Traffic at the Centre for Communication (CAC) eased off this week, so I took the opportunity to chat with Janet Symmons. Janet is a graduate student tutor at the CAC and a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Education, Curriculum and Instruction. We talked about how to write about theory—not only because this is a question grad students wonder about, but because it’s a topic dear to Janet’s heart. During our talk, Janet clarified the difference between a conceptual framework and a theoretical framework, told me a little about her own story and provided a useful resource.
Madeline: So what is the difference between a conceptual framework and a theoretical framework?
Janet: There has been quite a debate about this – Google it and you’ll see. People get the two confused. A conceptual framework clarifies the concepts through which the findings are discussed. So it emerges as you write your literature review (key words and ideas). Concepts are the general meanings of words, and from them you build the conceptual framework.
The theoretical framework is built from one or more theories through which you view everything. It’s like a pair of glasses you put on, glasses that you can change. For example, you can look at the same data through different lenses—say a feminist lens or a Marxist lens—and find different things. You can also combine theories that complement one another. My theoretical frame is self-determination theory. This is the theory through which I will view my data. Perhaps in a different study I can use the same data, but change my theoretical framework, to say, feminism or Marxist theory. Those would give me a very different perspective of the same data.
Madeline: When do you write about theory?
Janet: You should introduce your theoretical framework in your introduction, but give all of the details about it in your methodology section. And when you’re writing about its history or background, use the past tense. When you are writing about how you are using it, use the present tense.
Madeline: What are you working on and what is your theoretical framework?
Janet: I am doing a qualitative study, interviewing nine British Columbia educators about their use of open educational resources (OERs), specifically what motivates them to use OERs. I am collecting my data using phenomenology methodology, specifically Reflective Lifeworld Research. With this approach, you gather data in a particular way, use a three-part analysis, and put it back together. After that, I will use self-determination theory to view the data.
Madeline: Why did you decide to inquire about how educators use OERs?
Janet: OERs are on the cusp; they will either evolve or be tossed to the wayside. Educators using OERs are being disruptive by using OERs rather than traditional textbooks, and I want to know why.
Madeline: Let’s backtrack to theory. You can’t just pick any theory, right? Don’t you have to align theory with your project?
Janet: Right. First I tried using one theory called Roger’s Diffusion of Innovations, but after working a few months on it, I felt as if I were fitting a square peg into a round hole. It just didn’t work. I read about a few more theories before I found the ones that worked, and a light bulb went on.
Madeline: But isn’t phenomenology a theory? Is your theory reflective lifeworld research or is it self-determination?
Janet: It can be confusing. A resource that really helped me get clear is Salma Patel’s post where he explains the research paradigm in simple language and provides a table:
Madeline: Thanks, Janet. I know our conversation will help graduate students struggling with how to write about theory.
 For more on this methodological development, see the work of Helena and Karin Dahlberg. They draw on the phenomenological and hermeneutic traditions to create a new approach to qualitative research. Dahlberg, H., & Dahlberg, K. (2019). Open and Reflective Lifeworld Research: A Third Way. Qualitative Inquiry. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077800419836696
Photo credit: By Conrad von Soest – http://www.badwildungen.de/altar/foto6.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1844015
The “Glasses Apostle” painting in the altarpiece of the church of Bad Wildungen, Germany. Painted by Conrad von Soest in 1403, “Glasses Apostle” is considered the oldest depiction of eyeglasses north of the Alps.