The term theory is used in many ways. For example, nursing instructors and students frequently use the term to refer to the content covered in classrooms, as opposed to the actual practice of performing nursing activities. In both lay and scientific usage, the term theory connotes an abstraction.
In research circles, the term theory used in various ways by different authors. Classically, scientists have used theory to refer to an abstract generalization that offers a systematic explanation about how phenomena are interrelated. The traditional definition requires theory to embody at least two concepts that are related in a manner that the theory purpose is to explain.
Others, however, used the term theory less restrictively to refer to a broad characterization of a phenomenon. According to this less restrictive definition, a theory can account for (i.e., thoroughly described) a single phenomenon. Some authors specifically refer to this type of theory as descriptive theory. For example, Fawcett (1999) defines descriptive theories as empirically driven theories that “describe or classify specific dimensions or characteristics of individuals, groups, situations, or events by summarizing commonalities found in discrete observations” (p.15). Descriptive theory plays an especially important role in qualitative studies. Qualitative researchers often strive to develop a conceptualization of the phenomena under study that is grounded in actual observations.
Components of Traditional Theory
As traditionally defined, scientific theories involve a series of propositions regarding interrelationships among concepts. The writings of scientific theory include a variety of terms such as proposition, postulate, premise, axiom, law, principle and so forth, some of which are used interchangeably, and others of which introduce subtleties that are too complex.
Concepts are the basic building blocks of a theory. Classical theories comprise a set of propositions that indicates relationships among the concepts. Relationships are denoted by such terms as “is associated with”, “varies directly with”, or “is contingent on”. The propositions form a logically interrelated deductive system. This means that the theory provides a mechanism for logically arriving at new statements from the original propositions.
Types of traditional theories
Theories differ in their level of generality and abstraction. So called grand theories or macrotheories purport to describe and explain large segments of the human experience. Many theories are more restricted in scope, focusing on a narrow range experience. Such middle-range theories attempt to explain such phenomena as decision making, stress, self care, health promotion and infant attachment.
Conceptual models, conceptual frameworks or conceptual schemes (we use the term interchangeably) represent a less formal attempt at organizing phenomena than theories. Conceptual models, like theories, deal with abstractions (concept) that are assembled by virtue of their relevance to a common theme. What is absent from conceptual models is the deductive system of propositions that assert and explain relationships among concepts. Conceptual models provide a perspective regarding interrelated phenomena, but are more loosely structured than theories. A conceptual model broadly presents an understanding of a phenomenon of interest and reflects the assumptions and philosophic views of model’s designer. Conceptual models can serve as springboards for generating research hypotheses.
Conceptual framework consists of concepts that are placed within a logical and sequential design. It...