Use of theoretical and conceptual frameworks in qualitative research

Nurse Res. 2014 Jul;21(6):34-8. doi: 10.7748/nr.21.6.34.e1252.


Aim: To debate the definition and use of theoretical and conceptual frameworks in qualitative research.

Background: There is a paucity of literature to help the novice researcher to understand what theoretical and conceptual frameworks are and how they should be used. This paper acknowledges the interchangeable usage of these terms and researchers' confusion about the differences between the two. It discusses how researchers have used theoretical and conceptual frameworks and the notion of conceptual models. Detail is given about how one researcher incorporated a conceptual framework throughout a research project, the purpose for doing so and how this led to a resultant conceptual model.

Review methods: Concepts from Abbott (1988) and Witz ( 1992 ) were used to provide a framework for research involving two case study sites. The framework was used to determine research questions and give direction to interviews and discussions to focus the research.

Discussion: Some research methods do not overtly use a theoretical framework or conceptual framework in their design, but this is implicit and underpins the method design, for example in grounded theory. Other qualitative methods use one or the other to frame the design of a research project or to explain the outcomes. An example is given of how a conceptual framework was used throughout a research project.

Conclusion: Theoretical and conceptual frameworks are terms that are regularly used in research but rarely explained. Textbooks should discuss what they are and how they can be used, so novice researchers understand how they can help with research design.

Implications for practice/research: Theoretical and conceptual frameworks need to be more clearly understood by researchers and correct terminology used to ensure clarity for novice researchers.

Keywords: Theoretical framework; case study; case study research.; conceptual framework; conceptual model; qualitative research; research design.

MeSH terms

  • Nursing Research / organization & administration*
  • Qualitative Research*
  • Research Design