Although the terms theory, theoretical framework and conceptual framework share common meanings in different research approaches, the ways of applying them vary greatly between the objectivist deductive approach and the subjectivist inductiveapproach.
The objectivist deductive approach to research
According to Nimmon et al (2016), deductive research involves moving from general and abstract conceptualizations to observable and measurable data within a specific context. It’s a top-down approach. From abstract conceptualizations, a hypothesis is derived and tested. The results can falsify, support, refine, question, or expand conceptualizations. The paradigms that often use an Objectivist deductive approach are positivism and postpositivism.
Deductive Objectivist research is based on the assumptions that:
(1) There is an external reality (i.e. a real world that exists independently of the researcher).
(2) Reality can be understood through the collection of objective and impartial data on that reality.
Research in this approach builds knowledge by developing an ever-better understanding of the causal functioning of the world. One of the most common approaches to Objectivist deductive work is the use of experiments, whether in a laboratory, classroom, or naturalist. The research questions in this approach tend to focus on checking the underlying assumptions about how something works. It tests a cause-and-effect relationship that underlies a phenomenon.
How deductive objectivist researchers use the theory and the theoretical framework
When a researcher engages in deductive objectivist research, a theory is usually the starting point of the research project. The theory offers testable components that include, for example: cause-and-effect relationships that can be examined, concepts that need to be operationalized, and variables that are relevant to control. These testable components are used to generate specific hypotheses that form the basis of a study. In this approach, a central assumption is that the theory is part of the object of research. In other words, the hypothesis being tested is an aspect of the theory of interest. Therefore, the study simultaneously tests a hypothesis derived from the theory and the theory underlying that hypothesis and a theoretical framework.
Key Features in a Theoretical Framework
There are two key features of the theory that are shared by all research conducted from an Objectivist deductive approach: a theory must (1) be testable and (2) be open to being falsified. A good theory, according to this approach, is usually based on previous work. A study brings new insights by adding another block of evidence to support, refine, or question a theory. This approach to research builds knowledge slowly. Incremental studies in theory-oriented work programs build an increasingly refined understanding of phenomena, allowing for better future predictions and/or a more robust theory.
In a purely Objectivist deductive approach, a researcher would rarely combine multiple theories into a single study. Starting with multiple theories makes it difficult to create a single hypothesis informed by the theory. The combination of theories makes it difficult to identify the specific causal nature of the relationship studied. It would break the chain of inferences available from the progressive verification and refinement of a theory. In an Objectivist deductive approach, there is a linear progression that must be followed. From theory, to the development of the hypothesis, to the collection of data, to the interpretation of the results, to the refinement of the theory or to the generation of new causal explanations. Revised or new theory developed through research can become the start of a new study.
How deductive objectivist researchers use the theoretical framework
The deductive objectivist researcher begins by identifying the theory from which to build the theoretical framework of the study. The researcher puts the theory into action as a theoretical framework:
Articulating why the current context is a legitimate area of study for a given theory.
Shaping the constructs of interest, articulating the language and specific assumptions of the research question, identifying the variables and conditions of interest.
Guiding the focus of the analysis. This is the work that the theoretical framework presents to readers to make a theory operational, testable and capable of being used to predict, test a hypothesis or explain a phenomenon.
In the deductive Objectivist tradition, the theoretical framework is normally constructed before data collection and is fixed. This means that the theoretical framework is drafted before the study begins and remains virtually unchanged throughout the research process. After choosing a theory, the researcher can construct the theoretical framework that makes the theory the object of study. Thanks to this work, the study is well positioned to advance knowledge because it tests theory and unifies findings in all research contexts. It is not surprising, therefore, that reviewers of objectivist deductive research seek to make the theoretical framework explicit because the framework gives shape to the design of the study. It describes how current research joins a lineage of research conducted with the same theory.
How objectivist deductive researchers use a conceptual framework
In objectivist deductive research, a conceptual framework usually includes:
Description of the relevant literature.
Summary of the relevant theory.
Explanation of why this theory could be informative for this context.
