A conceptual framework is an analytical tool with several variations and contexts. It is used to make conceptual distinctions and organize ideas. Strong conceptual frameworks capture something real and do this in a way that is easy to remember and apply. For example, Isaiah Berlin used the metaphor of a “Fox” and a “Hedgehog” to make conceptual distinctions in how important philosophers and authors view the world. Berlin describes hedgehogs as those who use a single idea or organizing principle to view the world (examples given include Dante, Pascal, Dostoevsky, Plato, Ibsen and Hegel). Foxes, on the other hand, incorporate a type of pluralism and view the world through multiple, sometimes conflicting, lenses (examples include Goethe, Joyce, Shakespeare, Aristotle, Herodotus, Moliere, Anderson, Balzac). Economists use the conceptual framework of “supply” and “demand” to distinguish between the behavior and incentive systems of firms and consumers. Like many conceptual frameworks, supply and demand can be presented through visual or graphical representations (see Demand curve).
The use of the term conceptual framework crosses both scale (large and small theories)  and contexts (social science, marketing, applied science, art  etc.). Its explicit definition and application can therefore vary.
Conceptual frameworks are particularly useful as organizing devices in empirical research. One set of scholars has applied the notion of conceptual framework to deductive, empirical, research at the micro- or individual study level. They employ American football plays as a useful metaphor to clarify the meaning of conceptual framework (used in the context of a deductive empirical study). A football play is a “plan of action” that simultaneously connects to a yardage goal andndirects the movement of the players on the ground.
Likewise, conceptual frameworks are abstract representations, connected to the research project's goal that direct the collection and analysis of data (on the plane of observation – the ground). Critically, a football play is a “plan of action” tied to a particular, timely, purpose, usually summarized as long or short yardage. Shields and Rangarajan argue that it is this tie to “purpose” that make American football plays such a good metaphor. They define a conceptual framework as “the way ideas are organized to achieve a research project’s purpose.”  Like football plays conceptual frameworks are connected to a research purpose. Explanation  is the most common type of research purpose employed in empirical research. The formal hypothesis is the framework associated with explanation. Explanatory research usually focuses on “why” or “what caused” a phenomena to occur. Formal hypotheses posit possible explanations (answers to the why question) that are tested by collecting data and assessing the evidence (usually quantitative using statistical tests). For example Kai Huang  wanted to determine what factors contributed to residential fires in U.S. cities. Three factors were posited to influence residential fires. These factors (environment, population and building characteristics) became the hypotheses or conceptual framework he used to achieve his purpose – explain factors that influenced home fires in U.S. cities.
Types of conceptual frameworks
- Working hypothesis -- Exploration or Exploratory research
- Descriptive Categories -- Description or Descriptive research
- Practical ideal type -- Gauging
- Models of operations research -- Decision making
- Formal hypothesis -- Explanation and Prediction
Note that Shields and Rangarajan (2013) do not claim that the above are the only framework-purpose pairing. Nor do they claim the system is applicable to inductive forms of empirical research. Rather, the conceptual framework-research purpose pairings they propose are useful and provide new scholars a point of departure to develop their own research design.
Frameworks have also been used to explain conflict theory and the balance necessary to reach what amounts to resolution. Within these conflict frameworks, visible and invisible variables function under concepts of relevance. Boundaries form and within these boundaries, tensions regarding laws and chaos (or freedom) are mitigated. These frameworks often function like cells, with sub-frameworks, stasis, evolution and revolution. Anomalies may exist without adequate "lenses" or "filters" to see them and may become visible only when the tools exist to define them.
- Action research
- Conceptual object
- Conceptual system
- Isaiah Berlin, 1953. The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 1986 New York: Simon and Schuster, introduction by M. Walzer.
- Colander, David. 2013. Microeconomics, 9th edition, New York: McGraw Hill and Frank, Robert and Ben Bernanke. 2013. Principles of Microeconomics, 5th edition. New York: McGraw Hill.
- Ravitch, and Riggan. 2012 Reason and Rigor: How Conceptual Frameworks guide Research, Thousand Oaks CA: Sage p. xiii
- Maxwell, J. 2009. "Designing a qualitative study" in The Sate Handbook fo Applied Social Science Research edited by L. Bickmam and D. Rog. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage p. 222.
- Rodman, Hyman. 1980. “Are Conceptual Frameworks Necessary for Theory Building? The Case of Family Sociology". The Sociological Quarterly Vol. 21, No. 3 pp. 429-441.
- Moorstein, Mark. Frameworks, Conflict in Balance.
