What is a Conceptual Framework? Expounded Definition and Five Purposes

What is a conceptual framework? I gathered all the relevant definitions of a conceptual framework, what it does in the research process, and extracted the key ideas to give you an extensive and easily understood picture of the meaning and purposes of this often sought concept in research.

I find it necessary to gather all the information written about a conceptual framework’s meaning in working out a study. The definitions given in this article aims to provide you a solid foundation on this critical aspect of the research paper.

What is a Conceptual Framework?

I define the conceptual framework based on a review of relevant articles using the keyword “What is a conceptual framework?” This definition integrates the ideas presented in the articles of the first two pages of a Google search. In this context, relevant articles mean the definitions come from academic institutions, recognized scientific publications, and academicians.

In keeping with the mission of this site to translate complex scientific concepts to digestible bits, I extracted the main thoughts, grouped them according to their salient features, and expounded on them for clarity without sacrificing the essence of the original articles’ ideas. I adopted this approach to avoid plagiarism and minimize jargon that makes the understanding of the conceptual framework fuzzy to a beginning researcher.

The effort to explain this concept took time, imagination, and reflective thinking to present the complex discussion in articles coming from academicians into plain language. Hence, I use visual representations of the key takeaways of the readings for those who could not easily grasp the textual version.

I provide three useful landmarks or seminal references related to this topic in this post’s reference section. These landmark or well-cited literature (thousands of researchers cited the papers) were written by seasoned scientists, namely Brunswick (1952), Greene et al. (1989), and Jabareen (2009). I linked the last one as it is available online for you to read, whereas the other two are not. You need to pay to read them. These references illustrate examples of how a conceptual framework guides current thinking on different subjects of interest.

Definition of a Conceptual Framework

Conceptual frameworks are products of a person’s reasoning

A conceptual framework is a product of a researcher’s reasoning or tentative conclusion. The concepts arrived at are based on a literature review where evidence is still incomplete, or theories arrived at are inadequate. It is a synthesis of interlinked concepts that provide a comprehensive understanding of a phenomenon (see how mind mapping can help with this concern). 

Although the basis for such conclusions is tentative, an explanation of a phenomenon comes up as the formula to explain the order of things. That’s where the hypothesis comes in.

The concepts presented are integrated

The concepts presented in a conceptual framework interlock with each other, serving as a firm foundation for the hypothesis. Thus, we call it a framework, as it supports an argument that could stir up healthy and productive conversations, controversies, debates, or innovations to fuel economic growth.

How long that foundation will stand, time will tell. If it stands the test of time as new findings unravel, and it gets supported by other studies, then it becomes a theory. This approach follows the theory of knowledge termed as epistemology, which distinguishes justified belief or plain opinion.

In justified belief, evidence is a crucial element. If you can support your idea (initially a conjecture or inference) with sufficient evidence, your argument holds.

I present a concept map below to illustrate the points made in this discussion.

what is a conceptual framework
Graphical representation of how your concept contributes to the body of knowledge.

At the master’s degree level, your research confirms, validates, or supports an existing theory that is supported by other researchers’ hypotheses. At the doctoral degree level, your research leads to the creation of a new theory. The development of your concept arises from reflective thinking after reviewing the literature and drawing from your experiences, which includes keen observations made on a phenomenon.

Take note that the concepts presented in the conceptual framework support or interact with each other. The interaction expresses an idea, a difference perhaps, similarity, or a relationship governed by an inner philosophy—the theory that the framework purports, confirms or supports.

Hence, what you do in conceptualization is to integrate your knowledge based on experiences and others’ experiences (other researchers). It is a synthesis of previous findings plus experiences through reflective thinking.

It is an objective interpretation

This approach also says that whatever conceptual framework was arrived at is subject to the person’s biases. But excellent research requires an objective mind in dealing with issues.

Thus, if you are a good researcher, you must view the findings as they are, without favoring one perspective. Good research practice means that you MUST NOT deliberately select only those literature that supports your position. Instead, you objectively examine your ideas in the light of what has already been discovered. It must also consider the other researchers’ opposing views to achieve balance.

To sum it all up, the conceptual framework is a researcher’s constructs in a backdrop of broad theories that operate at a higher plane and stand on firm grounds, supporting a philosophy on how things work in reality.

Deep thinking takes time and sometimes alienates you from others who cannot understand what you are contemplating (Source: https://xkcd.com/220/).

Before this goes out of hand, and the discussion becomes more complex, let me strengthen your understanding by shifting to the purposes of a conceptual framework. I enumerate five of them below.

Five Purposes of the Conceptual Framework

1. The conceptual framework is an analytical tool

The conceptual framework serves as a tool in analyzing the state of things (variables or concepts) and their interactions for a comprehensive understanding of a phenomenon. The purpose of the conceptual framework is to guide your thinking when the data comes in.

2. Guides the Research Hypothesis and Methodology

Another purpose of the conceptual framework is to identify the variables of the study. Identification of the conceptual framework variables provides information on the appropriate statistical tools to find out differences or relationships between variables. If you are conducting a qualitative study, you can find the proper methodology for a subjective, in-depth discussion of how the concepts relate to each other.

Jabareen (2009) proposes that the representation is better referred to as MODELS whenever variables or measurable qualities are used. That is when quantification is made. If non-quantifiable concepts are used, then conceptual framework is the appropriate term.

3. Illustrates the Research Approach

The conceptual framework is usually accompanied by a visual representation of the interaction or relationships of the different components called the research paradigm. While developing your conceptual framework, you can make some changes to the paradigm to adequately represent the conceptual framework’s textual explanation.

4. Generates New Interpretations

The fourth purpose of the conceptual framework is to generate new interpretations. A systematic synthesis of the study’s findings using a conceptual framework generates new interpretations of existing theories. When several studies are combined and synthesized, such as when doing a meta-analysis, the results will reveal novel insights that are far superior to one arrived at in a single study.

Here is an interesting three-minute video on what is a meta-analysis.

5. It reveals the gap in knowledge

Finally, the purpose of the conceptual framework is to reveal the gaps in knowledge. If the findings show that some aspects of the phenomenon have not been explored or well understood, then that’s where you come in. You have found that elusive “research gap,” which your study can help address or resolve. That’s the beauty of having a conceptual framework ready at hand.

At this point, the conceptual framework’s definition and purposes should have been hemmed in for keeps in your head. Be armed with this knowledge and work your way out in the academic world.

Reading a lot of relevant literature on your chosen topic and exposing yourself to the issue you are interested in makes the conceptual framework development a much more significant and accurate representation of reality.


Brunswik, E. (1952). The conceptual framework of psychology. Psychological Bulletin, 49(6), 654-656.

Greene, J. C., Caracelli, V. J., & Graham, W. F. (1989). Toward a conceptual framework for mixed-method evaluation designs. Educational evaluation and policy analysis, 11(3), 255-274.

Jabareen, Y. (2009). Building a conceptual framework: philosophy, definitions, and procedure. International journal of qualitative methods, 8(4), 49-62.

© 2020 November 5 P. A. Regoniel