Concept Evaluation: Determining Appropriate Strategies for Concept Development

Janice M. Morse



Trust, but verify.

—Ronald Reagan

Concepts do not dichotomously simply exist or not exist. Rather, scientific concepts are created and are tentatively introduced to the scientific community, and often undergo significant transformations in the process of development (Thagard, 1992), that is, of reaching consensus. Over time, with continued use and acceptance, concepts are refined, modified, and eventually reach maturity. Lay concepts emerge to accommodate new perspectives, new phenomena, new ideas, and even changing fads. As the context changes, the concepts also change and are modified. Thus, as they mature, so do the things they refer to—the class, or category to which they belong, as well as the scope to which they refer.

Similarly, concepts vary in level of maturity, ranging from immature, poorly defined, poorly understood, and ambiguous concepts, to clear, unambiguous, well-developed concepts.

When concepts are immature, two or more concepts may compete to explain the same phenomenon, or may even be the same concept but with different labels, or else be similar concepts, sharing some attributes and competing for acceptance (i.e., allied concepts). A good example of competing allied concepts in nursing is the five concepts that compete to explain receptivity and insight in the nursing assessment process: intuition, insight, inference, empathy, and compathy (see Morse, Miles, Clark, & Doberneck, 1994). Another example is in Chapter 20, in which self-transcendence and self-reformulation compete. As concepts mature and their meanings are clarified, concepts become distinct, their attributes are identified, and the boundaries become well delineated.

Think about this. Students often e-mail me to ask, “How can I validate a concept?” If concepts are neither true nor false, how can they be “validated?” Truth as a criterion has no place in determining the adequacy of concepts. The closest we get to such a criterion would be determining adequate and appropriate for the purposes you wish to use it for, and that is the criterion we will use in this book. If we try to validate using “truth,” we must have an external criterion with which to compare it—that which is true—and many concepts do not have such criteria—and this lack does not make them less of a concept. Recall that if an external criterion is available, the concept is, by definition, a perception, a mental construction, an image, soft and malleable, of that particular external criterion. And, of course the meaning (the “external criterion”) that a concept represents may be constantly changing: Concepts are malleable. They must be malleable: They emerge, develop, change, and disappear. If concepts were “true,” then they would have to be static, and knowledge could no longer develop. This is a very important fact to understand, and will be on your final exam. Therefore, I prefer the Wizard of Oz’s definition: “The truth is not fact or reason. The truth is just what ev’ryone agrees on” (Côté, 2005, p. 167; see also Chapter 29). Also, if the external criterion is available to “verify” the concept, researchers would then study the actual object, and not bother studying peoples’ perceptions of the object; therefore, using any criterion to determine the truth or falsity of a concept is absurd, and an exercise in futility. Nevertheless, the fact that concepts are neither true nor false is contested by some authors: in fact, “truth” is considered the goal of principle-based concept analysis, named by Penrod and Hupcey (2005a).

However, concept analysis and the evaluation of concepts is not an open field in which anything goes. And for researchers interested in concepts, for nursing in general and for our students, it would be useful to examine the concept of interest, in order to determine if further work needs to be conducted in delineating or clarifying a particular concept (and if so, perhaps at the same time, identifying a topic for a dissertation). Concepts, therefore, may be assessed on an immature–mature continuum, according to their description of the thing(s) to which they refer and represent. Concept assessment is determined by considering adequacy of the descriptive criteria, that is, the quality of the description and its referents. We consider the richness of the descriptions of the concept and the formal or informal theory in which it is used. We consider its adequacy for the purposes for which we intend to use it. We consider its level of maturity.


What is conceptual maturity? Concepts exist in various degrees of “maturity”: from simply a named phenomenon, to one that is mature. Mature concepts are those that are well defined, have clear and concise attributes, delineated boundaries, and documented preconditions and outcomes. That is, we know a considerable amount about them, the contexts in which they occur have been well described, and they are ready to be used in research and applied to practice. There is consistency, agreement, and acceptance in their presentation. The consistency should (but not necessarily always) extend beyond a discipline to include other disciplines, such as theology or philosophy. This consistency is important, because concepts “maximize the coherence of theories” (van der Steen, 1993, p. 23).

