Difference between a Theoretical Framework and a Conceptual Framework in Research.

Theoretical Framework and a Conceptual Framework in Research.
Theoretical Framework and a Conceptual Framework in Research.

Many students, both in the undergraduate and graduate levels, have difficulty discriminating the theoretical from the conceptual framework in research studies. This requires a good understanding of both frameworks in order to conduct a good investigation.
Many graduate students have difficulty coming up with the conceptual framework and the theoretical framework of their thesis, a required section in thesis writing that serves as the students’ map on their first venture into research. The conceptual framework is almost always confused with the theoretical framework of the study.

A theoretical framework is a group of related ideas that provides guidance to a research project or business endeavor. The appropriateness of a theoretical framework that a marketing department/counselling is using to promote its corporate and product image to the consuming public/target for example can be an important determinant of its ultimate success.

A conceptual framework is an analytical tool with several variations and contexts. It is used to make conceptual distinctions and organize ideas. Strong conceptual frameworks capture something real and do this in a way that is easy to remember and apply. For example, Isaiah

Berlin used the metaphor of a “Fox” and a “Hedgehog” to make conceptual distinctions in how important philosophers and authors view the world. Berlin describes hedgehogs as those who use a single idea or organizing principle to view the world (examples given include Dante, Pascal, Dostoevsky, Plato, Ibsen and Hegel). Foxes, on the other hand, incorporate a type of pluralism and view the world through multiple, sometimes conflicting, lenses (examples include Goethe, Joyce, Shakespeare, Aristotle, Herodotus, Molière, Anderson, Balzac).

Economists use the conceptual framework of “supply” and “demand” to distinguish between the behavior and incentive systems of firms and consumers. Like many conceptual frameworks, supply and demand can be presented through visual or graphical representations.

Comparison between Conceptual and Theoretical Framework
All those involved in conducting a research inevitably face the problem of choosing the right framework to proceed and to remain confined within it. There are both conceptual as well as theoretical frameworks that are equally popular. Though there are similarities, there are differences in approach and style that confuse many. This article by Martin Otundo attempts to find out these differences to enable students to finalize an approach that better suits their requirements.

Theoretical framework is based upon theories that have already been tested. These are theories that are the result of painstaking research conducted earlier by other investigators. Theoretical framework is broader in scope and dimension. It however involves broad generalizations that reflect relationship between things in a phenomenon. Conceptual framework differs from theoretical framework in that it provides the direction that is missing in theoretical framework. Also called research paradigm, conceptual framework makes things easier by delineating the input as well as output of the research project. One gets to know the variables that need to be tested in a conceptual framework.

Theoretical framework is like a treasure inside a room and you are given the key to the door. Afterwards, you are left on your own as to how you interpret and what you finally discover from the room. In sharp contrast, conceptual framework provides you with a ready made mold in which you pour all your data and it gives back the findings.

Both frameworks are popular and it ultimately boils down to personal preferences as well as aptitude to choose the framework for research. For those who are a bit more inquisitive and daring, theoretical framework is more suitable while those who need direction to conduct their research go for conceptual framework to base their research upon.

Other scholars argue that, a common point exists between the two for example; a conceptual framework is the researcher’s idea on how the research problem will have to be explored. This is founded on the theoretical framework, which lies on a much broader scale of resolution. The theoretical framework dwells on time tested theories that embody the findings of numerous investigations on how phenomena occur.

The theoretical framework provides a general representation of relationships between things in a given phenomenon. The conceptual framework, on the other hand, embodies the specific direction by which the research will have to be undertaken in relation to the direction given by the theoretical framework. Statistically speaking, the conceptual framework describes the relationship between specific variables identified in the study as guided by the conceptual framework. It also outlines the input, process and output of the whole investigation. The conceptual framework is also called the research paradigm.

Laura Beth Drilling of Demand Media in the USA has written an article that looks at the major differences and links between the conceptual and theoretical framework in relation to psychology and other fields.

 According to the writings, the “theoretical framework” of an experiment or paper refers to the larger assumptions in which the researcher is working. For example, a psychologist writing a paper may be working in a Freudian, Jungian or behaviorist theoretical framework. A theoretical framework provides a large, overarching structure of ideas that the researcher can then draw from in beginning to analyze a phenomenon or a text.

