A conceptual framework is used to understand the place of -- and inform the direction of -- a research project. Professor Roger Vaughan of Bournemouth University compares the conceptual framework to planning a vacation. Before you plan your own itinerary, you look at guidebooks to learn about the most important places to see and the best hotels. You use that information to guide your planning. A conceptual framework uses previous research to determine a theory and methodology for a current research project.
Take a Multidisciplinary Approach
A conceptual framework is much more than a literature review. It doesn't just summarize current published research. It takes into consideration all current theories, findings and contexts for your research question. For example, a conceptual framework for a research project on the works of Jane Austen would look at not just academic essays and books about her work but also film adaptations of her novels, spinoffs inspired by her work, biographical texts and even letters and journals written by the author. A conceptual framework must look at multiple disciplines to adequately frame the research project.
Identify Research Gaps
A complete conceptual framework will help you assess the goals for your own research and develop appropriate research questions and methodology. One of the ways it does that is to show you the gaps in the current research. For example, if you set out to study the link between prenatal nutrition and depression, you may find that plenty of research has been done on how prenatal nutrition affects future depression in the child but not enough on how it affects depression in the mother. You may decide to change the focus of your research. The conceptual framework should also be used to show gaps in your own research plan and help you develop additional questions or experiments for it.
Identify Potential Biases
Every researcher brings his own biases to the project. Your conceptual framework may show potential bias that has informed the established research or potential bias affecting your own research. Yosef Jabareen writes in the "International Journal of Qualitative Methods" that a conceptual framework isn't designed simply to collect hard facts but rather to determine the "soft interpretation of intentions." You may find that previous research overlooked important questions because it made assumptions based on other established research. Or you may find that researchers omitted key data because the data didn't fit with their established hypothesis. Take the same objective approach to analyzing your own research. Any potential biases could threaten the results of your work.
Choose the Form
A conceptual framework can be either graphic or narrative, or a combination of the two. A conceptual framework in graphic form might include graphs, charts, illustrations or even videos summarizing previous research and theories. Graphic frameworks are easier to scan for key points, which can serve as a helpful reference for you throughout your own research. A narrative framework is more common, but the text can be quite dense and difficult to navigate. Adding plenty of bullet points, bold and italicized text, charts and figures can make it easier to skim the text and pick out the relevant data on future consultations.