Frameworks, theoretically speaking…

Theoretical frameworks are defined by what they do. To understand this it can be helpful to first consider a physical framework and the ways such a structure can be applied to solving problems in the physical world. In this way, it is easier to understand how frameworks can add value to a proposed solution as well as reveal their limitations. The house shown in Figure 1, for example, reveals the underlying structural framework of beams, joists, rafters, and such. With this structure, it is easy to imagine this as an ideal solution to protecting a family from the weather. It is equally obvious that this same framework would be wholly inadequate as an jet aircraft hanger. The structure in Figure 1 adds value to the eventual solution for protecting a family from the weather. It is severely limited, however, in providing a solution for protecting a jet aircraft.

Figure 1

Having made this distinction, several key rules regarding the use of frameworks can be described. First, the problem defines what framework should be used. Frameworks ideally suited to solving one problem may result in disaster if applied to a different problem. A corollary to this insight could easily be that there is no single framework that can solve all physical structure problems. Rather, frameworks can be composed of a wide variety of materials and can come in all manner of shapes and sizes. A second rule regarding the use of frameworks is that the framework defines the tools, techniques, and materials to be used during construction of the overall solution.

Similar to how the structural frame (or framework) to a house provides underlying support in the physical world, a theoretical framework provides an underlying conceptual structure in the world of ideas. And so the same insights harvested from considering physical frameworks apply equally well to theoretical frameworks. These insights seem obvious, even trivial, when the conversation involves physical frameworks. This isn’t the case, necessarily, when the conversation shifts to theoretical frameworks. Being less tangible, it is easier to select a theoretical framework that provides a sub-optimal solution for a particular problem. Using physical frameworks as a metaphor: without a clear understanding of the problem and the capabilities of a selected theoretical framework, a researcher may inadvertently select a pine wood framework for a 40 story high rise. The framework won’t support the solution. Similarly, a researcher may select a 18 inch steel I-beam framework to build a small storage shed. It may work, but again the selected framework is misapplied to the problem.

The lesson for the researcher (just as much as it is for the building designer) is that he or she must first have a clear understanding of the problem. Second, the researcher must have as deep a knowledge-base of relevant theoretical frameworks as possible from which the optimal choice for supporting the research can be made. Lacking an existing theoretical framework, the researcher must exercise due diligence when either constructing a new or blending existing theoretical frameworks.

As with physical frameworks, theoretical frameworks define the tools and techniques employed during the actual research effort. When the theoretical framework is appropriately matched to the research problem, the researcher can more easily identify and define variables and constants, design experimental methods for collecting data that apply to the research problem, and apply analytical methods to the data that will support the researcher’s conclusions.

Updates

2011.12.09

There is a third rule to frameworks that bears mentioning. Frameworks necessarily limit focus. This is both an asset and a liability. By focusing the reader (in the case theoretical frameworks) on a specific set of conceptual constructs, the researcher can better define the research context and scope. This occurs at the expense of excluding other conceptual constructs. For example, a research project may set the framework to include learning styles and yet exclude cognitive styles, intelligence quotients, and learning theories. Each of the excluded constructs may be relevant to learning styles in the grand scheme of things. However, in order to control variables and deliver the research results in something less than 10 years, it is important to limit the scope of the research project and include references to the constructs only when necessary.