Theoretical and conceptual frameworks in research

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Dr Lynette Pretorius

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Dr Lynette Pretorius is an award-winning educator and researcher in the fields of academic language, literacy, research skills, and research methodologies. 

Frameworks in research play a crucial role in shaping the direction of a research project. They serve as the foundation upon which studies are built and analysed, offering a lens through which researchers can interpret their findings. However, they are also a source of confusion for researchers so, in this blog post, I explain the differences between theoretical and conceptual frameworks, why they are important in research, and how researchers can choose a framework for their study.

Theoretical and conceptual frameworks: what are the differences?

The most common confusion I see when talking to researchers about frameworks is that they do not understand the difference between a theoretical and a conceptual framework. So what are the differences?

  • A researcher uses a theoretical framework when they are using a pre-established theory for their study. A theoretical framework is founded upon a well-established theory, focuses on explaining phenomena using this existing theory, and is chosen based on examining which theories are commonly used in the field.
  • A researcher uses a conceptual framework when they select concepts from several theories and construct them into a framework for a specific study. A conceptual framework is constructed by the researcher, aims to explore relationships between different concepts, and is developed by synthesising different ideas from the field together.

It is important to note that you should choose either a theoretical or a conceptual framework – usually, one project does not have both. This is because they serve the same purpose – they provide the vision for your study. Having two competing frameworks, therefore, would confuse your study. The only time you would have two frameworks is if your project had two distinct parts that were unrelated to each other.

Why do frameworks matter in research?

So why is it important to have a framework in your study? Frameworks are important because they provide a foundation and vision for your project. They help the researcher make sense of the chaos of the data by revealing the theories or concepts that will be used to analyse and explain findings. Frameworks influence:

  • The research design: Theoretical and conceptual frameworks help shape the research design, including the choice of data collection and analysis methods. By setting out the key concepts and their relationships, they provide a roadmap for conducting the study.
  • The data analysis: They offer a lens for interpreting the data collected during the research. This is particularly crucial in qualitative data analysis, where the researcher seeks to understand complex phenomena through the perspectives of participants.
  • The rigour and relevance of a study: The use of a theoretical or conceptual framework enhances the rigour of a study by ensuring that its findings can be linked back to broader discussions in the field.
  • How research builds on existing knowledge: Grounding research in a theoretical or conceptual framework ensures that new studies build upon or challenge the existing body of knowledge.

Frameworks also reveal the beliefs and assumptions of the researcher. This necessitates that the researcher carefully articulates their framework, explaining key concepts within the framework and why they are important for the particular study. Concepts can often mean different things to different people. For example, if you mention to your friend that you just adopted a dog but do not provide further details, the image of your dog in your head could be quite different from what your friend imagines. In the same way, research concepts are often multifaceted and require careful explanation in a research project.

Identifying frameworks in the literature

Identifying frameworks in published articles is a crucial skill for researchers, enabling them to understand a study’s theoretical or conceptual underpinnings, replicate research designs, or apply similar frameworks in their work. However, this is not always easy, and sometimes frameworks are not explicitly stated. So how do you identify a framework in a published study?

  • Look for explicit mentions: This is the easiest strategy, provided that the framework is mentioned explicitly of course. Search for sentences such as “This study is grounded in X theory” or “We employ Y’s conceptual model as a framework.”
  • Consider the research questions: The nature of the research questions or hypotheses can often indicate the type of framework being used.
  • Trace the references: Frameworks can be identified by looking at the citations of foundational works within a published source. Checking these references can provide a deeper understanding of the framework that the authors have used. Below, I have listed some of the most common frameworks used in social sciences, particularly educational research. Searching for words such as these will help you find the framework in a study.
    • Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice
    • Foucault’s theories on power, discourse, and knowledge
    • Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory
    • Cultural-historical theory (Vygotsky) or Cultural-historical activity theory (Vygotsky and Leontiev)
    • Theories of learning (e.g., community of practice, experiential learning, transformative learning)
    • Performativity and/or embodiment (e.g., gender performativity)
    • Intersectionality and/or epistemic (in)justice
    • New literacies theory or digital literacies
    • TPACK (Technological pedagogical content knowledge)

So how do you choose a framework for your study?

