Linking and Ordering Concepts

Janice M. Morse



The First Rule of Conceptualization

                It must be possible

                And it should be probable

                And then

                If it can be verified, even if it is extraordinary, you can keep it

                But if it is extraordinary and not verifiable, it is probably wrong

Throughout this book we have discussed how to improve research by developing “solid,” clear, and appropriate concepts. However this is not our end goal. These concepts are not isolated in the context. They may be connected—linked and ordered—and by identifying these connections, we may develop mid-range theory. This theory may at whatever level of mid-range abstraction and scope that is needed.


Qualitative inquiry does not always begin with raw data, and the researchers are never without an agenda. Often researchers deliberately select a concept, and explore that concept in a particular situation, with the concept of interest used as a conceptual scaffold or skeleton, as we discussed in Chapter 9. In these cases the researchers build the concept(s) using inductive inquiry within that identified structure. For instance, if the researcher is creating a program on traumatic childbirth (Beck, 2015, 2016), systematic investigation of the phenomenon in a different setting does not mean that each study ignores the findings of those studies that came before. Rather, the investigator usually uses his or her own work (or that of others) and own data to systematically enhance and validate the developing theoretical concepts and components in each sequential study, linking concepts and expediting the development of mid-range theory. As Beck (2015) notes, there is a distinct advantage in using your own work for such theory development—you have all of the data and have systematically conducted the necessary studies; the disadvantage is that it takes a long time.

On occasions, this process of inquiry is not an in-depth examination into the same phenomenon or concept, but rather developing theory by working from minor to major concepts, or laterally across the dimension of a phenomenon in scope or over time as a process, or horizontally from minor to major concepts, that engulf the minor concepts. Sometimes inquiry into two related concepts may be linked at the theoretical level to produce an even larger theory. For instance, we do this in Chapter 35 by linking theories of suffering using theoretical coalescence (Chapter 34).

To proceed, in this chapter we discuss ways to link concepts by identifying shared attributes and creating a larger theory. We discuss how to order concepts hierarchically by scope and level of abstraction. Then, we talk about how to identify all of the concepts within a phenomenon and order those concepts. This is a method of theory development commonly used when organizing a process as, for instance, when one moves through a trajectory. In these ways we move toward mid-range theory.


Although the complexity of a particular context demands that the researcher focus on a single concept of interest within a particular study, the process of such a focus actually delineates the concept from the context and simplifies the study. It gives the researcher a tunnel vision—but a necessary one. Reality is complex, and qualitative research is slow and cumbersome, when done well. However, this does not mean that the researcher is ignorant about the conceptual components in the setting, nor of their significance. It usually is a matter of what is feasible within the complexity of the setting, the limitations of qualitative methods, and limitation of the researcher’s analytic ability; or a compromise between that and understanding something in depth and comprehending the entire setting in a superficial manner. Nevertheless, often we have previous work sitting on the shelf, or even published, and the concept of interest at least partially already developed.

Such was the case when we were concluding our studies on the Praxis Theory of Suffering. We understood emotional suffering, but not how the transition to the reformulated self occurred, except that “hope seeped in.” We lacked a conceptual understanding of this transition. Yet we previously conducted as study of hope, and incorporated these theoretical insights.

How Was This Done?

Simply, we:

       1.  Identified the two concepts of interest

       2.  Identified the dominant concept

       3.  “Opened” the concepts to reveal the attributes

       4.  Looked for common (shared) attributes. We asked: Is there temporal order in the “strength” of the attributes?

Wherever two attributes were shared in each concept, that is where the concepts linked.


Frequently, however, once into data collection and analysis, it becomes clear that one cannot focus on a single concept as originally intended. The first concept may be intricately intertwined with another allied concept, and only by exploring both concepts will the study make sense. Recall the case of privacy and interpersonal relationships discussed in Chapter 12?


When conducting qualitative inquiry either within a project or by combining two projects, linking allied concepts is a way to validly create a larger model. The trick is to determine that the two concepts are indeed allied concepts that co-occur constantly within the same context. If this can be ascertained, they are probably a part of the same process within a larger concept or phenomenon.


The process of linking consists of determining which of the two concepts is dominant; opening the concepts, determining if any of the attributes are shared, or common, and then describing the nature of the linkages.

Opening Concepts to Determine Relationship

Opening the concepts refers to the process of listing all of the attributes within each concept. If the concepts are mature, the attributes should be easily identified in the authors’ descriptions. If several authors have described the concept, and if their descriptions are good, there should be some consistency in the attributes listed, although sometimes the attributes are named differently.1 Because of the theoretical level of maturity, both concepts will have been decontextualized, and data that may contribute as evidence have been removed. Therefore, if the authors have access to the original data for each concept, this may provide additional support for the comparison of the attributes. Verify each notion, by selecting interview text or observations that may confirm, refute, or provide additional insights into observations in the situations in which the two concepts link. If necessary, collect additional data to inform situations in which data are not available. Such an iterative process contributes to the rigor of the process (Morse, Hupcey, Penrod, & Mitcham, 2002).

Reformulate the Expanded Theory

Once the linkage has been established, and the nature of the connections of the new concept is determined, the researcher describes the expanded theory. If the new linkage contains a full intermediate concept linking the first two concepts, then the researcher, following the demands of created concept, defines the boundaries, defines, names and defines the attributes of the new concept.


