the theory as a result of the research findings.
  • A guide or framework for study.

In addition, methodological provisions on reflexive symbiosis with theory and other parts of a study are included to lay the groundwork for focusing on the theoretical framework.

Theory, Theoretical Framework and other concepts

Theory, theoretical frameworks, method theory, and conceptual frameworks are terms that have blurred lines within the literature on qualitative methods and that suffer or benefit from wide differences in nuance.

In general, a theory is a great idea that organizes many other ideas with a high degree of explanatory power.

Method theory (or methodology theory) provides guidance to make sense of methods that will actually help answer research questions.

The conceptual framework is loosely defined and works best as a map of how all the literature works in a particular study.

A theoretical framework is the use of a theory (or theories) in a study that simultaneously transmits the deepest values of the researcher or researchers. It also provides a clearly articulated signal or lens on how the study will process new knowledge. The theoretical framework lies at the intersection of existing knowledge and previously formed ideas about complex phenomena, the epistemological dispositions of the researcher, and a lens and an analytical methodical approach.

Working with these three components makes theory a valuable tool for the coherence and depth of a study. Although there may be cases where the exploratory nature of a study nulluity the benefits of a theoretical framework, research without theory does not exist (Lincoln and Guba, 1994).

A researcher who cannot articulate a theoretical framework may not have done the difficult and essential work of unearthing its deepest operating principles and preconceptions about its study. The belief that preconceived notions do not exist or have an impact on a study is, in fact, a theoretical arrangement.

Importance of the Theoretical Framework

The importance of using a theoretical framework in a thesis study cannot be overempemply emphasized. The theoretical framework is the basis from which all knowledge (metaphorically and literally) of a research study is constructed. It serves as a structure and support for the justification of the study, the approach to the problem, the purpose, the importance and the research questions. The theoretical framework provides a basis, or an anchor, for literature review and, above all, for methods and analysis.

Understanding the purpose of a theoretical framework

When presenting a research problem, an important step is to provide the context and background of that specific problem. This allows the reader to understand both the scope and purpose of their research, while giving a direction to their writing. Just as the plan of a house should provide the necessary context to all builders and professionals involved in the construction process, so too should the theoretical framework of his thesis.

What details we must considered

Therefore, when constructing the theoretical framework, there are several details that must be considered and explained, including:

  • The definition of the concepts or theories you are building or exploring on (this is especially important if it is a theory taken from another discipline or is relatively new).
  • The context in which this concept has been explored in the past.
  • Important literature that has already been published on the concept or theory, including citations.
  • The context in which you plan to explore the concept or theory. You can briefly mention the methods you intend to use, along with the methods that have been used in the past, but keep in mind that there will be a separate section of your thesis to present them in detail.
  • The gaps he hopes to fill in the research.
  • The limitations that previous researchers have encountered and those that you have encountered in your own exploration of the topic.

Basically, the theoretical framework helps to give the reader a general understanding of the research problem, how it has already been explored and where their research is situated in the scope of it. In this regard, be sure to write it in the present tense, as this is research that is currently being done. When you reference others’ previous research, you can do so in the past tense, but everything related to your own research should be written in the present.

Use your theoretical framework to justify your research

In your literature review, you will focus on finding research that has been done that is relevant to your own study. It may be literature that establishes theories related to your research or provides relevant analytical models. Next, you’ll mention these theories or models in your own theoretical framework and justify why they are the basis of your research or are relevant to it.

Basically, think of your theoretical framework as a quick and powerful way to justify to your reader why this research is important. If you’re expanding on previous research by other scholars, your theoretical framework should mention the foundations they’ve laid and why it’s important to build on them, or how to apply them to a more modern concept. If there are gaps in research on certain topics or theories and your research covers them, mention it also in your theoretical framework. It is your opportunity to justify the work you have done in a scientific context, both before your thesis committee and before any publication interested in publishing your work.

Theory and production of knowledge

In all disciplines there are debates about the creation and use of theory and about the degree to which to start from data (induction). A hypothesis (deduction) is more useful for the production of knowledge. Consider a science that relies more on induction from data than on the generation of a hypothesis. A possible inclination towards deduction led Hanson (1958) to use physics to highlight the complexity of generating a hypothesis such as universal gravity or acceleration even in the absence of evidence.

The essential role of the deductive formulation of these ideas by Galileo and Newton was important in the process of knowledge production. This poignant historical example was used to highlight the importance of the balance between the role of theory and hypothesis and the fact of starting from data. As we move from the natural sciences to the social sciences and qualitative research, we recognize and take into account advanced debates about how theory can be generated.

For example, Timmermans and Tavory (2012) rely on Peirce (1935) and Hanson (1958) to go beyond an inductive/deductive binary and consider abduction in grounded theory. This in order to improve the potential capacity of research to lead to innovative theories. Abduction is the creative process of generating new theories based on “amazing research evidence.” They ultimately lead a researcher to move away from old ideas to new perceptions codified in theory.

The Traditional Grounded Theory

Even in traditional grounded theory there is a reticent commitment to the theory, and the use of abduction advocates moving away from that hesitation:

Abduction therefore depends on the researcher’s cultivated position. The willingness to perceive the world and its surprises – including one’s own reflection on one’s own positions in this world – is based on the researcher’s biography. Likewise in an affinity and familiarity with broader theoretical fields. Consequently, abductive analysis relies heavily on the scope and sophistication of the theoretical background that the researcher brings to the research. Unforeseen and surprising observations are strategic in the sense that they depend on an observer sensitized to the theory who recognizes their potential relevance. (Timmermans & Tavory, 2012, p. 173)

The path that leads back to positionality is the network that collects the combination of epistemology, ontology and methodology, which Guba (1990) calls paradigm or interpretative framework. That is, a set of fundamental beliefs that guide action. Denzin and Lincoln (2011) offer the most complete connections between paradigm/theory. They also consider the criteria, the form of the theory and the corresponding method or type of narrative. A paradigm is an inclusive concept that captures the embodiment of theory and the need for reflexivity in researchers.

