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What Is a Theoretical Framework? | Guide to Organizing

Published on October 14, 2022 by Sarah Vinz . Revised on July 18, 2023 by Tegan George.

A theoretical framework is a foundational review of existing theories that serves as a roadmap for developing the arguments you will use in your own work.

Theories are developed by researchers to explain phenomena, draw connections, and make predictions. In a theoretical framework, you explain the existing theories that support your research, showing that your paper or dissertation topic is relevant and grounded in established ideas.

In other words, your theoretical framework justifies and contextualizes your later research, and it’s a crucial first step for your research paper , thesis , or dissertation . A well-rounded theoretical framework sets you up for success later on in your research and writing process.

Table of contents

Why do you need a theoretical framework, how to write a theoretical framework, structuring your theoretical framework, example of a theoretical framework, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about theoretical frameworks.

Before you start your own research, it’s crucial to familiarize yourself with the theories and models that other researchers have already developed. Your theoretical framework is your opportunity to present and explain what you’ve learned, situated within your future research topic.

There’s a good chance that many different theories about your topic already exist, especially if the topic is broad. In your theoretical framework, you will evaluate, compare, and select the most relevant ones.

By “framing” your research within a clearly defined field, you make the reader aware of the assumptions that inform your approach, showing the rationale behind your choices for later sections, like methodology and discussion . This part of your dissertation lays the foundations that will support your analysis, helping you interpret your results and make broader generalizations .

  • In literature , a scholar using postmodernist literary theory would analyze The Great Gatsby differently than a scholar using Marxist literary theory.
  • In psychology , a behaviorist approach to depression would involve different research methods and assumptions than a psychoanalytic approach.
  • In economics , wealth inequality would be explained and interpreted differently based on a classical economics approach than based on a Keynesian economics one.

To create your own theoretical framework, you can follow these three steps:

  • Identifying your key concepts
  • Evaluating and explaining relevant theories
  • Showing how your research fits into existing research

1. Identify your key concepts

The first step is to pick out the key terms from your problem statement and research questions . Concepts often have multiple definitions, so your theoretical framework should also clearly define what you mean by each term.

To investigate this problem, you have identified and plan to focus on the following problem statement, objective, and research questions:

Problem : Many online customers do not return to make subsequent purchases.

Objective : To increase the quantity of return customers.

Research question : How can the satisfaction of company X’s online customers be improved in order to increase the quantity of return customers?

2. Evaluate and explain relevant theories

By conducting a thorough literature review , you can determine how other researchers have defined these key concepts and drawn connections between them. As you write your theoretical framework, your aim is to compare and critically evaluate the approaches that different authors have taken.

After discussing different models and theories, you can establish the definitions that best fit your research and justify why. You can even combine theories from different fields to build your own unique framework if this better suits your topic.

Make sure to at least briefly mention each of the most important theories related to your key concepts. If there is a well-established theory that you don’t want to apply to your own research, explain why it isn’t suitable for your purposes.

3. Show how your research fits into existing research

Apart from summarizing and discussing existing theories, your theoretical framework should show how your project will make use of these ideas and take them a step further.

You might aim to do one or more of the following:

  • Test whether a theory holds in a specific, previously unexamined context
  • Use an existing theory as a basis for interpreting your results
  • Critique or challenge a theory
  • Combine different theories in a new or unique way

A theoretical framework can sometimes be integrated into a literature review chapter , but it can also be included as its own chapter or section in your dissertation. As a rule of thumb, if your research involves dealing with a lot of complex theories, it’s a good idea to include a separate theoretical framework chapter.

There are no fixed rules for structuring your theoretical framework, but it’s best to double-check with your department or institution to make sure they don’t have any formatting guidelines. The most important thing is to create a clear, logical structure. There are a few ways to do this:

  • Draw on your research questions, structuring each section around a question or key concept
  • Organize by theory cluster
  • Organize by date

It’s important that the information in your theoretical framework is clear for your reader. Make sure to ask a friend to read this section for you, or use a professional proofreading service .

As in all other parts of your research paper , thesis , or dissertation , make sure to properly cite your sources to avoid plagiarism .

To get a sense of what this part of your thesis or dissertation might look like, take a look at our full example .

If you want to know more about AI for academic writing, AI tools, or research bias, make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples or go directly to our tools!

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While a theoretical framework describes the theoretical underpinnings of your work based on existing research, a conceptual framework allows you to draw your own conclusions, mapping out the variables you may use in your study and the interplay between them.

