what’s a framework? – as in, conceptual or theoretical framework


Whenever people talk about concepts or theory, they usually add on another word – framework. And ‘framework’ can be as confusing as the concept or theory word that goes before it. (Check this recent post for the difference between concept and theory.)

So what does this ‘framework’ actually mean?

It’s actually easiest to think about a frame, as we all know what one is. And then the work that the frame does.

So… Think of a house. A house usually has a frame, often built of wood or steel. This frame is a skeleton around which the rest of the house is built. The frame provides a basic structure – houses built using the same frame might vary a lot, but they still follow the same underpinning design and logics.

A house built around a frame has been pre-planned. The frame makes the plan solid. A planned house differs from a house where rooms are just added on higgledy-piggledy. That’s because the plan has a kind of logic about where things go – the bathroom here, the bedrooms there.

The layout has been designed with a particular kind of everyday life in mind. Thus, most houses – and their frames – support multiple zones of activity and there’s a pleasing flow from one area to another.

The house frame also provides stability. The frame stops the house wobbling about, keeps the roof in one piece.

Thinking about a house frame then prompts us to think about structure, stability, flow, zones of activity.

There are other kinds of frames too that are helpful to research thinking.

A picture frame is something that you put around the outside of something – the frame creates a border, differentiating what’s inside the frame from what’s outside. The frame gives the whole a finished appearance.

The picture frame has particular component parts – a rim, and a front and back cover. So the frame is a kind of solid casing which stops the contents moving about. It also allows the whole – picture and frame – to be hung, stored, stacked for instance – it completes the package.

Thinking about the picture frame also generates some helpful ideas – borders, solidity, parts which fit together, portability, wholeness.

These things – structure, stability, flow, zones of activity, borders, solidity, parts, portability, wholeness – are essentially what a conceptual or theoretical framework does for research and a thesis. A conceptual or theoretical framework provides:

  • a structure that is used to design a study, generate data and analyse it
  • borders which allow you to say what is included and what is not
  • a basis for connecting to other research, for example comparing the results generated by your framework with others
  • a linked set of parts, ideas which guide the writing and help to create the red thread of argument and
  • a potentially re-usable approach which can be duplicated with other topics and/or data.

A conceptual or theoretical framework is therefore, as you can see, a big component of what gives coherence and focus to a research project and the subsequent thesis/report/papers. It’s no wonder that supervisors are anxious that PhDers get one.

But.. there’s always a but… Different disciplines and different supervisors have different ideas about when you need to build your conceptual or theoretical framework. Different topics and different methodologies also lend themselves to different temporalities.

There are three common approaches to timing the framework, conceptual or theoretical. These are:

  1. the framework grows organically with the research – the benefit of this approach is that the framework is bespoke to the particular topic and data. One risk with this approach is that the research ends up being more like a higgledy-piggledy house that is retro-fitted with a framework that perhaps doesn’t quite work. Or that you end up with a framing which is clearly OK, but where you haven’t got quite the data you need to make it hang together and flow.
  2. you arrive at a framework somewhere in the middle of the project, when you have enough data to know what is needed but not so much that you are committed to the higgle and piggle. The benefit with this approach is that you have time to consider what might work best for your particular topic and you can make sure that you do generate the necessary data. The risks include generating at least some data which doesn’t fit and being distracted from the actual data you are generating by the continued pressure to arrive at a suitable framework.
  3. the conceptual or theoretical framework is developed at the outset of the project and is used to guide data generation as well as the subsequent analysis and writing. Two benefits of this approach are that you make sure that you have the kind of data that you need, and you have a very clear approach to analysis. A risk is that the early framing eliminates important information and becomes as much a set of blinkers as it does a support.

It is really important to consider these timing possibilities at the start of your research. If you are a doctoral researcher it’s good to talk early with your supervisor about these timing possibilities, with their attendant benefits and risks.

And do hang onto the fact that constructing a house frame or picture frame takes time and planning. A frame can’t be constructed in a flash. Regardless of when you do it, whether its made up from theory or concepts, you may have to have several goes before you get the right framing structure for your very specific work.

Photo by Devon Janse van Rensburg on Unsplash

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, coherence, conceptual, flow, framework, theory and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to what’s a framework? – as in, conceptual or theoretical framework

  1. I wish I had read this 6 months ago! Very interesting and so clear. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As an undergraduate taking my first research methods class in my field, and embarking on the grand journey of research, this and the previous two posts have been extremely helpful! Thank you!


  3. Paya says:

    Hello, I’ve been following this newsletter for at least a couple of years, and haven’t seen an entrance into the discussion until now. My dissertation was to ask PhD academic mentors how they guided their PhD dissertation writers with the literature review (Chapter 2), and how they talked about the conceptual and theoretical framework. Hope this can help someone!
    Paya N Gottfried


  4. Cheryl Gajda says:

    Such a poignant article at the perfect timing of my doctorate. My husband and I are building our own house too. What a suitable analogy on all counts!


  5. 23thingsaboutdigitalknowledgepd says:

    Thanks Pat – I will, as usual, pass this beautifully articulated piece to my doctoral students!


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