How to Use a Theory to Frame Your Research Study

This post will explain how to use a theory to frame a research study.  General recommendations that can be used for any research will be shared. 

Theory frame for research

Using Theory to Frame Research Photo credit: Chris Abney

Theories, Frameworks, and Models – Oh My!

Frameworks to guide research can be based on philosophies, theories, or conceptual models. Every research study has some type of underlying framework, though not all studies clearly define their frameworks (Polit & Beck, 2014).  

Most basic research and theory textbooks will discuss the importance of theory to research and identify the differences and overlap among the terminology.  There are many levels of theories. Theories range from formal and abstract (e.g., grand theory) to more narrowly defined and practical (e.g., middle-range and practice-based theory).  

Theories consist of assumptions, concepts, and propositions. Theoretical or conceptual frameworks are less developed.  Conceptual models are broader than theories and they don’t specify relationships between the concepts (Polit & Beck, 2014).  Regardless of their level of abstractness, though, all of these theory levels can be used to frame a research study. 

Technically, studies that use a theory as their theoretical rationale are said to be using a theoretical framework and those that use a conceptual model for their conceptual rationale are using a conceptual framework (Green, 2014; Polit & Beck, 2014).  Because these terms have been confused and sometimes used interchangeably, I will use the term theory as a catch-all for all levels of theory, regardless of their “official” label. 

Defining Terms

The purpose of a theory is to make sense of (understand) and explain the world around us.

A framework is something that you use to provide a stable support for something else … a house, a building, a vegetable vine, an object, etc.  Merriam-Webster defines framework as “a basic conceptional structure (as of ideas).” Google defines framework as “a basic structure underlying a system, concept, or text.” Other definitions use the terms “layered structure” “skeletal structure,” or a “scaffold.” A framework holds something up, it enables the “thing” to be supported, to stand.  

A theoretical framework is a set of assumptions, concepts, and propositions that form the basis for someone’s view on the world (i.e., their worldview).  All the pieces of the framework need to hold together (logical congruence, internal consistency) for the theory to make sense and be reliable.  The “truth” or validity of the theory (i.e., how true is the theory to itself and to real life?) is tested through research (qualitative or quantitative methods). 

Research design is a term used to signify the planning of a research study – from the initial step of searching the literature to devise a viable question (to find out what is known so you can answer a question that is unknown), to the methodology steps, to the plan for data analysis. 

The purpose of designing a research study is to answer a question. The researcher is usually trying to answer a question — from a descriptive frame of mind (What is the nature of X?) to an explanatory mindset (How does X affect Y?) to testing a prediction (If nurses use X, then Y will happen for patients). 

Sometimes you start with a question that came up in your clinical practice or your reading and then you search for a framework to support the study.  Other times, the theoretical framework itself will provide the scholar with the questions to ask.

Basic Framework of a Research Proposal

The basic framework of a research proposal is similar to the need for plans to build a house.

You can’t build a house without a plan and a framework.  The plan tells the builder exactly what to build and how to build it (style, materials, etc.). The plan lays out the design and the physical framing of the house provides the support upon which to build the actual house.  

The framework of a research study works in much the same way.  The theory chosen tells the researcher what to study and how to study the phenomenon of interest.  It guides the study by setting out the design of how the study pieces go together (the research proposal).  How a theory guides or frames a study is evident in how the theory perspective is reflected in the research design, methods, and discussion of the outcomes – all found in the research proposal. 

Theory Framing Research Proposal Pyramid

The support for the house starts with a stable foundation or ground floor (in a research proposal: the Introduction, Background/Literature Review, Overview of the Framework you chose, and Research Question), but then builds on that base to create the second floor and heart of the house (the research methodology), and the house is completed when the structure has the top floor and the roof (the study findings, discussion, and implications).

Why is it Important that a Theory be Used for Research?

A research study should be guided by a theory so the research findings can be used to help build the science of nursing.  The rationales for why the researcher made certain decisions about the research design and methodology have to be based on something.  The THEORY is that something.

The use of a specific theory provides the thought process, the underlying principles, the operational roadmap, for research design decisions.  In the best research designs, the language of the theorist is clearly evident throughout the research steps and methodology. The theory helps the researcher to frame the research question and directs the search of the literature.  The theory’s perspective should be evident throughout the proposal and final product, and to be meaningful, especially in the discussion of the results and implications for practice. 

