Theoretical Framework

The theoretical framework is presented in the early section of a dissertation and provides the rationale for conducting your research to investigate a particular research problem.

Consider the theoretical framework as a conceptual model that establishes a sense of structure that guides your research. It provides the background that supports your investigation and offers the reader a justification for your study of a particular research problem. It includes the variables you intend to measure and the relationships you seek to understand.  Essentially, this is where you develop a “theory” and build your case for investigating that theory.  The theoretical framework is your presentation of a theory that explains a particular problem.  It is not based on your suspicions alone, however…please read on.

What do you mean, not based on my suspicions alone?

The theoretical framework is a summary of your theory regarding a particular problem that is developed through a review of previously tested knowledge of the variables involved. It identifies a plan for investigation and interpretation of the findings. The theoretical framework involves a well-supported rationale and is organized in a manner that helps the reader understand and assess your perspective.  The purpose is to demonstrate that the relationships you propose are not based on your personal instincts or guesses, but rather formed from facts obtained from authors of previous research.

Why is the theoretical framework important?

The development of the theoretical framework helps to clarify your implicit theory in a manner that is more clearly defined.  It helps you to consider other possible frameworks and to reduce biases that may sway your interpretation. As you develop your theoretical framework you will consider alternative theories that might challenge your perspective. You will also consider the limitations associated with your theory, and quite possibly, that your problem could be better understood by other theoretical frameworks.

The theoretical framework is how you conceptualize the nature of your research problem, its basis and the analysis you will choose to investigate that problem. This framework determines how you perceive, make sense of, and interpret your data. Explanation of the theoretical framework helps the reader understand your perspective and context.

How do I develop a theoretical framework?

The theoretical framework is developed from and connected to your review of the knowledge on the topic (the literature review). This knowledge is likely how you initially formulated your research problem. You reviewed the literature and found gaps in the explanation of some phenomenon. The theoretical framework allows you to present the research problem in light of a summary of the literature.

Your description of the variables of interest in context of the literature review allows the reader to understand the theorized relationships. You should begin by describing what is known about your variables, what is known about their relationship, and what can be explained thus far. You will investigate other researchers’ theories behind these relationships and identify a theory (or combination of theories) that explains your major research problem.  Essentially, your goal is to convey to the reader why you think your variables are related and the inclusion of previous research and theories that support your belief are essential to defending your rationale. You apply the theory to your problem, and state your hypotheses or predictions regarding potential relationships. You tell the reader what you expect to find in your research.

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How does theoretical framework relate to quantitative research design?

There is a link between theoretical framework and quantitative research design. The choice of research design is based on the goals of the study and a solid review of the literature. Quantitative research design utilizes deductive reasoning, which begins with identifying the theoretical framework that will provide structure and guide the research project. The theoretical framework is presented in the early sections of a quantitative research proposal to establish the grounds for the study.

The theoretical framework will direct the research methods you choose to employ. The chosen methodology should provide conclusions that are compatible with the theory.

Can you simplify this?

Reducing this seemingly intimidating topic to two factors may help simplify the concept. The theoretical framework involves a discussion of (1) the research problem and (2) the rationale for conducting an investigation of the problem. These two factors form the basis of a theoretical framework section of the research proposal.

Additional Webpages Related to Theoretical Framework


Breakwell, G. Hammon, S., Fife-Schaw, C. & Smith, J. A. (Eds.). (2007). Research methods in psychology (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Creswell, J. W. (2005) Educational research: Planning, conducting, and evaluating quantitative and qualitative research (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: .Pearson Education, Inc.

Creswell, J. W. (2009) Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Leedy, P. D. & Ormrod, J. E. (2005). Practical research: Planning and design (8th ed.)  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Pedhauzer, E. J. & Schmelkin, L.P. (1991). Measurement, design and analysis: An integrated approach. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.