Choosing the right framework for your research is a critical decision that shapes your study’s direction, coherence, and trustworthiness. Whether you opt for a theoretical or conceptual framework depends on your research objectives, the nature of your study, and the existing literature in your field.

  • The first step in choosing a framework is to clarify your research objectives: What are you trying to discover, explore, explain, or analyse? Your research objectives will guide your choice of framework by highlighting the key concepts, theories, or models that are most relevant to addressing your research questions.
  • The second step is to conduct an extensive literature review to identify potential frameworks that have been applied to similar research problems. By examining how these frameworks have been used in past studies, you can identify gaps (i.e., look for areas where existing frameworks may not fully address your research problem or where there is room for further exploration), assess applicability (i.e., determine how well the frameworks align with your research objectives and the specific context of your study), and draw inspiration (i.e., even if existing frameworks do not fit your needs exactly, they can provide a starting point for developing your own).
  • The third step is to assess the theoretical alignment by ensuring the framework’s underlying assumptions align with your research philosophy. This involves thinking about the philosophical assumptions (e.g., your ontology, epistemology, and axiology) that underlie different frameworks and whether they are compatible with your view of the world.
  • The fourth step is to consider the methodological fit of each potential framework. The framework you choose should complement your research methodology, as it will influence the design, data collection, and analysis methods you will use.
  • The fifth step is to explore the flexibility of the framework to your specific research context. Some frameworks may be too rigid, limiting your ability to explore the nuances of your research problem fully. Others might offer the adaptability needed to address unique aspects of your study.
  • Finally, the sixth step is to reflect on the potential originality and contribution of the framework. Your chosen framework should enable you to make a meaningful contribution to your field. This might involve applying an existing framework in a new context, combining frameworks innovatively, or developing a new conceptual framework based on your findings.

Remember that context matters. Just because a theory is common in your field does not mean it is appropriate for your particular context. You might have to modify it by integrating theories or concepts relevant to your context, ensuring it more accurately reflects the cultural, political, religious, or additional aspects of your environment.

  • Conduct a context analysis: Understand the broader and specific conditions in which your research is situated.
  • Engage with local knowledge: Leverage insights from local experts and contextual literature to understand the context-specific nuances.
  • Evaluate frameworks for context sensitivity: Assess potential frameworks for their ability to accommodate or adapt to the specificities of your research context.
  • Consider the adaptability of the framework: Determine if the framework can be modified to better align with contextual demands without losing its theoretical integrity.

Incorporating context into the decision-making process for selecting a research framework underscores a commitment to conducting thoughtful, rigorous, and impactful research that resonates with its intended audience and addresses the complexities of the real world.

Some final thoughts…

The adoption of a well-defined framework in research is not merely a formal requirement but a cornerstone for ensuring the rigour, coherence, and depth of your study. A framework acts as a compass, guiding researchers through the complexities of their inquiry, from formulating research questions to interpreting findings. It provides a structured lens through which data can be examined, theories tested, and new insights uncovered, ensuring that research is not conducted in a vacuum but is connected to, and informed by, the wider scholarly community. Moreover, selecting and applying a framework necessitates a deep engagement with the subject matter and the methodological approaches best suited to exploring it. This engagement fosters a more nuanced understanding of the research problem and enriches the research design, ultimately enhancing the quality and impact of the findings.

Questions to ponder

What challenges might arise from applying a framework in a context different from where it was originally developed, and how can these be addressed?

Can a study be considered rigorous without a clearly defined theoretical framework? Why or why not?

2 Comments on “Theoretical and conceptual frameworks in research”

  1. It is a very comprehensive resource for understanding the differences between the two. Thank you so much Dr. Lynette. More power to you!

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