Concepts must be mature before they can be presented to the scientific community and used in quantitative research. To be included in quantitative inquiry, a concept must be definable in measurable units, in a form that may be converted to measurement, or minimally, have adequate information to be able to recognize its equivalence in another study, so that an instrument or measure, already available, may be used—or if not available, be developed as demanded according to the needs of the theory.

Further, recognizing the preconditions, the outcomes, and the boundaries of the concepts permits the application of the concepts for practice. The attributes must be clearly presented and the concept defined and in use (Morse, Mitcham, Hupcey, & Tasón, 1996). Prior to therapeutic application to change practice outcomes, the concept must be understood—and developed—as much as possible. Once a concept is so defined, examples may easily and reliably be identified in the clinical setting. Phenomena that are, and are not, related to the concept are evident.

Although many scientific concepts refer to a less abstract phenomenon than do behavioral concepts, they also must be adequately developed before they can be tested and used in other contexts. Using the attributes, concept analysis may ultimately enable the identification of those variables relevant for measurement. Scientific concepts are usually tested within theory, using scientific methods of testing to determine proof. They are used consistently, and there is consensus for use between theoreticians, researchers, and practitioners.

Considering this progression of science, concept development is a task that must be placed early in the agenda of all research programs and is foundational, integral, and essential to all research programs. In quantitative inquiry, concept clarification must precede the development of project research design, for if a concept is not delineated and if its attributes are unknown, then it cannot be a candidate for measurement. In this case, the researcher must turn to qualitative inquiry to achieve the task of description and identification of the attributes.

If the concept of interest is assessed as mature, then the researcher can with confidence proceed directly to measurement (quantitative inquiry), the manipulation of the concept, or even directly to clinical application.

A concept developed to an intermediate state will reveal a lot of literature, some contradictory, some competing, and some with the same label, but once examined, interpretation may reveal different attributes (and therefore an allied or different concept) using the same concept label. In this case pragmatic utility (Morse, 2000a; Chapters 17 & 18) could be used to reveal the different dimensions of the concept.


The process of assessing the maturity of concepts is a systematic process, one of first assessing the adequacy of the concept in the literature. According to that preliminary decision, the researcher can then evaluate the adequacy of the concept for the next step: If it is immature, then the research must investigate the concept in context and use qualitative inquiry to create the necessary description to develop the concept; if there is literature available, this must be analyzed for conceptual coherence, to determine if there are competing attributes and concepts within the concept label, or if the concept is ready for quantitative inquiry or theory development. Note that the goal of such inquiry is always theory development, recontextualization of the theory, and application. Concepts themselves are useful clinically, to enable communication and class or category recognition; that is, the recognition of future instances of the concept.

Selecting a Concept

When selecting a concept for assessment of its level of maturity, select one that is important to your discipline and program of research. The concept should be theoretically significant and key—that is, selected because it maximizes the coherence of theory (van der Steen, 1993, p. 23). This means that the researcher must be familiar with the literature and unable to proceed to quantitative inquiry because there is not a measure for the concept of interest. While reviewing the literature, look in other disciplines, to see if the meaning remains the same across disciplinary boundaries and how the concept is used in other contexts. Also, explore the historical development of the concept, tracing its major citations over time.

The assessment of the concepts should begin with a comprehensive review of the literature, including tracing the concept back using a citation trail, as far as possible. This broad review will enable you to see the concept in all of its usage contexts and meanings remembering, of course, that some of the very early meanings may have been since discarded.

Surveying the Literature

Surveying the literature at this point is essential. Although it is not necessary (or possible) to pull all the literature at this point, it is necessary to locate the major sources. This includes the publications of researchers who are presently actively researching the concept, as well as the researchers who introduced the concept. If the concept is old, more than approximately 30 years old, then it will be necessary to follow citation trails back by “hand searching” for the publications that introduced the concept. Because you may now be reaching beyond available digital copies and databases, this must be done by searching the citations listed at the end of important articles and locating those, again searching the citations listed at the end of those articles and requesting those, and so forth.

