Learners at all levels of education consistently find the process of designing a conceptual framework a demanding, abstract and frustrating experience. To come up with an effective conceptual framework, one has to analyze a set of broad ideas and principles taken from relevant fields of inquiry, and study various works illuminating experiences where several threads of thought combine. Extensive bodies of knowledge could be used as cornerstones for organizing one’s thinking (Smyth, 2002).
The extent and currency of these bodies of literature provided a sound foundation for a conceptual framework. This is because one can draw on this extensive and collaborated theorizing, to devise a common language, guiding principles and reference points from which to structure discussions and analysis (Smyth, 2002). It is also useful for a researcher to understand what a conceptual framework is and entails before attempting to conceptualize.
The following strategies are useful in designing an effective conceptual framework.
- Reflection – assessing situations from social, economic and philosophical perspectives. One has to be clear about what the research is about (title, objectives). Factors such as the independent and dependent variables, and research questions should also be put into perspective.
- Defining the key issue (problem) to be addressed and defining its practical boundaries.
- Identifying key uncertainties (gaps in understanding/knowledge) about the situation or the social/economic systems, and so on (The questions that need to be answered by the study).
- Identifying and assessing different possibilities for action.
A well constructed conceptual framework can guide the entire research writing process, keep the researcher on track, save time and enable researchers to defend their arguments soundly and readily.
An effective conceptual framework should have the following qualities:
- Should be clear and concise.
- Language used should be simple and straight forward.
- The conceptual framework should be self explanatory.
- Should have supportive evidence of ideas used.
- It should be logical and address the title, research objectives, and statement of the problem.
- It should be consistent with the literature review.
- It should also show a link between the literature review and the study problem.
- It should develop a set of guiding principles against which judgments and prediction might be made.
- It should act as a reference point from which to locate the research questions within contemporary theorizing.
- It should provide a structure within which to organize the content of research and to frame conclusions within the context.
There are various challenges faced in designing an effective conceptual framework and this should be addressed by researchers. One of the major challenges is in structuring the framework so that one can communicate through it effectively. Choosing the language for the descriptions needs careful consideration. Descriptors form the common- language reference points for discussion, judgments and reporting.
In addition, elements of each theme overlap considerably and it is therefore important to realize that themes are parts of an intertwined context rather than isolated strategies making independent contributions to the situation under consideration. Disunity in themes is a major weakness in conceptual frameworks. Some researchers write ideas that are isolated, yet in a conceptual framework elements of each theme should overlap.
The literature review should support the investigation through the conceptual framework. It should provide reference points from which judgments can be made following the data analysis in subsequent chapters. One of the challenges faced is planning and finalizing the conceptual framework without the planner being conversant with the research objectives. Another major challenge is copying conceptual frameworks of other researchers without a keen study to find out if the framework fits in the current study.