Conceptual and Theoretical Frameworks for Thesis Studies: What You Must Know

HomeConceptual and Theoretical Frameworks for Thesis Studies: What You Must Know

This article explains the importance of frameworks in a thesis study and the differences between conceptual frameworks and theoretical frameworks. It provides guidelines on how to write a thesis framework, definitions of variable types, and examples of framework types.

What is a research framework and why do I need one?

When planning your thesis study, you need to justify your research and explain its design to your readers. This is called the research framework. Think of it as the foundation of a building. A good building needs a strong foundation. Similarly, your research needs to be supported by reviewing and explaining the existing knowledge in the field, describing how your research study will fit within or contribute to the existing literature (e.g., it could challenge or test an existing theory or address a knowledge gap), and informing the reader how your study design aligns with your thesis question or hypothesis.

Important components of the framework are a literature review of recent studies associated with your thesis topic as well as theories/models used in your field of research. The literature review acts as a filtering tool to select appropriate thesis questions and guide data collection, analysis, and interpretation of your findings. Think broadly! Apart from reviewing relevant published papers in your field of research, also explore theories that you have come across in your undergraduate courses, other published thesis studies, encyclopedias, and handbooks.

There are two types of research frameworks: theoretical or conceptual.

What is a conceptual framework?

A conceptual framework is a written or visual representation that explains the study variables and their relationships with each other. The starting point is a literature review of existing studies and theories about your topic.

Steps to develop a conceptual framework

  • Clarify your study topic by identifying and defining key concepts in your thesis problem statement and thesis question. Essentially, your thesis should address a knowledge gap.
  • Perform a literature review to provide a background to interpret and explain the study findings. Also, draw on empirical knowledge that you have gained from personal experience.
  • Identify crucial variables from the literature review and your empirical knowledge, classify them as dependent or independent variables, and define them.
  • Brainstorm all the possible factors that could affect each dependent variable.
  • Propose relationships among the variables and determine any associations that exist between all variables.
  • Use a flowchart or tree diagram to present your conceptual framework.

Types of variables

When developing a conceptual framework, you will need to identify the following:

  • Independent variables
  • Dependent variables
  • Moderating variables
  • Mediating variables
  • Control variables

First, identify the independent (cause) and dependent (effect) variables in your study. Then, identify variables that influence this relationship, such as moderating variables, mediating variables, and control variables. A moderating variable changes the relationship between independent and dependent variables when its value increases or decreases. A mediating variable links independent and dependent variables to better explain the relationship between them. A control variable could potentially impact the cause-and-effect relationship but is kept constant throughout the study so that its effects on the findings/outcomes can be ruled out.

Example of a conceptual framework

You want to investigate the hours spent exercising (cause) on childhood obesity (effect).

Now, you need to consider moderating variables that affect the cause-and-effect relationship. In our example, the amount of junk food eaten would affect the level of obesity.

Next, you need to consider mediating variables. In our example, the maximum heart rate during exercise would affect the child’s weight.

Finally, you need to consider control variables. In this example, because we do not want to investigate the role of age in obesity, we can use this as a control variable. Thus, the study subjects would be children of a specific age (e.g., aged 6–10 years).

What is a theoretical framework?

A theoretical framework provides a general framework for data analysis. It defines the concepts used and explains existing theories and models in your field of research. It also explains any assumptions that were used to inform your approach and your choice of specific rationales. Theoretical frameworks are often used in the fields of social sciences.

Purpose of a theoretical framework

  • Test and challenge existing theories
  • Establish orderly connections between observations and facts
  • Predict and control situations
  • Develop hypotheses

Steps to develop a theoretical framework

  • Identify and define key concepts in your thesis problem statement and thesis question.
  • Explain and evaluate existing theories by writing a literature review that describes the concepts, models, and theories that support your study.
  • Choose the theory that best explains the relationships between the key variables in your study.
  • Explain how your research study fills a knowledge gap or fits into existing studies (e.g., testing if an established theory applies to your thesis context).
  • Discuss the relevance of any theoretical assumptions and limitations.

A thesis topic can be approached from a variety of angles, depending on the theories used.

  • In psychology, a behavioral approach would use different methods and assumptions compared with a cognitive approach when treating anxiety.
  • In literature, a book could be analyzed using different literary theories, such as Marxism or poststructuralism.

Structuring a theoretical framework

The theoretical framework is a natural extension of your literature review. The literature review should identify gaps in the field of your research, and reviewing existing theories will help to determine how these can be addressed. The structure of a theoretical framework is fluid, and there are no specific rules that need to be followed, as long as it is clearly and logically presented. The theoretical framework is sometimes integrated into the literature review chapter of a thesis, but it can also be included as a separate chapter, depending on the complexity of the theories.

Example of a theoretical framework

The sales staff at Company X are unmotivated and struggling to meet their monthly targets. Some members of the management team believe that this could be achieved by implementing a comprehensive product-training program, but others believe that introducing a sales commission structure will help.

Problem:

Company X is not achieving their monthly sales targets

Objective:

To increase monthly sales.

Research question:

How can Company X motivate their sales team to achieve its monthly sales targets?

Sub-questions:

  1. Why do the sales staff feel unmotivated?
  2. What is the relationship between motivation and monetary rewards?
  3. Do the sales staff feel that they have sufficient product knowledge?

Theoretical framework:

A literature search will need to be performed to understand the background of the many different theories of motivation in psychology. For example, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (basic human needs—physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization—have to be fulfilled before one can live up to their true potential), Vroom’s Theory of Expectancy (people decide upon their actions based on the outcomes they expect), and Locke’s Goal-Setting Theory (goals are a key driver of one’s behavior). These theories would need to be investigated to determine which would be the best approach to increase the motivation of the sales staff in Company X so that the monthly sales targets are met.

Conclusion

A robust conceptual or theoretical framework is crucial when writing a thesis/dissertation. It defines your research gap, identifies your approach, and guides the interpretation of your results.

A thesis is the most important document you will write during your academic studies. For professional thesis editing and thesis proofreading services, check out Enago's Thesis Editing services for more information.

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