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

Difference between a 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.
conceptual framework
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

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

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
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. 
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
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
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.
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.