Have you ever had a eureka moment? A moment where something that you’ve misunderstood for ages becomes crystal clear?

I did, about half way through my PhD.

Did I come up with a ground breaking discovery that would revolutionise my field? Did I develop a new theory that would change the way we think about the world?


I finally understood how to write a theoretical framework.

Sound silly? It isn’t. The theoretical framework is important, but many people find it difficult. I know I struggled with it.

Then someone explained the theory framework to me in such a simple way. Here’s the eureka moment:
The theoretical framework is like a toolbox.

Simple, right?

Let me explain. In the literature review you highlighted the problem that needs ‘fixing’. The theoretical framework – the ’toolbox’ – details the theories, propositions, hypotheses (if you’re using them) and concepts – the ’tools’ – that you will use to address or make sense of this problem.

So, your job in a theoretical framework chapter is to discuss in detail what the tools look like, how they behave, how they have been used before, how they relate to one another, how they are relevant to your aims and objectives and what the drawbacks are from using them. The methods chapter then discusses how you will use (operationalise) those tools.

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What is a theoretical framework?

 A simple way to understand what a theoretical framework is is to picture what your research would look like if you didn’t have one.

Imagine you are studying local government responses to climate change. The question you want to answer is ‘why do local governments differ in their responses to climate change?’ (the subject of my own doctoral research).

The list of potential explanations for why responses differ is enormous.

You could approach this question with a focus on, say, psychology, power, gender, economics, and so on. The best we can typically hope for – and this is particularly true in much of the social sciences – is an interpretation of the truth.

So – and this is important – we use theory to focus our attention on a small sub-set of all potential explanations, on one particular viewpoint.

Now I know I’m getting into messy epistemological and ontological waters here. I am an interpretivist, so I see theory as a ‘lens’ that you apply to make sense of the world. That’s the shape of my toolbox.

But, even if you’re a positivist you still pick and choose theoretical concepts and hypotheses from a range of available options; you just use them in a different way (rather than a lens, they become testable propositions, or measurement tools).

Without a theoretical framework we are left with a potentially endless choice of potential viewpoints, which would make our data collection and analysis and our discussion hugely chaotic.

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In other words, if we don’t know how to focus our attention, how we can present a coherent explanation? 

The theoretical framework is a natural extension of the literature review. The purpose of the literature review, amongst other things, is to highlight gaps and shortcomings with the existing work in your field.

The theoretical framework details the perspective you will take to address that gap and shortcoming.

For example, in my doctoral research, my literature review focused on government responses to climate change and pointed out that there hadn’t been much discussion on local government.

The theoretical framework then made an informed decision to come at it from a particular theoretical perspective (institutional theory, if you’re interested) and then discussed what that theory looks like, highlighting the key concepts and ideas. 

In your own research you will also need to make an informed decision about the particular theory you will employ to guide you through the rest of the research.

So, the job of the theoretical framework isn’t to repeat the literature review. Instead, think of it as a separate, mini literature review, this time focusing on the theory you will employ. You don’t have to discuss every particular use and discussion of the theoretical position you employ. If you did, you’d quickly run out of space and time.

Remember, your examiners are likely to already be familiar with the theory, meaning that rather than discuss every possible thing that there is to discuss about it, you instead need to discuss how and why the theory has been adapted and adopted to the context of your research.

How to structure a theoretical framework

 The key when writing your literature review is to show your understanding of the broad theoretical school and to define the key concepts, both with reference to the existing literature, but also to your research questions and problem statement. 
There are ten things to consider and include in your theory framework section/chapter. These aren’t necessarily in order, but they are all things that you will need to think about and, if relevant, discuss.
  1. You need to have a solid grasp of your aims and objectives. These define the space in which your research will sit and your goals when conducting it. You will need to briefly recap these when you start writing your theoretical framework, both to remind the reader and so that you can relate your theory to these overarching aims.
  2. What theory/theories are you using? Here you need to define and explain each theory you draw upon and, in doing so, discuss the leading proponents and applications. This shows that you understand the theory you are going to adopt.
  3. You then need to spend time critically arguing why you are adopting this particular theory. There are a lot of potential theories you could use. Why this one? Importantly, you should relate your choice to the discussions in the literature review and your aims and objectives.
  4. Can the theory/theories be broken down into different schools? Which one are you siding with and why?
  5. A theory contains a number of concepts. Which will you be drawing upon? Why these ones? Have you defined them properly? The way you approach this section will be influenced by your epistemological and ontological perspective and, thus, whether you use hypotheses or not. If you are using hypotheses, you need to state them as such.
  6. How do the concepts relate to your aims and objectives?
  7. Have you clearly stated your ontological and epistemological perspective?
  8. Are you the first to use this particular theory in this particular way? What benefits or drawbacks does that bring?
  9. Can you spot any drawbacks with applying this theory? Does it fail to account for a particular dimension of a phenomenon? Is it difficult to operationalize?
  10. How are your concepts related? Are you using them as hypotheses? Or as a model to make sense of the data? Somewhere in between? Be explicit about how they are all related and what you plan on doing with them.
The goal of writing up a theoretical framework is to tell the reader why you have chosen particular theories, how they relate to the gap in the literature, and how they relate to your aims and objectives. Following these ten steps is a good way of achieving that goal. 
You are likely to be moulding and interpreting the theory to suit your purposes, which requires you to discuss your take on the theory. So, read the first hand literature; you want to get to the source of the theory and, where possible, avoid relying on other people’s literature reviews. Try not to fill your theoretical framework discussion with quotes though (the same is true of your literature review). The examiners want to see that you have understood the theory, not that you are capable of regurgitating it. 

