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Dissertations and research projects

Online study guides for every stage of your research project, from planning to writing up. Also includes advice on writing a remote dissertation while social distancing measures are in place.

Developing a theoretical framework

What is a theoretical framework?

Developing a theoretical framework for your dissertation is one of the key elements of a qualitative research project. Through writing your literature review, you are likely to have identified either a problem that need ‘fixing’ or a gap that your research may begin to fill.

The theoretical framework is your toolbox. In the toolbox are your handy tools: a set of theories, concepts, ideas and hypotheses that you will use to build a solution to the research problem or gap you have identified.

The methodology is the instruction manual: the procedure and steps you have taken, using your chosen tools, to tackle the research problem.

Why do I need a theoretical framework?

Developing a theoretical framework shows that you have thought critically about the different ways to approach your topic, and that you have made a well-reasoned and evidenced decision about which approach will work best. Theoretical frameworks are also necessary for solving complex problems or issues from the literature, showing that you have the skills to think creatively and improvise to answer your research questions. They also allow researchers to establish new theories and approaches, that future research may go on to develop.

How do I create a theoretical framework for my dissertation?

First, select your tools. You are likely to need a variety of tools in qualitative research – different theories, models or concepts – to help you tackle different parts of your research question.
 

An overview of what to include in a theoretical framework: theories, models, ideologies, concepts, assumptions and perspectives.


When deciding what tools would be best for the job of answering your research questions or problem, explore what existing research in your area has used. You may find that there is a ‘standard toolbox’ for qualitative research in your field that you can borrow from or apply to your own research.

You will need to justify why your chosen tools are best for the job of answering your research questions, at what stage they are most relevant, and how they relate to each other. Some theories or models will neatly fit together and appear in the toolboxes of other researchers. However, you may wish to incorporate a model or idea that is not typical for your research area – the ‘odd one out’ in your toolbox. If this is the case, make sure you justify and account for why it is useful to you, and look for ways that it can be used in partnership with the other tools you are using.

You should also be honest about limitations, or where you need to improvise (for example, if the ‘right’ tool or approach doesn’t exist in your area).

This video from the Skills Centre includes an overview and example of how you might create a theoretical framework for your dissertation:

How do I choose the 'right' approach?

When designing your framework and choosing what to include, it can often be difficult to know if you’ve chosen the ‘right’ approach for your research questions. One way to check this is to look for consistency between your objectives, the literature in your framework, and your overall ethos for the research. This means ensuring that the literature you have used not only contributes to answering your research objectives, but that you also use theories and models that are true to your beliefs as a researcher.

For example, let’s imagine you are writing a dissertation about how crowdsourced translations of online cartoons could be used to improve current translation software, like Google Translate. One of your core beliefs could be that these contemporary translations by non-experts show expertise and complex knowledge of languages that have not been recognized fully by the literature. It is therefore important that your theoretical framework and the literature you choose reflects this value. It would be counterproductive to rely on literature or models for translation that, for example, reject the use of online platforms and forums, or that overlook the importance of cartoons and anime as ‘media’.


Reflecting on your values and your overall ambition for the project can be a helpful step in making these decisions, as it can help you to fully connect your methodology and methods to your research aims.

Reflecting on your position

Should I reflect on my position as a researcher?

If you feel your position as a researcher has influenced your choice of methods or procedure in any way, the methodology is a good place to reflect on this. Positionality acknowledges that no researcher is entirely objective: we are all, to some extent, influenced by prior learning, experiences, knowledge, and personal biases. This is particularly true in qualitative research or practice-based research, where the student is acting as a researcher in their own workplace, where they are otherwise considered a practitioner/professional. It's also important to reflect on your positionality if you belong to the same community as your participants where this is the grounds for their involvement in the research (ie. you are a mature student interviewing other mature learners about their experences in higher education). 

