Thursday, September 3, 2009

Theoretical Frameworks

Theoretical Framework as Contextual Background 
For some of you, the need to use theory will focus largely on understanding the context for which you are solving a problem. Whatever your research question may be, it involves assumptions about leadership, learning, education, or some other construct. Those assumptions are based upon theory – however subtle it may seem. By virtue of choosing the question or questions you choose, wording them in one way versus another, and the manner in which you support your work through your rationale and literature review all hinge upon theory to one degree or another. So, to what degree do you need to acknowledge the theory behind your work? Answer – it depends. Here are some questions that may help you determine whether you need to clearly articulate the theory behind your work:

1. Does your work focus on ideas that have been or could be easily contested by other scholars and researchers? Is there a body of work out there that pursues your problems or questions from another perspective? If so, articulating your theoretical framework will help you to distinguish the work you are doing from other work being done.
2. Does your work attempt to address complex issues that are likely to require equally complex analysis of data? If so, would an articulation of a theoretical framework give you the support and ideological scaffolding that you will need to engage in such analysis?
3. Does your work address complex concepts that need to be recognized as complex and not merely accepted as “givens”? 
4. Would introducing a theoretical framework or construct distract you from the problem you are solving? While a framework may exist and be interesting, if it does not enlarge the potential for greater understanding for yourself and any readers of your dissertation, then it may, in fact, distract and undermine your larger purpose.

Theoretical Framework as a Structure for Analysis 
For some of you, a theoretical framework will be a critical element in how you frame your research question, how you design your study, and how you analyze your data. In this sort of situation, the theory is an integral part of the problem you are trying to solve. As such, it should play a prominent role in your prospectus and your dissertation.This means you must be utterly grounded in the theory you are using.

Theoretical Framework as a Tool for Abstraction 
Some of you may begin your work with no strong theoretical framework guiding your efforts. This is often the case in qualitative research where you are expected to enter the inquiry process open to what you will see. After gathering data, however, you may see trends or themes that point in particular directions that challenge the way you see the problem. In these instances, it may be necessary to take on or adopt a theoretical framework AFTER you have collected data to help you draw more meaningful conclusions about that data. For example, I once had a student who examined the manner in which principals developed relationships with the Hispanic families in their schools. After gathering data and analyzing it for themes, she noticed some disturbing trends where the principals “took care” of the families and treated them as if they knew less about raising their children or about positive school behaviors than the non-Hispanic families in their schools. This student was not well versed in critical theory. In order to write a meaningful “chapter five” and actually draw meaningful conclusions, she had to stop what she was doing and read a great deal of Giroux, Freire, Apple, and others who have written about issues of power and control in schools. After becoming comfortable with such concepts as “banking metaphor of education” and “patriarchy,” this student was able to return to her data and draw more meaningful conclusions about what she found. 

Theoretical Frameworks: What is gained? What is lost? 
Personally, I love theoretical frameworks – because I love theory. It’s how I’m wired – the way I see the world. For some of you, a good and explicit theoretical framework will help guide your efforts and provide clarity throughout the process. For others – particularly if you do not typically see the world theoretically - taking on an obligatory, inauthentic framework merely because someone tells you that you must have one will only distract you from your efforts. Do not let “theory” for its own sake take you off course. If you don’t see the world that way, you will be far more likely to put off writing your first chapter. You will stick it in there, and it will make your chapter piecemeal.Do not sacrifice ownership of your line of inquiry and coherence of your work for the sake of some superficial genuflection to theory. 

That said – know what you are up against when you attempt doctoral scholarship without a theory. Theory is the best platform/springboard from which you will be able to achieve significance in your findings and conclusions. It is the stuff from which abstraction is achieved. Without it, you must seek complexity in other ways, and you must seek significance within your findings. In short, description and analysis rarely if ever achieve much significance. Know that if you are going into a largely descriptive dissertation. You run the risk of not having “enough” to say in order to pass your defense. Of course, having a poor or inappropriate theoretical framework is just as bad or even worse. As Kliebard once noted, a good theory, like a good lens, clarifies what you are seeing. A bad one distorts. If you choose to use a theory that does not fit or one you don’t really know, you will find yourself will a lot of “stuff” in your dissertation that you cannot really defend – not just the findings and the conclusions, but the very assumptions you are articulating in relation to the findings and conclusions.

Theory and Your Dissertation: Proportion is Key 
So, based on the very limited introduction here, you may have some sense of the role theory or a theoretical framework should play in your dissertation. Keep in mind, that the degree of importance of the theory or theoretical framework should be reflected in the degree of attention you give it in your prospectus and dissertation. If the theory is a key part of your work – shapes your very questions and drives you inquiry – then by all means it should have a prominent role in your prospectus and dissertation. In other words – write a lot about it. If, on the other hand, the theory is merely background to what you are doing – important but in some ways implicit in what you are doing and what has been done by others, then you should not give as much attention to it in your prospectus and dissertation. Said differently, the more you write about it, the more important it must be to you and your work.

Theoretical Survival Test: Being Grounded is a Prerequisite
Last summer I spent a lot of  “quality time” with my girls at the local pool. I noticed a number of young – upper elementary to middle grades – children unaccompanied by parents. When I questioned a friend who has been going to the pool for a couple of years, she told me that the children had passed a water survival test.Each of them had swum the length of the pool independently, and so they were able to come to the pool unaccompanied. This got me thinking. If you feel that you should use a theoretical framework in your dissertation, then I will expect you to pass my “theoretical survival test.” Whatever the theory may be that you want to use – whether its distributive leadership, Dewey’s theory of inquiry, or Foucault’s pastoral power, you must be able to do one of two things (or preferably both): either sit with me at a coffee shop for a minimum of one hour discussing it accurately and with animated spirit without notes or books in front of you or be able to sit down in an hour to an hour and a half and write a clear, coherent, and accurate essay about the idea without any notes or other resources to assist you. If you cannot do this, you cannot use the theory. No exceptions. 


  1. Lovely advice, which I needed this morning. I'm doing a practice project rather than a research project, and finding that the theories I know best don't apply. Rats

  2. I am in my proposing writing phase and having a great deal of trouble distinguishing between using a theoretical framework or conceptual framework. the proposal outline ask for a theoretical framework but I feel like I wont be able to grasp that until I finish collecting my if that is the case how do I present my defense without a theoretical framework?