By obtaining the “classical” articles, you will be able to see how the concept originated and, if the meaning has changed over time, where and when it changed. It is also necessary to see how the concept is operationalized when it is used in research, so that any discrepancies between the original definitions and current practice will be evident.

For the current literature (i.e., within the past 30 years), locate all rich descriptions of the concept—that is, qualitative descriptive studies, and any instruments developed to measure the concept quantitatively. Both of these sources will provide important information about the nature of the attributes.

Consider the amount of literature available, both from nursing and other disciplines. If it is voluminous, look to see if the literature contains citations to one or to several definitions. Is it a cohesive field, with consistent definitions used in most studies? If so, and there is agreement—at least in the definition used—that may be one indicator of maturity.

If the definitions used are divergent and scattered into several areas or “schools of thought,” this is one indicator of competing concepts and that the concept is less mature. Search the literature according to these various perceptions of the concept, and this will help you later in your investigation.

Assessing the Concept for Appropriateness

Selecting a concept may be simple or straightforward, or else rather difficult, depending on how many concept labels are competing to describe the same concept and have been used by researchers. Often, scientific concepts are rather straightforward, and these authors do tend to use the same label as the researchers who first introduced the concept. However, as noted previously, in qualitative inquiry, researchers unfortunately tend to keep the emic label for the concepts, and this may result in “theoretical congestion” (Morse, 2000b), in difficulty locating articles, and of those identified, in deciding if the concept is relevant, allied, or the same concept as the one you are interested in.

If the concept has been published under a plethora of labels, you have no choice but initially to go through the stack, carefully examining the articles for their relevance. Examine the way the author has defined the concept, and the fit of the concept to your definition of the concept. At this point, do not discard allied concepts. These concepts may share some, but not all of the attributes in your concept, for you may decide to include them in your analysis: either now, or later, when you begin model building.

Assessing the Concept for Adequacy

Next, the researcher must assess the literature by reviewing and summarizing the descriptions of the concept, using concepts of epistemological, logical, and linguistic philosophy, as well as the pragmatic principle, to identify the adequacy and appropriateness of the concept and to determine how to proceed.1 This following set of criteria proposed in Morse, Mitcham, et al. (1996) will assist in assessing the level of maturity, and determining the subsequent steps in the course of developing the concepts.

Epistemological Principle

Concepts should be clear and distinct, that is, clearly defined, internally consistent, and well differentiated from other concepts.


       “Is the concept clearly defined and well differentiated from other concepts?”

The epistemological principle refers to assessing both the internal structure of the concept (the development of the definitions, attributes, boundary, preconditions, and outcomes) as well as its external position in relation to applied concepts and the extent to which it is independently separated from other concepts.

Internal assessment

Is there a clear and commonly used definition? If a concept is poorly developed, definitions are difficult to locate, are skimpy, or inadequately describe the phenomenon. Note that development of the definitions of concepts has little to do with the age of the concept per se. Some concepts that are commonly used in everyday life (such as privacy), are relatively poorly defined, whereas newer scientific concepts that have been extensively used in research, such as bonding, are well described and researched (Morse, Mitcham, et al., 1996), and are now used in everyday life.

A concept definition obtained from the dictionary is not very useful from the perspective of concept analysis, except to ensure that everyone is talking, more or less, about the same concept. Dictionary definitions, while they may help to superficially describe the concept, are inadequate and too skimpy to be used for concept assessment (Morse, Mitcham, et al., 1996). For instance, look up lemon (“A yellow or green citrus fruit”). It does not tell you about its shape, taste, purpose, or even that it grows on the tree and costs 50 cents in the store. It tells you nothing about the nature of the lemon—indeed, without attributes the definition is not very much useful at all, and certainly not the basis to form nursing knowledge. Dictionaries do not usually list scientific definitions, and therefore should not be used as a source in concept analysis. Rather the definitions, usually obtained from qualitative inquiry, in the discipline concerned should be used.