Specific research question that probably contains a hypothesis
Justification of the research methodology adopted,
Series of results or variables of interest.
The conceptual framework is finalized before the study and is rarely modified after data collection has begun.
The subjectivist inductive approach to research and theoretical framework
According to Durning and Carline (2015), inductive research involves moving from specific data relating to a specific phenomenon to a general or abstract conceptualization of it. This is a bottom-up approach (i.e. you work from data to abstract conceptualizations). Subjectivist inductive research does not begin with a hypothesis, but with the desire to understand or explain a specific phenomenon. The researcher collects data on and/or this phenomenon. Look for patterns in the data to generate an understanding of the phenomenon. Paradigms that often use the subjectivist inductive approach include constructionism and critical theory.
Subjectivist inductive research is based on the assumptions that:
(1) Reality is constructed socially and enthentially. That is, reality is an unstable social construct that exists not because there is a natural and external reality, but because individuals and social groups share interpretations and understandings of reality.
(2) To understand these realities, researchers need to explore the meanings constructed by individuals and groups.
This means that knowledge is subjective: one person’s understanding of one phenomenon may not be the same as another’s. By collecting data from a multitude of perspectives, we can gain a richer and more nuanced understanding of the phenomenon. A common approach to subjectivist inductive research is to explore a phenomenon in a specific context, often through interviews, focus groups, and/or observations. Researchers actively and subjectively construct research results in collaboration with study participants. The research questions in this approach explore phenomena or assumptions to increase our understanding of them.
How subjectivist inductive researchers use the theory.
In the subjectivist inductive approach, the theory not only exists as an abstract description that researchers read and debate, but can also reside within the researcher as a cognitive framework that shapes their thinking and research design choices. In this approach, the theory is not stable. It is constantly evolving, informed by the experience, values and perceptions of researchers. In addition, the subjectivist inductive researcher may commit to a single theory or to several theories in a single study or research program.
Subjectivist inductive researchers use theory in three main ways.
First, theory can be the product of research.
Some subjectivist inductive investigations – particularly researchers working in the tradition of the grounded theory of Glaser and Strauss – generate the theory from the data. Therefore, the theory is not used to inform about the study design, but is the main result of the research project and evolves from a systematic inductive approach to data analysis. This approach represents the most fully inductive approach to subjectivist inductive research. We call it fully inductive theory development studio design.
Second, one or more theories can inform the entire research process.
In this case, the theory gives shape to each stage of the research process, including the development of a research question, methodological choices, data collection, data analysis, and study conclusions. The theories that inform the research are articulated at the beginning of the research. All parts of the study design are justified in relation to their alignment with theories. In other words, theory is a pervasive conceptualization that permeates all facets of the study. In this approach, the improvement of these existing theories or the development of a new theory can be one of the main results of the research project. We call this inductive study design fully informed by theory.
Third, theory can be an interpretive tool.
For some researchers, the decision on which theory or theories will inform the final interpretations of the data is a choice that can only be finalized during the cycles of data collection and analysis. The researcher has many theories in mind when designing the study and is engaged in data collection. It is not until the data analysis processes are underway that the researcher determines which theory or theories should shape the final interpretations and conclusions of the study. As a result, the researcher may have to modify the study design midway through data analysis when he realizes that a particular theory is relevant.
For example, if during the first cycles of data collection and analysis the researcher realizes that a particular theory can help elucidate the data, subsequent cycles of data collection and analysis might try to specifically consider the data that confirmed, refutes, or offers new perspectives on the theory. This is not a design flaw of the studio. Instead, it is the result of a deep exploration of the data that reveals that a particular theory is relevant to the results of the study. Again, the development and refinement of the theory may be the end result of the research. We call this inductive data analysis study design that informs the theory.
These three ways of approaching theory are equally valid.
However, to be rigorous, researchers must make an early and explicit decision about when and how they will use the theory in their research. Often, revisions of the theory will be part of the contributions to knowledge made by the research project. In fact, theoretical contributions are highly valued in inductive research. Developing a new theory or challenging, adding or refining a pre-existing theory is met with great consideration.
