Understanding paradigms used for nursing research


  • Kathryn Weaver BN MN PhD RN,

  • Joanne K. Olson PhD RN

Kathryn Weaver,
International Institute for Qualitative Methodology,
Faculty of Nursing,
University of Alberta,
6-10 University Extension Centre,
8303-112 Street,
Alberta T6G 2T4,
E-mail: kweaver@unb.ca


Aims.  The aims of this paper are to add clarity to the discussion about paradigms for nursing research and to consider integrative strategies for the development of nursing knowledge.

Background.  Paradigms are sets of beliefs and practices, shared by communities of researchers, which regulate inquiry within disciplines. The various paradigms are characterized by ontological, epistemological and methodological differences in their approaches to conceptualizing and conducting research, and in their contribution towards disciplinary knowledge construction. Researchers may consider these differences so vast that one paradigm is incommensurable with another. Alternatively, researchers may ignore these differences and either unknowingly combine paradigms inappropriately or neglect to conduct needed research. To accomplish the task of developing nursing knowledge for use in practice, there is a need for a critical, integrated understanding of the paradigms used for nursing inquiry.

Methods.  We describe the evolution and influence of positivist, postpositivist, interpretive and critical theory research paradigms. Using integrative review, we compare and contrast the paradigms in terms of their philosophical underpinnings and scientific contribution.

Findings.  A pragmatic approach to theory development through synthesis of cumulative knowledge relevant to nursing practice is suggested. This requires that inquiry start with assessment of existing knowledge from disparate studies to identify key substantive content and gaps. Knowledge development in under-researched areas could be accomplished through integrative strategies that preserve theoretical integrity and strengthen research approaches associated with various philosophical perspectives. These strategies may include parallel studies within the same substantive domain using different paradigms; theoretical triangulation to combine findings from paradigmatically diverse studies; integrative reviews; and mixed method studies.

Conclusion.  Nurse scholars are urged to consider the benefits and limitations of inquiry within each paradigm, and the theoretical needs of the discipline.