SOLUTION: HUMN 9003A Walden University Conceptual and Theoretical Framework Discussion

© Kamla-Raj 2014
J Soc Sci, 38(2): 185-195 (2014)
Is There a Conceptual Difference between Theoretical
and Conceptual Frameworks?
Sitwala Imenda
University of Zululand, Faculty of Education, Department of Mathematics, Science and
Technology Education, P/Bag x1001, KwaDlangezwa, South Africa
Telephone: +27 35 902 6348/9; Mobile: +27 82 888 3606
KEYWORDS Research. Theory. Theoretical Framework. Conceptual Framework
ABSTRACT This is an opinion piece on the subject of whether or not ‘theoretical’ and ‘conceptual’ frameworks
are conceptual synonyms, or they refer to different constructs. Although, generally, a lot of liter ature uses these
two terms interchangeably – suggesting that they are conceptually equivalent, the researcher argues that these are
two different constructs – both by definition and as actualised during the research process. Thus, in this paper, the
researcher starts by developing his argument by examining the role of theory in research, and then draws a
distinction between areas of research that typically follow deductive versus inductive approaches, with regard to
both the review of literature and data collection. The researcher then subsequently argues that whereas a deductive
approach to literature review typically makes use of theories and theoretical frameworks, the induct ive approach
tends to lead to the development of a conceptual framework – which may take the form of a (conceptua l) model.
Examples depicting this distinction are advanced.
It is not controversial to state that three people coming from different walks of life, watching
the same event, are likely to come up with different interpretations of that event. Certainly, depending on “the spectacles” each one of them
is “wearing” in viewing the event, they would
each have a different “view” of the event. Each
person’s view-point, or point of reference, is his/
her conceptual or theoretical framework. In
essence, the conceptual or theoretical framework
is the soul of every research project. It determines how a given researcher formulates his/
her research problem – and how s/he goes about
investigating the problem, and what meaning s/
he attaches to the data accruing from such an
One lived exemplar which stands out in my
experience was a time when the researcher
worked with three students – all of them working on the same topic: street children. The first
student explained that her area of interest was
sociology, and wondered about the social and
sociological factors at play prior to, and during,
the time a child finds himself (only boys were
living on the streets of this town) on the streets.
Thus, in the development of her research problem, her review of literature and everything else
centred around the broad area of sociology. In
particular, her literature review was located within
the theories and empirical research findings related to social relations amongst young people
living on the streets, socio-economic home backgrounds and social relations in the home, as well
as parental structure (that is, single versus twoparent homes).
The second student explained that he was
interested in finding out the psychological factors and consequences attendant to living on
the streets, with respect to the children living
away from parental guidance. He located his
study within developmental and cognitive psychological thoughts and theories – as well as
empirical studies on the subject, but located within the psychological frame of reference.
On her part, the third student came up with a
rather unique angle to the incidence of street
children. She was an Education student, and
she said to me, “I think many children are out on
the streets because of school”. At first, the researcher thought that he had not understood
the student correctly, until after she had repeated her statement several times. Her perspective
hit the researcher heavily and unexpectedly because up until that time, he had regarded school
as a solution to the problem of street children –
and had not seen school as a possible contributing factor towards children ending up on the
streets. On her part, the student was convinced
that there was something about schooling that
repelled some children, and because of relentless pressure from home (amongst other factors)
forcing them to keep attending school, the affected children rather ended up on the streets.
So, in developing her research problem, she located her thinking within a number of theoretical perspectives, including school governance,
school curriculum, curricular relevance and implementation, the teacher-learner interface, accessibility of schools (for example, distances the
children had to travel, usually walking, to and
from school), school environment – including
possibilities of bullying, as well as school support and sensitivity to learners’ individual and
collective needs.
As one may expect, these three studies, carried out on the same accessible population, differed in more respects than they were similar –
from problem statements and research questions,
all the way to their findings, conclusions and
recommendations. The main reason for this was
that they each “looked at the circumstances of
the same street children from different ‘points of
view’ or ‘theoretical / conceptual frameworks’.”
This paper explores the two terms: theoretical and conceptual frameworks, with a view to
shedding some light on their respective meanings, within the context of research in both the
natural and social sciences – particularly with
reference to conceptual meaning, purpose, methodology and scope of application.
ic, controlled, empirical, and critical investigation of [natural / social] phenomena, guided by
theory and hypotheses about the presumed relations” among such phenomena. (Parenthesis
and emphasis added). Accordingly, in research,
subjective beliefs are “checked against objective reality” (de Vos et al. 2005: 36). Quite significant to this paper is the highlighted portion of
this definition, which specifically states that research is “guided by theory”. The suggestion
here is that without ‘theory’ research would lack
direction – and this explains why in every research, one is expected to present one’s ‘theoretical’ framework – as the students in the above
exemplar did.
