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Research Process Guide

Step 5: Choosing a Conceptual or Theoretical Framework

For all empirical research, you must choose a conceptual or theoretical framework to “frame” or “ground” your study. Theoretical and/or conceptual frameworks are often difficult to understand and challenging to choose which is the right one (s) for your research objective (Hatch, 2002). Truthfully, it is difficult to get a real understanding of what these frameworks are and how you are supposed to find what works for your study. The discussion of your framework is addressed in your Chapter 1, the introduction and then is further explored through in-depth discussion in your Chapter 2 literature review.

“Theory is supposed to help researchers of any persuasion clarify what they are up to and to help them to explain to others what they are up to” (Walcott, 1995, p. 189, as cited in Fallon, 2016). It is important to discuss in the beginning to help researchers “clarify what they are up to” and important at the writing stage to “help explain to others what they are up to” (Fallon, 2016).

What is the difference between the conceptual and the theoretical framework?

Often, the terms theoretical framework and conceptual framework are used interchangeably, which, in this author’s opinion, makes an already difficult to understand idea even more confusing. According to Imenda (2014) and Mensah et al. (2020), there is a very distinct difference between conceptual and theoretical frameworks, not only how they are defined but also, how and when they are used in empirical research.

Imenda (2014) contends that the framework “is the soul of every research project” (p.185). Essentially, it determines how the researcher formulates the research problem, goes about investigating the problem, and what meaning or significance the research lends to the data collected and analyzed investigating the problem.  

Very generally, you would use a theoretical framework if you were conducting deductive research as you test a theory or theories. “A theoretical framework comprises the theories expressed by experts in the field into which you plan to research, which you draw upon to provide a theoretical coat hanger for your data analysis and interpretation of results” (Kivunja, 2018, p.45 ).  Often this framework is based on established theories like, the Set Theory, evolution, the theory of matter or similar pre-existing generalizations like Newton’s law of motion (Imenda, 2014). A good theoretical framework should be linked to, and possibly emerge from your literature review.

Using a theoretical framework allows you to (Kivunja, 2018):

  1. Increase the credibility and validity of your research
  2. Interpret meaning found in data collection
  3. Evaluate solutions for solving your research problem

According to Mensah et al.(2020) the theoretical framework for your research is not a summary of your own thoughts about your research. Rather, it is a compilation of the thoughts of giants in your field, as they relate to your proposed research, as you understand those theories, and how you will use those theories to understand the data collected.

Additionally, Jabareen (2009) defines a conceptual framework as interlinked concepts that together provide a comprehensive  understanding of a phenomenon. “A conceptual framework is the total, logical orientation and associations of anything and everything that forms the underlying thinking, structures, plans and practices and implementation of your entire research project” (Kivunja, 2018, p. 45). You would largely use a conceptual framework when conducting inductive research, as it helps the researcher answer questions that are core to qualitative research, such as the nature of reality, the way things are and how things really work in a real world (Guba & Lincoln, 1994).

Some consideration of the following questions can help define your conceptual framework (Kinvunja, 2018):

  1. What do you want to do in your research? And why do you want to do it?
  2. How do you plan to do it?
  3. What meaning will you make of the data?
  4. Which worldview will you situate your study in? (i.e. Positivist? Interpretist? Constructivist?)

Examples of conceptual frameworks include the definitions a sociologist uses to describe a culture and the types of data an economist considers when evaluating a country’s industry. The conceptual framework consists of the ideas that are used to define research and evaluate data. Conceptual frameworks are often laid out at the beginning of a paper or an experiment description for a reader to understand the methods used (Mensah et al., 2020).

Tip: You do not need to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. See what theoretical and conceptual frameworks are used in the really robust research in your field on your topic. Then, examine whether those frameworks would work for you. Keep searching for the framework(s) that work best for your study.

Writing it up

After choosing your framework is to articulate the theory or concept that grounds your study by defining it and demonstrating the rationale for this particular set of theories or concepts guiding your inquiry.  Write up your theoretical perspective sections for your research plan following your choice of worldview/ research paradigm. For a quantitative study you are particularly interested in theory using the procedures for a causal analysis. For qualitative research, you should locate qualitative journal articles that use a priori theory (knowledge that is acquired not through experience) that is modified during the process of research (Creswell & Creswell, 2018). Also, you should generate or develop a theory at the end of your study. For a mixed methods study which uses a transformative (critical theoretical lens) identify how the lens specifically shapes the research process.                                   


Creswell, J. W., & Creswell, J. D. (2018). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Sage.

Fallon, M. (2016). Writing up quantitative research in the social and behavioral sciences. Sense.,ip,url,cpid&custid=keaninf&db=nlebk&AN=1288374&site=ehost-live&scope=site&ebv=EB&ppid=pp_C1

Guba, E. G., & Lincoln, Y. S. (1994). Competing paradigms in qualitative research. Handbook of Qualitative Research, 2(163-194), 105.

Hatch, J. A. (2002). Doing qualitative research in education settings. SUNY Press.

Imenda, S. (2014). Is there a conceptual difference between theoretical and conceptual frameworks? Journal of Social Sciences, 38(2), 185-195.

Jabareen, Y. (2009). Building a conceptual framework: Philosophy, definitions, and procedure. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 8(4), 49-62.

Kivunja, C. (2018, December 3). Distinguishing between theory, theoretical framework, and conceptual framework. The International Journal of Higher Education, 7(6), 44-53.  

Mensah, R. O., Agyemang, F., Acquah, A., Babah, P. A., & Dontoh, J. (2020). Discourses on conceptual and theoretical frameworks in research: Meaning and implications for researchers. Journal of African Interdisciplinary Studies, 4(5), 53-64.