Using a theory to support a research study allows the researcher to build the science of nursing by adding to the body of literature.  Fox, Gardner, and Osborne (2015) summarized that the use of theory is “central to the quest for ongoing knowledge development” (p. 70). Specifically, testing theory allows the researcher to provide evidence to support or refute the theoretical propositions tested.  It also helps the researcher make sense of the findings in a way that will help us predict relationships and outcomes and to determine resources and services.  

Research studies build the science of a discipline by providing evidence for or against theories, and therefore providing evidence for practice as a result.  

I like how USC Library puts it “[theory] fulfills one primary purpose: to explain the meaning, nature, and challenges associated with a phenomenon, often experienced but unexplained in the world in which we live, so that we may use that knowledge and understanding to act in more informed and effective ways.”

Implicit and Explicit Frameworks

Nursing leaders have lamented the publication of “atheoretical” research for many years. Atheoretical means without theory or “not based on or concerned with theory.” And to be honest, a lot of medical, nursing, and healthcare research, in general, is not explicitly guided by theory.  Atheoretical research will provide results, but without a theory as a context for the findings, the results may not be that helpful in guiding practice, education, or research. 

When research studies do not declare a specific theory as a framework, it doesn’t mean that a framework wasn’t used.  Many frameworks are physiology/pathophysiology-based and implicit in the research design – that is, they are not specifically elucidated as the basis for the study.  For example, many medical research studies about basic disease processes are clearly are framed on a physiologic system (e.g., immune system, coagulation pathways) or pathophysiology-based (e.g., sepsis pathways, neurocognitive disruption). Some qualitative studies do not identify an a priori theory as their research framework — one major purpose of qualitative research is to develop theory. But qualitative studies designed to develop theory still have a framework: the research design is based on a specific philosophy or epistemological framework (Green, 2014). 

Research using a nursing theory needs to be explicit because, as Alligood (2011) noted, “so that nursing research has meaning.” Again, clearly knowing the theoretical perspective allows the researcher, and the reader, make sense of the findings in a meaningful way; a way that will help us impact practice, education, and future research. 

Steps for Using a Theory to Frame a Research Study

Using a theory or conceptual model to frame the research design requires a number of thoughtful decisions.  All the details for searching for, connecting with, and using a theory to guide the research process are beyond the scope of this blog post, but here are some general thoughts that may help you along the way. 

  1. You may already have identified a theory or theories that speak to your own beliefs, values, and philosophy.  If so, then you may want to use that theory as your research framework. If not, as you read you will become more familiar with many nursing and non-nursing theories; at least one of them is sure to resonate with you. 
  2. Did your research question spring from a specific theoretical framework or from another trigger (e.g., specific problem you noticed, something you read about)?
    1. If a theory-focused trigger, then identify your research variables and write your research question using theoretical concepts and terminology (i.e., the language of the theory).
    2. If a knowledge-focused or problem-focused trigger, draft out your preliminary research question and identify the key research variables — what are the key concepts or variables you want to study?
Figure Out What You Know and Don’t Know about Your Topic

Search the literature for information related to your topic and the identified variables.

  1. The point here is for you to find out what is known and unknown about the variables already. Then you can refine your research questions and hypotheses and study what is unknown and needs an answer. 
    1. You should learn enough about your topic to become an expert. To defend your research proposal to your school or work committee, you will rely on this knowledge to persuade others to believe in your project and your research design.
    2. You need to know what is known and unknown about your concepts because your study has to have the potential to build the science of your discipline! The research study has to be worth the time and effort for you to conduct the study, for people to participate in it, for readers to spend the time to read the results, and for clinicians/educators/researchers to implement the findings in practice!
  2. Read the relevant literature on your topic and concepts. Identify the theoretical frameworks used to frame those studies! Can you see how they used the theory to frame their study? Will this framework work for you? 

At some point, you will have read enough to have a good idea of what the state of the science is around your topic.  You should then be able to make a case for your original research topic or you may need to rethink your original question and come up with a new one based on what you found. Your goal is to find a question that is important and still needs to be answered.  

