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Theories and Frameworks: Introduction

Theoretical & conceptual frameworks

The terms theoretical framework and conceptual framework are often used interchangeably to mean the same thing. Although they are both used to understand a research problem and guide the development, collection, and analysis of research, it's important to understand the difference between the two. When working on coursework or dissertation research, make sure to clarify what is being asked and any specific course or program requirements. 

Theoretical framework 

A theoretical framework is a single formal theory. When a study is designed around a theoretical framework, the theory is the primary means in which the research problem is understood and investigated. Although theoretical frameworks tend to be used in quantitative studies, you will also see this approach in qualitative research.  

Conceptual framework

A conceptual framework includes one or more formal theories (in part or whole) as well as other concepts and empirical findings from the literature. It is used to show relationships among these ideas and how they relate to the research study. Conceptual frameworks are commonly seen in qualitative research in the social and behavioral sciences, for example, because often one theory cannot fully address the phenomena being studied.

Investigate theory

Identifying and learning about theories requires a different search strategy than other types of research. Even though the steps are different, you will still use many of the same skills and tools you’ve used for other library research.

  • Think broadly and consider theories from a variety of fields:
    • psychology: human development, cognition, personality, motivation
    • sociology: social change, race, class, gender
    • business: leadership, management
    • health: patient care, well-being, environment
  • Think big and save complex, theoretical works for later in your research. Begin by looking for overviews of theories in:
    • course textbooks
    • encyclopedias and handbooks
    • books
    • credible websites

Theory in doctoral research

Identifying a theory that aligns with your dissertation or doctoral study takes time. It’s never too early to start exploratory research. The process of identifying an appropriate theory can seem daunting, so try breaking down the process into smaller steps.

  1. Explore theories being used in:
    • your theory courses
    • completed dissertations and doctoral studies
    • encyclopedias and handbooks
    • the scholarly literature on your topic
  2. Keep a list of theories and take notes on how and why they were used.
  3. Identify and learn more about relevant theories.
  4. Locate influential and seminal works related to those theories.