A theoretical framework is a theory that can be applied to interpret and understand data in your research study.
A useful working definition comes from Connaway and Radford (2021):
“…a theoretical framework utilizes theory/theories and their constituent elements as the presumed ‘working model’ that drives the investigation and analysis of a social phenomenon.” (Connaway & Radford, 2021)
There are a range of theories that each look at the world through different lenses. Each will shape how we look at and interpret our data.
- Feminists look at the world through the lens of power and oppression of women.
- Functionalists look at the world and see how the concepts and ideas in our societies have a role in maintaining social order.
- Behaviorists look at the world and see how incentives – rewards and punishments – shape human behavior.
- Postmodernists look at the world and see how language and discourse shape belief systems.
When selecting a theoretical framework, we’re making a conscious decision about our approach and focus. For example, ‘feminism’ and ‘critical theory’ are theoretical frameworks that will focus on how power functions in society. This might be useful in a sociological or cultural studies analysis. But they won’t be so useful in a study of classroom learning, which might best be served by ‘behaviorism’ or ‘constructivism’ as your theoretical frames.
Theoretical Framework Examples
Scholarly Fields: Psychology, Education
Constructivism is a theory in educational psychology about how people think and learn.
It states that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences.
When new information challenges past beliefs, cognitive dissonance occurs, which is overcome through processes of assimilation and accommodation until we develop a new understanding of what we observe, which is ideally a closer approximation of the truth.
It challenges the previously dominant concept in psychology, behaviorism, that states we learn best through rewards, punishments, and forming associations between concepts.
A researcher examines how students learn about the concept of gravity in a physics classroom. The study would observe the process as the students first encounter basic information, then explore related concepts through hands-on experiments and classroom discussions. The focus of the study would be on how students construct their understanding utilizing prior knowledge and evolving their understanding through experience and reflection.
Scholarly Fields: Psychology, Education
Behaviorism is a learning theory in behavioral psychology that holds that behaviors are learned through association, trial and error.
This theory takes a principled stance that learning needs to be measurable. Inner cognitive states are not taken into account because thoughts are, to behaviorists, not possible to be measured. Therefore, the theory suggests that behavior must be studied in a systematic and observable manner with no consideration of internal mental states.
A famous behaviorist study is Pavlov’s study of how his dog learned to salivate when he heard a bell ringing, because the dog associated the bell with food. This is now known as a Pavlovian response.
Similarly, B.F. Skinner found that rewarding and punishing rats can lead them into learning how to navigate mazes at faster and faster speeds, demonstrating the observable effects of rewards and punishments in learning.
If you were to use Behaviorism as your theoretical framework, it would likely inform both your research question – where you may want to focus on a situation where you will measure changes in behaviors through rewards and punishments – as well as your research methods, where you’ll likely employ a quantitative research method that measures changes in behaviors, such as application of pre-tests and post-tests in an educational environment.
Example of a Study Using a Behaviorist Theoretical Framework
In a study using a behaviorist framework, a psychologist might investigate the effects of positive reinforcement on the classroom behavior of elementary school children. The experiment could involve implementing a rewards system for a selected behavior, such as raising a hand before speaking, and observing any changes in the frequency of this behavior. The behaviorist theoretical framework would guide the researcher’s expectation that the reinforcement (reward) would increase the occurrence of the desired behavior.
3. Psychoanalytic Theory
Scholarly Fields: Psychology, Social Work
Psychoanalytic and psychodynamic theories, originally proposed by Sigmund Freud, posit that human behavior is the result of the interactions among three component parts of the mind: the id, ego, and superego.
This theory might be used by a psychology student in their research project where they test patients’ behaviors, comparing them to Freud’s (or, for that matter, Carl Jung’s) theoretical ideas about stages of development, interaction between id, ego, and superego, or the power of the subconscious to affect thoughts and behavior.
This theoretical frame is rarely used today, although it acts as a foundation to subsequent theories that are held in higher esteem, such as psychosocial theory, explained next.
