Theory is defined as “an organized, coherent, and systematic articulation of a set of statements related to significant questions in a discipline that are communicated in a meaningful whole; a symbolic depiction of aspects of reality that are discovered or invented for describing, explaining, predicting, or prescribing responses, events, situations, conditions, or relationships” (Meleis, 1997, pp. 8,12)1. Thus, a theory is a coherent set of propositions and statements that describe (factor-isolating), explain (factor-relating), and predict (situation-relating) phenomena as well as prescribe (situation-producing) actions toward goals. (Dickoff et al., 1968)2.
Theory development requires perceiving phenomena that are peculiar to nursing and proposing meaningful explanation for these perceptions. The nursing profession identifies four levels of theory—metatheory, grand theory, middle range theory, and practice theory. The theories are classified based on their levels of abstraction or complexity.
A complete structure includes a conceptual model, derived theories, and correlated empirical research methods. Each conceptual model and theory is comprised of concepts and propositions. The complete structure forms a hierarchy that is based on levels of abstraction.
Most abstract: the conceptual model that provides the context or frame of reference for theory-generating and theory-testing research
Intermediate level: the theory that is generated or tested
Most concrete: the empirical research methods used to collect and analyze the data
1Meleis, A. I. (1997). Theoretical nursing: development and progress (3rd ed.). Philadelphia: Lippincott.
2Dickoff, J., James, P., & Wiedenbach, E. (1968). Theory in a practice discipline Part 1: Practice oriented theory. Nursing Research, 17(5), 415–435.
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