He lounged in the chair, laptop nestled in his lap. “Here, look at this,” he waived toward his screen.
I bent over, squinting, and saw a colorful graph of lines that reminded me of a holiday decoration. “It’s a stochastic model of cellular growth….” He went on to mention the conditions that were being modeled, and I marveled at how these predictions were created.
He turned to face me. “You know, the problem with social sciences (and nursing) is it’s too imprecise. You can’t replicate the studies and find the same results. The conclusions tend to way over-estimate the sample from which the data are drawn. Your theories don’t really reflect science.”
I studied his face and tried to determine whether he was serious. He knew my work and was aware of my approach to theory as a conduit to build science and expand knowledge. I am steeped in the Continental philosophy of human science; I believe in the Truth, but also with humans living different realities and how our personal narratives intersect to create the political. I believe that language not only reflects reality, it creates it. I subscribe to the notion that discourse is important to deconstruct as power relations (hegemonies) embedded in them are often unnoticed without such analysis.
Perhaps I was taking the conversation too seriously, but such science as this young man described and the data science paradigm are oozing – flooding really – into crevices of thought and science at a pace that makes me queasy. The battle of the empirical way of knowing overshadowing other ways of knowing (Chinn & Kramer, 2018) is amplified in the call to harness the seemingly infinite data collected daily that is supposed to tell us something of the human condition. What are these data trying to tell us? Patterns may be revealed without hypotheses. Theories were unnecessary for machine learning as one statistician told me, “You use machine learning when you don’t know what you’re going to find.”
This seems heretical for a theorist. I wanted to sell theory even harder.
In automatic cognitive reactions, I convey to those around me how important theory is — that the use of theory can inform, organize, and enlighten. I thought of Sarah Szanton and Jessica Gill’s (2010) work, Society-to-Cells Resilience Theory – could it be applied to stochastic methods? I thought of other times when I “sold” theory:
- One of my colleagues asked for input on a community engagement proposal in the context of substance use and stigma within rural communities. I steered her to the Rural Nursing Theory of Winters and Lee (2018) and their remarkable understanding of concepts unique to rural dwellers, such as insider/outsider, the meaning of work, and so forth.
- A doctoral student examining physical activity in couples – absolutely, I told her, see Pender’s (2011) health promotion model as this will help organize the co-variates.
- Teaching advanced theory with enrollment from other healthcare professions, including pharmacy. I boasted about nursing’s rich theoretical foundations and how nursing can inform other disciplines in myriad ways. I applaud the student when she finds a singular concept analysis within her discipline.
But then, I give pause. With recent discussions surrounding racial and ethnic disparities, and decolonizing nursing theory, I question whether I am “selling theory” with a bit too much enthusiasm. I think of all the other Truths out there based on personal experience, which is a microcosm of the political. I think of the mix of what is current politically in juxtaposition with theory, and how the tight weave of beliefs leaves me looking for solid answers and coming up empty at times.
Without reflectivity and critical appraisals of what we believe – and try to sell – we are guilty of stagnation. We are guilty of ignorant exclusion. Now, with calls to examine our fundamental assumptions framed within privilege, do we “sell theory” with the same enthusiasm? I’m uncertain, but certain of caveats. We need to acknowledge the knowledge of other theoretical possibilities we haven’t addressed. We can accept “not knowing what we don’t know,” and with just as much enthusiasm explore our ignorance. We can honor those whose work has moved us forward, and move out of the way, or ask for a place alongside, of those who are informed in new ways or in ways that we didn’t listen to before. We must be committed to inclusion and diversity of thought, of the personal as political. As theorists, we are motivated to refine, refresh, extend, edit, delete, and discount. Only when we stop these activities, only when we think “we’re done,” will we be guilty of over-selling theory.
With a sigh, I look over again at the young man with his stochastic graphs and models. He’s been pushing buttons on his laptop, growing his models, as I have been reflecting on theory’s role in nursing. I kiss him, my son, on the cheek, and say with certainty, “We both have a lot to learn.”
Chinn, P. & Kramer, M. (2018). Knowledge development in nursing: Theory and process (10th ed.). Mosby, Inc.
Pender, N. J., Murdaugh, C. L., & Parsons, M. A. (2011). Health Promotion in Nursing Practice (6th Edition). Pearson.
Szanton, S. L., & Gill, J. M. (2010). Facilitating resilience using a society-to-cells framework: a theory of nursing essentials applied to research and practice. Advances in Nursing Science, 33(4), 329-343.
Winters, C. & Lee, H. J. (Eds.). (2018). Rural nursing: Concepts, theory and practice. (5th ed.). Springer Publishing Company.