Example of a Study Using a Psychoanalytic Theoretical Framework
A researcher using a psychoanalytic framework might study the influence of early childhood experiences on adult relationship patterns. Through in-depth interviews, the study would examine participants’ recollections of their early relationships with their parents and the unconscious conflicts and defenses that may have arisen from these experiences. The study would then look for patterns in the participants’ current relationships that might reflect these early experiences and defense mechanisms.
4. Psychosocial Theory
Scholarly Fields: Psychology, Social Work
Psychosocial theory builds upon (and, in some ways, rejects) Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. This theory maintains that subconscious thoughts affect behavior, but focuses on how early social interactions affect outcomes later in life.
Erik Erikson, a central figure in the history of psychosocial theory, theorized that humans go through roughly set-in-stone stages of life, where in each stage, we must overcome challenges like industry vs inferiority (where we need to learn to embrace an industrious and creative personality or else risk having an inferiority complex later in life).
Psychosocial theory can be applied in the study of how people develop psychological complexes in their lives and helps them overcome them by exploring the origins of these complexes.
Example of a Study Using a Psychosocial Theoretical Framework
A study based on a psychosocial framework could explore individual patients’ core challenges and relate them to Erikson’s psychosocial states. The psychosocial theory would guide the interpretation of the results, suggesting that past events, such as being berated by parents, can lead to increased psychological stress.
5. Feminist Theory
Scholarly Fields: Sociology, Cultural Studies, and more
Feminism is a social and political framework that analyzes the status of women and men in society with the purpose of using that knowledge to promote women’s rights and interests.
Generally, a person applying a feminist framework would have at the core of their research question an interest in how women are positioned in society in relation to men, and how their lives and personal agency is shaped and structured by a manufactured gender hirearchy.
Of course, within Feminism, there are a range of conflicting views and perspectives. The intersectional feminists are highly concerned with how black, working-class, and other marginalized women face compounding disadvantages; whereas other feminists might focus exclusively on gender in the workforce, or even how women’s rights intersect with, and are possibly impacted by, trans* rights.
Example of a Study Using a Feminist Theoretical Framework
A researcher could use a feminist theoretical framework to investigate gender bias in workplace promotions within a large corporation. The study might involve collecting and analyzing qualitative data and quantitative data on promotion rates, gender ratios in upper management, and employee experiences related to promotion opportunities. From a feminist perspective, the study would aim to identify any potential systemic inequalities and their impact on women’s career trajectories.
7. Conflict Theory
Scholarly Fields: Sociology, Cultural Studies
Conflict theory is a framework derived from Marxism’s teachings about the operation of power through economic and cultural apparatuses in a society.
Generally, this approach will involve an examination of the ways the economy, policy documents, media, and so forth, distribute power in a capitalist context. Other conflict theorists might examine non-capitalist contexts, such as workers’ cooperatives with the intention of exploring possibilities for economic and cultural life in a post-capitalist society.
Example of a Study Using a Conflict Theory Framework
A sociologist might utilize conflict theory to study wealth and income disparities within a specific urban community. This study might involve the analysis of economic data, alongside a consideration of social and political structures in the community. The conflict theory would guide an understanding of how wealth and power disparities contribute to social tensions and conflict.
Scholarly Fields: Sociology (see the separate concept: Functionalism in Psychology)
Functionalism, based on the works of Durkheim. Merton and their contemporaries, is an approach to sociology that assumes each aspect of society is interdependent and contributes to society’s functioning as a whole.
Functionalism often leans on the analogy of the human body to describe society. Just as the human body has organs which each have a purpose (i.e. a function), each social institution also serves a function to support the whole.
So, a functionalist theoretical framework aims to examine social institutions and social structures (e.g. economic conditions, family relationships, religious practices, media outlets, etc.) to explore how they do or do not fulfill their purposes.
Building on Merton’s work in functionalism, many functionalist studies in sociology also explore how institutions have both manifest functions (intended purposes and consequences) and latent functions (unintended purposes and functions).
Key social institutions explored in functionalism in sociology include: the education system, hospitals, workplaces, factories, religion, and families.
