This blog offers brief, practical insight on selecting between a theoretical or conceptual framework for inexperienced researchers, as well as suggestions about which one might be best for your study. There are in-depth, scholarly discussions about the differences between the two and I direct readers to a few articles if they would like to dig deeper into the differences between the frameworks. (See Imenda, 2014; Rocco & Plakhotnik, 2009; Varpio et al., 2020.)
Researchers build study frameworks, whether theoretical or conceptual, to help structure and guide their investigations and explain results. From theories or concepts, the researcher builds a case for examining the topic using the most relevant explanatory or interpretive perspective. So, a framework acts as a guiding and interpretive lens that contains both the variables or concepts under study and the interpretive capacity to explain results. Practically speaking, theoretical frameworks are typically associated with quantitative studies and conceptual frameworks are typically associated with qualitative studies. Let’s look at each type of framework individually.
Researchers build theoretical frameworks from a theory or theories and their relevant components. The theoretical framework then is the application of a theory or theories to help explain the specific issue under investigation. In this way, theoretical frameworks work deductively: to help researchers make specific conclusions based on general theories or premises. Quantitative studies are often designed to test theories and determine whether a general theory is applicable to a specific issue or population. In this way, quantitative studies often advance or modify understandings of theories. Studies can indicate whether theories are applicable or help explain the issue in relation to a specific population under investigation. Or studies can indicate a theory is not applicable to a specific issue or population, suggesting another theory may be or that the theory tested may need to be modified.
The instrument or instruments you use are also important to your theoretical framework. Researchers develop instruments from theories; therefore, instruments have specific theoretical bases. So, the theories you use for your framework should match your instruments. Let’s look at an example. Let’s say you’re measuring emotional intelligence. Well, there are several instruments for that, and you want to choose the one most suited for your study. Let’s say you decide on Goleman’s instrument. Then, you would use Goleman’s theory of emotional intelligence for your framework, not the theory of another researcher. Instruments that measure the same construct are different, and their supporting theories and components are too. Therefore, you want your theories and instruments to align for your quantitative study.
Like theoretical frameworks, conceptual frameworks guide investigation. However, unlike theoretical frameworks, conceptual frameworks usually built from concepts and not theories. Whereas theoretical frameworks work deductively, conceptual frameworks work inductively and help researchers make general conclusions based on the details and specifics of people’s perceptions and experiences. Qualitative studies typically include conceptual frameworks, in part, because qualitative studies tend to be exploratory. That is, researchers conducting qualitative studies are not seeking to overlay theories or interpretive frameworks onto the phenomena they are studying. Rather, researchers conducting qualitative studies collect and work from the details and specifics of people’s perceptions and experiences to identify patterns and make larger conclusions. Working from such an inductive approach, qualitative researchers then do not need overarching theories because the use of theories in this way would not allow for patterns and meaning to emerge inductively from the data. Therefore, qualitative researchers build conceptual frameworks from relevant concepts taken from key research on the topic. These concepts help guide the study, especially the interview questions, without providing theoretical premises that work against inductive approaches.
Generally, theoretical frameworks are associated with quantitative studies and conceptual frameworks are associated with qualitative studies. Yet, this is not a hard and fast rule. Some studies, such as mixed methods studies, may require both. In cases in which you’re unsure how to proceed with the framework, it’s always best to work with your dissertation chair or mentor, if applicable, or dig deeper into the differences between the two frameworks to better understand them and their purposes.
Imenda, S. (2014). Is there a conceptual difference between theoretical and conceptual frameworks? Journal of social sciences, 38(2), 185-195.
Rocco, T. S. and Plakhotnik, M. S. “Literature Reviews, Conceptual Frameworks, and Theoretical Frameworks: Terms, Functions, and Distinctions.” Human resource development review 8.1 (2009): 120–130.
Varpio, L., Paradis, E., Uijtdehaage, S., & Young, M. (2020). The distinctions between theory, theoretical framework, and conceptual framework. Academic Medicine, 95(7), 989-994.
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