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Mary DePew Resource Center for Research Writing: Theoretical Frameworks

Theoretical Frameworks

A theoretical framework consists of concepts and, together with their definitions and reference to relevant scholarly literature, existing theory that is used for your particular study. Theoretical frameworks provide a perspective through which to examine a topic, especially when constructing your dissertation. There are many different lenses, which may be used to define specific concepts and explain phenomena. Different lenses can be:

  • psychological theories
  • social theories
  • organizational theories
  • economic theories

Sometimes frameworks may come from an area outside of your immediate academic discipline. Using a theoretical framework for your dissertation will help you to better analyze past events by providing a particular set of questions to ask and a perspective to use when examining your topic.

Traditionally, Ph.D. and Applied Degree research must include relevant theoretical framework(s) to frame, or inform, every aspect of the dissertation. Dissertations should make an original contribution to the field by adding support for the theory or demonstrating ways in which the theory may not be as explanatory as originally thought.

It can be difficult to find scholarly work that takes a particular theoretical approach because articles, books, and book chapters are typically described according to the topics they tackle rather than the methods they use to tackle them.

Unfortunately, there is no single database or search technique for locating theoretical information. However, the suggestions below provide techniques for locating possible theoretical frameworks and theorists in the CUC library databases. In addition to your Library research, you should discuss possible theories your Dissertation Chair to ensure they align with your study.  You will likely find and discard several potential theoretical frameworks before one is finally chosen.

I.  Developing the Framework

Here are some strategies to develop of an effective theoretical framework:

  1. Examine your thesis title and research problem. The research problem anchors your entire study and forms the basis from which you construct your theoretical framework.
  2. Brainstorm about what you consider to be the key variables in your research. Answer the question, "What factors contribute to the presumed effect?"
  3. Review related literature to find how scholars have addressed your research question.
  4. List  the constructs and variables that might be relevant to your study. Group these variables into independent and dependent categories.
  5. Review key social science theories that are introduced to you in your course readings and choose the theory that can best explain the relationships between the key variables in your study [note the Writing Tip on this page].
  6. Discuss the assumptions or propositions of this theory and point out their relevance to your research.

A theoretical framework is used to limit the scope of the relevant data by focusing on specific variables and defining the specific viewpoint [framework] that the researcher will take in analyzing and interpreting the data to be gathered. It also facilitates the understanding of concepts and variables according to given definitions and builds new knowledge by validating or challenging theoretical assumptions.

II.  Purpose

Think of theories as the conceptual basis for understanding, analyzing, and designing ways to investigate relationships within social systems. To that end, the following roles served by a theory can help guide the development of your framework.

  • Means by which new research data can be interpreted and coded for future use,
  • Response to new problems that have no previously identified solutions strategy,
  • Means for identifying and defining research problems,
  • Means for prescribing or evaluating solutions to research problems,
  • Ways of discerning certain facts among the accumulated knowledge that are important and which facts are not,
  • Means of giving old data new interpretations and new meaning,
  • Means by which to identify important new issues and prescribe the most critical research questions that need to be answered to maximize understanding of the issue,
  • Means of providing members of a professional discipline with a common language and a frame of reference for defining the boundaries of their profession, and
  • Means to guide and inform research so that it can, in turn, guide research efforts and improve professional practice.

Adapted from: Torraco, R. J. “Theory-Building Research Methods.” In Swanson R. A. and E. F. Holton III , editors. Human Resource Development Handbook: Linking Research and Practice. (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 1997): pp. 114-137; Jacard, James and Jacob Jacoby. Theory Construction and Model-Building Skills: A Practical Guide for Social Scientists. New York: Guilford, 2010; Sutton, Robert I. and Barry M. Staw. “What Theory is Not.” Administrative Science Quarterly 40 (September 1995): 371-384.

No framework is necessarily more effective than another. Frameworks serve to provide a conceptual overview, separate from methodologies or implementation. Though there are thousands of theoretical frameworks leveraged in teaching, some of the more popular frameworks are:

  • Andragogy/Adult Learning Theory – Theorists like Knowles (1980) believed adults are problem-oriented participants that want to incorporate experience and self-direction into subjects or projects that are relevant to their lives. Andragogic education tends to incorporate methods like constructivism and connectivism, leveraging task-oriented processes and projects, also stressing application.
  • Behaviorism – Theorists like Skinner (1953) often focused on observable behavior, believing learning was supported through drill & practice and related reinforcement.  Behaviorist instruction tends to be directive, incorporating lectures and practice problems, often leveraging objective assessments including multiple choice questions or other rote approaches.  
  • Cognitivism – Theorists like Gagné (Gagne, Wager, Golas, & Keller, 2004) focused more on thought processes and structures. For instance, Gagné developed nine events of instruction to describe optimal conditions for learning. Cognitivist instruction often incorporates lecture along with methods like visual tools or organizers to promote retention.  It may leverage objective assessments with multiple choice, though also including response or essay activities for learners to demonstrate thought processes.
  • Connectivism – Theorists like Siemens & Downes (2009) saw learners as part of many nodes or connections, driving their personal learning by leveraging the knowledge of that network, and contributing to the knowledge infrastructure. Connectivist instruction tends to be self-directed, including a variety of information sources/references and is often used in online education. It could also be considered a constructivist approach.
  • Constructivism – Theorists like Piaget (1950) & Brunner (1961) proposed individuals construct knowledge from within, contributing to the process by incorporating personal experience. Constructivist instruction tends to be social and exploratory, sometimes without clearly defined outcomes, often leveraging critical thinking activities, peer review, and/or collaborative projects.
  • Objectivism – Theorists or writers like Rand (1943) believed knowledge exists outside the individual as opposed to constructivist perspectives valuing knowledge from within. Objectivist frameworks can describe both behaviorist and cognitivist perspectives. Objectivist instruction tends to be directive and linear, valuing inductive logic, and often leverages objective assessments.