Aim. This paper explores a social constructionist, pragmatist approach to inquiry and theory-building with a view to exploring its relevance for nursing as a practical discipline.
Background. Positivist and postpositivist inquiry approaches in practical disciplines have produced ‘detached’ theories that lack relevance for everyday practice and so sustain the theory–practice gap. Both meta- and mid-range theories tend to see practice as fixed or fixable rather than being enacted in a state of flux.
Discussion. Practical inquiry and theory are described structurally and as co-dependent processes. The research process is sensitive to the influence of context and consists of construction rather than capture. Practical theory is judged in terms of whether it helps people to ‘go on with’ their lives. Practical inquiry/practical theory is superimposed on a previous nursing study in the field of mental health to illustrate how it can account for the processes of clinical research. In particular, the illustration demonstrates the surrender of researcher objectivity in the interests of collaborative understanding that occurs with practical inquiry/theory. Shared meaning arises as rich constructs of the research situation are developed that point to future possibilities for action for all those engaged in the research process.
Conclusion. Practical inquiry/theory offers the means to conduct cogent, collaborative, developmental research, although further ‘trying out’ is required.