Finding the right approach to theoretical frameworks in qualitative research

Leah East and Kath Peters introduce five Nurse Researcher articles on the use of theoretical frameworks in qualitative research

Two nurse experts introduce five Nurse Researcher articles on the use of theoretical frameworks in qualitative research

Research framework
Illustration: Nick Lowndes

Qualitative researchers explore phenomena to discover meaning through descriptive and interpretative approaches. Within the plethora of literature, qualitative research can be guided by a multitude of methodologies which have defined approaches and boundaries, yet it can also be generic and much more fluid. 

When embarking on a research project, researchers need to determine their best approach according to the aims and intended outcomes. Novice and experienced researchers can struggle in this task, however, which can require a considerable amount of reflection, particularly since there is no single or best approach that fits all circumstances.  

Five articles available on the Nurse Researcher website offer guidance and insight into a range of techniques for using frameworks to guide research for experienced and novice nurses alike. 

Reflexivity and reciprocity 

When conducting research, it is essential that the research is underpinned by elements of the particular approach used, and in this case by key tenets of qualitative research. Reflexivity and reciprocity are often reflected in qualitative research to minimise bias and enhance credibility. Particularly useful in these five papers is how several authors have highlighted the ways in which the use of a framework can promote both reflexivity and reciprocity.  

Klages et al’s (2019) work, which focused on mothers of children with schizophrenia, discusses a framework consisting of four stages which can be used in a feminist storytelling approach. Reflexivity and reciprocity underpin feminist research to help the voices of people who have been marginalised to be heard, minimise power imbalances in the research process and co-create knowledge to be shared. 

As Klages et al (2019) point out, using a framework that consists of preparing, collecting, analysing and telling of stories can assist researchers in reflecting on and demonstrating reflexivity and reciprocity in the research process. 

Subscribing to the concept of reflexivity, Straughair (2019) takes us on her journey in developing a conceptual framework for doctoral work focused on exploring compassion through a constructivist grounded theory approach. 

Straughair (2019) elucidates how developing a framework for qualitative research requires a reflexive approach and asserts that wading your way through the literature and specifically the interchangeable terminology often used can pose particular challenges for the novice researcher. However, as the author asserts, these were overcome by drawing on Ravitch and Riggan’s (2012) work which was instrumental in developing a conceptual framework. 

Drawing on this work and engaging in reflexivity, a framework was established by identifying and developing the topic of personal interest, understanding existing perspectives through reviewing relevant literature and determining the author’s own world view (Ravitch and Riggan 2012; Straughair 2019). In doing so, the enhancement of knowledge associated with compassion in the context of nursing between researcher and participants was achieved. 

Moving from research involving interviews between a researcher and individual participants, research involving communities requires attention to establishing multiple partnerships, identifying needs of all stakeholders, attentiveness to cultural appropriateness, identifying strengths and limitations both personally and among stakeholders, and mutual respect and commitment among all involved. 

In the work by Brockie et al (2019), these elements are emphasised through their developed conceptual model and framework, which focused on initiating a partnership between a university and a native American community to address health disparities through the provision of nurse practicum experience. 

What is particularly novel about their proposed framework is the value afforded to the preparation required in establishing a successful and sustainable partnership. 

Working with indigenous communities requires cultural awareness and sensitivity to the discrimination and marginalisation experienced by them, and care must be taken not to contribute to these negative experiences through the unethical conduct of research. Through the use of four key processes including initiation, authorisation, preparation and first immersion, Brockie and colleagues demonstrate how partnerships between universities and indigenous communities can be established and enhanced through mutual learning, reciprocity and respect. 

Creative licence and rigour

Nurse researchers acknowledge the importance of an appropriate theoretical framework or methodology in underpinning their research. There is, however, a common complaint, particularly among novice researchers, that some theoretical frameworks used to underpin qualitative research lack sufficient structure to guide all aspects of the research process. 

Conversely, less rigid constraints in qualitative work can have distinct benefits. 

Greater flexibility means there is capacity for researchers to creatively apply or adapt frameworks to better inform their particular study. One such example of an adaptation to a framework is demonstrated by Luo and Kalman (2019), who worked with an existing teaching-meaningful learning (TML) model to develop their own Simplified Teaching-Meaningful Learning (STML) model. 

In their paper, the authors explain how the adapted STML model was used to inform their qualitative case study. They promote understanding for novice researchers by demonstrating the application of this model to all aspects of the research process from inception to discussion of the findings. 

Although flexibility in qualitative research is often embraced, tensions arise when the less prescriptive nature of a methodology or framework is perceived as a threat to the rigour of the research. This is highlighted by Kenward (2019) who identified a lack of guidance available to support the initial and integral process of concourse development in Q methodology. 

Kenward argues this is problematic as Q methodology research has often been criticised for a lack of rigour in collecting and analysing data. Through her review of the literature, Kenward identifies several possible frameworks that may provide guidance to the novice researcher in developing a robust concourse. 

To promote greater use of Q methodology, the author offers advice to researchers in recommending that they clearly articulate the research processes they followed. This would provide further guidance and ensure replicability in future work. 


These chosen papers have highlighted that when embarking on research endeavours, a suitable approach and a ‘how to guide’ is not always necessarily available. Therefore, the authors who contributed here have detailed novel approaches on how to use and/or apply frameworks to guide their research and enhance the rigour or trustworthiness of their studies.


Ravitch S, Riggan M (2012) Reason and rigor. How conceptual frameworks guide research. Sage, Los Angeles

About the authors

Leah East is associate professor in nursing (primary healthcare), University of New England, Armidale, New South Wales, Australia; and Kath Peters is associate professor in nursing, director of academic programme (international), School of Nursing and Midwifery, Western Sydney University, Penrith, New South Wales, Australia

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