Cases and coding

There are many ways in which a theory can influence the methodological approach and limits of a study and, subsequently, the analytical approach. For example, case study is one of the most flexible approaches to qualitative research. Once the boundaries of a case are defined, the techniques are so broad that some researchers consider the approach undefined. This unless there is a theoretical framework:

The value of theory is key. Although case studies may begin (in some situations) with a rudimentary theory or a primitive framework, in the end they must develop theoretical frameworks that inform and enrich the data. This will provide not only a sense of the uniqueness of the case, but also of what has a more general relevance and interest.

Rich and dense descriptions are the cornerstone of qualitative work. But in a highly contextualized case, if there is no solid framework, the details can become a difficult story to transfer to other environments. In addition, once data has been collected and is ready to be analyzed, organizational schemes are often represented with some renewed sense of magical objectivism when talking about mechanistic coding and software use.

Theories make sense of difficult social interactions and phenomena. Articulating a theoretical framework helps make the process of meaning creation more explicit. Thus, theoretical frameworks are based on metaphysical subjectivism in the sense that truth depends on beliefs and is relative to situations and cultures.

The Jackson and Mazzei Studios

Take, for example, the in-depth intellectual exercise by Jackson and Mazzei (2012). The authors examined how the cycle of putting theory into data can produce new meanings.

Using a conventional interview-based study, the authors used six poststructural theoretical frameworks:

  • Derrida (thinking with deconstruction).
  • Spivak (thinking with marginality).
  • Foucault (thinking with power/knowledge).
  • Butler (think with performativity).
  • Deleuze (thinking with desire).
  • Barad (thinking with intraaction).

As the researcher and the method mix, the centrality of the theoretical framework becomes clearer. Also, the practice of applying and plugging different frameworks into a project also reveals different roles of the researcher-actor self.

The reflection on the exercise is profound:

Not only did we read the data with Derrida, Spivak, Foucault, Butler, Deleuze and Barad looking over our shoulder, but we also read with each of us looking over each other’s shoulder. While what we set out to do was to think with theory, the way we constituted ourselves in this thought process was not fully foreseen or expected. What emerged as a result of thinking with multiple theorists and their concepts through the data was not simply exhausting in the sense of fatigue. It was exhausting in the sense that we were constantly dragged back to the threshold, to the data, to a new thought. We started thinking and analyzing the data differently because, once at the threshold, there was no way out. (Jackson & Mazzei, 2012, p. 138).

This reflection portrays a profound intellectual exercise that further highlights the influence of a theoretical framework.

Connections in the Theoretical Framework

When coding and analyzing, the connections between the theoretical framework must be explicit. One way to achieve this is to list the default codes in the analysis section of the methods. It should be clarified to the reader how these codes were generated as a deductive analytical strategy. This will make the inductive strategy even more powerful. Merriam and Tisdell clarified: “The meaning we give to the data we collect is also influenced by the theoretical framework. That is, our analysis and interpretation – the findings of our study – will reflect the constructs, concepts, language, models and theories that structured the study in the first place” (2016, p. 88). The search for the unexpected finding as part of the inductive strategy is also related to the theoretical framework:

Rather than being a monolithic and monological set of ideas, the theory arises from the dialogue between a theorist and antecedent theories. Also in contexts, problems, collators, etc. A theory develops through processes of testing and experimentation (dialogue with research) and practical application as theorists apply and reflect on the theory (dialogue with practice) and as they arouse and respond to criticism (dialogue within a community of scholars).

The dialogue extends between the theoretical framework, the selection of cases and the deductive and inductive strategy. Likewise, in the dialogical compromise between theory and case study, it entails the rich potential for mutual formation and generative tension.

Use a checklist after you complete your first draft

You should consider the following questions when writing your theoretical framework and mark them as checklists after completing your first draft:

  • Have the main theories and models related to your research been briefly presented and explained? In other words, does it offer an explicit statement of assumptions and/or theories that allows the reader to make a critical assessment of them?
  • Have you correctly cited the main scientific articles on the subject?
  • Does it provide information to the reader about current knowledge related to assumptions/theories and possible gaps in that knowledge?
  • Do you provide information related to notable connections between concepts?
  • Does it include a relevant theory that undersothes its hypotheses and methods?
  • Does it answer the question of “why” your research is valid and important? In other words, does it provide a scientific justification for your research?
  • If your research fills a gap in the literature, does the theoretical framework explicitly indicate this?
  • Does it include constructs and variables (both independent and dependent) that are relevant to your study?
  • Do you establish the assumptions and propositions that are relevant to your research (along with the theories that guide them)?
  • Do you frame all the research, giving you a direction and a backbone to support your hypotheses?
  • Are the research questions answered?
  • Is that logical?
  • Is it free of grammar, punctuation, spelling and syntax errors?

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Bibliographic References

Guba, E. G., Lincoln, Y. S. (1994). Competing paradigms in qualitative research. In Denzin, N. K., Lincoln, Y. S. (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (pp. 105–117). London, England: Sage.

Timmermans, S., Tavory, I. (2012). Theory construction in qualitative research: From grounded theory to abductive analysis. Sociological Theory, 30, 167–186.

Jackson, A. Y., Mazzei, L. A. (2012). Thinking with theory in qualitative research: Viewing data across multiple perspectives. New York, NY: Routledge.

Merriam, S.B., Tisdell, E. J. (2016). Qualitative research: A guide to design and implementation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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