Understanding Theoretical Frameworks Through the Example of Participatory Research

Melendez (2002) describes that there has been an increase in theoretical frameworks in dissertations over the previous 30 years. Many scholarly articles, essays, and other academic writing all explicitly couch themselves in a specific conceptual framework. This explicit within the literature review identifies the theoretical framework by defining the theory, who the leading theorists are, and the history of the philosophy. The author will then describe fundamental theoretical principles as they are applied to the given topic (Grant & Osanloo, 2014). Every researcher has a foundation of a theoretical framework they are operating under, whether explicit or implicit.

The theoretical framework relates to the research design, help the researcher to situate themselves within their methodology and epistemological position (Salmons, 2019). Understanding theoretical frameworks is an inescapable task for scholars. The purpose of this essay is to define what is a theoretical framework, how it influences research, and how it underpins research. Participatory research, as a theoretical framework, is used to illustrate a practical example.

Definition of a Theoretical Framework

Scholars have conceptualized theoretical frameworks in several ways. Grant and Osanloo (2014) relate it to a blueprint used in constructing a home, describing it refers to the entire dissertation inquiry. Appelrouth and Edles (2011) compare it to an interaction between Alice and a Pigeon in Carroll’s (1886) classic, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In the story, the Pigeon tells Alice that she must be a snake because she eats eggs and has a long neck. In another emblematic example, the authors discuss the children’s game of “telephone1” to help identify the importance of reading the primary sources of these theoretical frameworks. Salmons (2019), does not provide a specific conceptual picture. Still, through the graphical accompaniments (sets of googles displayed with the discussion of theories) with the textual descriptions portray theories as a type of lens for seeing and understanding our research.

Several conceptualizations can embellish our understanding of theoretical frameworks. There are also different ways that these can be described. Salmons (2019) “A theory is a set of interrelated concepts, definitions, and propositions that describe, explain, or predict how and/or why a phenomenon occurs” (p 24). Anfara and Mertz (2015) go on to define theoretical frameworks “as any empirical or quasi-empirical theory of social and/or psychological processes, at a variety of levels (e.g., grand, midrange, explanatory), that can be applied to the understanding of phenomena” (p. 14)

Petras and Porpora (1993) describe the participatory research paradigm as attempting to generate knowledge about social relations and democratic social change through dialogue en equality between those being researched and researchers. They report the following assumptions for the participatory research paradigm a) democratic participation of participants, b) inclusion of personal experience and knowledge by the community, c) education and consciousness-raising for the participants, and d) political action. These authors describe three different levels of engagement and participation in participatory action research through three models. The minimal form of what can constitute participatory action research is in what they describe as the parallel process model. The mutual engagement model has a higher level of researcher engagement in the community. The University of Central America model is “both more encompassing and more theoretically developed than the American ‘mutual engagement’ model” (p. 115).

The Influence of a Theoretical Framework on Research

Theoretical Frameworks, whether they are directly discussed or not, exert an influence on research. “The role of theory in qualitative research as basic, central, and foundational… theory influences the way researchers approach the study and pervades almost all aspects of the study” (Anfara & Mertz, 2015, p. 227). The theoretical framework has a lens that shapes and frames how researchers consider and conduct research. It acts as a tool for researchers giving then ways of thinking about and seeing the data collected related to their inquiry. Anfara and Mertz (2015) describe the theoretical framework can help researchers to organize and focus their study. The inclusion of an explicit theoretical framework provides an avenue for researchers to conceal or reveal meaning and understanding of the phenomena being studied. It also allows the researcher to situate the inquiry in a scholarly conversation and use the accepted language of the theory.

Considering participatory action research as a theoretical framework, it exacts a great deal of influence on the research design process. Researchers have some standard methodologies they follow. Some of the core components of participatory research include committing the interests and needs of the community that the researchers are engaging in. Researchers have a direct engagement with the community. This direct engagement has the researchers and the community to define goals and problems in their voices. Participatory action research has researchers make a more moral commitment to creating change within the affected population (Petras & Porpora, 1993).

Theoretical Framework Under-Pining of Research

Theoretical frameworks strengthen research to form a more structured and rational view of research. There are both strengths and weaknesses associated with having a well defined theoretical framework. Having an explicit theoretical framework does benefit the study, but it must be understood that no framework completely describes or explains any phenomena. The strict following or a theoretical framework can feel deterministic and reductionistic (Anfara & Mertz, 2015). Salmons (2019) describe that it does help keep the big picture in mind and allows for researchers to have a strategic and comprehensive plan for tackling their research. It can also contribute to new ways of thinking. It adds scholarly insight into the theory and how it is used as a theoretical contribution.

Participatory research is a methodology that allows the researcher to conduct a rigorous qualitative evaluation that has the potential to make a meaningful contribution to a quantitatively inclined scientific community. This contribution to the academic community is a staple of research methodologies. Participatory research goes further than this contribution and looks towards potentially making a positive impact on the co-researchers through social action and process completed together as co-researchers. This dual focus of participatory research is to connect science and practice into a methodology for understanding problems persons with disabilities. Bergold and Thomas (2012) describe participatory research as a “methodology that argues in favor of the possibility, the significance, and the usefulness of involving research partners in the knowledge-production process” (p. 192).


Anfara, V. A., & Mertz, N. T. (Eds.). (2015). Theoretical frameworks in qualitative research (Second edition). Los Angeles: SAGE.

Appelrouth, S., & Edles, L. D. (2011). Introduction. In Classical and contemporary sociological theory: text and readings (2nd ed, pp. 1-18). Thousand Oaks, Calif: Pine Forge Press.

Bergold, J., & Thomas, S. (2012). Participatory Research Methods: A Methodological Approach in Motion (Partizipative Forschungsmethoden: Ein methodischer Ansatz in Bewegung). Historical Social Research Vol. 37, 4(37), 191-222. https://doi.org/10.12759/HSR.37.2012.4.191-222

Bergold, J., & Thomas, S. (2012). Participatory Research Methods: A Methodological Approach in Motion (Partizipative Forschungsmethoden: Ein methodischer Ansatz in Bewegung). Historical Social Research, 37(4), 191–222. https://doi.org/10.12759/HSR.37.2012.4.191-222

Carroll, L. (1886). Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. London: Macmillan.

Grant, C., & Osanloo, A. (2014). Understanding, selecting, and integrating a theoretical framework in dissertation research: Creating the blueprint for your “house.” Administrative Issues Journal Education Practice and Research, 4(2), 12-26. https://doi.org/10.5929/2014.4.2.9

Melendez, J. (2002). Doctoral scholarship examined: Dissertation research in the field of higher education studies (Publication No. 375) [Doctoral dissertation, Seton Hall University]. Hall University Dissertations and Theses (ETDs). https://scholarship.shu.edu/dissertations/375

Petras, E. M., & Porpora, D. V. (1993). Participatory research: Three models and an analysis. The American Sociologist, 24(1), 107-126. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02691948

Salmons, J. (2019). Find the theory in your research. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications Inc.


This essay was originally submitted as a part of online discussion for TSD 8215 - Varieties of Scholarly Experience.

  1. “Telephone” is a game where participants stand in a circle, and the originator whispers a phrase to the next participant who listens and whispers what they hear to the next. This goes on until the phrase comes back to the originator, often changed through being passed from person to person.