Developing the theoretical framework
Theories are developed by researchers to explain phenomena, draw connections and make predictions. They are based on existing knowledge, observations, and ideas.
In your thesis or dissertation, the theoretical framework is where you discuss and evaluate the theories that are most relevant to your research. Its main goals are to:
- Define key concepts
- Evaluate and combine relevant theories and models
- Explain the assumptions and expectations that guide your project
By presenting this information, you ‘frame’ your research and justify your approach by showing that your work is grounded in established ideas.
This part of your dissertation lays the foundations that will support your analysis, allowing you to convincingly interpret your results and explain their broader relevance.
Getting started with the theoretical framework
The length and complexity of your theoretical framework depends on your field and topic. Some studies have an obvious basis in a well-established theory, while others require more detailed explanation and justification.
You might already know that you want to apply an established theory or set of theories to a specific context (for example, reading a literary text through the lens of critical race theory, or using social impact theory in a market research project).
In this case, your task is to explain the key aspects of the theory, and convince your reader that it provides a solid basis for answering your research question. You should also evaluate other relevant theories and discuss why you have chosen this approach.
However, there are always many possible approaches to a topic; strong research often involves drawing on various different theories and combining ideas. If you don’t yet have a theoretical approach, follow these three steps to build a theoretical framework.
Step 1: Identify key concepts
The first step is to pick out the key terms from your problem statement or research questions. Concepts often have multiple definitions, so the theoretical framework involves clearly defining what you mean by each term.
Example problem statement
In the past ten years, the “gig economy” has become an increasingly important segment of the labour market. Under-30s are more likely to engage in freelance, contracted or zero-hour work arrangements instead of traditional full-time jobs. Research on the reasons for and consequences of this shift has focused on objective measures of income, working hours and employment conditions, but there has been little work exploring young people’s subjective experiences of the gig economy.
Example research questions
- What are the main factors in young people’s decision to engage in the gig economy?
- What is the relationship between flexibility, precarity, and job satisfaction in gig work?
- To what extent do experiences of the gig economy differ by gender, race and class?
In this research problem, there are several key concepts that need to be explored. As well as defining what is meant by the gig economy, the theoretical framework could discuss how scholars have theorised concepts like flexibility, precarity, and job satisfaction. It could also draw on theories about gender, race and class in the labour market.
Step 2: Evaluate relevant definitions, theories, and models
By conducting a thorough literature review, you can determine how other researchers have defined and drawn connections between these key concepts. As you write the theoretical framework, aim to compare and critically evaluate the approaches that different authors have proposed.
After discussing different models and theories, you establish the definitions that best fit your research and justify why this is the case. In more complex research projects, you might combine theories from different fields to build your own unique framework.
Make sure to mention the most important theories related to your key concepts. If there is a well-established theory or model that you don’t want to apply to your own research, explain why it isn’t suitable for your purposes.
Step 3: Show what your research will contribute
Apart from discussing other people’s theories and ideas, the theoretical framework should aim to show how your own project fits in.
- Will you test a theory or contribute new evidence by collecting original (qualitative or quantitative) data?
- Will you use theory as a basis for interpreting and understanding your data?
- Does your project critique or challenge an established theory?
- Are you combining theoretical approaches in a new or unique way?
If relevant, you can also use the theoretical framework to develop hypotheses for your research. A hypothesis makes a testable prediction about the outcome of a specific study, while a theory is the overarching explanation for why and how certain outcomes happen in general.
That means you can use the theory to determine what you expect to happen.
Example of a theoretical framework
To get a sense of what this part of your thesis or dissertation might look like, take a look at our example theoretical framework.