A literature review and a theoretical framework are not the same thing and cannot be used interchangeably. While a theoretical framework describes the theoretical underpinnings of your work, a literature review critically evaluates existing research relating to your topic. You’ll likely need both in your dissertation .

A theoretical framework can sometimes be integrated into a  literature review chapter , but it can also be included as its own chapter or section in your dissertation . As a rule of thumb, if your research involves dealing with a lot of complex theories, it’s a good idea to include a separate theoretical framework chapter.

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Vinz, S. (2023, July 18). What Is a Theoretical Framework? | Guide to Organizing. Scribbr. Retrieved August 28, 2023, from https://www.scribbr.com/dissertation/theoretical-framework/

Is this article helpful?

Sarah Vinz

Sarah's academic background includes a Master of Arts in English, a Master of International Affairs degree, and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. She loves the challenge of finding the perfect formulation or wording and derives much satisfaction from helping students take their academic writing up a notch.

Other students also liked

What is a research methodology | steps & tips, how to write a literature review | guide, examples, & templates, what is a conceptual framework | tips & examples, orji, emmanuel ndumdi.

Please, I have the view that methodology is the study of methods that we employ in our researches. There, the title of that part of our research that deals with the method(s) that we used should better be titled, method(s) not methodology.

I wish to here from you, please.

Best regards.

Shona McCombes

Shona McCombes (Scribbr Team)

You're right that there's a difference between method and methodology : "methods" are the specific tools, techniques and procedures used to conduct your research, while "methodology" is the study and development of methods in your field.

The title of this chapter or section depends on the content. For example, Methods is the standard heading for a short section of a paper that simply reports what was done in a specific study. However, in a longer and more complex work (such as a thesis or dissertation ), there is often a chapter that explains, evaluates, and justifies the methods used, with reference to relevant methodological literature; in this case, Methodology is an appropriate chapter title.

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PhD Assistance

Why is theoretical framework important in research.

Academic supervisors look for the theoretical framework within any research manuscripts as a first parameter. Even an excellently written dissertation will be rejected if there is no theoretical framework. It is similar to the human skeleton upon which the body is built. Only on a well defined theoretical framework researches are done to give the desired results.

Research paper

To know more about the theoretical framework and its importance in writing dissertations and research papers it is pertinent to know:

A theory is crucial for any research work to give its direction and also to validate or disapprove a phenomenon.  Theoretical basis helps to decipher the way the things are and the basis of specific actions.

Framework in research is like in buildings or software providing critical support for developing the research aspects over it.  Creating a framework on the theatrical basis will enhance investigations to arrive at a particular stand of for or against a phenomenon.

Research is using the scientific method for careful consideration of study regarding a specific problem or concern. It is one of the building blocks of societal advancement. It depends on many perspectives and phenomenon to thrive.  And it can come out with a valid argument of a summation.

Theoretical framework in research:

The role of the theoretical framework in research is to reduce the dreadful topic to two factors to simplify the concept, which include:

  • The research problem
  • The rationale of investigating the issue

Importance of theoretical framework in research:

The theoretical framework is one of the main parts of the research manuscript .  It should be presented in the first section of all dissertations.

It is the structure that holds or supports a theory by introducing and describing it as to what research problem it exists.

It demonstrates an understanding of theories and concepts relevant to the topic of the research.  And it provides the broader areas of knowledge under consideration.

The explicit statement of the theoretical assumptions enables its reader to evaluate it critically.

It connects the researcher to the existing knowledge through guidance by relevant theory, also, by providing the basis of the hypotheses and the choices of the research methods .

It helps researchers to generalize the various aspects of an observed phenomenon from simply describing it and also identifies their limits.

It specifies the key variables that influence a phenomenon of interest and highlights the necessity to examine them for what circumstances they might differ

It limits the scope of the relevant data by focusing on a specific variable, and also, defines the view the researcher should take in analyzing and interpreting the data to be collected

By validating and challenging theoretical assumptions, it facilitates the understanding of concepts and variables as per the given definitions and builds new knowledge.

It helps to address the questions of ‘how’ and ‘why’ by articulating the theoretical assumptions of a research

The theoretical framework is vital to all researches to clarify the implicit theory in a manner that is more clearly defined. It may also provide researchers to consider their limitations and alternative theories that challenge their perspective.  It is what all academic supervisors check in the first place, and they better understand the research problem with the right theoretical framework.

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Theoretical Framework – Purpose & Importance

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A theoretical framework is a fundamental component of any research study or dissertation , providing the lens through which the research problem is assessed and understood. It illustrates the concepts, theories, and existing research that contributes to supporting the study, creating a bridge between the research question and the methodology . This article delves into the overall concept, the purpose, and the construct of the theoretical framework.