This differs with the conceptual framework that is, the conceptual framework refers to the specific ideas a researcher uses in the study. Examples of conceptual frameworks include the methods of a chemistry experiment, the definitions a sociologist uses to describe a culture and the types of data an economist considers when evaluating a country’s industry. The conceptual framework thus consists of the ideas that are used to define research and evaluate data. Conceptual frameworks are often laid out at the beginning of a paper or an experiment description for a reader to understand the methods used.

She further goes ahead to show that, the difference between theoretical and conceptual frameworks is scale — referring to the Big Ideas and the smaller ones. The conceptual framework is a set of specific ideas that can be used within the larger theoretical framework. A theoretical framework may contain many ideas that are not explored within the paper or experiment it structures. However, by definition, all aspects of the conceptual framework are used in the process of research.

However, she shows that there exists a similarity between the two in that, a theoretical framework often informs the conceptual framework. For instance, a Freudian psychologist is likely to place a great deal of importance on early childhood data from their subjects.

Also, the theoretical framework may also determine what ideas are not considered by a conceptual framework and later on interlink the two by adding the ideas for the betterment of the whole research. For example, a behaviorist is unlikely to consider a subject’s dreams.

Professor Akintola Akintoye, University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK has focused on the differences and later on the similarities of the theoretical framework and conceptual framework by focusing on their activities in relation to social studies. 

The purpose of the theoretical framework from those of a conceptual framework are as follows: 
The purpose of a theoretical framework is to provide the organization for the study, to test theories, to make research findings meaningful and generalizable, to establish orderly connections between observations and facts, to guide the researcher in the interpretations of the results, to predict and control situations, to stimulate research etc. 
Purposes of Conceptual Framework include: To clarify concepts and propose relationships among the concepts in a study, to provide a context for interpreting the study findings, to explain observations, to encourage theory development that is useful to practice etc.

The similarities as shown by professor include: TF and CF together, helps the researcher see clearly the main variables and concepts in a given study; provides the researcher with a general approach (methodology –research design, target population and research sample, data collection & analysis); guides the researcher in the collection, interpretation and explanation of the data; guides future research –specifically where the conceptual framework integrates literature review and field data etc.

The differences between a CF and TF have been researched on and illustrated buy a table as follows while a summary of the similarities has only been tabled in the scientific experimental researches as opposed to social descriptive sciences. The differences can be summarized as follows in the table below:

between CF and TF

Created from a variety of
Evolve from literature review /
conceptual and theoretical
adapted from existing theory
Synthesis of relevant
Application of a theory as a whole
or in part
Inductive –many aspects of
Deductive –use dominantly in
of Literature
different theoretical
natural science
perspectives are brought
Located in both
Located mainly in the quantitative
quantitative and qualitative
research paradigm
Limited to specific
Wider application beyond the
research problem and / or
current research problem and
Social Science /
Natural Sciences based research
Management based


Babbie, Earl. (2007). The Practice of Social Research (11th edition). Belmont, CA: Thompson, Wadsworth pp. 89. Babbie also identifies exploration and description as purposes of empirical research.

Brains, C., Willnat, L., Manheim, J. and Rich, R. (2011). Empirical Political Analysis: Quantitative and Qualitative Research Methods New York, NY: Longman, pp. 75-77. Brains et al 2011 also identify exploration, explanation and description as research purposes. Explanation is connected to hypotheses testing (as a framework). The other research purposes are not connected to a framework.

Colander, David. (2013). Microeconomics, 9th edition, New York: McGraw Hill and Frank, Robert and Ben Bernanke. 2013. Principles of Microeconomics, 5th edition. New York: McGraw Hill.

Maxwell, J. (2009). “Designing a qualitative study” in The Sate Handbook for Applied Social Science Researchedited by L. Bickmam and D. Rog. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage p. 222.

Ravitch, and Riggan. (2012). Reason and Rigor: How Conceptual Frameworks guide Research, Thousand Oaks CA: Sage p. xiii.

Shields, Patricia and Rangarjan, N. (2013). A Playbook for Research Methods: Integrating Conceptual Frameworks and Project Management. [1]. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press

Shields, Patricia. (2014). Tools for Excellent Papers: 2014 ASPA Student Summit. Presentation at the American Society for Public Administration annual conference, Washington DC March 15.