When writing a paper or performing an experiment, professors and students need to define the ideas that inform their work in general and very specific ways.Theoretical and conceptual frameworks designate two different sets of ideas used in academic writing and research.

Theoretical Framework

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The "theoretical framework" of an experiment or paper refers to the larger assumptions in which the researcher is working. For example, a psychologist writing a paper may be working in a Freudian, Jungian or behaviorist theoretical framework. A theoretical framework provides a large, overarching structure of ideas that the researcher can then draw from in beginning to analyze a phenomenon or a text.

Academics refer to their theoretical frameworks when publishing papers or experiments to explicitly identify the assumptions that inform their work. This allows readers in the field immediate familiarity with the ideas on which a study is based, and a beginning point for critical analysis.

Conceptual Framework

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While a theoretical framework provides the general set of ideas in which a study occurs, the conceptual framework refers to the specific ideas a researcher uses in the study. Examples of conceptual frameworks include the methods of a chemistry experiment, the definitions a sociologist uses to describe a culture and the types of data an economist considers when evaluating a country's industry. The conceptual framework thus consists of the ideas that are used to define research and evaluate data. Conceptual frameworks are often laid out at the beginning of a paper or an experiment description for a reader to understand the methods used.

Differences Between Theory and Concept

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The difference between theoretical and conceptual frameworks is scale -- referring to the Big Ideas and the smaller ones. The conceptual framework is a set of specific ideas that can be used within the larger theoretical framework. A theoretical framework may contain many ideas that are not explored within the paper or experiment it structures. However, by definition, all aspects of the conceptual framework are used in the process of research.

Note that a theoretical framework often informs the conceptual framework. For instance, a Freudian psychologist is likely to place a great deal of importance on early childhood data from their subjects. On the other hand, the theoretical framework may also determine what ideas are not considered by a conceptual framework: A behaviorist is unlikely to consider a subject's dreams.

Interchangeable Use

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When used as a separate term, "theoretical framework" always refers to the larger ideas governing research and study. However, the terms "theoretical" and "conceptual" are often confused or used interchangeably to designate all ideas used to define and shape an intellectual study. When in doubt, refer to your professor or to a source within your field of research to determine which term to use.