Conceptual or Theoretical Framework?

I will define and explain the difference between conceptual frameworks and theoretical frameworks. I will also explain when to use each one.

Many schools of thoughts exist as it relates to theoretical and conceptual frameworks. Definitions are ever expanding as qualitative research continues to evolve.

Bottom line: the words are not as important as how YOU define them and use them in your study.

Conceptual framework, theoretical framework, and literature review are all terms that are often used interchangeably in many books and articles, which makes it very confusing.

And so it becomes more important to know WHY you are including specific things in your research design, instead of checking off words and terms from a list.

However, the question still remains: what are the differences between the two?

An Analogy...

Let’s say you would like to lose ten pounds so you can look snatched on the beach for an upcoming vacation.

You have to come up with a plan in order to make that happen, right?

So you decide that you are going to work out at least three times a week, cut out sugar and flour from your diet, and make sure you drink at least 3 liters of water.

You estimate that you should be able to lose the ten pounds in about 8 weeks if you stay consistent.

You decide to do some research and talk to a personal trainer who lets you know that you may be able to guarantee your results if you focus on getting enough protein in your diet.

Therefore, you decide that you will also use protein powder at least once a day in order to increase your protein intake.

You are hoping that the protein powder will help you get enough protein in your diet and increase your chances of meeting your goal to lose ten pounds.

I think we can all agree that it is definitely possible to lose the ten pounds with your original plan.

However, the protein powder provides more structure and assurance in helping you to reach your goal.

So let’s think about it like this…

Your original plan to lose weight is your conceptual framework.


Increasing your protein intake with protein powder is your theoretical framework.

Make sense?

Conceptual Framework

A conceptual framework is “an argument about why the topic one wishes to study matters, and why the means proposed to study it are appropriate and rigorous” (Ravitch & Riggan, 2012, p. 7).

I personally think of the conceptual framework as the big picture of your study, the so-what, the rationale.

This would include such things as:

  • the topic
  • how you came to the topic
  • the history/context of the topic
  • why the topic is important
  • who you are as a researcher
  • why you care about the topic
  • how you will collect the data
  • How you will analyze the data
  • what you hope to do with the data

In short, identifying the necessary components of the research design is the conceptual framework.

Theoretical Framework

A theoretical framework is the “theory” used to guide your study.

“The philosophical stance informing the methodology and thus providing a context for the process and grounding its logic and criteria” (Crotty, 1998, p. 3).

This theory details the relationship between the related constructs of your study. It may also provide an explanation of your identified problem.

The theoretical framework shapes your entire research project. It frames for how you the researcher/instrument will collect, analyze, and discuss the findings, in addition to, how you discuss the related literature.

Do you need a theoretical framework?

Depends on paradigm and methodology.

You may not yet know your methodology, depending on where you are in the process.

However, you should have an idea of your paradigm.

Bottom Line:

You may not have a theoretical framework (theory). You definitely WILL HAVE a conceptual framework (big picture).

Need help with figuring out your conceptual and theoretical frameworks for your study?

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