In science or in any other area where research and analysis often begin with a question, answering that question requires mapping the context of the question and describing the conditions that determine the validity of proposed answers -- in other words, the theoretical framework that leads to an answer. Students unfamiliar with the concept may incorrectly assume that a theoretical framework is something unprovable -- "a mere theory" -- as opposed to something concrete and real. By definition, a theoretical framework allows researchers to test the theory and describe the results.
Theoretical Frameworks Arise From Disagreement
You and a friend discuss "Birdman," a movie directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu that has been widely acclaimed but sometimes dismissed. You're a fan and your friend thinks it's "psychedelic junk" that makes no sense. If you're both serious film buffs, you'd like some way of discussing these differences that may lead to a meaningful conclusion.
Ideally, this might be a shared understanding of the film and agreement on its merits. More realistically, each of you may have a better understanding of the film and of each other's evaluation process. To do this, you need to establish a theoretical framework for the discussion.
A Theoretical Framework Provides Limits and Boundaries
You might begin by discussing the first scene, in which Michael Keaton is seated with his back to the viewer. As the scene develops, the camera draws back and we see that Keaton is in a dressing room seated in yoga's lotus position but hovering several feet above the floor. You find this fascinating; your friend thinks it's a cheap trick that violates common sense.
To make any progress, you need to frame the discussion in film theory. Often this requires introducing many questions, some as general as "What makes a film good or bad?" and others as specific as "Is the filmmaker limited to showing only what we normally experience?" As you ask these questions and discuss them, you are beginning to build a theoretical framework that allows you to analyze the film in ways you agree to allow. The theoretical framework provides boundaries for your discussion and limits it to topics within those bounds.
Connecting the Framework to Other Theories and Views
At some point, you and your friend may begin to see that you bring different assumptions to your view of the film. By making these assumptions explicit, you allow them to be critically evaluated. You may also discover that you and your friend are asking questions that have been answered many times. By connecting to existing knowledge and earlier film theories, each of you begins to make your arguments more meaningful.
A film theory that emphasizes the value of social realities may evaluate "Birdman" less positively than a theory that emphasizes art as a form of free play. The theoretical framework used to evaluate the film gives both of you ways of understanding and evaluating the assumptions underlying your divergent critiques.
Working With Framed Conclusions
Articulating your assumptions about the film and then comparing your assumptions with other film theories allows you to understand the limits of your generalizations. As scholar Richard Swanson observes in a 2007 article for the "Human Resource Development Review," the theoretical framework provides a structure that holds or supports the theory, allowing you to understand its assumptions and limits. This in turn allows you to come to meaningful conclusions about that theory. Once the theory has been qualified or confirmed, it can then be applied to further instances -- in the "Birdman" example, perhaps of future films by the same director or of other films with magical elements. At that point, the theory can be examined again in the light of this new information and consequently refined further.
Patrick Gleeson received a doctorate in 18th century English literature at the University of Washington. He served as a professor of English at the University of Victoria and was head of freshman English at San Francisco State University. Gleeson is the director of technical publications for McClarie Group and manages an investment fund. He is a Registered Investment Advisor.