  • 1 Theoretical Framework – In a Nutshell
  • 2 Definition: Theoretical framework
  • 3 What is the purpose of a theoretical framework?
  • 4 Theoretical framework – The literature review
  • 5 Theoretical framework – Step by step
  • 6 The structure of a theoretical framework

Theoretical Framework – In a Nutshell

  • The theoretical framework of a research paper forms its blueprint.
  • It gives an overview of the research question and its important elements.
  • A well-formulated theoretical framework outlines the key ideas anchored around well-informed questions.

Definition: Theoretical framework

The theoretical framework of research is the foundation that constructs your ideas. It uses a pre-established theory. They are created by researchers to outline different theories, propose links between ideas, and make informed conclusions. The recommended length is usually three to five pages.

What is the purpose of a theoretical framework?

A theoretical framework is used to capture the ideas and lessons from existing theories in proposing solutions to a new research problem. There is a high likelihood that there are multiple existing theories that can support your research proposal. The theoretical framework guides the process of comparing and choosing the best theories to support your research.

Theoretical framework – The literature review

A literature review is one of the first steps in formulating a research topic and the existing works on the subject. It may be regarded as a summary of the literature sources used as research resources. It is organized systematically and contains key takeaways from the literature sources.

A well-conducted literature review should also have synthesis, i.e., a well-structured reorganization of the ideas to support the research proposal . It may give new takes on old sources or supplement them with new information. Literature reviews also track the progression of knowledge in a given field over time.

It considers the significant changes and revisions made to existing works and the factors behind significant changes. Literature review guides the theoretical framework by selecting the most relevant sources and highlighting gaps in the available literature.

Theoretical framework – Step by step

There are 4 main steps involved in formulating a theoretical framework.

Step 1 – Literature review

The literature review is a detailed recap of the literature sources you intend to use in your research. Writing a clear literature review helps to create a reference point for all the literature types for your research. The literature review process can be summarized as follows:

Step 2 – Create your research questions

A research question is the primary objective of a research paper . It is the question that the researcher answers through their research. Research goals include defining, analyzing, comparing, or testing different variables to come up with conclusions.

A good research question guides the research’s scope and dictates the data’s methodology and sources. The research question produces the core claim of your research, also known as the thesis . Extensive research cases may have several research questions focused on a central theme.

Step 3- Summarize key concepts and theories

There are key concepts and theories to support and answer research questions. Some concepts may have varying definitions in several contexts, so researchers should articulate the meaning of concepts in their research question.:

  • Study existing concepts and theories
  • Test how relevant they are in other contexts
  • Critique their methodology

Step 4 – Identify how your research will contribute

Research aims to contribute to, challenge, or supplement the existing body of knowledge. The strides made by mankind in technology, automotive, energy, and healthcare are all products of research.

The theoretical framework of a research undertaking is formulated to ask the right questions and select the best methods and sources. By doing so, researchers establish a clear path to resolving research questions that add value to their fields.

The structure of a theoretical framework

The theoretical framework can have its own section or be nestled under the literature review section. There are many rules governing the structure of a theoretical framework, so it’s best to consult with your school department. However, you can note the following tips to create a consistent flow.

  • Refer to your research questions to create sections that deal with each question separately.
  • Arrange by theory cluster
  • Order by date
  • Cite all your sources

Click here and see and example of a theoretical framework !

Why is a theoretical framework important for research?

A theoretical framework is the central assertion on which your research is built. It involves literature review and formulating research questions to compare, dispute, or validate theories in research. It guides the research process through data collection , research methods, and sources.

How do you choose a theoretical framework?

Begin by defining your research title. Outline the key variables you consider important and compare them with existing ones. Look at the current standing of your thesis concept and examine similarities and observable differences. Update your list of key variables with new variables as you encounter them in the literature review. Pick the framework that sufficiently frames the most viable research question.

Where can I use a theoretical framework?

Theoretical frameworks can be used in both qualitative and quantitative research . Various variables can be included in this section as it applies in all fields and disciplines in research.

What is the structure of a theoretical framework?

The theoretical structure is often categorized under the literature review part of a research paper. However, it may have its own section depending on the preference of some institutions.

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Theoretical vs Conceptual Framework

What they are & how they’re different (with examples)

By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | Reviewed By: Eunice Rautenbach (DTech) | March 2023

If you’re new to academic research, sooner or later you’re bound to run into the terms theoretical framework and conceptual framework . These are closely related but distinctly different things (despite some people using them interchangeably) and it’s important to understand what each means. In this post, we’ll unpack both theoretical and conceptual frameworks in plain language along with practical examples , so that you can approach your research with confidence.

