In order to ensure that research – particularly research involving other people or animals – is conducted safely, ethically and appropriately, studies, dissertations and related research projects must be approved by supervisors, graduate advisors and/or institutional ethics committees. Part of the approval process requires would-be researchers, particularly at the master's or doctoral level, to submit a research or project proposal featuring a theoretical framework for the study they wish to complete.

This framework introduces readers to the subject you wish to research. It explains prior research and developments in relevant fields and provides the context driving you to propose the theoretical research study, dissertation or project you're seeking to make reality. While many students find the notion of creating a theoretical framework challenging, the process of actually drafting the framework isn't difficult. As long as you understand the ideas and research on which your proposed study is based and you understand what a theoretical framework should be, you can create a framework of your own.

What Is a Theoretical Framework?

A theoretical framework is a collection of concepts and ideas used to guide research and build the frame around which a study, dissertation or similar academic project is built. These frameworks are comparable to established scientific theories but are less defined and more malleable. You can consider them theories in progress.

Research proposals and research reports begin by describing these frameworks, using them to lay the foundation of your current project by referencing and summarizing the prior research and theoretical background that led to it. These frameworks are critically important for studies that aim to test a theory but can also be used to guide and direct exploratory studies aiming to build a base of knowledge on a subject.

Often, theoretical frameworks are confused for conceptual and analytical frameworks. These are similar concepts, all of which are commonly described by using any one of the three terms. To clarify, you can map the purpose of each of these frameworks to time. A theoretical framework describes the past, detailing the path taken to reach the current study in the form of prior research and a body of previously formed conclusions from which the proposed project wants to build or against which it wants to argue. A conceptual framework explains the present, discussing current research objectives and methods as well as our present understanding of a subject. Analytical frameworks suggest the future. They offer insight and suggestions on future studies or explorations that may further research in the topic. Keeping this in mind is useful when developing the theoretical framework of your study or dissertation.

Developing Dissertation and Study Frameworks

Even in graduate programs, students often confuse the theoretical framework of a study for an extended literature review and attempt to write frameworks in the same manner. This confusion makes sense but is incorrect. While the theoretical framework of a study references and notes prior research on a topic in a manner similar to that of a literature review, the framework offers a broad explanation of the research on which the current project is based, focusing on how all of the referenced studies connect with each other to build the concepts and ideas with which your dissertation or study works.

This contrasts with a literature review, which details the specifics of each referenced study or document used by the project, noting how each individual piece factors into the project independently and focusing more on the composition and reports of each piece of literature than the way the collection of literature defines our understanding of the subject.

Because of this, when developing the theoretical framework for your project, it may be beneficial to draft parts of the literature review first. By analyzing each piece of research and writing on your subject, you will find ways that the ideas connect and define your understanding of the subject as a whole. Take notes as you discover these connections, and once you've found them, think about them and link them to the ideas of your project. Consider how each piece has led you to the planning of your own research project. Describe the relationship between the prior research and your current project to build the framework of a theory or idea you wish to explore in your project. This will be your theoretical framework. Once you have this noted, you can write out the framework formally.

Writing Your Theoretical Framework

The theoretical framework of a study is usually detailed in the opening pages of a research proposal or research report and is written as formally as any other research paper would be. Assume that your audience has at least a cursory understanding of the subject but is not an expert.

Begin by introducing your reader to the subject of your study. Define any problems or gaps in understanding that drive research projects and then proceed to summarize the various approaches researchers before you have taken in attempts to understand or develop a base of knowledge on the subject. Detail the relevant history of research into your subject and then express the core idea you've developed by considering prior research and the way it has all connected. This is not your thesis; instead, it is the theory you wish to test or the possibility you wish to explore by testing your thesis over the course of your study. Once you've expressed this idea, introduce your project.

Finish your framework by describing to your reader the ways that your project connects to your core idea and the research before it and – particularly in a project proposal – how it presents a feasible solution or useful development in the study of your subject. Using this section as a springboard, you may then continue into the rest of your proposal or report.

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