In addition to using theories specifically constructed to describe, explain, and predict the phenomena of concern to nursing, the nursing profession has long used theories from other disciplines. A discipline is a field of study. Theories from biological, physical, and behavioral sciences are commonly used in the practice of nursing. For example, nonnursing theories such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Basic Human Needs, Erikson’s Theory of Human Development, and Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome have been and continue to be useful in nursing practice. These nonnursing theories are often incorporated into nursing practice together with specific nursing theories. When used in conjunction with a nursing theory, a nonnursing theory is transformed by the unique approach of the nursing perspective. This perspective provides the specific framework or viewpoint within which to use theories and knowledge from other disciplines.
Why do we have nursing theories? In the early part of nursing’s history, knowledge was extremely limited and almost entirely task oriented. The knowledge explosion that occurred in health care in the 1950s produced the need to systematically organize the tremendous volume of new information being generated. From the very beginnings of nursing education, there was a need to categorize knowledge and to analyze client care situations in order to communicate in coherent and meaningful ways. The literature about the relationship between theory and nursing care yields many interpretations in terms of the role each component plays in the health care environment. According to Barnum (1994, p. 1), “a theory is a construct that accounts for or organizes some phenomenon.” Chinn and Kramer (1995, p. 20) viewed theory as a “systematic abstraction of reality that serves some purpose.” Meleis (1991, p. 13) stated that a theory is “a symbolic depiction of aspects of reality that are discovered or invented for the purpose of describing, explaining, predicting, or prescribing responses, events, situations, conditions, or relationships.” Similarly, Parse (1987, p. 2) defined a theory as a “set of interrelated concepts at the same level of discourse that explains, describes, or makes predictions about the phenomena of the discipline.” Nursing theories provide a framework for thought in which to examine situations. As new situations are encountered, this framework provides a structure for organization, analysis, and decision making. In addition, nursing theories provide a structure for communicating with other nurses and with other members of the health care team. Nursing theories assist the discipline of nursing in clarifying beliefs, values, and goals, and they help to define the unique contribution of nursing in the care of clients. When the focus of nursing’s contribution is clear, then greater professional autonomy and, ultimately, control of certain aspects of practice are achieved. In the broadest sense, nursing theory is necessary for the continued development and evolution of the discipline
of nursing. Because the world of health care changes virtually on a daily basis, nursing needs to continue to expand its knowledge base to proactively respond to changes in societal needs. Knowledge for nursing practice is developed through nursing research that, in turn, is used to either test existing theories or generate new theories. Nursing research is the systematic application of formalized methods for generating valid and dependable information about the phenomena of concern to the discipline of nursing (Chinn & Kramer, 1995).