Conceptual Frameworks in Research

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Conceptualisation of any topic occurs every day in in the modern world. For example, everyday behaviours of why people use resources, how these needs and wants are established and what occurs as a result of these needs gives cause for researchers to analyse day-to-day practices in the hope to facilitate change. This is but one of millions of examples of conceptualisation which occur every day. The question is how well researchers in this particular scenario, or individuals themselves, understand the process of what is occurring or how and why they are actually doing it. This paper will define the characteristics of conceptualisation in the context of a conceptual paper and explain the differences between this specific format and that of a research article. Furthermore, it will provide definitions of conceptual and theoretical frameworks and the distinct features of each, particularly those which vary substantially. Lastly, an evaluation of a specific conceptual paper will identify and discuss key strengths and weaknesses to help broaden my understanding of this topic as a whole.

Conceptual paper

Deleuze and Guattari (1991) defined the term concept as an idea or notion that has various elements which helps to define them. These elements are diverse and distinctive, yet formidable and inseparable.  Jabareen’s 2009 study of phenomena frameworks extends on this definition, stating that ‘every concept has a history that originates from other concepts and relates back to others’ (p51). With this in mind when constructing a conceptual paper the expertise lies in the writer’s ability to identify the various characteristics and components of a topic and find associations that may help broaden their scope of thinking (Robey & Baskerville, 2012; Salomone, 1993).  This does not necessitate a fact finding mission, for a conceptual paper does not solely rely on facts and is often devoid of data (Cropanzano, 2009). Gilson and Goldberg (2015) explain how the focus for any conceptual paper is on the integration of information, linking existing theories that work across various disciplines. It represents the author’s focus of thought about a specific topic or question, what they already know about it and more so why they are even contemplating researching it. Furthermore, it provides an overview of the areas that have yet to be examined or tested and identifies any problem areas from a research perspective. There is little emphasis on empirical studies to help articulate a conceptual paper (Short, 2009). Rather, a focus point is raised and expanded upon by coincidences, debated opinions and existing theories, giving opportunities to provide explanations, create new ideas and develop further questions. Conceptual papers may not follow any particular structure, however they do form the starting point for many ideas, models, theories and frameworks.

Research article

A conceptual paper varies considerably when discussing the characteristics of a research article. Unlike the conceptual paper which draws on the author’s own thought processes to determine the what, how and why a particular topic should be researched, a research article contains a comprehensive investigation of an original research study. It is regarded as a primary source as it is based on original research undertaken by the author.  Research articles briefly discuss previous peer-reviewed empirical studies to demonstrate how they will contribute to and potentially enhance the body of knowledge concerning the topic. The methodology behind the research and the way in which it is conducted also forms part of the paper to ensure validity and reliability. Another feature that differs from that of a conceptual paper is the data presentation of the study and interpretation of these results, methodically linking findings to those from prior studies. An assessment of these findings in the larger context of existing knowledge is also discussed together with any speculative associations. Research articles also follow a particular structure which addresses a certain objective. The paper needs to state what problem the writer intended to address, what they did to answer the problem, what they observed in the results and what they think those results mean (Perneger & Hudelson, 2004). These factors all contribute to generating measurable and testable data, using established research methods that will test hypotheses and enable readers to make valid assumptions about the specific topic.  This contrasts with conceptual papers which tend to expand the broader conversation, developing more ideas and questions, without necessarily linking relevant theory.

Theoretical Framework

When developing a research question it is beneficial, if not imperative, that the author follows a framework that explains the specific topic being studied either graphically or in detail. Framework, as defined by Regoniel (2015), represents the researcher’s synthesis of literature on how to explain a phenomenon. In this instance a theoretical framework, as described by Creswell (2005), relies on quantitative methods to help test the theory associated with any given research topic. Its structure comes from the author’s means of identifying a particular theory and presenting empirical evidence and literature that helps support that theory’s association with that topic.  Theoretical frameworks are specific in that empirical theory testing is crucial in guiding the author’s research. They need to determine what things to measure and the types of statistical relationship to look for, providing the structure and rigor needed to learn more. It allows researchers to test their own preconceived notions and fundamental beliefs through an explicit process that reduces bias and allows them to potentially see the variables and their relationships through a different lens (Breakwell & et al, 2007; Creswell, 2009). This process allows readers to recognise that the relationships being proposed or suggested are not merely based on personal instincts or guesses. They have been formed from data considered and obtained from previous research and alternative theories that has challenged perspectives. Leedy and Ormrod (2005) summed it up nicely by simply defining theoretical frameworks as constructions that contain a comprehensive discussion of the research problem and a rationale for conducting an investigation of the problem.

