Meaning Of Conceptual Framework In Research Paper

The theoretical framework may be rooted in a specific theory, in which case, your work is expected to test the validity of that existing theory in relation to specific events, issues, or phenomena. Many social science research papers fit into this rubric. For example, Peripheral Realism Theory, which categorizes perceived differences among nation-states as those that give orders, those that obey, and those that rebel, could be used as a means for understanding conflicted relationships among countries in Africa. A test of this theory could be the following: Does Peripheral Realism Theory help explain intra-state actions, such as, the disputed split between southern and northern Sudan that led to the creation of two nations?

However, you may not always be asked by your professor to test a specific theory in your paper, but to develop your own framework from which your analysis of the research problem is derived. Based upon the above example, it is perhaps easiest to understand the nature and function of a theoretical framework if it is viewed as an answer to two basic questions:

  1. What is the research problem/question? [e.g., "How should the individual and the state relate during periods of conflict?"]
  2. Why is your approach a feasible solution? [i.e., justify the application of your choice of a particular theory and explain why alternative constructs were rejected. I could choose instead to test Instrumentalist or Circumstantialists models developed among ethnic conflict theorists that rely upon socio-economic-political factors to explain individual-state relations and to apply this theoretical model to periods of war between nations].

The answers to these questions come from a thorough review of the literature and your course readings [summarized and analyzed in the next section of your paper] and the gaps in the research that emerge from the review process. With this in mind, a complete theoretical framework will likely not emerge until after you have completed a thorough review of the literature.

Just as a research problem in your paper requires contextualization and background information, a theory requires a framework for understanding its application to the topic being investigated. When writing and revising this part of your research paper, keep in mind the following:

  • Clearly describe the framework, concepts, models, or specific theories that underpin your study. This includes noting who the key theorists are in the field who have conducted research on the problem you are investigating and, when necessary, the historical context that supports the formulation of that theory. This latter element is particularly important if the theory is relatively unknown or it is borrowed from another discipline.
  • Position your theoretical framework within a broader context of related frameworks, concepts, models, or theories. As noted in the example above, there will likely be several concepts, theories, or models that can be used to help develop a framework for understanding the research problem. Therefore, note why the theory you've chosen is the appropriate one.
  • The present tense is used when writing about theory. Although the past tense can be used to describe the history of a theory or the role of key theorists, the construction of your theoretical framework is happening now.
  • You should make your theoretical assumptions as explicit as possible. Later, your discussion of methodology should be linked back to this theoretical framework.
  • Don’t just take what the theory says as a given! Reality is never accurately represented in such a simplistic way; if you imply that it can be, you fundamentally distort a reader's ability to understand the findings that emerge. Given this, always note the limitations of the theoretical framework you've chosen [i.e., what parts of the research problem require further investigation because the theory inadequately explains a certain phenomena].

The Conceptual Framework. College of Education. Alabama State University; Conceptual Framework: What Do You Think is Going On? College of Engineering. University of Michigan; Drafting an Argument. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Lynham, Susan A. “The General Method of Theory-Building Research in Applied Disciplines.” Advances in Developing Human Resources 4 (August 2002): 221-241; Tavallaei, Mehdi and Mansor Abu Talib. "A General Perspective on the Role of Theory in Qualitative Research." Journal of International Social Research 3 (Spring 2010); Ravitch, Sharon M. and Matthew Riggan. Reason and Rigor: How Conceptual Frameworks Guide Research. Second edition. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2017; Reyes, Victoria. Demystifying the Journal Article. Inside Higher Education; Trochim, William M.K. Philosophy of Research. Research Methods Knowledge Base. 2006; Weick, Karl E. “The Work of Theorizing.” In Theorizing in Social Science: The Context of Discovery. Richard Swedberg, editor. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014), pp. 177-194.

What is a conceptual framework? How do you prepare one? This article defines the meaning of conceptual framework and lists the steps on how to prepare it. A simplified example is added to strengthen the reader’s understanding.

In the course of preparing your research paper as one of the requirements for your course as an undergraduate or graduate student, you will need to write the conceptual framework of your study. The conceptual framework steers the whole research activity. The conceptual framework serves as a “map” or “rudder” that will guide you towards realizing the objectives or intent of your study.

