Writing the thesis – the theoretical framework


Not every thesis has a section or chapter devoted to a theoretical framework. But a lot do. (It’s the Ph in PhD after all.) And these ‘theory chapters’ can be very tricky to write – and are often tricky for the examiner to read.

Before starting to write your theory section/chapter it can be good to think about what the examiner wants to see.

The examiners have likely been appointed because they know, and possibly use, the same theoretical framing as you. And this means that you have to assume that they don’t need a basic introduction or a run-through of every possible thing there is to say about the theory. The examiner doesn’t want a general essay, the kind of here’s-the-lot that you wrote for doctoral course-work (or even your masters’ degree).

The purpose of the theory section/chapter in the doctoral thesis is to set the examiner up to make sense of what you’ve done and what you claim to have ‘found’. The examiner therefore expects – and needs – to see something particular to your work. Something that isn’t so general it could apply to any project anywhere, anytime. Something that is bespoke to what they are about to encounter.

The examiner wants to know:

  • How you understand your chosen theory – there are usually multiple ways that theories are interpreted. Which have you opted for and why? What are the advantages of the approach you have taken?
  • Why you’ve chosen this approach – what is it about this particular framing that gives you a way to conceive and design your project, and/or that gives your results real explanatory heft?
  • That you know the ways in which the theory is already used in the field. Who else has used this approach in ways similar to you? What can you build on from their work? Or perhaps, how does your use of this theory differ from the way it is usually put to work?
  • How you have used the theory – how and where have you brought the theory into conversation with your research? Are some aspects of the theory more important than others to your research? Which and why?
  • What are the potential down-sides to using this theory and approach – what doesn’t it do? What have you done about these potential problems?

And if you have brought two or more theoretical approaches together in your research, then you need to provide the answers to these questions for them both/all. But you also need to say why and how it is possible to use more than one approach. Does one theoretical framing fill in a gap left by the other? Are these theories (epistemologically) compatible? What tensions are there between them? Has anyone else done this? What potential issues are there that you need to draw the examiner’s attention to?

Once you’re clear on the audience and purpose for your theory chapter/section then it’s also important to consider the way you’re going to write it.

The examiner wants to know you are on top of the theory. That you know your stuff. That you have expertise. That you can speak with authority about it. So they don’t expect to read quote after quote after quote after quote. Assume that the examiners have read the original, so what they want is something other than a cut and paste of the stuff they’ve already encountered.

The examiner wants your theoretical explication – your approach to the theory and how it’s used – largely in your own words. Of course, the judicious juicy quote can be used for a few key points, those occasions where the theorist makes a point, just so. But it’s best if you can explain the key points about the theory in your own way.

And the examiner really doesn’t want to see you quoting large slabs of “introductions to”, that is, other people’s interpretations of key ideas, unless you are actually discussing how the theory has been interpreted in the field. They want to see that you have read the texts for yourself.

The examiner gets pretty worried if they can’t see you and your research in the theoretical chapter. They want to see you summarising, evaluating, managing a discussion, stating your take on the theory, explaining your use of it. If they can’t find you, then they’ll approach the viva wondering whether you really do grasp the framework you claim as the basis of your work. They’ll have a set of viva questions in mind to try to find this out. You don’t want that!

So in sum –  you need to have a deep and meaningful relationship with your chosen theory long before you put hand to mouse to write the relevant chapter. You need to know how to explain it. And you need to be very clear about how and why and where you’ve used it.

But there is no doubt that writing the theoretical section/chapter will also enhance your understanding and your subsequent use of the theory throughout the rest of the thesis text.