The following questions can help you to reflect on your positionality and gauge whether this is an important section to include in your dissertation (for some people, this section isn’t necessary or relevant):

  • How might my personal history influence how I approach the topic?
  • How am I positioned in relation to this knowledge? Am I being influenced by prior learning or knowledge from outside of this course?
  • How does my gender/social class/ ethnicity/ culture influence my positioning in relation to this topic?
  • Do I share any attributes with my participants? Are we part of a s hared community? How might this have influenced our relationship and my role in interviews/observations?
  • Am I invested in the outcomes on a personal level? Who is this research for and who will feel the benefits?
For in-depth information on qualitative research, see: Flick, U. (2018). The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Data Collection. London, : SAGE Publications Ltd.

Extended literature reviews

One option for qualitative projects is to write an extended literature review. This type of project does not require you to collect any new data. Instead, you should focus on synthesising a broad range of literature to offer a new perspective on a research problem or question. 

The main difference between an extended literature review and a dissertation where primary data is collected, is in the presentation of the methodology, results and discussion sections. This is because extended literature reviews do not actively involve participants or primary data collection, so there is no need to outline a procedure for data collection (the methodology) or to present and interpret ‘data’ (in the form of interview transcripts, numerical data, observations etc.) You will have much more freedom to decide which sections of the dissertation should be combined, and whether new chapters or sections should be added.

Here is an overview of a common structure for an extended literature review:

A structure for the extended literature review, showing the results divided into multiple themed chapters.

Introduction

  • Provide background information and context to set the ‘backdrop’ for your project.
  • Explain the value and relevance of your research in this context. Outline what do you hope to contribute with your dissertation.
  • Clarify a specific area of focus.
  • Introduce your research aims (or problem) and objectives.

Literature review

You will need to write a short, overview literature review to introduce the main theories, concepts and key research areas that you will explore in your dissertation. This set of texts – which may be theoretical, research-based, practice-based or policies – form your theoretical framework. In other words, by bringing these texts together in the literature review, you are creating a lens that you can then apply to more focused examples or scenarios in your discussion chapters.

Methodology

As you will not be collecting primary data, your methodology will be quite different from a typical dissertation. You will need to set out the process and procedure you used to find and narrow down your literature. This is also known as a search strategy.

Including your search strategy

A search strategy explains how you have narrowed down your literature to identify key studies and areas of focus. This often takes the form of a search strategy table, included as an appendix at the end of the dissertation. If included, this section takes the place of the traditional 'methodology' section.

If you choose to include a search strategy table, you should also give an overview of your reading process in the main body of the dissertation.  Think of this as a chronology of the practical steps you took and your justification for doing so at each stage, such as:

  • Your key terms, alternatives and synonyms, and any terms that you chose to exclude.
  • Your choice and combination of databases;
  • Your inclusion/exclusion criteria, when they were applied and why. This includes filters such as language of publication, date, and country of origin;
  • You should also explain which terms you combined to form search phrases and your use of Boolean searching (AND, OR, NOT);
  • Your use of citation searching (selecting articles from the bibliography of a chosen journal article to further your search).
  • Your use of any search models, such as PICO and SPIDER to help shape your approach.
You should also write a short commentary to justify your decision to include certain theories or models in your literature review: for example, if you include a theory from outside of your research field, it would be useful for you to explain why this theory is valid and useful in helping you to answer your research questions. 

Discussion

The discussion section of an extended literature review is the most flexible in terms of structure. Think of this section as a series of short case studies or ‘windows’ on your research. In this section you will apply the theoretical framework you formed in the literature review – a combination of theories, models and ideas that explain your approach to the topic – to a series of different examples and scenarios. These are usually presented as separate discussion ‘chapters’ in the dissertation, in an order that you feel best fits your argument.

 

Think about an order for these discussion sections or chapters that helps to tell the story of your research. One common approach is to structure these sections by common themes or concepts that help to draw your sources together. You might also opt for a chronological structure if your dissertation aims to show change or development over time. Another option is to deliberately show where there is a lack of chronology or narrative across your case studies, by ordering them in a fragmentary order! You will be able to reflect upon the structure of these chapters elsewhere in the dissertation, explaining and defending your decision in the methodology and conclusion.

