The best email I ever got from a PhD student had only one line.

All it said was:

‘What the f**k is a theory framework? I’m a smart guy and I’ll be damned if I know’.


Well, dear anonymous emailer (and you, you beautiful PhD Writing Template downloader), let me explain.
From your PhD Writing Template, you can see that a theory framework is the scaffolding upon which your thesis is built.
When you’re done writing your theory framework chapter or section, your reader (well, your examiner, because let’s face it, they’re probably the only person who’s going to read it 😞) should be able to answer these questions:

  1. What theoretical concepts are used in the research? What hypotheses, if any, are you using?
  2. Why have you chosen this theory?
  3. What are the implications of using this theory?
  4. How does the theory relate to the existing literature, your problem statement and your epistemological and ontological positions? How has this theory has been applied by others in similar contexts? What can you learn from them and how do you differ?
  5. How do you apply the theory and measure the concepts (with reference to the literature review/problem statement)?
  6. What is the relationship between the various elements and concepts within the model? Can you depict this visually?

Forms of a theory framework

So, a theory framework can take different forms.

  1. It can state the theoretical assumptions underpinning the study.
  2. It can connect the empirical data to existing knowledge.
  3. It can allow you to come up with propositions, concepts or hypotheses that you can use to answer ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions.

Broadly speaking, a theory framework can be used to either derive certain testable assumptions or as a way of making sense of your data. In both cases, it structures your data collection by focusing your attention on a small subset of concepts.
(I know I’m glossing over a lot of detail here. I could write tons and tons about what a theory framework is and how to write one. That’s why I’ve previously run a course on How To Write A PhD, which went into a whole load more detail and offered systems to make designing and writing a theory framework simpler).
Seeing how much I love metaphor, let’s think of it like a toolbox. In your literature review you outlined the problem that needs ‘fixing’. The theory framework is a toolbox stuffed full of concepts, variables, or hypotheses (your tools) that you’ll then use to address the problem and do the fixing.
What you do with your theory framework will depend a lot on the goals of your research.
If you are a theory-generator, your theory framework will be put together from a series of possible contenders and used to derive concepts and hypotheses that you’ll test. The same is true if you are testing theory.
If you have an empirical focus, you may use an off the shelf theory that may have been used in similar contexts. Or, you may develop your own theory framework using more than one theory. In either case, the emphasis is on making sense of the data.
Confused? You should be. This stuff is toughhhhhh. So much so that I’ve written an extended guide on creating your theory framework. Check it out if you’re still struggling.

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