Your Theoretical Framework Should Not Be an Afterthought

Literature Review

It is fairly common for clients to come to us with questions about their theoretical frameworks: either they don’t have one and want to know what they should use or they have one that their Chair has indicated does not work for their study. A key reason for trouble with the theoretical framework is that people often approach it as an afterthought. Well, I have everything, they say, except a theory; what do you think I should use? This is the wrong approach to the theoretical framework, which should be an integral part of what you are studying and why. As such, your theory should not be something you choose later but something that is a central part of the development of your research problem and your research questions. There should already be theories in the research related to your topic.

Let’s look at an example. Suppose you want to study employee motivation, a much-researched construct in management and organizational psychology. There are theories of motivation that researchers use to explain what drives employees. So, the theory you use depends very much on what you are studying and why. If you want to study external and internal motivation factors in a certain population, you would need a theory that includes those components. Herzberg’s (1964) motivation theory, which also involves satisfaction, might work here, because it includes extrinsic (external) and intrinsic (internal) motivation factors. The need to examine these factors in your population might be part of the research problem: maybe the factors have not been studied in this population or researchers have not applied this theory of motivation to your population. The research questions would focus on examining external and internal motivation factors, which the theory was developed to explain.

There are other theories of motivation, such as expectancy theory (Vroom & Deci, 1989), which holds that people are motivated by what they expect to receive from their actions. The theory also includes specific components: valence, expectancy, instrumentality. If the need to examine these components is part of your research problem and your study, you would use expectancy theory. Additionally, your theory would align with the theoretical foundations of the instrument you are using to measure motivation. Instruments rest on conceptual and theoretical foundations, and the concepts and theories that undergird your instruments are what you want to use for your framework.

As you develop your research problem and research questions, keep in mind the theories researchers are using to explain what you are studying. Your research problem will involve reasons for examining specific factors, variables, or concepts. Your research questions will involve these specific factors, variables, or concepts, which have conceptual or theoretical foundations. So, the theory for your framework should already be apparent in the research and not something you should approach as an afterthought.


Herzberg, F. (1964). The motivation-hygiene concept and problems of manpower. Personnel administration.

Vroom, V. H., & Deci, E. L. (1989). Management and motivation. Penguin.


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