If youre anything like the PhD students we interact with on a day to day basis, you probably struggle to wrap your head around and write either your theory framework and lit review chapters. You may even struggle with both.

Youre not alone. Around 80% of the students we coach need guidance on one or both of these topics.

But dont despair – there isnt anything wrong with you. Its particularly hard to understand how the two chapters differ from one another, principally because they share a number of similarities.

In this guide well explain the differences between a theoretical framework and a literature review in your PhD. Elsewhere Ive explained the purpose of both the lit review chapter and theory framework chapter, so I wont go into too much detail here. Rather, I will focus on the things that differentiate them so you can better understand what goes where and avoid repeating yourself and putting the wrong things in the wrong places.

Youll see that broadly speaking, the literature review is backward-looking and the theory framework is forward-looking. That is, the lit review looks at whats already been written about your topic in order to highlight a gap that youre going to fill, whereas the theoretical framework is the conceptual and analytical approach you are going to take to fill that gap.

Simple, right?

The difference between a theory framework and a lit review chapter


It’s not quite so simple. Theres a bit more to it than that.

Lets elaborate on the forward-backward analogy a little more:

Your literature review is there to make the case for your research. Its there to problematise the existing literature in order to highlight a gap in that literature that your research will then aim to fill, driven by your research questions and research aims and objectives.

In that chapter, your job is to tell the reader whats wrong with the existing understanding of your topic. It may be that there are methodological flaws, or that there are gaps in our empirical understanding. Or, it may be that the particular perspective or approach taken is somehow problematic. Whatever it is, your job in the chapter is to articulate that problem, and then situate your research question as your path to fixing that problem.

I often use the analogy of a company looking to develop a new type of mobile phone. In order to be able to do so, they need to have a good understanding of how old mobile phones are made, principally to understand what problems there are with those existing designs and to see where things can be improved. Your PhD is the same. To be able to make an original contribution to knowledge to your field – thats the goal of a PhD, after all – you need to know what it is that your field is discussing and, crucially, what problems there are with those discussions.


Literature review: backward-looking – what came before your research and what is wrong with it?

Theory framework: forward-looking – what theoretical approach can you use to answer your research questions?

So how does that compare to the theory framework?

Well, once youve made the case for your research and situated it in response to a problem, you start to look forward and tell the reader how you will go about fixing that problem. Your theory framework (and your methods) chapters are where you do that. Its your job here to explain the perspective you’ve used to gather and make sense of your data.

Literature review: backward-looking – what came before your research and what is wrong with it?

Theory framework: forward-looking – what theoretical approach can you use to answer your research questions.

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Why is this so confusing?


Part of the confusion lies in how similar the two chapters can be. For example, you will likely be discussing theory and concepts in your lit review, and you will likely be reviewing some literature in your theory framework chapter.

But its important to bear in mind the underlying purpose of each chapter. Even though you might be talking about theory in your lit review chapter, you are doing so in order to articulate the problem with that literature. And in order to develop your theory framework, its inevitable that youll have to review the literature that uses and discusses the theory and its underlying concepts.


Wrapping up

So next time youre struggling to work out whether something belongs in your literature review or theory framework chapter, ask yourself a simple question: are I seeking to make the case for my research (in which case, it goes in the lit review), or is it outlining the conceptual approach I will take to answer the questions and collecting or analysing that data (in which case, it goes in the theory framework).

PhD Literature Review & Theory Framework Survival Pack

Master your lit review & theory framework.

Learn what goes where (and why), and how it all fit together with this free, interactive guide to the PhD literature review and theory framework.