Health professions education (HPE) researchers are regularly asked to articulate their use of theory, theoretical frameworks, and conceptual frameworks in their research. However, all too often, these words are used interchangeably or without a clear understanding of the differences between these concepts. Further problematizing this situation is the fact that theory, theoretical framework, and conceptual framework are terms that are used in different ways in different research approaches. In this article, the authors set out to clarify the meaning of these terms and to describe how they are used in two approaches to research commonly used in HPE: the objectivist deductive approach (from theory to data) and the subjectivist inductive approach (from data to theory). In addition to this, given that within subjectivist inductive research theory, theoretical framework, and conceptual framework can be used in different ways, they describe 3 uses that HPE researchers frequently rely on: fully inductive theory development, fully theory-informed inductive, and theory-informing inductive data analysis.
L. Varpio is professor and associate director of research, Graduate Programs in Health Professions Education in the Department of Medicine, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, Maryland; ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-1412-4341.
E. Paradis is assistant professor, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada; scientist, Wilson Centre, Toronto, Ontario, Canada; and a researcher, Facebook, Menlo Park, California; ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-9103-4721.
S. Uijtdehaage is professor and associate director, Graduate Programs in Health Professions Education, Department of Medicine, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, Maryland; ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-8598-4683.
M. Young is associate professor, Institute of Health Sciences Education, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada; ORCID: http://orcid.org/0000-0002-2036-2119.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a collection of Invited Commentaries exploring the Philosophy of Science.
Funding/Support: None reported.
Other disclosures: None reported.
Ethical approval: Reported as not applicable.
Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, the United States Department of Defense or other federal agencies.
Correspondence should be addressed to Lara Varpio, F. Edward Hébert School of Medicine, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, 4301 Jones Bridge Road, Bethesda, MD, 20814; email: email@example.com; Twitter: @LaraVarpio.
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