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Research Process

These pages offer an introduction to the research process at a very general level.

Theoretical Frameworks

Theoretical frameworks provide a particular perspective, or lens, through which to examine a topic. There are many different lenses, such as psychological theories, social theories, organizational theories and economic theories, which may be used to define concepts and explain phenomena. Sometimes these frameworks may come from an area outside of your immediate academic discipline. Using a theoretical framework for your dissertation can help you to better analyze past events by providing a particular set of questions to ask, and a particular perspective to use when examining your topic.

Traditionally, Ph.D. and Applied Degree research must include relevant theoretical framework(s) to frame, or inform, every aspect of the dissertation. Further, Ph.D. dissertations should make an original contribution to the field by adding support for the theory, or, conversely, demonstrating ways in which the theory may not be as explanatory as originally thought. You can learn more about the theoretical framework requirements in the NU Dissertation Center.

It can be difficult to find scholarly work that takes a particular theoretical approach because articles, books, and book chapters are typically described according to the topics they tackle rather than the methods they use to tackle them. Further, there is no single database or search technique for locating theoretical information. However, the suggestions below provide techniques for locating possible theoretical frameworks and theorists in the Library databases. In addition to your Library research, you should discuss possible theories your Dissertation Chair to ensure they align with your study. Also, keep in mind that you will probably find and discard several potential theoretical frameworks before one is finally chosen.

Conceptual Frameworks

A conceptual framework provides the concept or set of related concepts supporting the basis or foundation of a study. It creates a conceptual model for possible strategies or courses of action identified as important for researching a particular problem or issue. While a conceptual framework is often referred to interchangeably with a theoretical framework, it maintains a distinct purpose. A conceptual framework is used to clarify concepts, organize ideas, and identify relationships with which to frame a study. Concepts are logically developed and organized to support an overall framework and often exhibited graphically within dissertation research. Note that a dissertation may include both a theoretical framework and a conceptual framework.

The suggestions below provide techniques for locating possible conceptual frameworks in the Library databases. Note when examples may use the term "theoretical framework," you may change your search terms to "conceptual framework." In addition to your Library research, you should discuss possible frameworks your Dissertation Chair to ensure they align with your study. Also, keep in mind that you will probably find and discard several potential conceptual frameworks before one is finally chosen.

Researching Theoretical & Conceptual Frameworks Workshop

This workshop presents search techniques for researching theoretical and conceptual frameworks both online and in the NU Library.


Use the Library’s e-book databases to gather background information on a particular theory or theorist. Since the e-book databases will contain fewer resources than a database containing thousands of scholarly journal articles, it is best to keep your search terms a little more broad.

For example, a search for education theory in the Ebook Central database results in many relevant e-books, as shown below. Expanding the Table of Contents will provide additional details about the e-book.

Ebook Central search results screen showing books related to education theories.


Encyclopedias and handbooks will also provide reliable background information on particular theories. For example, a search for cognitive developmental theory in the Credo Reference database results in a number of reference entries which discuss the history of the theory, identify relevant theorists, and cite seminal research studies.

Credo Reference search results screen for cognitive developmental theory.

You may search for theorists and theoretical information using Google and Google Scholar, as well. However, please keep in mind that you will need to be more discriminating when it comes to using material found on open access websites. We recommend reviewing the Website Evaluation guidelines when considering online sources.

One method that may be used in Google is limiting your search by a particular domain name. If a website ends in .org, .gov, or .edu, it is more likely to be a scholarly source. If it ends in .com or .net it is less likely to be a scholarly source. In the search below, for example, we have limited our search for "leadership theories" to just those websites ending with .edu. You may also find this domain limiter under Tools>Advanced Search.

Note: Limiting to a particular domain is not necessary in Google Scholar, as all results in Google Scholar may be considered scholarly. This may include articles, theses, books, abstracts and court opinions, material from academic publishers, professional societies, online repositories, universities and other web sites.


Google search box with example search terms "leadership theories"

For additional information, see the following:

Since most doctoral research requires a theoretical framework, looking at completed dissertations related to your topic is an effective way to identify relevant theories and theorists. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global provides access to over 3 million full text doctoral dissertations and graduate theses. You may limit your search to only doctoral dissertations by using the Advanced Search screen. Look at the table of contents or abstract for reference to theoretical framework, as shown below. The dissertation’s references/bibliography will have a full citation to the original theorist’s research.

Screenshot of a dissertation abstract highlighting the theoretical framework.

On the NavigatorSearchscreen, include theor* as one your search terms, as shown below. It will retrieve results that include one of the following keywords: theory, theories, theoretical, theorist, or theorists. It is important to keep in mind, however, that this is not a foolproof method for locating theoretical frameworks. Scholars will often cite theory or theorists in order to refute them, or because they are saying something that's tangentially related, or they may even just refer to theory briefly in passing. In our example, we have selected the field for AB Abstract because if theory is mentioned within the abstract, the study is more likely to take a theoretical approach.

Screenshot of Roadrunner Advanced Search with example search for theor*.


As shown below, results from our example search clearly include articles which apply theory to the topic of curriculum design.

 NavigatorSearch results screen showing article titles related to theory.


Remember to look past the article title. Theoretical information may be mentioned in a subheading, or referred to elsewhere in the document. Use the FIND feature in your PDF viewer or internet browser to scan the document for terms such as theor* (to pull up theory, theorist, theoretical), framework, conceptual, perspective, etc., as shown below.


Screenshot of an article PDF showing the Find feature.

SAGE Research Methods is a multimedia database containing more than 1,000 books, reference works, journal articles, and instructional videos covering every step of the research process. It includes e-books and e-book chapters which may help you better understand the theoretical framework aspect of your research study. A selection of resources is included below:

Searching in SAGE Research Methods

Use the main search bar to locate information about theoretical frameworks. Search the general phrase "theoretical frameworks," or the name of a specific theoretical framework like "social cognitive theory," in quotation marks to yield results with that specific phrase. See the example below.

Image of SAGE Research Methods search screen

You may also browse content in this database by Discipline. Select Browse on the top navigation to view a list of key topics.

Browse by Topic or Discipline screen in SAGE Research Methods


You may conduct a Cited Reference Search in Web of Science to find articles that cite a primary theorist in your area. These articles are likely to tackle your topic through your theoretical lens, or will point you toward another article that does. To access Web of Knowledge, go to A-Z Databases from the Library’s home page.

On the Web of Science home page, click on Cited Reference Search to search for articles that cite a person's work. 

Enter the name of a key theorist in your area (in our example, John Dewey) in the format they specify (in this case Dewey J*), as shown below, and press "Search."

Select all the options that appear to relate to your theorist. For often-cited people (such as Dewey) use the "Select All*" button, even though this will probably gather in a few citations that aren't relevant to your search.  Select 'Finish Search' on the right.

On the results screen, select the appropriate Web of Science category under Refine Results. For example, we could select “Education Educational Research” and then click “Refine.” You may wish to further refine by Document Type, Research Area, Author, etc. (also located on the left hand menu). Sorting your results by “Times Cited - Oldest to Newest"  is an effective way to discover the most frequently cited works. 

Finally, start reviewing your results to see how they may relate to your topic/theory. Typically, the abstract will identify the cited theorists, as shown below.

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