writing the thesis – the theoretical framework


Please note that I write my blog on weekends. It is not part of my workload or job description. I support the #USSstrike and “teach out” online. 

Not every thesis has a section or chapter devoted to a theoretical framework. But a lot do. (It’s the Ph in PhD after all.) And these ‘theory chapters’ can be very tricky to write – and are often tricky for the examiner to read.

Before starting to write your theory section/chapter it can be good to think about what the examiner wants to see.

The examiners have likely been appointed because they know, and possibly use, the same theoretical framing as you. And this means that you have to assume that they don’t need a basic introduction or a run-through of every possible thing there is to say about the theory. The examiner doesn’t want a general essay, the kind of here’s-the-lot that you wrote for doctoral course-work (or even your masters’ degree).

The purpose of the theory section/chapter in the doctoral thesis is to set the examiner up to make sense of what you’ve done and what you claim to have ‘found’. The examiner therefore expects – and needs – to see something particular to your work. Something that isn’t so general it could apply to any project anywhere, anytime. Something that is bespoke to what they are about to encounter.

The examiner wants to know:

  • How you understand your chosen theory – there are usually multiple ways that theories are interpreted. Which have you opted for and why? What are the advantages of the approach you have taken?
  • Why you’ve chosen this approach – what is it about this particular framing that gives you a way to conceive and design your project, and/or that gives your results real explanatory heft?
  • That you know the ways in which the theory is already used in the field. Who else has used this approach in ways similar to you? What can you build on from their work? Or perhaps, how does your use of this theory differ from the way it is usually put to work?
  • How you have used the theory – how and where have you brought the theory into conversation with your research? Are some aspects of the theory more important than others to your research? Which and why?
  • What are the potential down-sides to using this theory and approach – what doesn’t it do? What have you done about these potential problems?

And if you have brought two or more theoretical approaches together in your research, then you need to provide the answers to these questions for them both/all. But you also need to say why and how it is possible to use more than one approach. Does one theoretical framing fill in a gap left by the other? Are these theories (epistemologically) compatible? What tensions are there between them? Has anyone else done this? What potential issues are there that you need to draw the examiner’s attention to?

Once you’re clear on the audience and purpose for your theory chapter/section then it’s also important to consider the way you’re going to write it.

The examiner wants to know you are on top of the theory. That you know your stuff. That you have expertise. That you can speak with authority about it. So they don’t expect to read quote after quote after quote after quote. Assume that the examiners have read the original, so what they want is something other than a cut and paste of the stuff they’ve already encountered.

The examiner wants your theoretical explication – your approach to the theory and how it’s used – largely in your own words. Of course, the judicious juicy quote can be used for a few key points, those occasions where the theorist makes a point, just so. But it’s best if you can explain the key points about the theory in your own way.

And the examiner really doesn’t want to see you quoting large slabs of “introductions to”, that is, other people’s interpretations of key ideas, unless you are actually discussing how the theory has been interpreted in the field. They want to see that you have read the texts for yourself.

The examiner gets pretty worried if they can’t see you and your research in the theoretical chapter. They want to see you summarising, evaluating, managing a discussion, stating your take on the theory, explaining your use of it. If they can’t find you, then they’ll approach the viva wondering whether you really do grasp the framework you claim as the basis of your work. They’ll have a set of viva questions in mind to try to find this out. You don’t want that!

So in sum –  you need to have a deep and meaningful relationship with your chosen theory long before you put hand to mouse to write the relevant chapter. You need to know how to explain it. And you need to be very clear about how and why and where you’ve used it.

But there is no doubt that writing the theoretical section/chapter will also enhance your understanding and your subsequent use of the theory throughout the rest of the thesis text.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, chapter, examiner, theory, theory chapter, thesis and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to writing the thesis – the theoretical framework

  1. 23thingsaboutdigitalknowledgepd says:

    Reblogged this on Digital learning PD Dr Ann Lawless and commented:
    for my doctoral stduents


  2. colin mills says:

    This is SO helpful: thank you. For my writing, and my teaching. Very best wishes, ever Colin M


  3. Reblogged this on Parts That Make Me Whole and commented:
    Here is a blog post worth referring to, while sorting out theory matters


  4. Handy M says:

    . Thanks for the elegant description of what’s needed for a theoretical framework. I needed that.


  5. Pat thank you once again for your insight. Again I find myself printing this blog off and using your guidance above almost as a check list whilst in the discovery phase of my theory. I am at the Literature Review stage and had a supervisory meeting whereby all we talked about was theory and themes. As always food for thought and development.. My gratitude and thanks Eileen


  6. Ibrahim Ibrahim Inuwa says:

    This piece is very resourceful; it hits the nail on the head on what is expected of a thesis on theoretical framework!


  7. Lakshmi says:

    This is so useful! I am working on my first year transfer report and this post was so very helpful. Thank you Pat!


  8. Susi says:

    Thank you very much. It is excellent advice!


  9. Arinaitwe Dinah says:

    Thank you for such a simple, clear and precise explanation regarding writing a theory.


  10. lucy Ajambo says:

    Thank you for a simple yet detailed explanation of the theoretical framework. The highlighted ideas will surely sharpen my concepts


  11. Many thanks. You are a star. Thanks for your unqualified support. Take care.


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