This post is part of a series of guides that explain in the simplest terms possible how to structure each of the major chapters of a typical PhD thesis. If you haven’t already, download our free PhD Thesis Writing Template for a simple way of visualising your entire thesis on one page.

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The theory framework is the scaffolding upon which your thesis is built. When you’re done writing your theory framework chapter or section, your reader should be able to answer these questions:


  1. What theoretical concepts are used in the research? What hypotheses, if any, are you using?
  2. Why have you chosen this theory?
  3. What are the implications of using this theory?
  4. How does the theory relate to the existing literature, your problem statement and your epistemological and ontological positions? How has this theory has been applied by others in similar contexts? What can you learn from them and how do you differ?
  5. How do you apply the theory and measure the concepts (with reference to the literature review/problem statement)?
  6. What is the relationship between the various elements and concepts within the model? Can you depict this visually?

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That means that a theory framework can take different forms:

It can state the theoretical assumptions underpinning the study.
It can connect the empirical data to existing knowledge.
It can allow you to come up with propositions, concepts or hypotheses that you can use to answer ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions.

Broadly speaking, a theory framework can be used to either derive certain testable assumptions or as a way of making sense of your data. In both cases, it structures your data collection by focusing your attention on a small subset of concepts.

You can therefore think of it like a toolbox. In your literature review you outlined the problem that needs ‘fixing’. The theory framework is a toolbox stuffed full of concepts, variables, or hypotheses (your tools) that you’ll then use to address the problem and do the fixing.

We’ve created an extended guide to creating your theory framework. Check it out if you’re still struggling.

When you discuss theory, you are seeking to provide a background examination of what other researchers thing about a phenomenon and how they have conceptualised it. You should discuss the relevance of particular theoretical approaches for your study, and you should take care to consider the dominant theoretical schools in your field. This shows the examiner you have understood the state of the art.

But, you should do so critically, and question the suitability of any theories that exist or that you are creating to your particular study. That means that you should discuss previous applications of theory in order to discuss what implications they have for your own research.

The reason you do this is because your discipline likely has accepted and ’tried and tested’ ways of doing things. In many cases this is an advantage, because it can serve as inspiration for your choice of concepts, hypotheses or variables, and can influence your choice of methods.

In other cases, it may be that existing theory is ill-equipped to account for your particular phenomenon. In either case, you need to demonstrate a good understanding of what that theory is discussing, both to demonstrate your skills as a researcher and scholar, but also to justify your own theoretical and methodological position.

Plus, when you do settle on your own theoretical perspective, you must discuss how it relates to existing theory, even if the links are subtle or weak.

To learn more about how to create your theoretical framework, check out our in-depth guide.

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