Theoretical Frameworks



Why use a Theoretical Framework?

An effective history paper should do more than simply report what happened in the past. An effective history paper should also provide some analysis. Using a theoretical framework for your paper can help open up your analysis of past events by providing a particular set of questions to ask, and a particular perspective to use when examining your topic.

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What is a Theoretical Framework?

Theoretical frameworks provide a particular perspective, or lens, through which to examine a topic. Theoretical frameworks usually come from other disciplines - such as economics, the social sciences, and anthropology - and are used by historians to bring new dimensions of their topic to light. There is no right or wrong theoretical framework to use when examining your topic since every topic can be looked at from a number of different perspectives. For example, an essay on slavery in the American south could be examined from a social perspective - the relations between slaves, or between slaves and masters - but also from an economic perspective, a political perspective, or a cultural perspective just to name a few.

Theoretical frameworks, however, are even more specific than these broad subject approaches. Theoretical frameworks are specific theories about aspects of human existence such as the functioning of politics, the economy, and human relations. These theories can then be applied to the study of actual events.

While it is not necessary to use a theoretical framework to examine your topic, it can help to focus your essay on a specific aspect of your topic and can direct your analysis of that topic, offering unexpected insights into the past.

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Examples of Theoretical Frameworks

There is no finite list of theoretical frameworks one can apply to a topic. Nonetheless, there are several theoretical frameworks that have been used more often by historians, forming schools of thought and shared approaches to historical subject matter such as marxism, nationalism, post-colonialism, and post-modernism, just to name a few.

It is important to note that these categories are fluid, and many of the theories can be classified under more than one school of thought. In addition, many historians borrow theoretical frameworks from other disciplines without actively associating themselves with a particular school of thought. Below are some examples of theoretical frameworks that have been adopted by historians in recent decades.


Many scholars use Marxist philosophy and theories to study past events. One notable theory is Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci's theory of "cultural hegemony." Gramsci proposed that those in power maintain power by making the societal hierarchy seem "normal." Gramsci's theory has been used by many contemporary historians to analyze past events. For example, Robert Rydell has applied this theory to the study of World's Fairs, proposing that the elite of society used World's Fairs to try to sway the masses into supporting a societal order that appeared to benefit everyone, but in reality benefitted primarily the elite. This is just one example of a Marxist theory being applied to the study of history. There are many more.


Scholars of nationalism study how and why people have come to identify themselves as being a part of a nation, as well as the impact of the rise of nationalism in the last two centuries. Benedict Anderson, for example, famously referred to nations as "imagined communities" since a nation is a community in which the vast majority of people will never actually meet face-to-face or know each other, but nonetheless share a sense of identity based on nationality. Many historians have used Anderson's theory to analyse nations and nationalism historically, while others have challenged Anderson's theory on how nations are created by examining the rise of nationalism in a variety of different historical contexts.


Post-colonialists study the power relations and racist assumptions that made the colonial system possible, as well as the legacy of colonialism for both the colonists and the colonized. Edward Said's theory of "Orientalism" proposes that the West has created a mythologized version of the East (or Orient) to reinforce the difference between the two, and the superiority of the West over the East, thus legitimizing Western attitudes towards and treatment of those in the East. Historians use Said's theory to examine past events, even those outside the strict geographic area being considered in Said's original theory. Historians examine how western countries mythologize and exoticize the "other" in order to reinforce and legitimize their position of power. American historian Erika Lee, for example, uses Said's theory to examine American attitudes (particularly those of white American women) towards China and Japan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the United States was developing its "informal empire" in the region through treaties and trade.

Literary Theory

Historians have borrowed prolifically from cultural and literary theorists in recent decades. One notable example is Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of "carnivalesque." For Bakhtin, the "carnivalesque" referred to literature that permits a temporary inversion of the normal social hierarchy. He compares these literary productions to the medieval carnival where for the duration of the carnival normal hierarchies of power were suspended, allowing participants to mock and burlesque those in authority. Many historians have made use of Bakhtin's theory outside of the world of literature, applying it to past events,and examining how different events allowed for the temporary inversion of power. Natalie Zemon Davis, for example, examines the role of gender inversion in the popular culture of early modern France. While many historians and anthropologists have argued that the temporary inversion of power of the "carnivalesque" ultimately serve to re-inforce normal power structures, Davis argues that carnivalesque inversions can also serve to undermine them.


French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault theorized that "discourses" (meaning the ways in which we speak and think about our reality or some aspect of that reality) actually structure our reality and iin most instances are used to reinforce hierarchies of power, but can also be used to subvert these same hierarchies. Historians have applied Foucault's theory to the past, examining how discourses in different times and places have been used to reinforce power. Bengali historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, for example, examines how the discourse of history in the academic world continues to place Europe at the centre of historical studies, even in the study of places outside of Europe.

Gender Studies

Gender studies examines how notions of gender structure our reality. Gender studies have been influenced by post-modernism, arguing that gender is not a fixed category, but rather a social construction. Historians have used these theories to examine how the construction of gender functioned in the past, and to what end. Feminist historian Joan Scott, for example, examines how gender discourse has historically served to construct and legitimize gender hierarchies.


Cultural anthropology is the study of human cultures and seeks to understand how and why they function as they do. Anthropologist Victor Turner examines the role of rites of passage and their cultural meaning and function. Historians have used his work to examine past events and their meaning to those who participated in them.

These are just a small sampling of the many approaches and theoretical frameworks that are available.

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How to use a Theoretical Framework in your Research Essay

When using a theoretical framework to examine a topic, it is important to be explicit about:

  • what that theoretical framework is,
  • who is credited with coming up with the original theory (including notable people who modified or expanded on the theory), and
  • any changes you are making to the theory in your use of it.

This should be set out clearly in the introduction of your essay. In addition your thesis should make an explicit connection between the theoretical framework you have set out, and your historical topic.

As the word "framework" implies, the theoretical framework you have chosen must frame, or inform, every aspect of your essay. As suggested in the module entitled Constructing an Argument, you should have your thesis and theoretical framework written out and in front of you as you write your essay. Every major point that you make must go to establishing your thesis, and therefore must be informed by your theoretical framework.

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