Overview: Theoretical vs Conceptual

What is a theoretical framework, example of a theoretical framework, what is a conceptual framework, example of a conceptual framework.

  • Theoretical vs conceptual: which one should I use?

A theoretical framework (also sometimes referred to as a foundation of theory) is essentially a set of concepts, definitions, and propositions that together form a structured, comprehensive view of a specific phenomenon.

In other words, a theoretical framework is a collection of existing theories, models and frameworks that provides a foundation of core knowledge – a “lay of the land”, so to speak, from which you can build a research study. For this reason, it’s usually presented fairly early within the literature review section of a dissertation, thesis or research paper.

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Let’s look at an example to make the theoretical framework a little more tangible.

If your research aims involve understanding what factors contributed toward people trusting investment brokers, you’d need to first lay down some theory so that it’s crystal clear what exactly you mean by this. For example, you would need to define what you mean by “trust”, as there are many potential definitions of this concept. The same would be true for any other constructs or variables of interest.

You’d also need to identify what existing theories have to say in relation to your research aim. In this case, you could discuss some of the key literature in relation to organisational trust. A quick search on Google Scholar using some well-considered keywords generally provides a good starting point.

foundation of theory

Typically, you’ll present your theoretical framework in written form , although sometimes it will make sense to utilise some visuals to show how different theories relate to each other. Your theoretical framework may revolve around just one major theory , or it could comprise a collection of different interrelated theories and models. In some cases, there will be a lot to cover and in some cases, not. Regardless of size, the theoretical framework is a critical ingredient in any study.

Simply put, the theoretical framework is the core foundation of theory that you’ll build your research upon. As we’ve mentioned many times on the blog, good research is developed by standing on the shoulders of giants . It’s extremely unlikely that your research topic will be completely novel and that there’ll be absolutely no existing theory that relates to it. If that’s the case, the most likely explanation is that you just haven’t reviewed enough literature yet! So, make sure that you take the time to review and digest the seminal sources.

Need a helping hand?

this part of the research paper holds the theoretical framework which is it

A conceptual framework is typically a visual representation (although it can also be written out) of the expected relationships and connections between various concepts, constructs or variables. In other words, a conceptual framework visualises how the researcher views and organises the various concepts and variables within their study. This is typically based on aspects drawn from the theoretical framework, so there is a relationship between the two.

Quite commonly, conceptual frameworks are used to visualise the potential causal relationships and pathways that the researcher expects to find, based on their understanding of both the theoretical literature and the existing empirical research . Therefore, the conceptual framework is often used to develop research questions and hypotheses .

Let’s look at an example of a conceptual framework to make it a little more tangible. You’ll notice that in this specific conceptual framework, the hypotheses are integrated into the visual, helping to connect the rest of the document to the framework.

example of a conceptual framework

As you can see, conceptual frameworks often make use of different shapes , lines and arrows to visualise the connections and relationships between different components and/or variables. Ultimately, the conceptual framework provides an opportunity for you to make explicit your understanding of how everything is connected . So, be sure to make use of all the visual aids you can – clean design, well-considered colours and concise text are your friends.

Theoretical framework vs conceptual framework

As you can see, the theoretical framework and the conceptual framework are closely related concepts, but they differ in terms of focus and purpose. The theoretical framework is used to lay down a foundation of theory on which your study will be built, whereas the conceptual framework visualises what you anticipate the relationships between concepts, constructs and variables may be, based on your understanding of the existing literature and the specific context and focus of your research. In other words, they’re different tools for different jobs , but they’re neighbours in the toolbox.

Naturally, the theoretical framework and the conceptual framework are not mutually exclusive . In fact, it’s quite likely that you’ll include both in your dissertation or thesis, especially if your research aims involve investigating relationships between variables. Of course, every research project is different and universities differ in terms of their expectations for dissertations and theses, so it’s always a good idea to have a look at past projects to get a feel for what the norms and expectations are at your specific institution.

Want to learn more about research terminology, methods and techniques? Be sure to check out the rest of the Grad Coach blog . Alternatively, if you’re looking for hands-on help, have a look at our private coaching service , where we hold your hand through the research process, step by step.

this part of the research paper holds the theoretical framework which is it

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This post is part of our dissertation mini-course, which covers everything you need to get started with your dissertation, thesis or research project. 


Thank you for giving a valuable lesson

Muhammed Ebrahim Feto

good thanks!

Benson Wandago


olawale rasaq

thanks for given very interested understand about both theoritical and conceptual framework

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