Furthermore, dictionaries list all meanings of the term as it has been used or is currently used in everyday discourse, and these meanings include, from the perspective of a researcher’s program of research, irrelevant usages and ambiguous usages. Including ambiguous and irrelevant definitions of the concept does not assist the researcher with the analysis of the concept for the present project, and distracts, or leads the researcher away from the task at hand. As definitions do not list the attributes of the concept, they do not facilitate identifying the conceptual attributes.

Do dictionary definitions clarify the preliminary boundaries of a concept so that it is distinct from other concepts? No, often not—and to delineate concepts is not the purpose of a dictionary definition. As noted earlier, the task of the dictionary definition is to show current use, and therefore it tolerates the ambiguities, dual meanings, and makes cross-references to other words with similar meanings.

Definitions of scientific concepts are not listed in the dictionary (unless they have been identified into the lay lexicon) but are defined in research articles or encyclopedias. For instance, scientific concepts that are well established, such as gravity, may be defined in the dictionary, but the definition is written in a form that is comprehensible for the lay reader; in the scientific literature, one would find a more technical definition.

Van der Steen (1993) presents five definitional rules for evaluating definitions: Definitions must be clear, not circular, and neither too broad nor too narrow; they should not include accompanying features (only the attributes), and should refer to the features that are present (rather than referring to features that are absent).

Are the attributes well described? Internally the attributes as a whole must form a strong and coherent concept, independent from allied concepts. Through the attributes, the concept must be understandable to others, that is, recognizable in the present context, in other contexts, as well as in future instances of the concept. The attributes are derived both from the rich description of the concept and from the combined cumulative meaning of the attributes.

The attributes must be clearly stated in a form that does not particularize the concept to a certain context, but rather enables generalization of many instances and forms of the concept to other contexts. Each attribute should be relatively independent of the other attributes (i.e., there is little overlap or crossover), and the attributes should be parsimoniously presented.

If it is a new concept being introduced to the scientific community, then the concept should emerge from the rich description of the context, be logically derived from the description, and be recognizable to the reader. It is the responsibility of the researcher presenting the concept to justify the selection of attributes, and to separate out the “noise,” or the inconsistently present and serendipitous features inherent in the context. In qualitative inquiry, this is achieved using various techniques such as template comparison, card sorts, and constructing taxonomies. When using the literature, it is achieved by constant comparison, using large matrixes.

External assessment

Are the boundaries identified? Where the attributes are weak and coexist with the attributes of allied and competing concepts, there comes a point at which the example is no longer an instance of the concept; this is the boundary. Boundaries are not always sharply delineated—often they are “fuzzy” and messy, with weak examples of the concept present. Occasionally, two concepts will merge or intercept, changing the nature of one or both concepts, and this may be the boundary point.

It is the boundaries that make the concept an entity that is recognizable. Although we hope that the boundaries make it self-contained, concepts always coexist with other concepts in the context.

Antecedents and outcomes

Again, concepts do not occur in isolation. They occur because of patterned events within the context that “set the stage,” and are linked to predictable and specified outcomes. These should be specified, demonstrated, and described in theoretical and research articles. Set conditions that lead to the concept and to predictable outcomes, suggest process and theory: indeed the most mature concepts may have reached this level.

Pragmatic Principle

Concepts should be applicable to the world or be operationalized.


       Does the concept fit with the phenomenon commonly found in your discipline? Is it useful to the discipline?”

Pragmatists purport that if it works, we should use it. Their methods are defined by their usefulness in research and application in the research setting, and they often use approaches that combine characteristics. Therefore, the pragmatic criterion evaluates the concept’s application and its usefulness to its discipline. If it is a scientific concept, has it been operationalized? Is it used in research? Is there much literature available describing or using the concept?