- Jaworski, B, Stathakopoulos, V. and Krishnan H. S. 1993. “Control Combinations in Marketing: Conceptual Framework and Empirical Evidence” ‘‘ Journal of Marketing’’ Vol. 57, No. 1, pp. 57-69.
- Hobbs, R. and Norton, D. 2006. “Towards a Conceptual Framework for Restoration Ecology.” ‘‘ Restoration Ecology.’’ Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 93-110.
- Umberto Eco, 1978. ‘‘A Theory of Semiotics’’, Indiana University Press, p 310 endnote #47 See also The Conceptual Framework
- Patricia M. Shields and Hassan Tajalli (2006), "Intermediate Theory: The Missing Link in Successful Student Scholarship, Journal of Public Affairs Education 12(3): 313-334. https://digital.library.txstate.edu/handle/10877/3967
- Baum, K. 2003. “Assessing Group Conflict: Understanding the Line-Staff Relationship in Fire Service” in Handbook of Conflict Management edited by W. Pammer and J. Killian. New York: Marcel Decker. pp. 129 – 135.
- Shields, Patricia and Rangarjan, N. 2013. A Playbook for Research Methods: Integrating Conceptual Frameworks and Project Management. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.
- Shields, Patricia 1998. "Pragmatism as a Philosophy of Science: A Tool for Public Administration," Research in Public Administration. Volume 4: 195-225. https://digital.library.txstate.edu/handle/10877/3954
- Football plays are usually depicted visually as a set of X's, O's and arrows that represent each player on the field and their subsequent movement. An American football play is depicted on the cover of Shields, Patricia and Rangarjan, N. 2013. A Playbook for Research Methods: Integrating Conceptual Frameworks and Project Management. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press. Also see visual representations of various American football plays in Wikipedia
- Shields, Patricia and Rangarjan, N. 2013. A Playbook for Research Methods: Integrating Conceptual Frameworks and Project Management. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press. p. 24.
- Babbie, Earl. 2007. The Practice of Social Research (11th edition). Belmont, CA: Thompson, Wadsworth pp. 89. Babbie also identifies exploration and description as purposes of empirical research
- Brains, C., Willnat, L., Manheim, J. and Rich, R. 2011. Empirical Political Analysis: Quantitative and Qualitative Research Methods New York, NY: Longman, pp. 75-77. Brains et al 2011 also identify exploration, explanation and description as research purposes. Explanation is connected to hypotheses testing (as a framework). The other research purposes are not connected to a framework.
- Huang, Kai. 2009. “Population and Building Factors that impact residential fire rates in large U.S. Cities.” ‘’Applied Research Projects’’, Texas State University.
- Huang, Kai. 2009. "Population and Building Factors that impact residential fire rates in large U.S. Cities.” Applied Research Projects, Texas State University. p. 42. The formal hypotheses took the form of relational statements. H1: environmental factors influence residential fire rates; H2: populations characteristics influence residential fire rates; H3: Building factors influence residential fire rates. These hypotheses could be represented visually as H1: A → RFR; H2: B → RFR; H3: C → RFR where A = environmental factors; B= population characteristics; C = Building Factors and RFR = Residential Fire Rates
- Patricia M. Shields and Hassan Tajalli (2006), "Intermediate Theory: The Missing Link in Successful Student Scholarship," Journal of Public Affairs Education 12(3): 313-334. https://digital.library.txstate.edu/handle/10877/3967
- Patricia M. Shields (1998). "Pragmatism as a Philosophy of Science:A Tool for Public Administration," Research in Public Administration. Volume 4: 195-225. https://digital.library.txstate.edu/handle/10877/3954
- Patricia M. Shields and Nandhini Rangarajan (2013). A Playbook for Research Methods: Integrating Conceptual Frameworks and Project Management. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.
- Patricia M. Shields and Nandhini Rangarajan (2013). A Playbook for Research Methods: Integrating Conceptual Frameworks and Project Management. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press. p. 249.
- Moorstein, Mark. Frameworks, Conflict in Balance. iUniverse. ISBN 978-0595318247.
- Thomas Kuhn. (1996)The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
- Kaplan, Abraham. (1964). The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioral Science. Scranton, PA: Chandler Publishing Co.
- Botha, M.E. (1989), "Theory Development in Perspective: The Role of Conceptual Frameworks and Models in Theory Development", Journal of Advanced Nursing 14(1), 49–55.
- Dewey, John. (1938). Logic: The Theory of Inquiry. New York: Hold Rinehart and Winston.
- Shields, Patricia and Nandhini Rangarjan. 2013. A Playbook for Research Methods: Integrating Conceptual Frameworks and Project Management. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.