A short (but necessary) note on ontology and epistemology 

 Everybody hates ontology and epistemology, but this stuff is important, so stay with me for just one minute. 
There will be differences in how you approach theory and how your toolbox is used. This is because of differing ontological and epistemological positions. 
Those from the more realist end of the spectrum (e.g. positivists) will see theory as embodying a set of testable propositions. In this tradition, concepts are seen as variables and are tested using quantitative measurement. Those from the more idealist end of the spectrum (e.g. interpretivism) will see theory as embodying a lens that can be applied to the world and used to make sense of it. Much like the lenses of a pair of glasses. In this tradition, the concepts are there to make sense of the world by focusing your attention on a particular aspect of reality. There is no hypotheses to be proved or disproved, only an interpretation. What interpretation you take depends on the tools in your toolbox. Each tool does one job. The same is true of concepts.
In either case, theories are meant to be tested and challenged. They are fluid and change over time in light of new evidence and new empirical application. If you are explicitly testing new or old theory, this is obvious. But even if you are using theory to interpret the world, you will still have something to say about the relevance of particular theories and concepts. Whilst it might not seem like it, this is a test of the theory and does advance our knowledge.

How do I choose theories and create my framework?

Unless you are using an inductive methodological approach (where you generate theory from the data), you will likely approach your fieldwork with a theoretical framework in mind. Which theory or theories you choose is, in part, down to your aims and objectives and whether there is a relevant theory available ‘off-the-shelf’ that is appropriate for your needs.

There are generally three strategies that researchers use to develop their theoretical frameworks: 

  1. There may be theories in your field that have arisen on the basis of repeated observation and testing and which are widely accepted.
  2. Or, you might find that you need to select concepts from multiple theories and create a novel framework that is unique to your particular context.
  3. A growing and important trend in social research is to adopt an interdisciplinary perspective when trying to understand the social world. This can be achieved by looking beyond the dominant, well-established theories and thinking about how other theories, particularly those from other disciplines or sub-disciplines, can be used.

In any case, you must consider the following when selecting a theory: 

  1. Identify your ontological and epistemological beliefs.
  2. List several theories that align with your epistemological position and which can aid your understanding of the phenomenon under investigation.
  3. Engage in literature review around those theories, both to familiarise yourself with them but also to understand their relevance to your study.
  4. Ask yourself how each theory connects to your problem, aims & objectives.
  5. Select the theory or theories that provide more relevant tools for your thesis. 

I have more than one theory. What do I do?

 Often, you need to combine concepts, hypotheses or ideas from more than one theoretical school. Employing more than one theory is entirely legitimate. I did so in my PhD. 

 However, you need to consider a few key questions

  • Are the theories you are bringing together epistemologically compatible? 

  • Have you discussed each theory in the same level of detail to adequately explain the theory, your justification for its inclusion, its relation to the literature and its potential drawbacks? 

  • What benefits does focusing on more than one theory bring? Perhaps one theory has shortcomings that the other addresses? 

  • What downsides are there to employing more than one theory? 

  • Has anyone else used this combination of theories before you? 


The theoretical framework is a tricky section to write, largely because the choice available to you is huge.

But keep that toolbox metaphor in mind. 

 Each theory contains a number of tools. Your job in the theory framework is to take the tools you need for your project from the most relevant theory/theories and package them up into your own toolbox.

When you’re done, you should see that the theory framework offers:

  1. Structure, by detailing the key concepts, tools and, where relevant, hypotheses
  2. A way to connect to other research
  3. A coherent, joined up set of ideas that structure the writing and help to create an argumentative streak that can run throughout your thesis
  4. An approach that can be reused in additional contexts once you’re done

Along the way, you need to convince the reader that you’ve picked and applied the most appropriate tools possible, given your aims and objectives.

The theoretical framework frames the research. If you build that frame right, your research will shine. If you don’t then you’ll struggle.

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