More Than Semantic Differences

By Walker, Charles A. | Journal of Theory Construction and Testing, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

More Than Semantic Differences


Walker, Charles A., Journal of Theory Construction and Testing


Yesterday I received an emailed query from a doctoral student at a respected College of Nursing in the Midwestern U.S. Her query concerned concepts and activities central to the mission and purposes of this journal. Here are her words:

... I am preparing for my candidacy exam with my professors. Today we discussed theory generation, theory development, theory construction, and theory building. All of us have different thoughts about these terms. One professor said these terms mean the same thing because their final goal is to develop theory. But another professor said they are not the same. She stressed that theory generation and theory building are included under theory construction and that theory construction and theory development are the same.

To be honest, I got confused. Do these terms really mean the same thing? If so, can I say that theory generation is (the same as) theory development? I have to understand these terms and explain why theory generation and theory testing are important to nursing science. I have a problem with the concept of theory testing, too. Some researchers use theory testing, instead of theory evaluation, but others don't seem to distinguish them. Could you give me some advice?

Please help me. Thanks so much.

Although I heard and empathized with this doctoral student's pre-exam desperation, I was moved even more by her confusion. Clarifying terms and concepts is important for her success on an upcoming examination, but understanding the aims of nursing science is nothing less than the foundation for her entire career. Perhaps these issues puzzle some of this journal's readers, too. If so, then my response to the anonymous doctoral student may help:

I agree with BOTH of your professors. These terms can be used interchangeably if you wish to emphasize the importance of knowledge development in general and tire of swatting at the gnats of semantic difference. If you think of these terms in their proper context (i.e., nursing science), however, then they possess nuances of meaning worth your consideration.

Theory construction (or building) is nothing more than an architectural (or industrial) metaphor for theory development. Theory development occurs through a) generating a new theory "from the ground up" or b) refining an extant theory through testing. Theory testing is empirical validation of a theory, whether that theory was arrived at deductively or inductively.

Deductive theories are often modeled with their testing/validation in mind; relationships among concepts are clearly indicated, and directionality is specified. Measures based upon a deductive theory are often developed a priori so that the theorist/researcher merely must look for a phenomenon or population to study. Scientists, who are interested in studying a particular phenomenon or population, however, must decide on a compatible framework (or theory) and then go about searching for suitable measures. The latter approach is more common in a messy, clinical practice discipline like ours (i.e., nursing). The former approach is undoubtedly neater, though less relevant and revealing.

Phenomenologically-derived and grounded theories are explanatory frameworks arrived at inductively using narrative or qualitative methodologies. Indeed, the name "grounded" theory implies that the theory is grounded in or generated from trenchant data (i.e., observations made in the real world of social phenomena). Theory generation is a term that is reserved almost exclusively to describe a theory that is generated inductively (Strauss, 1987). An inductively generated theory can be tested using traditional quantitative methodologies or such hybrid methods as content analysis. For example, qualitative data from a new sample representing a similar (or disparate) population can be content analyzed to validate theoretic categories. [See Hansen's article in this issue.]

Theory testing and theory evaluation are not synonymous.

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