Decide on a Theory to Frame Your Research Study

If your research question was triggered by a theoretical framework, then you want to make sure you used the framework’s terminology to frame your research question. So the variables in your research question would be translated to align with the concepts or terms in the theory.  Then you will use the framework to make decisions about your research methodology.  

If your research question was triggered by another focus, then you need to find a framework that resonates with your identified variables – and then make sure your chosen framework guides your study. You are looking for a framework that could define your phenomenon, or explain or predict the relationship between your key variables.  Where do you find theoretical and conceptual frameworks? 

  1. Look in your theory and research textbooks!  Your required texts usually discuss a sample of different frameworks and models throughout the chapters. 
  2. In the literature (research studies, theoretical papers, etc.) you read about your topic, which theoretical frameworks used by those authors? Did any of the frameworks sound like they could work for you? Most likely you will find a framework that will work for your research.
  3. Search the Internet for more information on using theory to frame research. 

Your choice of framework should depend on how well it fits with your research question and scope of inquiry and how well it can help to explain your results within a broader perspective. Keep in mind that you will have to justify your use of any particular framework, so you want one that fits well with your research purpose and question.

How to Thread or Align Theory

The key to showing your instructor or committee (and yourself!) that you understand how theory frames a research study is to use the language of the theory throughout your research proposal

That means that the theory is threaded throughout your proposal — not just referred to in the introduction never to be heard from again!

Everything in your proposal should align with your framework in terms of the research design, in general, and how the study is organized.  

The terminology you use to explain how data are collected, what research instruments you are using, what the research outcomes are and how they are measured, and how the data are analyzed should all be done in congruence with the theoretical framework. 

Threading a theoretical framework throughout your research proposal is as simple as being deliberate about using the theory’s terms when describing your rationale for your research decisions. Of course, you have to understand the theory to know how if you are using the terms and perspective correctly! 

  1. Be deliberate about using the key concepts and terms in your:
    1. Introductory paragraphs. 
    2. Research question and/or hypotheses.
    3. Literature review.
    4. Methodological decisions as appropriate (type of research design and approach, sample recruitment, research instruments/tools, process of conducting the study)
    5. Documentation of the process for data analysis
    6. Comparison of your results with previous research
    7. Discussion of the results
  2. When writing up your study for publication or presentation, be deliberate about using the framework to compare and contrast your study findings with previous studies that used the same theoretical framework. 

When you use a nursing theory to frame research, you provide the context to interpret the results of your study in a meaningful way – to describe, explain, or predict phenomena of interest to nursing.  If your results are not in alignment with what you expected based on the theory it could be that you didn’t translate the theory correctly to your research or maybe you did and the theory needs refinement! 

Remember that research NEVER proves theory – it can only support or refute the theoretical propositions being tested.  But if you don’t use a theory to frame your research to begin with — you may not be able to put your findings in a context that could strengthen the nursing profession. 

You can find the specific steps to writing a research proposal and using frameworks in any number of nursing research or theory textbooks – some of my favorites are pictured below and include two books by Polit and Beck. For graduate students writing a thesis, books that helped me through were from Hulley et al., Creswell, and Wood and Ross-Kerr. And I found a great article about the use of frameworks in qualitative research by Green (2014).

Build Your Expertise!

Learn more about the theoretical framework you chose for your research. Become the class expert in your theory.  

Read other studies that used your chosen framework so you can compare and contrast how the framework was used and talked about throughout your proposal and, subsequent, manuscript.  You will get ideas for your own study from reading other research!


Alligood, M. R. (2011). Nursing theory-guided research. Nursing Science Quarterly, 24(3), 195-196. DOI: 10.1177/0894318411409427

Fox, A., Gardner, G., & Osborne, S. (2015). A theoretical framework to support research of health service innovation. Australian Health Review, 39(1), 70-75. doi:10.1071/AH14031

Green, H. E. (2014). Use of theoretical and conceptual frameworks in qualitative research. Nurse Researcher, 21(6), 34-38.

Polit, D. F., & Beck, C. T. (2014). Nursing research: Generating and assessing evidence for nursing practice (10th ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Wolter Kluwer/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.