Theoretical Approach Dissertation

By Carrie Winstanley

In writing your dissertation, you’re likely to be taking a practical or a theoretical approach, even though both practical and theoretical considerations are of the utmost importance in social science research. For an undergraduate dissertation, your examiner is going to expect you to choose a largely theoretical or a mainly practical look at your chosen subject.

Any useful practical research you carry out requires a sound theoretical basis, and any theoretical study you do needs to link to what’s happening in the world around you. A theoretical study can be mainly abstract with an emphasis on the philosophical, ethical and cultural considerations of the subject, or your subject can be an applied theoretical study with an emphasis on political, social or economic issues, for example.

More practical research studies in social science are usually about exploring issues through surveys, action research, observations, case-studies or a review of existing studies.

The type of dissertation you end up writing depends on the topic you’re researching. The following table gives a few examples of different ways of approaching a topic just to get you thinking:

ConcernMethodType of Study
StrategyAnalysisNon-empirical with examples
IssueQuestion peopleEmpirical
Type of behaviourObservationEmpirical
Personal viewpointReporting / reflectionNarrative

Empirical dissertations

An empirical dissertation involves collecting data. For example, to gather the views of patients at a GP’s surgery, volunteers in a police service, children in a play centre or translators in a refugee centre, you have to find ways of asking the individuals involved what they think or review what they’re doing. You can collect your data in many ways: from questionnaires and observations to interviews and focus groups.

Or, you may prefer to collect your data by taking another approach such as looking at and analysing existing data from new angles, making useful comparisons or drawing interesting parallels.

Even if the focus of your dissertation is on using data, don’t forget that you’re still going to need a sound theoretical basis for your work.

Non-empirical dissertations

Making the choice to do a non-empirical dissertation shouldn’t be taken lightly. Sustaining an argument over the length of your whole dissertation is a distinct challenge. If you enjoy spending time in the library, reading, thinking and discussing theory, this is likely to be the right choice for you.

If you know that making the university library your home for weeks on end is going to be difficult, you may be better off choosing a more empirical research question to explore.

Key theories in your discipline such as feminism or pragmatism can be the basis of an abstract discussion in your dissertation. Subjects such as sociology have this type of theory at their centre and so it’s perfectly valid, for example, to discuss aspects of the theory of pragmatism as your dissertation topic.

A dissertation that draws upon major theories, such as in education more often takes an applied route, but can also be exclusively theoretical, for example, some work in the philosophy of education.

Narrative dissertations

You’re more than likely to choose doing an empirical or a non-empirical dissertation. However, in other disciplines you may come across different methods of producing a dissertation.

Dissertations in many science subjects include or even focus around a laboratory report describing all the aspects of setting up, carrying out and analysing a complex experiment. In physical geography, time is spent somewhere wild and windswept collecting data needed for analysis. Laboratory work and field trips are a key part of the student experience of writing a dissertation. It’s possible you may even use a passage from the classics or biography as an illustration or example in your dissertation.

The theoretical framework is one of the more infamous components of a dissertation. A good theoretical framework gives you a strong scientific research base and provides support for the rest of your dissertation. But what exactly is a theoretical framework? And how do you write one?

The goal of a theoretical framework

After you have identified your problem statement and research question(s), it is important to determine what theories and ideas exist in relation to your chosen subject.

By presenting this information, you ‘frame’ your research and show that you are knowledgeable about the key concepts, theories, and models that relate to your topic.

The definitions and models you select also give your research direction, as you will continue to build on these choices in different stages of your project.

The theoretical framework also provides scientific justification for your investigation: it shows that your research is not just coming “out of the blue,” but that it is both grounded in and based on scientific theory.

How to determine the contents of a theoretical framework

As noted above, it is important that you cite existing theories and ideas that are relevant to your chosen topic within the theoretical framework. This includes defining key terms from your problem statement and research questions/hypotheses. An important first step is therefore to identify these concepts.

1. Select key concepts

Sample problem statement and research questions: Company X is struggling with the problem that many online customers do not return to make subsequent purchases. Management wants to increase customer loyalty and believes that improved customer satisfaction will play a major role in achieving this goal. To investigate this problem, you have identified and plan to focus on the following problem statement, objective, and research questions:

Problem: Many online customers do not return to make subsequent purchases.

Objective: To increase customer loyalty and thereby generate more revenue.

Research question: ‘How can the satisfaction of company X’s online customers be improved in order to increase customer loyalty?’


  1. ‘What is the relationship between customer loyalty and costumer satisfaction?’
  2. ‘How satisfied and loyal are company X’s online costumers currently?’
  3. ‘What factors affect the satisfaction and loyalty of company X’s online costumers?’

The concepts of “customer loyalty” and “customer satisfaction” are critical to this study and will be measured as part of the research. As such they are key concepts to define within the theoretical framework.

2. Define and evaluate relevant concepts, theories, and models

A literature review is first used to determine how other researchers have defined these key concepts. You should then critically compare the definitions that different authors have proposed. The last step is to choose the definition that best fits your research and justify why this is the case.

It is also important to indicate if there are any notable links between these concepts.

Apart from that, you should describe any relevant theories and models that relate to your key concepts and argue why you are or are not applying them to your own research.

3. Consider adding other elements to your theoretical framework

Depending on your topic or discipline, a comprehensive review of the state of affairs in relation to your research topic may also be helpful to include in your theoretical framework.

Here it’s important to understand the expectations of your supervisor or program in advance. Theoretical problems are more likely to require a “state of affairs” overview than more practical problems.

Analyzing the research field will give you an idea of what similar studies have looked at and found regarding the problem. This will clarify the position of your research in relation to existing knowledge in the field.

Following these steps will help to ensure that you are presenting a solid overview:

  • Describe what discussions on the subject exist within the literature.
  • Explain what methods, theories, and models other authors have applied. In doing so, always argue why a particular theory or model is or is not appropriate for your own research.
  • Analyze the similarities and differences between your own research and earlier studies.
  • Explain how your study adds to knowledge that already exists on the subject.

What kinds of research questions can you answer within a theoretical framework?

The theoretical framework can be used to answer descriptive research questions that only require literature (or desk) research. For example, theory alone is sufficient to answer the research question: ‘What is the relationship between customer loyalty and customer satisfaction?’.

In contrast, sub-questions such as ‘How satisfied are company X’s online customers currently?’ cannot be answered in the theoretical framework, given that field research is needed.

The theoretical framework (and the literature review that serves as its backbone) can also be used to further analyze existing findings and hypotheses. It may also be used to formulate and evaluate hypotheses of your own, which you can later test during the qualitative or quantitative research of your study.

The structure of the theoretical framework

There are no fixed rules for structuring a theoretical framework. The important thing is to create a structure that is logical. One way to do this is to draw on your research questions/hypotheses and some of your key terms.

For example, you could create a section or paragraph that looks at each question, hypothesis, or key concept. Within that text, you could then explore the theories and models that are relevant to that particular item.

How long should the theoretical framework be?

The rules about length are not clear either, but a theoretical framework is on average three to five pages long.

To makes things clearer, you might find it useful to include models or other graphics within the theoretical framework. However, if you are concerned about space, you can place these illustrations in an appendix (which you can then refer to in the main text).

Sample theoretical framework

We have prepared a sample theoretical framework that will give you a sense of what this important part of a dissertation may look like.

Sample theoretical framework

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