If the concept is a poor fit with the phenomenon it purports to describe or if it has not been well described or operationalized, then it is rated as immature. If it is considered to be a good fit with the phenomenon and is well described and operationalized, then it is considered mature.

Linguistic Principle

Concepts should be appropriate to their use in context.


       “ Is the concept used consistently and appropriately within the context? Is it contextualized or decontextualized?”

This is an external criterion, in which the concept is evaluated as it performs with context and as it adequately represents the external criterion. Linguists work with a theory of grammar in which the rules and specified constraints of grammar are clear, and with a theory of “natural language” (anything represented by the grammar; Katz, 1999). It is the latter, natural language and the concepts they represent and are developed, that is of interest here. For instance, psychologists specializing in cognition and semantics explore linguistic uses of concepts, developmentally—that is, how infants learn, and how others perceive the world, classify it and is represented conceptually.

Linguists interested in concepts usually work with spoken text, in context (Osswald & Peterson, 2002; Priss, 2004). Linguistics involves the identification and inductive analysis of semantic components, phonemes, syntactical and grammatical markers that reveal classification systems, hierarchies, and taxonomies, with the verbs serving as conceptual attributes. They remove ambiguities from words, attempting to sort into which class they belong. Note—“to which class they belong” (not context). Stripping the concept of all features that are not common to multiple settings is the process of decontextualization. This process of abstraction—of removing the noise from particular contexts—is a means of obtaining generalization.

In our assessment of the adequacy of the linguistic component, we look to see if there is confusion in the use of the concept, or if it is used consistently in lay or scientific practice. If the concept is immature, it may not be included in nursing’s scientific literature; if the concept is immature and if it is a lay concept, it may not appear there at all. If it is partially mature, it may be addressed in the qualitative literature, but not the quantitative, in its process of development; if it is mature, there is no confusion in meaning, and it will be integrated into nursing research and texts.

Logical Principle

Concepts should be coherently and systematically related to other concepts.


       “Is the concept coherently and systematically related to other concepts?”

Philosophers are interested in the logical relationship between concepts, as well as the logical relationships between attributes. Philosophers rely on rules. For instance, by seeking commonalities within examples of a particular concept, they may identify that which is common to all examples, called “family resemblances” (Wittgenstein, 1999), and by comparing various forms of the concept, or concepts in which it appears, they seek “what is common,” and common relationships, called “disjunction of all their common properties” (Wittgenstein, 1999, pp. 171–174). When used as an assessment criterion, we assess the concept with its external criterion, for what it represents in various situations, and how it competes with allied concepts.

Concepts that do not meet the logical criteria do not hold their boundaries—this means that you cannot tell exactly to what the concept is referring. When theoretically integrated into other concepts they “bundle” and overlap. They compete to describe the same phenomenon. With partially mature concepts, there is confusion and ambiguity.


These criteria are summarized in Table 11.1. In making a decision about the level of maturity of a concept, one should not restrict consideration of the use of the concept entirely to one’s own discipline, for a mature concept should “hold” over disciplinary boundaries. Deciding on the level of maturity is an overall decision, involving all criteria.

When we examine the structure of the concept, and compare immature or emerging concepts with mature concepts, we find that immature concepts do not have the adequate anatomy (structure) to move forward with inquiry.

Developing the Theoretical Basis of Nursing

Assessing the level of maturity of a concept is only the first step in your research program, but one that is essential. Most importantly, it tells you what the next step should be:

         If the concept is mature, you may move into quantitative inquiry, measurement, and modeling.

         If the concept is immature and the literature is scant, there is no description and few publications, the concept should be developed using qualitative inquiry.

         If there is considerable literature but the concept appears confusing, or competing with allied concepts, methods of meta-analysis, such as pragmatic utility, will enable concept clarification, delineation, and how the concepts should be developed.

         Once the literature is copious, clear, and consistent you may move onto quantitative inquiry and to modeling and theory development.

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Mar 15, 2018 | Posted by in NURSING | Comments Off on Concept Evaluation: Determining Appropriate Strategies for Concept Development

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