However, whereas theory directs systematic
‘controlled, empirical’ research, the place of theory in ‘less-controlled’ and ‘non-empirical’ types
of research could be conceptually different (Liehr and Smith 1999). In fact, most generative research is conceptually different from research
based on hypothesis-testing or hypotheticodeductive reasoning. In effect, most generative
research often seeks to develop theories that
are ‘grounded in the data collected’ and arising
from discovering ‘what is really going on in the
field’ (Liehr and Smith 1999). As Cline (2002: 2)
observes, “in the case of qualitative studies, a
theoretical framework may not be explicitly articulated since qualitative inquiry typically is
often oriented toward grounded theory development in the first place”. However, although
the place of theory in different research paradigms may vary, still ‘theory’ appears to be central to all forms of research. The question is:
what then is ‘theory’?
Understanding the Key Concepts
In attempting to address the objective of this
study, a closer look at the following terms is
essential, namely, theory, concept, conceptual
framework and theoretical framework. This will
help decipher if any conceptual differences exist among these terms. However, since these
terms are to be defined within the context of
research, it is deemed necessary to start with a
definition of research, before these terms are
defined and discussed.
Many definitions of research abound. De
Vos et al. (2005: 41) see research as a “systemat-
Aspects such as ‘explaining’ and ‘making
predictions’ are among the most common features of the definition of ‘theory’. For example,
Fox and Bayat (2007: 29) define theory as “a set
of interrelated propositions, concepts and definitions that present a systematic point of view
of specifying relationships between variables
with a view to predicting and explaining phenomena”. Likewise, Liehr and Smith (1999: 8)
opine the following about theory:
A theory is a set of interrelated concepts,
which structure a systematic view of phenomena for the purpose of explaining or predicting.
A theory is like a blueprint, a guide for model-
ing a structure. A blueprint depicts the elements
of a structure and the relation of each element
to the other, just as a theory depicts the concepts, which compose it and the relation of concepts with each other.
Further, Liehr and Smith (1999: 2) make a connection between theory and practice in their
contention that the former guides the latter while,
on the other hand, “practice enables testing of
theory and generates questions for research;
research contributes to theory-building, and
selecting practice guidelines”. Accordingly,
these two authors posit that a careful interweaving of theory and research could reinforce what
is learned through practice, to create the knowledge fabric of the given discipline.
Chinn and Kramer (1999: 258) define a theory as an “expression of knowledge….a creative
and rigorous structuring of ideas that project a
tentative, purposeful, and systematic view of
phenomena”. More traditionally, a theory has
been defined as “a systematic abstraction of reality that serves some purpose … A creative and
rigorous structuring of ideas that project a tentative purposeful, and systematic view of phenomenon” (Chinn and Kramer 1995: 72). To
Hawking (1988: 9), “a theory is a good theory if
it satisfies two requirements: It must accurately
describe a large class of observations on the
basis of a model which contains only a few arbitrary elements, and it must make definite predictions about the results of future observations”.
He goes on to state that “any physical theory is
always provisional, in the sense that it is only a
hypothesis; you can never prove it. No matter
how many times the results of experiments agree
with some theory, you can never be sure that
the next time the result will not contradict the
theory. On the other hand, you can disprove a
theory by finding even a single observation
which disagrees with the predictions of the theory.”
So, from the above definitions, the three
major defining characteristics of a theory are that
it (a) is “a set of interrelated propositions, concepts and definitions that present a systematic
point of view”; (b) specifies relationships between / among concepts; and (c) explains and /
or makes predictions about the occurrence of
events, based on the specified relationships.
According to Wacker (1998: 363), a theory
has four components, namely (a) definition of
terms, concepts or variables, (b) a domain to
which the theory is applicable, (c) a set of relationships amongst the variables, and (d) specific predictive claims. Putting all these elements
together, a theory is therefore a careful outline
of ‘the precise definitions in a specific domain
to explain why and how the relationships are
logically tied so that the theory gives specific
predictions” (Wacker 1998: 363-364). Thus, a
good theory is taken to be one which gives a
very clear and precise picture of events of the
domain it seeks to explain. As such, “a theory’s
precision and limitations are founded in the definitions of terms, the domain of the theory, the
explanation of relationships, and the specific
predictions” (Wacker 1998: 364). Quite importantly, Wacker (1998: 365) outlines the ‘virtues’
and ‘key features’ of a good theory as being (a)
uniqueness – that is, being distinguishable from
others; (b) conservatism – a theory persists until a superior theory replaces it; (c) generalisability – the greater the area a theory can be applied
to, the more powerful it is; (d) fecundity – a theory that is more fertile in generating new models
and hypotheses is better than one that generates fewer; (e) parsimony – other things being
equal, the fewer the assumptions the better; (f)
internal consistency – a theory that has identified all the relationships on the basis of which
adequate explanations are rendered; (g) empirical riskiness – any empirical test of a theory
should be risky; refutation must be possible for
a good theory; and (h) abstraction – the theory
is independent of time and space, usually
achieved by adding more relationships.
However, often-times, the meaning of the
term ‘theory’ could also be understood from its
frequent contrasting with the construct of ‘practice’ (Greek: praxis). Thus, when one exalts the
status of a particular theory, one’s detractors
would respond by saying something like ‘but
that’s just theory’, implying that what one finds
in practice is different – suggesting, in turn, that
practice is what really counts.