Conclusion

  • A summary of your key findings – what you have concluded from your research, and how far you have been able to successfully answer your research questions.

  • Recommendations – for improvements to your own study, for future research in the area, and for your field more widely.
  • Emphasise your contributions to knowledge and what you have achieved.

Alternative structure

Depending on your research aims, and whether you are working with a case-study type approach (where each section of the dissertation considers a different example or concept through the lens established in your literature review), you might opt for one of the following structures:

Splitting the literature review across different chapters:

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This structure allows you to pull apart the traditional literature review, introducing it little by little with each of your themed chapters. This approach works well for dissertations that attempt to show change or difference over time, as the relevant literature for that section or period can be introduced gradually to the reader.

Whichever structure you opt for, remember to explain and justify your approach. A marker will be interested in why you decided on your chosen structure, what it allows you to achieve/brings to the project and what alternatives you considered and rejected in the planning process. Here are some example sentence starters:

Example 1: This dissertation will adopt a case-study approach, exploring three distinct projects to improve sustainability in social housing at a local, national and international level. By comparing sustainability policies, legislation and design principles across these otherwise unconnected studies, this project aims to investigate whether a global perspective on sustainability measures uncovers consistency or consensus on how the issue should be addressed.

Example 2: This project will analyse and compare three films produced in France between 1958 and 1968, considered indicative of the New Wave era of cinema. By choosing films with different directors, producers and leading actors, this approach is deliberately fragmentary: this dissertation does not aim to establish a chronology of how films in this era developed over time. Instead, this project will…

Example 3: This dissertation will compare and evaluate the outcomes of trauma patients who receive prehospital fluids as treatment for haemorrhagic shock, focusing on three key options available to paramedics: hypertonic saline, colloids and blood products. Although other options are available, and increase in a hospital setting, this dissertation focuses on…

Presenting qualitative data

Presenting qualitative data

In qualitative studies, your results are often presented alongside the discussion, as it is difficult to include this data in a meaningful way without explanation and interpretation. In the dsicussion section, aim to structure your work thematically, moving through the key concepts or ideas that have emerged from your qualitative data. Use extracts from your data collection - interviews, focus groups, observations - to illustrate where these themes are most prominent, and refer back to the sources from your literature review to help draw conclusions. 

Here's an example of how your data could be presented in paragraph format in this section:

In analysing the interview data, two themes emerged which will be discussed in this section. These themes were: the complexity and challenges of working with families and the professional satisfaction and challenges of program planning for children in preschool or childcare.

Introduction to the key themes identified from the interviews.

For each of these graduates, their work with children was clearly the area of their professional lives that was bringing the most satisfaction, although there were some challenges identified. In the interviews, the data reveal that they were all seeking ways to improve their pedagogy and achieving success in different ways…

Summary of theme A identified from the data.

Angela suggested that in her second year of teaching she had changed in that she was programming in a "more child oriented" way. She discussed this change:

One of the things I've changed is this idea of herding children through the Kinder day: they go from indoor play to snack time to the mat and so on. How I do it now is that I have a lot of different things happening at once. I'll have a small group on the mat and there might be some children sitting down and having a snack and there's still some children in home corner playing.

Specific example from your interviews to support this theme, embedded as a direct quotation.

These comments seem to provide evidence that Angela is growing professionally for two reasons. First, the ability to identify changes in her program suggests to me that she has deeper pedagogical knowledge gained through critical reflection on her practice, and second, there is congruence between her expressed beliefs and the practice she describes… This is supported by…(Source A; Source B).

Discussion/ interpretation of the findings, what they suggest, and what conclusions you can draw. Refer back to texts from the literature review that support your conclusions.

Example from 'Reporting and discussing your findings', Monash University.