Frameworks, Theories and Models

Elinor Ostrom, in a paper entitled “The Institutional Analysis and Development Framework In Historical Perspective,” [1] writes that her study of institutions depends on three levels of specificity that are often confused with one another: Frameworks, Theories and Models.  I found her description of each, and her description of how they are related to one another, helpful for my own thinking, so i will share it here:

Framework (most general)

  • organizes diagnostic and prescriptive inquiry
  • provides the most general list of variables
  • attempts to identify the universal elements that any theory relevant to the same kind of phenomena would need to include
  • its elements help analysts generate the questions that need to be addressed when they first conduct analysis

Theory (more specific)

  • enables the analyst to specify which elements of the framework are particularly relevant to certain kinds of questions
  • focus on a framework and make specific assumptions for diagnosis of phenomena, explanation of processes or prediction of outcomes
  • several are usually compatible with any framework

Model (most specific)

  • makes precise assumptions about a limited set of parameters and variables
  • several are usually compatible with any theory

I would love to hear some thoughts on the usefulness of these distinctions.


[1] Ostrom, E. , 2006-08-31 “The Institutional Analysis and Development Framework in Historical Perspective” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Marriott, Loews Philadelphia, and the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Philadelphia, PA Online. 2009-05-24 from