Emancipatory Nursing Praxis

Contributor: Robin Walter
September 30, 2020

Author: Robin R. Walter, PhD, RN, CNE

First published: 2016
© 2020 Robin Walter
Major Concepts
  • Social justice ally. In the figure above, the open-ended, quantum spiral was selected to graphically represent continuous motion, growth, unpredictability, and evolution inherent in engaging in social justice
  • Privilege;
  • Praxis; and the learning processes of becoming,
  • Awakening, transforming within relational and reflexive contexts

Middle-range theory of nurses’ engagement in social justice.


The theory of emancipatory nursing praxis (ENP) is a middle-range theory describing the transformative learning process nurses experience as they come to know and engage in social justice as allies. ENP is a hermeneutic-dialectic, relational process comprised of four learning processes and two contextual categories.

The four learning processes are: becoming, awakening, engaging, and transforming. (Each learning process is characterized by several sub-processes that are not detailed in this overview.) The two contextual categories are relational and reflexive.

  • Becoming – Becoming reflects the nurses’ earliest memories and perceptions of social injustice or unfair social situations. It is a largely unconscious, initial exploration of perceptions and ways of being in the world. Intrapersonal characteristics and socio-environmental factors work in concert to provide nurses with a basic awareness that ‘something is not right’ or ‘something needs to be done’. An awareness of the problems’ root (social) causes, and one’s privileged place in those processes, are neither evident nor emergent in the nurse’s experience of becoming.
  • Awakening – Awakening is the nurse’s recognition of their role or place in the larger, societal-structural forces that impacted the health and well-being of others. Awakening is marked by a change in how the nurse sees himself or herself in relation to others. It is the result of a single, pivotal event or a longer, emergent process that ultimately shifts the nurse’s worldview. In the absence of awakening, it is unlikely that nurses will engage in social justice as an ally.
  • Engaging – Engaging encompasses the actions and interactions involved in doing social justice. Engaging reflects a dynamic, evolving process in which nurses actively explore and cultivate the role of ally with the expressed intent of advancing specific transformative goals
  • Transforming – Transforming reflects the nurse’s motivations for learning to become a social justice ally. Transforming is an expansion of consciousness that fundamentally reconditions the nurse’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. It encompasses three goal-directed processes: human flourishing, achieving equity, and transforming social relationships.

Relational and Reflexive Contextual Conditions: The four learning processes above occur within two contextual conditions: relational and reflexive.

  • The relational context is the myriad relational realms for engaging in social justice as an ally. These berths of engagement include individual, group, organizational/institutional, community, national, and international/global contexts. Nurses can engage in social justice within a singular context or across contexts and, therefore, have the potential to knowingly (or unknowingly) impact multiple contexts simultaneously.
  • The reflexive context highlights awareness of the role nurses play in creating or maintaining oppressive social structures and practices. The depth of reflexivity develops across four dimensions: descriptive, self-aware, critical, and emancipatory. In short, nurses become increasingly adept at reflexivity, moving from a straightforward, descriptive accounting of events devoid of emotion to an emancipatory depth of reflection that promotes praxis (the ability to envision and take action toward the possibilities of individual and collective self-determination).
Primary Sources

Walter, R. R. (2016). Emancipatory Nursing Praxis: A Theory of Social Justice in Nursing. ANS. Advances in Nursing Science, 1. https://doi.org/10.1097/ANS.0000000000000157

Walter, R. (2017). Emancipatory Nursing Praxis: Becoming a Social Justice Ally. In S. Horton-Deutsch & G. Sherwood, Reflective Practice: Transforming Education and Improving Outcomes (2nd ed., pp. 355-375). Sigma Theta Tau International.

Robin Walter

Dr. Robin Walter has been a policy advocate and political activist since 1994. Her work in health and public policy began as the Training Coordinator for the Clinton Administration’s National Health Care Reform Hotline; and, as a congressional legislative aid on health policy. She was employed as the Legislative Director of the Lutheran Office on Public Policy (LOPP), advocating for expanding healthcare access for children living in poverty, expanding the earned income tax credit policy, raising the minimum wage, and challenging the punitive turn in social, welfare, and immigration policies.

After an unsuccessful run for the Maryland House of Delegates (winning the primary, but losing in the general election), she accepted a position with Lutheran World Relief (LWR) as the Grassroots Coordinator for their Washington, DC Office of Public Policy. In this position, she provided local and national educational workshops on LWR’s national and international policy initiatives. She also organized public demonstrations, and hosted international advocacy delegations for debt-relief to Tanzania and Kenya.

Her research focuses on educating and preparing nurses as social justice allies to empower vulnerable and marginalized groups. Her theory of Emancipatory Nursing Praxis identifies and guides the development of nurse competencies in the role of ally. Most recently, she concluded a two-year, community focused, policy leadership development project for Florida nurses. The statewide project was funded by a $225,000 grant awarded by the Florida Blue Foundation. Dr. Walter received her ASN from Harford Community College; a BSN from Towson University; an MS in Nursing/Health Policy from the University of Maryland; and, a PhD in Nursing from Barry University.