What then is a conceptual framework in the context of empirical research? The next section defines and explains the term.

Definition of Conceptual Framework

A conceptual framework represents the researcher’s synthesis of literature on how to explain a phenomenon. It maps out the actions required in the course of the study given his previous knowledge of other researchers’ point of view and his observations on the subject of research.

In other words, the conceptual framework is the researcher’s understanding of how the particular variables in his study connect with each other. Thus, it identifies the variables required in the research investigation. It is the researcher’s “map” in pursuing the investigation.

As McGaghie et al. (2001) put it: The conceptual framework “sets the stage” for the presentation of the particular research question that drives the investigation being reported based on the problem statement. The problem statement of a thesis presents the context and the issues that caused the researcher to conduct the study.

The conceptual framework lies within a much broader framework called theoretical framework. The latter draws support from time-tested theories that embody the findings of many researchers on why and how a particular phenomenon occurs.

Step by Step Guide on How to Make the Conceptual Framework

Before you prepare your conceptual framework, you need to do the following things:

  1. Choose your topic. Decide on what will be your research topic. The topic should be within your field of specialization.
  2. Do a literature review. Review relevant and updated research on the theme that you decide to work on after scrutiny of the issue at hand. Preferably use peer-reviewed and well-known scientific journals as these are reliable sources of information.
  3. Isolate the important variables. Identify the specific variables described in the literature and figure out how these are related. Some abstracts contain the variables and the salient findings thus may serve the purpose. If these are not available, find the research paper’s summary. If the variables are not explicit in the summary, get back to the methodology or the results and discussion section and quickly identify the variables of the study and the significant findings. Read the TSPU Technique on how to skim efficiently articles and get to the important points without much fuss.
  4. Generate the conceptual framework. Build your conceptual framework using your mix of the variables from the scientific articles you have read. Your problem statement serves as a reference in constructing the conceptual framework. In effect, your study will attempt to answer a question that other researchers have not explained yet. Your research should address a knowledge gap.

Example of a Conceptual Framework

Statement number 5 introduced in an earlier post titled How to Write a Thesis Statement will serve as the basis of the illustrated conceptual framework in the following examples.

Thesis statement: Chronic exposure to blue light from LED screens (of computer monitors and television) deplete melatonin levels thus reduce the number of sleeping hours among middle-aged adults.

The study claims that blue light from the light emitting diodes (LED) inhibit the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep and wake cycles. Those affected experience insomnia; they sleep less than required (usually less than six hours), and this happens when they spend too much time working on their laptops or viewing the television at night.

Notice that the variables of the study are explicit in the paradigm presented in Figure 1. In the illustration, the two variables are 1) number of hours devoted in front of the computer, and 2) number of hours slept at night. The former is the independent variable while the latter is the dependent variable. Both of these variables are easy to measure. It is just counting the number of hours spent in front of the computer and the number of hours slept by the subjects of the study.

Assuming that other things are constant during the performance of the study, it will be possible to relate these two variables and confirm that indeed, blue light emanated from computer screens can affect one’s sleeping patterns. (Please read the article titled “Do you know that the computer can disturb your sleeping patterns?” to find out more about this phenomenon) A correlation analysis will show whether the relationship is significant or not.

e-Book on Conceptual Framework Development

Due to the popularity of this article, I wrote an e-Book designed to suit the needs of beginning researchers. This e-Book answers the many questions and comments regarding the preparation of the conceptual framework. I provide five practical examples based on existing literature to demonstrate the procedure.

So, do you want a more detailed explanation with five practical, real-life examples? Get the 52-page e-Book NOW!


McGaghie, W. C.; Bordage, G.; and J. A. Shea (2001). Problem Statement, Conceptual Framework, and Research Question. Retrieved on January 5, 2015 from

©2015 January 5 P. A. Regoniel

Cite this article as: Regoniel, Patrick A. (January 5, 2015). Conceptual Framework: A Step by Step Guide on How to Make One. In SimplyEducate.Me. Retrieved from

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