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6 Steps to Mastering the Theoretical Framework of a Dissertation

As the pivotal section of your dissertation, the theoretical framework will be the lens through which your readers should evaluate your research. It's also a necessary part of your writing and research processes from which every written section will be built.

In their journal article titled Understanding, selecting, and integrating a theoretical framework in dissertation research: Creating the blueprint for your "house", authors Cynthia Grant and Azadeh Osanloo write:

The theoretical framework is one of the most important aspects in the research process, yet is often misunderstood by doctoral candidates as they prepare their dissertation research study. The importance of theory-driven thinking and acting is emphasized in relation to the selection of a topic, the development of research questions, the conceptualization of the literature review, the design approach, and the analysis plan for the dissertation study. Using a metaphor of the "blueprint" of a house, this article explains the application of a theoretical framework in a dissertation.

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They continue in their paper to discuss how architects and contractors understand that prior to building a house, there must be a blueprint created. This blueprint will then serve as a guide for everyone involved in the construction of the home, including those building the foundation, installing the plumbing and electrical systems, etc. They then state, We believe the blueprint is an appropriate analogy of the theoretical framework of the dissertation.

As with drawing and creating any blueprint, it is often the most difficult part of the building process. Many potential conflicts must be considered and mitigated, and much thought must be put into how the foundation will support the rest of the home. Without proper consideration on the front end, the entire structure could be at risk.

Your theoretical framework is the blueprint for your entire dissertation.
Your theoretical framework is the blueprint for your entire dissertation and will guide you during the process of writing it. Photo by Daniel McCullough on Unsplash.

With this in mind, I'm going to discuss six steps to mastering the theoretical framework section—the "blueprint" for your dissertation. If you follow these steps and complete the checklist included, your blueprint is guaranteed to be a solid one.

Complete your review of literature first

In order to identify the scope of your theoretical framework, you'll need to address research that has already been completed by others, as well as gaps in the research. Understanding this, it's clear why you'll need to complete your review of literature before you can adequately write a theoretical framework for your dissertation or thesis.

Simply put, before conducting any extensive research on a topic or hypothesis, you need to understand where the gaps are and how they can be filled. As will be mentioned in a later step, it's important to note within your theoretical framework if you have closed any gaps in the literature through your research. It's also important to know the research that has laid a foundation for the current knowledge, including any theories, assumptions, or studies that have been done that you can draw on for your own. Without performing this necessary step, you're likely to produce research that is redundant, and therefore not likely to be published.

Understand the purpose of a theoretical framework

When you present a research problem, an important step in doing so is to provide context and background to that specific problem. This allows your reader to understand both the scope and the purpose of your research, while giving you a direction in your writing. Just as a blueprint for a home needs to provide needed context to all of the builders and professionals involved in the building process, so does the theoretical framework of your dissertation.

So, in building your theoretical framework, there are several details that need to be considered and explained, including:

  • The definition of any concepts or theories you're building on or exploring (this is especially important if it is a theory that is taken from another discipline or is relatively new).
  • The context in which this concept has been explored in the past.
  • The important literature that has already been published on the concept or theory, including citations.
  • The context in which you plan to explore the concept or theory. You can briefly mention your intended methods used, along with methods that have been used in the past—but keep in mind that there will be a separate section of your dissertation to present these in detail.
  • Any gaps that you hope to fill in the research
  • Any limitations encountered by past researchers and any that you encountered in your own exploration of the topic.
  • Basically, your theoretical framework helps to give your reader a general understanding of the research problem, how it has already been explored, and where your research falls in the scope of it. In such, be sure to keep it written in present tense, since it is research that is presently being done. When you refer to past research by others, you can do so in past tense, but anything related to your own research should be written in the present.

Use your theoretical framework to justify your research

In your literature review, you'll focus on finding research that has been conducted that is pertinent to your own study. This could be literature that establishes theories connected with your research, or provides pertinent analytic models. You will then mention these theories or models in your own theoretical framework and justify why they are the basis of—or relevant to—your research.

Basically, think of your theoretical framework as a quick, powerful way to justify to your reader why this research is important. If you are expanding upon past research by other scholars, your theoretical framework should mention the foundation they've laid and why it is important to build on that, or how it needs to be applied to a more modern concept. If there are gaps in the research on certain topics or theories, and your research fills these gaps, mention that in your theoretical framework, as well. It is your opportunity to justify the work you've done in a scientific context—both to your dissertation committee and to any publications interested in publishing your work.

Keep it within three to five pages

While there are usually no hard and fast rules related to the length of your theoretical framework, it is most common to keep it within three to five pages. This length should be enough to provide all of the relevant information to your reader without going into depth about the theories or assumptions mentioned. If you find yourself needing many more pages to write your theoretical framework, it is likely that you've failed to provide a succinct explanation for a theory, concept, or past study. Remember—you'll have ample opportunity throughout the course of writing your dissertation to expand and expound on these concepts, past studies, methods, and hypotheses. Your theoretical framework is not the place for these details.

If you've written an abstract, consider your theoretical framework to be somewhat of an extended abstract. It should offer a glimpse of the entirety of your research without going into a detailed explanation of the methods or background of it. In many cases, chiseling the theoretical framework down to the three to five-page length is a process of determining whether detail is needed in establishing understanding for your reader.

Reducing your theoretical framework to three to five pages is a process of chiseling down the excess details that should be included in the separate sections of your dissertation
Reducing your theoretical framework to three to five pages is a process of chiseling down the excess details that should be included in the separate sections of your dissertation. Photo by Mike Kenneally on Unsplash

Use models and other graphics

Since your theoretical framework should clarify complicated theories or assumptions related to your research, it's often a good idea to include models and other helpful graphics to achieve this aim. If space is an issue, most formats allow you to include these illustrations or models in the appendix of your paper and refer to them within the main text.

Use a checklist after completing your first draft

You should consider the following questions as you draft your theoretical framework and check them off as a checklist after completing your first draft:

  • Have the main theories and models related to your research been presented and briefly explained? In other words, does it offer an explicit statement of assumptions and/or theories that allows the reader to make a critical evaluation of them?
  • Have you correctly cited the main scientific articles on the subject?
  • Does it tell the reader about current knowledge related to the assumptions/theories and any gaps in that knowledge?
  • Does it offer information related to notable connections between concepts?
  • Does it include a relevant theory that forms the basis of your hypotheses and methods?
  • Does it answer the question of "why" your research is valid and important? In other words, does it provide scientific justification for your research?
  • If your research fills a gap in the literature, does your theoretical framework state this explicitly?
  • Does it include the constructs and variables (both independent and dependent) that are relevant to your study?
  • Does it state assumptions and propositions that are relevant to your research (along with the guiding theories related to these)?
  • Does it "frame" your entire research, giving it direction and a backbone to support your hypotheses?
  • Are your research questions answered?
  • Is it logical?
  • Is it free of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and syntax errors?

A final note

In conclusion, I would like to leave you with a quote from Grant and Osanloo:

The importance of utilizing a theoretical framework in a dissertation study cannot be stressed enough. The theoretical framework is the foundation from which all knowledge is constructed (metaphorically and literally) for a research study. It serves as the structure and support for the rationale for the study, the problem statement, the purpose, the significance, and the research questions. The theoretical framework provides a grounding base, or an anchor, for the literature review, and most importantly, the methods and analysis.

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