Newsletter of the Medical Library Group of Southern California and Arizona

The Role of Nursing Theorists in Nursing Research

Posted on February 5, 2010 by ebrennan | 5 Comments

By Cheryl Bartel, MLIS; MSN-Entry student, Western University of the Health Sciences

Notes on Nursing School
If you haven’t seen me around recently, it’s because I am keeping very busy at nursing school.  Yes, after many years as a librarian to nurses, I have switched sides and am in the process of getting an entry-level Master of Science in Nursing at Western University of the Health Sciences.   In school, I have learned many things that I wish I had a better understanding of in my previous life as a nursing librarian.  I will be sharing these new ideas as a part of a regular column.  I would love to get your feedback on whether you have used any of these ideas in helping your nurses and nursing students in the past, and how that worked.

This posting is going to cover the role of nursing theorists in nursing research, and future posts will cover topics like making sense of nursing degrees and the role of evidence-based practice in nursing.  If you work with nurses and/or nursing students and have a question you would like to see covered, just let me know!  My new “official” e-mail address is

Nursing Theory
Nursing is a little different from most health-care professions in that it is theory based.  Our first nursing theorist was (who else?) Florence Nightingale.  Nightingale used theory to explain what is and is not nursing, and this is a tradition that continues in nursing to this day.  The scope of practice for nursing is so large (imagine the difference between a school nurse, a mental health nurse and an ICU nurse) that theory is necessary to provide a framework for understanding nursing.

Nursing theory ranges from grand theories (such as Orem’s Self-Care Deficit Nursing Theory) through middle range theories (such as Ray’s Theory of Bureaucratic Caring) to practice theory.  Nursing practice theory is at the level that can be empirically tested, and typically comes from the daily practice of nursing.

What This Means for Literature Searching
There are three different kinds of nursing literature that deal with nursing theory that all have their own uses:

  1. Summary books about a variety of theories
  2. Articles or books about a particular theory
  3. Research articles that are based on a theory or theories.  This is one area where books are often as useful as articles in identifying the best information.

Summary books (like the one listed at the end of this post) are good for researchers who are trying to identify a relevant theory for a proposed research topic or for students who are doing the same thing for a project.  They give relatively brief interpretations of a variety of theories, often written by someone other than the original author.  These are more useful for identification of theories and comparison of a variety of theories than for in-depth information on a specific theory.  Like anything else, when you compare an original theory with someone else’s interpretation, you may or may not agree.  For any serious work it is best to go to the original theory.

Theorists historically publish their theories in either article or book format, although with the advent of the internet, this may eventually change.  Often theories develop over time, and so you may find a number of iterations.  Unless you are studying the evolution of a theory, it is typically best to go with the most recent version.  If a theory is controversial, you may also find articles by others about the theory.

Many research articles also include a discussion of the theory used as a basis for the study design and interpretation.  A brief summary of the theory and how it is relevant to the research is typically included at the beginning of the article.  CINAHL often indexes the nursing theories included as a part of the article.  These can be found under “Nursing Theory,” and a number of theories even have their own headings.  This is the best strategy if someone is looking for research based on a particular theory.

Parker, M. E. (Ed.), (2006). Nursing Theories & Nursing Practice. Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Company.

Posted 2/5/10


5 Responses to “The Role of Nursing Theorists in Nursing Research”

  1. Mary Blasius
    April 6th, 2010 @ 9:37 am

    Thank you for the information, as a nursing student online at UOP, I found your information helpful and in an organized fashion. Theory is hard to understand. Finding theorist views on evidence-based practice has been especially difficult. Do you have any advice on searching for this information?

  2. Jerri Passo
    October 29th, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

    Thank you! I have been searching for information most of the day!

  3. Joyce musi
    April 1st, 2016 @ 1:09 pm

    Request information on how theory through research can be developed

  4. Aretha Haskovec
    November 5th, 2016 @ 6:21 am

    Great article

  5. Julianah Oyewole
    July 26th, 2017 @ 2:31 am

    Thanks for you post Cheryl. Very informative and educative. God bless.

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