Theoretical Framework – Purpose & Importance

05.01.23 Dissertation structure & sections Time to read: 5min

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A theoretical framework gives the reader a sense of the overall structure of a research paper. It explains the subject matter and approaches to solving a research problem.

Theoretical Framework – In a Nutshell

  • The theoretical framework of a research paper forms its blueprint.
  • It gives an overview of the research question and its important elements.
  • A well-formulated theoretical framework outlines the key ideas anchored around well-informed questions.

Definition: Theoretical framework

The theoretical framework of research is the foundation that constructs your ideas. It uses a pre-established theory. They are created by researchers to outline different theories, propose links between ideas, and make informed conclusions. The recommended length is usually three to five pages.1

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What is the purpose of a theoretical framework?

A theoretical framework is used to capture the ideas and lessons from existing theories in proposing solutions to a new research problem. There is a high likelihood that there are multiple existing theories that can support your research proposal. The theoretical framework guides the process of comparing and choosing the best theories to support your research.2

Theoretical framework – The literature review

A literature review is one of the first steps in formulating a research topic and the existing works on the subject. It may be regarded as a summary of the literature sources used as research resources. It is organized systematically and contains key takeaways from the literature sources.

A well-conducted literature review should also have synthesis, i.e., a well-structured reorganization of the ideas to support the research proposal. It may give new takes on old sources or supplement them with new information. Literature reviews also track the progression of knowledge in a given field over time.

It considers the significant changes and revisions made to existing works and the factors behind significant changes. Literature review guides the theoretical framework by selecting the most relevant sources and highlighting gaps in the available literature.3

Theoretical framework – Step by step

There are 4 main steps involved in formulating a theoretical framework.

Step 1 – Literature review

The literature review is a detailed recap of the literature sources you intend to use in your research. Writing a clear literature review helps to create a reference point for all the literature types for your research. The literature review process can be summarized as follows:

Finding the relevant literature • Resources such as books, periodicals, or journal articles.
• Scholarly sources from databases such as JSTOR, among other.
• Refine your search terms using keywords and other tools to get the most relevant results.
Assessing and choosing your sources • Scan the abstract of your source to determine how well it fits your research needs.
• Go through the bibliography to locate other similar sources on the topic.
• Use the citation score on platforms such as Google Scholar. A high citation score means the reference has been cited many times and may be a valuable resource.
Locate gaps, themes, and debates • Take note of the connections between your sources.
• Rank the depth of detail in the dominant ideas to structure your ideas effectively.
• Elements to look for: patterns, themes, debates, and gaps.
• Note the similarities and differences in the methodology applied in different sources.
Plan your literature review structure • Apply different methods to structure your literature review.
Chronological – Review older sources to the most recent ones.
Thematic – Works created around core themes
Methodological – Comparing various different methods used.
Theoretical – Used to analyze differing theories

Step 2 – Create your research questions

A research question is the primary objective of a research paper. It is the question that the researcher answers through their research. Research goals include defining, analyzing, comparing, or testing different variables to come up with conclusions.

A good research question guides the research’s scope and dictates the data’s methodology and sources. The research question produces the core claim of your research, also known as the thesis. Extensive research cases may have several research questions focused on a central theme.

Step 3- Summarize key concepts and theories

There are key concepts and theories to support and answer research questions. Some concepts may have varying definitions in several contexts, so researchers should clearly articulate the meaning of concepts in their research question.:

  • Study existing concepts and theories
  • Test how relevant they are in other contexts
  • Critique their methodology

Step 4 – Identify how your research will contribute

Research aims to contribute to, challenge, or supplement the existing body of knowledge. The strides made by mankind in technology, automotive, energy, and healthcare are all products of research.

The theoretical framework of a research undertaking is formulated to ask the right questions and select the best methods and sources. By doing so, researchers establish a clear path to resolving research questions that add value to their fields.

The structure of a theoretical framework

The theoretical framework can have its own section or be nestled under the literature review section. There are many rules governing the structure of a theoretical framework, so it’s best to consult with your school department. However, you can note the following tips to create a consistent flow.

  • Refer to your research questions to create sections that deal with each question separately.
  • Arrange by theory cluster
  • Order by date
  • Cite all your sources4

Click here and see and example of a theoretical framework!

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A theoretical framework is the central assertion on which your research is built. It involves literature review and formulating research questions to compare, dispute, or validate theories in research. It guides the research process through data collection, research methods, and sources.

Begin by defining your research title. Outline the key variables you consider important and compare them with existing ones. Look at the current standing of your thesis concept and examine similarities and observable differences. Update your list of key variables with new variables as you encounter them in the literature review. Pick the framework that sufficiently frames the most viable research question.

Theoretical frameworks can be used in both qualitative and quantitative research. Various variables can be included in this section as it applies in all fields and disciplines in research.

The theoretical structure is often categorized under the literature review part of a research paper. However, it may have its own section depending on the preference of some institutions.5


1 Sacred Heart University Library. “Organizing Academic Research Papers: Theoretical Framework.” Accessed December 16, 2022.

2 PhD Assistance Blog. “Why is theoretical framework important in research?” August 6, 2019.

3 The Writing Center. “Literature Reviews.” University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Accessed December 16, 2022.

4 University of Southern California. “Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper.” December 14, 2022.

5 The Dissertation Mentor. “How to Choose a Theoretical Framework or Conceptual Framework For Your Doctoral Dissertation.” Accessed December 16, 2022.