Distinguishing between Theory, Theoretical Framework, and Conceptual Framework: A Systematic Review of Lessons from the Field

Charles Kivunja


Across many years of teaching Research Methods and assessing many applications for admission into higher degree studies which require an understanding of theories, principles, strategies and skills needed to complete a higher degree such as a Masters or a PhD, one of the things I have found problematic for many students is the inability to articulate differences between theory, theoretical framework and a conceptual framework for a proposed research project. This paper uses experiential methodology to draw upon my experience in practice, and systematic literature review methodology to draw upon supporting scholarly literature by leaders in the field, to contribute to existing knowledge on the meaning of each of these concepts, and more importantly to distinguish between them in a study of Research Methods, and in particular as they relate to designing a research proposal and a thesis for a higher degree. The primary aim is to help the reader develop a firm grasp of the meaning of these concepts and how they should be used in academic research discourses. The review answers five questions. 1. What does each of these terms mean? 2. When and how should each be used? 3. What purposes does a theoretical framework serve? 4. How do you develop a theoretical framework for your research proposal or thesis? 5. What does a good theoretical framework look like?

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.5430/ijhe.v7n6p44


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International Journal of Higher Education
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