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Library Guide to Capstone Literature Reviews: Theorists & Theoretical Sources

The role of theory

Part of your research will include identifying and obtaining original theoretical works, and integrating them into your research to tie your ideas together and keep them grounded in historical context. We understand that it may be challenging to find theories and theorists and track down their original works.  The Library can help!

Here are a couple of resources to help you get started:

Discover theorists & theories

Discovering theories in a field or subject area is a process that requires exploring many different resources. For instance, you might consult previous course readings, discussions, research, and other background resources.


Get started with encyclopedias

If you're not sure where to start, exploring encyclopedia entries can be a good place to discover theories in your area, and gain background information on the theory and related theorists.


Search in article databases for theories

You can also search in article databases to find articles using a particular theoretical approach for a study. You can either use the name of the theory as a search term, or use the database's subject terms or thesaurus to search on a relevant subject heading.


Need more help?

The Library has an entire guide dedicated to helping you find theorists and theories.

Conceptual & theoretical frameworks overview

Researchers create theoretical and conceptual frameworks that include a philosophical and methodological model to help design their work. A formal theory provides context for the outcome of the events conducted in the research. The data collection and analysis are also based on the theoretical and conceptual framework.

As stated by Grant and Osanloo (2014), “Without a theoretical framework, the structure and vision for a study is unclear, much like a house that cannot be constructed without a blueprint. By contrast, a research plan that contains a theoretical framework allows the dissertation study to be strong and structured with an organized flow from one chapter to the next.”

Theoretical and conceptual frameworks provide evidence of academic standards and procedure. They also offer an explanation of why the study is pertinent and how the researcher expects to fill the gap in the literature.

Literature does not always clearly delineate between a theoretical or conceptual framework. With that being said, there are slight differences between the two. 

"The theoretical framework is the “blueprint” for the entire dissertation inquiry. It serves as the guide on which to build and support your study, and also provides the structure to define how you will philosophically, epistemologically, methodologically, and analytically approach the dissertation as a whole. Eisenhart defined a theoretical framework as “a structure that guides research by relying on a formal theory…constructed by using an established, coherent explanation of certain phenomena and relationships” (1991, p. 205).

Thus, the theoretical framework consists of the selected theory (or theories) that undergirds your thinking with regards to how you understand and plan to research your topic, as well as the concepts and definitions from that theory that are relevant to your topic. Lovitts (2005) empirically defines criteria for applying or developing theory to the dissertation that must be appropriate, logically interpreted, well understood, and align with the question at hand."

"Miles and Huberman (1994) defined a conceptual framework as a visual or written product, one that “explains, either graphically or in narrative form, the main things to be studied—the key factors, concepts, or variables—and the presumed relationships among them” (p. 18).1 Here, I use the term in a broader sense, to refer to the actual ideas and beliefs that you hold about the phenomena studied, whether these are written down or not; this may also be called the “theoretical framework” or “idea context” for the study. A valuable guide to developing a conceptual framework and using this throughout the research process, with detailed analyses of four actual studies, is Ravitch and Riggan, Reason & Rigor: How Conceptual Frameworks Guide Research (2011). (Full disclosure: Sharon Ravitch is a former student of mine, and I wrote the foreword for the book.)

The most important thing to understand about your conceptual framework is that it is primarily a conception or model of what is out there that you plan to study, and of what is going on with these things and why—a tentative theory of the phenomena that you are investigating. The function of this theory is to inform the rest of your design— to help you to assess and refine your goals, develop realistic and relevant research questions, select appropriate methods, and identify potential validity threats to your 3 Conceptual Framework What Do You Think Is Going On? 40 Qualitative Research Design conclusions. It also helps you justify your research."

It's very important that the theory aligns with the research question. Consider the following when searching for a theory or conceptual model for the conceptual framework.

  • Critically read peer-reviewed studies related to your topic and identify the theories that the sources found aligned with their studies. After you have read and synthesized numerous peer-reviewed studies related to the topic, you will notice a few theories (or conceptual models) that aligned with several studies.
  • Critically read the seminal work on the theories (or conceptual models) that you found in peer-reviewed studies related to your topic. Related studies may be about the concept and not the specific topic. For example, if you are studying how the family-owned wrecking yard leaders succession plan, you could look at studies on leadership training and development in other types of organizations.
  • Quantitative. Select the theory or conceptual model that best aligns with the research question and provides an interrelated set of constructs, variables, hypotheses, or propositions that offer an explanation for phenomenon.
  • Qualitative. Select the theory or conceptual model that best aligns with the research question.

Content pulled from the DBA Doctoral Study Rubric and Handbook

More information

For more information on theoretical and conceptual frameworks, check out the Library's guide to frameworks!