Using Theoretical or Conceptual Frameworks in a Scholarly Study

Using Theoretical or Conceptual Frameworks in a Scholarly Study

Whether a novice researcher working on a dissertation or a seasoned researcher developing a competitive project for funding or publication, having a theoretical and conceptual framework in place is a cornerstone for success. Well-developed research studies in the social sciences rely upon a theoretical or conceptual framework to guide the researcher in several ways throughout the study, from determining if there is satisfactory demonstration of the relevance and need for the research to establishing a persuasive line of reasoning and academic rigor in the development of the design and analysis. Whether the researcher selects a theoretical or a conceptual framework varies upon a number of items, and the published literature does not always clearly distinguish between a theoretical and a conceptual frame. However, there are subtle differences between a theoretical framework and a conceptual framework.

Theoretical Frameworks

In the social sciences, theories are plausible constructions or understandings about the social world; a theory uses concepts, systems, models, structures, beliefs, ideas, hypotheses (in quantitative research), or propositions (in qualitative research) to analyze events, consequences, processes, actions, or observations (Savin-Baden & Major, 2012). The theoretical framework is the frame a researcher uses to interpret data or evidence. Theoretical frameworks are often used to confirm a gap in knowledge and to provide a justification for conducting a study. A researcher could think of a theoretical framework as being the way to delineate the “why” or the “how” of a study (Ravitch & Riggan, 2012, p.13).

An important point about theories is that they are classified in different ways, which also shapes the type of theoretical framework a researcher uses . For instance, there are grand theories, which is a major category of phenomenon or events, like the Theory of Everything. Then, there are mid-range theories or formal theories, which are ideas or systems like postmodernism, feminism, or systems theory. There are also practice theories or substantive theories that align with specific professions, such as evidence-based practice or design based research. Someone who engages in Grounded Theory methodology, for example, would be using a method to generate a substantive theory to solve a problem.

Theories are testable, verified empirically, and explained simply. Moreover, theories should align with established principles and concepts as well as align with how the researcher positions himself or herself paradigmatically and philosophically. Paradigmatic and philosophical alignment with a theoretical frame is important, as the elements support and guide the researcher in the creation of the data collection and analysis processes.

Conceptual Frameworks

Concepts are abstract ideas that arise out of perception and experience and are used to label phenomenon, events, or processes. Frequently, concepts are used to generalize from particulars to create the abstract idea. A conceptual framework, then, is a system of concepts, assumptions, expectations and beliefs in which graphics or propositions link broad abstract ideas or models as a way to guide a research study. Often a conceptual framework emerges from the literature review, as the researcher links the literature to real-world experiences or events to shape future thoughts or practices in the research study. The conceptual framework helps researchers generate a systematic order to the flow or logic of the study. Miles and Huberman (1994) perceive the conceptual framework as functioning as a way to focus and set boundaries for the study, especially for qualitative researchers.

Ravitch and Riggan (2012) explain that a conceptual framework pulls together the entire research process (p.6) and to yield an argument that demonstrates the research study is significant and has academic rigor (p.7). The conceptual framework, then, provides researchers with the opportunity to define the importance of the research in terms of what has been studied before as well as proffers a reason as to why the topic needs to be extended in the manner as outlined by the researcher.

Which Framework Should A Researcher Use?

Following Joseph Maxwell’s critical point (Maxwell, 2013) that theoretical and conceptual frameworks are built by researchers and need a philosophical and a methodological paradigm to inform a researcher’s work, and a formal theory is used to make sense of what events or occurrences a researcher sees or wants to illuminate in the study, a researcher who builds a strong study would include both a theoretical and a conceptual framework that would test and inform every aspect of data collection and analysis/interpretation. The researcher uses theoretical and conceptual frameworks in a critical manner to situate the work in order to gain insights, discrepancies, and alternatives by shaping the study’s methodology and design in partnership with the research question and the researcher’s philosophical and paradigmatic dispositions. When used well together, a theoretical and a conceptual framework provides a researcher with sufficient support to explain the need and the relevance for the study in the field; in addition, the researcher who chooses to have a theoretical and a conceptual framework in the research study demonstrates appropriate academic rigor in preparing a strong study.



Maxwell, J.A. (2013) Qualitative research design: An interactive approach. 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Miles, M. B. & Huberman, M.A. (1994) Qualitative data analysis: An expanded sourcebook. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Ravitch, S.M. & Riggan, M. (2012) Reason & rigor: How conceptual frameworks guide research.  Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Savin-Baden, M. & Major, C.H. (2012) Qualitative research: The essential guide to theory and practice. New York: Routledge.


Marcia Griffiths-Prince's picture Marcia Griffiths-Prince | February 11, 2016 5:52 pm MST

Thank you Diane, very succinct!  Can I use this as another supplemental handout in my DOC course?

Alice Sylvester's picture Alice Sylvester | February 12, 2016 10:12 am MST

Dr. Gavin, thank you very much.  You have definitely stimulated my intellect in the use of theoretical and conceptual framework.  This knowledge will come in handy for completing and ensuring my conceptual framework is aligned with my study.  Great knowledge!

Charles (Ted) Witham's picture Charles (Ted) Witham | July 10, 2016 9:46 pm MST

Thank you, Dr. Gavin, this and your blog post on Study Design Alignment are both very helpful!!

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