Conceptual Framework

Conceptual and theoretical frameworks are often used interchangeably, particularly when concepts are organised and interrelated and eventually recognised as theories. Several authors have attempted to explain the differences. Gerrish and Lacey (2010) suggested that researchers who used a conceptual framework based their studies around their own assumptions about the areas being studied because they are collecting information and finding associations to help form these assumptions. Fain (2017) and Parahoo (2006) shared similar interpretations, proposing that studies that have been based on concepts from various theories should therefore be considered a conceptual framework; one that provides an outline of how an author plans to conduct the research of their thesis while also arranging their work within the broader scope of research. It presents the preferred approach while also defining the purpose and overarching problems (Robertson & etal, 2018; Suman, 2014). Matthew & et al (2014) highlighted that the key factors, constructs or variables of the study are an integral part of this framework. It helps explain the interrelationship between each of these factors while also guiding the author’s thesis and that of the researchers who will analyse the thesis. To help understand the course of research being studied various methods are used to help make sense. Mind maps, flowcharts or diagrams help create a visual hierarchy of information while also showing the variables that influence the components of the concept. Narratives help describe the variables that influence the research while exploring how they may change the hypothesis. Either method explains the purpose of the research.  As discussed previously when defining the associating characteristics of a conceptual paper, emphasis is placed on the researcher’s understanding of the various associations of information. It identifies the variables, mapping the investigation path for the researcher. Conceptual frameworks however, do not enable authors to make a prediction about any particular result as they do not provide facts or data. Relatively speaking, they intend to somewhat provide supple interpretations of meaning developed from qualitative exploration.

Conceptual vs Theoretical

Although conceptual and theoretical frameworks are often used interchangeably by researches there are distinctions between each which determines the type of framework that has been adopted. Theoretical frameworks inform researchers of existing theories that have been tested and validated whereas a conceptual framework is informed by the associations of a number of different concepts that have been based on their own assumptions and coincidences. In this instance concepts, constructs and variables can be added as the author sees fit, particularly those that they may find relevant. Underlying theories form the basis of theoretical frameworks whereas numerous concepts or ideas and their association with each other helps form the basis of a conceptual framework. Further differences lie in the qualitative and quantitative methods used. Quantitative data is developed from new theory and interpreted throughout a theoretical framework to provide a general representation of relationships between variables within a given phenomenon (Callaghan, 2010).  Conceptual frameworks, on the other hand, rely on qualitative data that describes the specific direction the research will need to follow (Gardenfors, 2004; Hirscheim, 2008). Additionally, the processes underlying conceptual frameworks are mainly inductive because it starts from conceptions of a specific topic and leads to a generalised conclusion which does not necessarily mean that it is true or false. Theoretical framework processes progress from principals that are specific and factual. The conclusion is either true or false and a decision is made deductively by assessing the strength of the link between the principals and the conclusion. Another distinctive factor is that the scope of conceptual frameworks usually applies to the research problem that is being explored which limits its application to other research areas. Theoretical frameworks generally have a broader scope as they relate to the application of various theories and therefore can be applied to various research problems (Rocco & Plakhotnik, 2009).

Evaluation of Conceptual Paper

Erwee, Malan and van Rensbury (2013) discuss in depth definitions of diversity, comparing examples of different countries, drawing the assumption that in some countries their definition of diversity is universally accepted but in other cases they vary considerably. This is significant in that it allows the reader to understand that not all countries share the same values surrounding diversity. The authors have drawn from several credible sources to help provide a comprehensive definition of diversity and from various concepts surrounding diverse characteristics, jurisdictions and cultural assumptions. They have been able to successfully associate these concepts as potentially having a major influence on university policies and supervisory practices, citing academic traditions of doctoral students as a motive for governments to provide funding to universities to increase intakes from lower socio-economic backgrounds. The paper fails however, to clearly link why students from lower-socio economic backgrounds would require additional support, giving readers the assumption that many doctoral students come from disadvantaged countries and are therefore more ‘vulnerable’. Some may consider this bias in the revelation that the authors may consider Australian Universities superior to other international Universities.

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Comprehensive reference to government legislation is evident throughout the paper, suggesting that limited laws and workplace policies lack the approach needed to fundamentally eliminate discrimination against Australia’s minority groups. Authors have made the assumption that access to services is inequitable due to ranging factors, while crediting Australian Universities as the forerunners of anti-discrimination and equal employment opportunity. Further comparison tables are shown representing systematic responses of this particular University. Additional qualitative data from other Universities and their approaches to eliminating discriminatory practices may have enhanced the paper’s ability to provide more perspectives or alternative ways in which Universities have successfully managed the diversity of its students and staff, further distinguishing those students who were also enrolled in distance and online services. The authors integrated a comprehensive list of information from credible authors while also incorporating their own general knowledge of the topic. Although in some stages of the paper there was a sense of preference towards specific University strategies, they were able to overcome this by drawing on various concepts and recommendations that may contribute to the broader scope of research around cultural diversity practices. Furthermore, by attributing the growing changes of globalisation to a greater and more diverse population the authors were able to demonstrate how future research may effectively help to develop strategies integral to the management of cultural diversity in all sectors of work and education.


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