Many university students who graduate, and even graduate students, have difficulty finding the conceptual framework and theoretical framework of their thesis, a mandatory section in thesis writing that serves as a map for students on their first adventure in research. The conceptual framework is almost always confused with the theoretical framework of the study.
A theoretical framework is a set of concepts and premises logically developed and connected to each other – developed from one or more theories – that a researcher creates to articulate a study. To create a theoretical framework, the researcher must define the concepts and theories that will provide the basis of the research, unite them through logical connections and relate these concepts to the study that is being carried out. In short, a theoretical framework is a reflection of the work that the researcher does to use a theory in a given study.
A conceptual framework is the justification for why a particular study should be conducted. The conceptual framework (1) describes the state of known knowledge, usually through a literature review; (2) identifies gaps in our understanding of a phenomenon or problem; and (3) outlines the methodological foundations of the research project. It is constructed to answer two questions: “Why is this research important?” and “What contributions could these results make to what is already known?”
Importance of the Theoretical and Conceptual Framework in research
A theoretical or conceptual framework provides strong evidence of academic norms and school functions. It offers an explanation of why the study is meaningful, relevant, and valid, and how the scholar intends to fill in the gaps in the body of literature.
It provides a theoretical approach to current thinking when the research study is framed in theoretical considerations from a well-defined theoretical framework. Also, it allows to deliberate on the theoretical contributions to the current scholarship within the discipline in question. A formal theory provides a background framework for data collection, analysis and the outcome of events undertaken in the research study.
In fact, a research study that is impregnated with a theoretical framework makes the thesis solid and well structured, with a fluid and constant flow. In the absence of a well-thought-out theoretical framework, the structure and direction of research activity become uncertain, elusive and vague.
Similarities between the Theoretical and Conceptual Framework
The theoretical framework helps explain why the current research problem is present, using the lens of a relevant theory of existing literature. However, it is believed that the research paradigm determines the role of a theory in the research enterprise. That is why one must take account of one’s world view in research. In fact, both explain the future course of the research study by justifying the research undertaking with the aim of ensuring that the findings are more meaningful, acceptable and generalizable.
What is the difference between the Conceptual Framework and the Theoretical Framework?
According to Ravitch and Riggan (2012), the conceptual framework is the researcher’s idea of how the research problem should be explored. It is based on the theoretical framework, which is situated on a much wider scale of resolution. The theoretical framework is based on time-tested theories that embody the conclusions of numerous investigations into how phenomena occur. In this way, it provides a general representation of the relationships between things in a given phenomenon.
The conceptual framework, on the other hand, embodies the specific direction in which the research should go. From the statistical point of view, the conceptual framework describes the relationship between the specific variables identified in the study. It also describes the input, process, and output of all research. The conceptual framework is also called the research paradigm.
Example of Theoretical and Conceptual Framework
According to Miles and Huberman (1994), the difference between the theoretical framework and the conceptual framework can be clarified with the following example on both concepts:
Theoretical Framework: The stimulus provokes the response.
Conceptual Framework: The new teaching method improves the academic performance of students.
The theoretical framework describes a broader relationship between things. When a stimulus is applied, a response is expected. The conceptual framework is much more specific in defining this relationship. The conceptual framework specifies the variables to be explored in the research.
How can students develop their Theoretical and Conceptual Framework?
To develop their own theoretical and conceptual framework that will guide the conduct of the research, students have to review the literature related to the research topic they have chosen. Students have to read a lot and find out what has been studied so far in their respective fields and develop their own synthesis of literature. They must look for knowledge gaps and identify questions that need to be answered or problems that need to be solved. In this way, they will be able to formulate their own conceptual framework to guide them in their research enterprise.
Problems faced by novice researchers when conceptualizing theoretical or conceptual frameworks
PhD fellows and novice researchers always face problems because of their misconception of what constitutes a theoretical framework. Some of them believe that the theoretical framework is used for qualitative research, since this paradigm produces detailed and exhaustive information about an area from which a series of themes and patterns can be discerned. While the conceptual framework is used only for quantitative research studies developed subsequently, outlining the mental picture of the themes and patterns arising from the data.
What framework should a researcher use?
Following Joseph Maxwell’s critical point (Maxwell, 2013) that theoretical and conceptual frameworks are constructed by researchers and need a philosophical paradigm and methodological paradigm to inform a researcher’s work, and a formal theory is used to make sense of the events or events that a researcher sees or wants to illuminate in the study, a researcher building a solid study would include both a theoretical framework and a conceptual framework that would test and inform every aspect of data collection and analysis/interpretation.
The researcher uses the theoretical and conceptual frameworks in a critical way to situate the work in order to obtain knowledge, discrepancies and alternatives by shaping the methodology and design of the study in association with the research question and the philosophical and paradigmatic dispositions of the researcher. When used well together, a theoretical framework and a conceptual framework provide the researcher with sufficient support to explain the need and relevance of the study in the field. In addition, the researcher who chooses to have a theoretical framework and a conceptual framework in the research study demonstrates adequate academic rigor in preparing a solid study.
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Maxwell, J.A. (2013) Qualitative research design: An interactive approach. 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
Miles, M.B. & Huberman, M.A. (1994) Qualitative data analysis: An expanded sourcebook. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
Ravitch, S.M. & Riggan, M. (2012) Reason & rigor: How conceptual frameworks guide research. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE..
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