Example of a Study Using a Functionalist Theoretical Framework
A key question in functionalism is: “What is the role of this institution in upholding society, the status quo, and social hierarchies?” Following this approach, an educational researcher using a functionalist framework might study the role of schools in preparing students for various roles in society. They might collect data on curriculum, teaching methods, student performance, and post-graduation outcomes. Using a functionalist lens, the researcher would be interested in how each aspect of the education system contributes to the socialization process and preparation of individuals for adulthood and societal roles.
9. Symbolic Interactionism
Scholarly Fields: Sociology (see: symbolic interactionism in sociology)
The symbolic interaction theory states that the meaning we ascribe to objects, processes, ideas, concepts, and systems are subjective. They are constructed through language, words, and communication, and differ from context to context and culture to culture.
Symbolic interactionism is very common in qualitative research in the social sciences, especially work that involves interviews as a research method.
Whereas functionalists are generally concerned with how social structures, institutions, and concepts have meaning on a social level, symbolic interactionists are concerned with how people make their own meanings of things in their surroundings.
For example, symbolic interactionism argues that people derive their understanding of their world through social interactions and personal experiences and interpretations.
Example of a Study Using a Symbolic Interactionist Framework
A researcher applying symbolic interactionist theory might investigate how medical patients and doctors negotiate understandings of illness during medical consultations. The study would likely involve observations and perhaps recordings of consultations, focusing on the language and symbols used by both parties. A symbolic interactionist approach would highlight how shared meanings and interpretations are built in these interactions, impacting the patient-doctor relationship and treatment decisions.
Scholarly Fields: Sociology, Cultural Studies, Media Studies
Postmodern theory critiques social narratives, beliefs, and definitions, arguing that they’re historically, culturally and socially situated.
A key concept in postmodernism is discourse, which refers to how knowledge is constructed through language. The ways people talk about something constructs normative ideas about it (i.e. ideas, like gender, a socially constructed).
Postmodernists are therefore skeptical of truth-claims made about anything. Their research aims to demonstrate how truth-claims, such as “men are natural-born leaders” emerge through language and social narratives that normalize such as belief.
Postmodernism’s role, therefore. Is to highlight the relativity of truths and social narratives propagated by media and culture.
Example of a Study Using a Postmodern Theoretical Framework
A researcher using a postmodernist framework might conduct a study analyzing the portrayal of reality in contemporary television news. They might examine the selection and presentation of stories, the use of imagery and language, and the underlying assumptions about truth and objectivity. From a postmodernist perspective, the study would not be looking for an objective reality represented in the news but would explore how the news constructs multiple, subjective realities.
List of Additional Theoretical Frameworks
In Communication Studies
- Keynesian Economics
- Neoclassical Economics
- Marxist Economics
- Behavioral Economics
Choosing a theoretical framework is an early step in developing your research study. Once it is selected, it will go on to inform your research methodology and methods of data collection and analysis. Furthermore, in your analysis chapters of your dissertation, you will be regularly leaning upon the ideas and concepts within your chosen theoretical framework to shed light on your observations. Academic research that uses theoretical frameworks is all about using theory to interpret the world and shed new light on phenomena. With theory, we can develop a cohesive understanding of our subjects and construct detailed, well-thought-out arguments throughout our work.
Anfara Jr, V. A., & Mertz, N. T. (Eds.). (2014). Theoretical frameworks in qualitative research. Sage publications.
Borsboom, D., van der Maas, H. L., Dalege, J., Kievit, R. A., & Haig, B. D. (2021). Theory construction methodology: A practical framework for building theories in psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 16(4), 756-766.
Connaway, L. S., & Radford, M. L. (2016). Research methods in library and information science. Los Angeles: ABC-CLIO.
Given, L. M. (Ed.). (2008). The Sage encyclopedia of qualitative research methods. Sage publications.
Gelso, C. J. (2006). Applying theories to research. The psychology research handbook: A guide for graduate students and research assistants, 455.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]