Many students find writing the theoretical framework one of the most challenging chapters to write in a thesis outline. In fact, if you scroll down the Thesis/research coach page, you will read students’ comments asking for advice on their theoretical framework. So what is a theoretical framework and why should researchers bother to write it?
A theoretical framework guides research, determining what variables to measure, and what statistical relationships to look for. Trochim (2006) in The Research Methods Knowledge Base, states that there are two realms involved in research—theory and observation. Theory is what goes on inside the heads of scientists while observation is what goes on in the real world or measures and observations. In conducting research, one works between these two realms. Theory guides every aspect of research, from formulation of the research question through operationalization and discussion.
Uses of theoretical framework
In “How to Write a successful Research Grant Application: A Guide for Social and Behavioral Scientists, Gregory Herek writes that the theoretical framework strengthens the researcher’s research in several ways:
1. Explicit statement of the theoretical assumptions permits them to be evaluated critically.
2. The theoretical framework connects the researcher to existing knowledge. Guided by a relevant theory, researchers have a basis for their hypotheses and choice of research methods.
3. Articulating the theoretical assumptions of a research study forces the researcher to address questions of why and how. It permits researchers to move from simply describing a phenomenon observed to generalizing about various aspects of that phenomenon.
4. Having a theory helps to identify the limits to those generalizations. A theoretical framework specifies which key variables influence a phenomenon of interest. It alerts the researcher to examine how those key variables might differ in varied populations
How to develop the theoretical framework
To develop the theoretical framework, here is a useful guide that I have shared with my students:
1. Examine your thesis title or topic and research problem.
Example: Farmers’ comprehension of usage instructions on pesticide packaging
2. Brainstorm on what you consider to be the key variables in your research. Answer the question: What factors contribute to the presumed effect (dependent variable)?
In our example above, it is: What are the determinants of farmers’ comprehension of usage instructions? What factors influence the way farmers understand usage instructions on packaging (boxes, bottles)?
3. Read and review related literature to find answers to your research question.
4. List the constructs and variables that might be relevant to your study. Group variables into independent and dependent. In our example thesis topic above, these would be:
Dependent variable: Farmers’ comprehension of usage instructions
Independent: Farmers’ sources of pest management information, perceived credibility of source and frequency of exposure
5. Review the social science theories (communication, psychology, sociology, anthropology) and choose the theory that can best explain the relationships between the key variables in your study.
6. Discuss the assumptions or propositions of this theory and point out their relevance to your research.
It is easy to err in the choice of appropriate theory. Read the theories carefully and make sure they make sense to your proposed research. Consult your thesis adviser, research instructor or favorite instructor about your choice of theory.
The theoretical framework is not a stand-alone copy and paste operation where you Google the theory and voila you copy and paste what wikipedia churns out. A theory is selected on the basis of how best it can explain the relationships among the variables. There should be a connection between the theoretical framework, conceptual framework, operationalization, and instrument.