How subjectivist inductive researchers use a theoretical framework
According to Kuper and Whitehead (2013), to create a theoretical framework, the subjectivist inductive researcher must first decide which of the 3 study designs described above to use. That is, development of fully inductive theory, inductive theory fully informed by theory or inductive data analysis informed by theory. This decision will guide the development of the theoretical framework, including practical research design decisions. For example, the design of interview or focus group questions, selection of study participants, awareness concepts, if applicable.
If a fully inductive theory development study design is used, the theory will not shape the study design.
There is no theoretical framework to develop because there is no theory to build on the structure of research. Instead, the study will depend on a solidly developed conceptual framework (see below).
If an inductive study design fully informed by the theory is used, the researcher must decide which theory or theories will be used as a lens
Next, transform the theory into a framework that explains how the theory shapes research questions, how the context of the research is approached, the concepts underpinning the study design, the choice of methodology, data collection, interactions with study participants , the analysis processes and the conclusions drawn.
If more than one theory is used, the researcher should also describe how the theories inform each other and how they inform all aspects of the study.
This is the work the researcher does to demonstrate how theory informs all aspects of study design. In this design, the researcher develops the theoretical framework before carrying out the study. However, the theoretical framework can be adjusted during research processes in response to the perceptions and understandings that develop.
For example, many of the research questions asked in this study design are broad and open-ended. For example, in a study using the theory of sociomateriality, a researcher might ask: What is a resident’s experience in interprofessional collaboration in clinical learning settings? However, as the study develops and knowledge is generated, the research question may need to be modified to better fit the data that participants and the researcher are creating together. For example, realizing that electronic health record has a significant impact on team interactions, the research question might change to ask: What is a resident’s experience of interprofessional collaboration in clinical learning environments, as negotiated through patient electronic medical records?
If an inductive data analysis study design is used with information from the theory, the investigator will wait until data analysis is underway to decide which theory or theories can be used to inform interpretations of the data.
Therefore, the theoretical framework of the study is developed during data analysis processes (which may include data collection and analysis cycles). When the theory is selected, that choice can have an impact on several aspects of the study.
Although the theory is selected only when some (or possibly all) of the data is available, the framework can describe how the theory shapes the way the research context is approached, the concepts underpinning the evolution of study design, the choice of methodology, data collection. , interactions with study participants, analysis processes and conclusions drawn. For example, the theory chosen to inform a study using interviews to explore residents’ perception of interprofessional collaboration could highlight the importance of group processes, requiring additional data collection through focus groups to explore group interactions.
Not all aspects of the study are shaped by the theory in the design of the inductive data analysis study that informs the theory. In contrast, only some aspects of the study design are informed by the theory. In this design, the theoretical framework provides a description of which elements of the study are informed by the theory and how they are. Thus, the researcher has to work to translate the ideas of the theory into specific contributions to the elements of the theoretical framework and the design of the research.
How subjectivist inductive researchers use a conceptual framework
In a subjectivist inductive approach, the conceptual framework is likely to evolve during a study as new ideas, perceptions, and knowledge are developed. Consequently, the researcher usually constructs a provisional conceptual framework at the beginning of the study, knowing that it will probably have to adjust as the data transform the researcher’s understanding of the phenomenon. This framework shall include:
Description of the relevant bibliography.
Summary of the relevant theory (if inductive data analysis study designs fully informed by the theory are used)
Explanation of why the research should be carried out in the selected context
The research question(s) and the justification of the selected research methodology.
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Nimmon L, Paradis E, Schrewe B, Mylopoulos M. Integrating theory into qualitative medical education research. J Grad Med Educ. 2016; 8:437–438.
Kuper A, Whitehead C. The practicality of theory. Acad Med. 2013; 88:1594–1595.
Durning SJ, Carline JD. Review Criteria for Research Manuscript. 2015.2nd ed. Washington, DC: Association of American Medical Colleges;
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