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Writing theoretical frameworks, analytical frameworks and conceptual frameworks

Three of the most challenging concepts for me to explain are the interrelated ideas of a theoretical framework, a conceptual framework, and an analytical framework. All three of these tend to be used interchangeably. While I find these concepts somewhat fuzzy and I struggle sometimes to explain the differences between them and clarify their usage for my students (and clearly I am not alone in this challenge), this blog post is an attempt to help discern these analytical categories more clearly.

A lot of people (my own students included) have asked me if the theoretical framework is their literature review. That’s actually not the case. A theoretical framework, the way I define it, is comprised of the different theories and theoretical constructs that help explain a phenomenon. A theoretical framework sets out the various expectations that a theory posits and how they would apply to a specific case under analysis, and how one would use theory to explain a particular phenomenon. I like how theoretical frameworks are defined in this blog post. Dr. Cyrus Samii offers an explanation of what a good theoretical framework does for students.

For example, you can use framing theory to help you explain how different actors perceive the world. Your theoretical framework may be based on theories of framing, but it can also include others. For example, in this paper, Zeitoun and Allan explain their theoretical framework, aptly named hydro-hegemony. In doing so, Zeitoun and Allan explain the role of each theoretical construct (Power, Hydro-Hegemony, Political Economy) and how they apply to transboundary water conflict. Another good example of a theoretical framework is that posited by Dr. Michael J. Bloomfield in his book Dirty Gold, as I mention in this tweet:

An analytical framework is, the way I see it, a model that helps explain how a certain type of analysis will be conducted. For example, in this paper, Franks and Cleaver develop an analytical framework that includes scholarship on poverty measurement to help us understand how water governance and poverty are interrelated. Other authors describe an analytical framework as a “conceptual framework that helps analyse particular phenomena”, as posited here, ungated version can be read here.

I think it’s easy to conflate analytical frameworks with theoretical and conceptual ones because of the way in which concepts, theories and ideas are harnessed to explain a phenomenon. But I believe the most important element of an analytical framework is instrumental: their purpose is to help undertake analyses. You use elements of an analytical framework to deconstruct a specific concept/set of concepts/phenomenon. For example, in this paper, Bodde et al develop an analytical framework to characterise sources of uncertainties in strategic environmental assessments.

A robust conceptual framework describes the different concepts one would need to know to understand a particular phenomenon, without pretending to create causal links across variables and outcomes. In my view, theoretical frameworks set expectations, because theories are constructs that help explain relationships between variables and specific outcomes and responses. Conceptual frameworks, the way I see them, are like lenses through which you can see a particular phenomenon.

A conceptual framework should serve to help illuminate and clarify fuzzy ideas, and fill lacunae. Viewed this way, a conceptual framework offers insight that would not be otherwise be gained without a more profound understanding of the concepts explained in the framework. For example, in this article, Beck offers social movement theory as a conceptual framework that can help understand terrorism. As I explained in my metaphor above, social movement theory is the lens through which you see terrorism, and you get a clearer understanding of how it operates precisely because you used this particular theory.

Dan Kaminsky offered a really interesting explanation connecting these topics to time, read his tweet below.

One of my CIDE students, Andres Ruiz, reminded me of this article on conceptual frameworks in the International Journal of Qualitative Methods. I’ll also be adding resources as I get them via Twitter or email. Hopefully this blog post will help clarify this idea!

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