However, regarding the tension between theory and practice, there is a view that, over time,
there has been a narrowing of conceptual and
operational meanings between the two. Further,
it is argued that, although theories in the arts
and philosophy still refer to ideas rather than
directly observable empirical phenomena, in
modern science the terms theory and scientific
theory are understood to refer to proposed explanations or empirical phenomena. This is best
exemplified by the following bold statement
made by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (2010: 1):
A scientific theory is a well-substantiated
explanation of some aspect of the natural world,
based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment. Such fact-supported theories are not
“guesses” but reliable accounts of the real
world. The theory of biological evolution is more
than “just a theory.” It is as factual an explanation of the universe as the atomic theory of matter or the germ theory of disease. Our understanding of gravity is still a work in progress.
But the phenomenon of gravity, like evolution,
is an accepted fact (The National Academies
1999: 2).
Although this statement has been criticised
for a number of reasons, including its blurring of
the lines between theory and fact, the statement
itself conveys the Science Academy’s evolved
sense of what they take a theory to be – as they
further aver:
In everyday language, a theory means a
hunch or a speculation. Not so in science. In
science, the word ‘theory’ refers to a comprehensive explanation of an important feature of
nature that is supported by many facts gathered over time. (Quoted by Weisenmiller 2008:
Theories have also been defined in respect
of their scope, as well as the relative level of
abstractness of their concepts and propositions.
Thus, theories may be classified as grand, middle range or juts as concepts (Smith 2008). Middle range theories are seen as bigger than individual concepts, but narrower in scope than
grand theories and are composed of a limited
number of concepts that relate to a limited aspect of the real world. The concepts and propositions of middle range theories are empirically
measurable (Smith and Liehr 1999). Grand theories are seen as broadest in scope, less abstract
than conceptual models, but comprising concepts which are, nonetheless, still relatively abstract and general. However, the relationships
of the concepts in grand theories cannot be tested empirically because they are, still, too general – sometimes even consisting of sub-theories.
Overall, it is held that the defining characteristic of a scientific theory is that it makes falsifiable or testable predictions – the relevance and
specificity of which determine how potentially
useful the theory is. Accordingly, a purported
theory that makes no predictions which can be
studied or systematically followed through is of
no use.
Hornby (2005: 5) contends that “defining
concepts is not an innocent exercise. Meanings/
interpretations of concepts are largely influenced
by their context. Concepts reflect theoretical
concerns and ideological conflicts. Definitions
have their defenders and critics”. Nonetheless,
be this as it may, Liehr and Smith (1999: 7) have
ventured to give a definition of a concept as “an
image or symbolic representation of an abstract
idea”. Chinn and Kramer (1999: 252) see concepts as the components of theory which “convey the abstract ideas within a theory”; they
also see a concept as a “complex mental formulation of experience.”
Research Framework
First, it is important to understand what a
‘framework’ is, within the context of research.
Liehr and Smith (1999: 13) see a framework for
research as a structure that provides “guidance
for the researcher as study questions are finetuned, methods for measuring variables are selected and analyses are planned”. Once data
are collected and analysed, the framework is used
as a mirror to check whether the findings agree
with the framework or whether there are some
discrepancies; where discrepancies exist, a question is asked as to whether or not the framework
can be used to explain them.
Referring back to the exemplar concerning
the three student researchers, within their broad
fields they each chose and/or identified ‘frameworks’ to guide them in explaining and interpreting the circumstances of their investigations regarding the street children, with respective levels of academic integrity and acceptability. This
is what constitutes a conceptual or theoretical
framework –that is, the specific perspective
which a given researcher uses to explore, interpret or explain events or behaviour of the subjects or events s/he is studying.
Conceptual Versus Theoretical Frameworks
Having briefly cast our eye on the definitions of (a) theory and (b) concept, it may now
be opportune to attempt to distinguish between
the two notions of theoretical and conceptual
Theoretical Framework
A theoretical framework refers to the theory
that a researcher chooses to guide him/her in
his/her research. Thus, a theoretical framework
is the application of a theory, or a set of concepts drawn from one and the same theory, to
offer an explanation of an event, or shed some
light on a particular phenomenon or research
problem. This could refer to, for instance, the
Set theory, evolution, quantum mechanics, particulate theory of matter, or similar pre-existing
generalisation – such as Newton’s laws of motion, gas laws, that could be applied to a given
research problem, deductively.
Conceptual Framework
On the other hand, a researcher may opine
that his/her research problem cannot meaningfully be researched in reference to only one theory, or concepts resident within one theory. In
such cases, the researcher may have to “synthesize” the existing views in the literature concerning a given situation – both theoretical and
from empirical findings. The synthesis may be
called a model or conceptual framework, which
essentially represents an ‘integrated’ way of
looking at the problem (Liehr and Smith 1999).
Such a model could then be used in place of a
theoretical framework. Thus, a conceptual
framework may be defined as an end result of
bringing together a number of related concepts
to explain or predict a given event, or give a
broader understanding of the phenomenon of
interest – or simply, of a research problem. The
process of arriving at a conceptual framework is
akin to an inductive process whereby small individual pieces (in this case, concepts) are j …
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