Determining Dominance

The first decision is to determine which concept is dominant; that is, determine which concept is of a higher level of abstraction or precedes or dominates over the other. This concept is the one that is dominant; the other butts against, or fits into. This is done by asking analytic questions and ordering your concepts, making notes with stickies as you work.

Ordering Concepts According to Scope and Level of Abstraction

Q: Is “scope” the same as “level of abstraction?”

A: Yes and no and maybe.

Scope is the expansiveness of theory. It is how spread out, or how much area the concept covers. Usually the greater the scope, the less specific the concept is, and therefore the greater number of instances it represents. For example, if the concept were something like “emotions,” the concept would include all instances of all emotions (sad, happy, forlorn, joy, etc.). We would not differentiate between types of emotions and would keep them all in the same category.

Level of abstraction is the distance from the data. If a concept is highly abstract it will be some distance from the data, and contain within it lower level categories of different types of examples. For instance, if we were using “emotion” as an abstract concept, it could contain a lower level concept of bereavement, which in turn could contain lower level concepts of “grief,” “sorrow,” and so forth, which in turn connect our abstract concept, “emotions,” with particular data.

Given this hierarchical situation, when ordering concepts by level of abstraction, one should place the concepts according to which concept is a part of another concept. For instance, grieving may be considered a part of, or type of, bereavement, but bereavement is not considered a part of, or type of, grieving. Use colored sticky labels, each with a concept written on, so that you can move them around, asking the “order questions”: “Is this a part of that?”; “Is this a type of that?”

Ordering Concepts Temporally

Ordering concepts within a process may be a little easier. Some concepts occur at a certain point in trajectory, but not in others, thereby logically preceding or following or coinciding with certain events. For instance, one gets into bed, lies down, and then gets out of bed in an “ingress–egress” sequence. But at another time, the same concept follows through the process in the same form or slightly changed. A runner running in a race may have an energy level “fresh” and then “exhausted.” Our concept “energy level” changes both quantitatively and qualitatively.

When organizing concepts temporally, again using sticky labels, the changes in the main concept may have other concepts that change concurrently, or may have transitions between the stages and phases that result in the change.

Yes, basic model building.



The level of analysis achieved by the investigator before developing the theory schematically will determine the quality or level of maturity of the theory. If the researcher does not develop concepts within the theory, the theory will remain low level, particular to the context from which it was developed (and therefore not generalizable). Therefore, good mid-range theory must have the following characteristics.

The Concepts Must Be Developed to Fit in With Current Literature

“Fitting” into the literature means that the concept labels are not “emic” labels, but the researcher has taken time to compare the emerging concepts with those already published in the literature, and has made a case for adopting (or for not adopting) the concept labels that are currently used in nursing or other social sciences. For instance, does the coping that you are seeing in your data and developing concept fit the definitions and descriptions of coping in the literature? Why or why not? If it does, then adopt the labels presently used. Not everything you identify in your study will be unique or new. Keeping your own (or the participant’s) labels will result in too many labels for the same concept, and result in “theoretical congestion” (Morse, 2000)—researchers will not find your work when they search the literature, and your work will fall into oblivion, and the results will become cluttered with so many studies describing the same thing; we will all die of fatigue trying to sort it out, or it will be used as a blade of grass in the fodder used in a meta-analysis. Any of these routes are less desirable for you: the strength of your contribution in your mid-range theory in the whole, as well as the particular.

The Descriptive Fit of Your Mid-Range Theory With Your Own and Multiple Contexts

Your theory must enlighten, surprise, and yet make sense to those who are familiar with your setting. It seems contradictory that they must, at the same time, recognize yet be enlightened by the theory. They will say, “Ah, yes! So that is what is going on!” Others must be both able to recognize the conceptual organization or the processes depicted and see the potential of your work. In this way the familiar is reorganized as a “new” insight.

The Utility of Your Theory

Usually a standard criterion of theory is to predict. This criterion may or may not be pertinent for qualitatively derived mid-range theory. It will be pertinent, if for instance, with a theory of comforting, by explaining comforting processes, predicts how comfort is attained: It is predictive. On the other hand, if the theory explains and makes sense of suffering, it does not necessarily predict the outcome of suffering for any one individual, but by illustrating and making sense of the processes of suffering, clinicians will be able to also understand the process, categorize individuals they see, and move toward identifying appropriate interventions.

Clarity, Parsimony, and Scope

Other criteria used to evaluate all theories pertain to their description and presentation. You must be clear—brief and succinct. Diagramming will assist you in this process. Finally, it must be clear about what the theory does and does not pertain to. Mid-range theories are limited and do not describe everything; they do, however, describe certain processes, and can be applied to new situations that do not exceed the parameters of the theory.


As we link and order concepts, our theory becomes increasingly generalizable, and, of course, is broader in scope. Techniques of meta-synthesis and meta-analysis are reviewed fully in later chapters and are just included here as a reminder.


A meta-synthesis is a project that compares, synthesizes, and combines concepts or theories related to the same topic (usually studies conducted by different authors on different populations), that are synthesized into theory that combined the commonalities of the theories, hence developing a theory that is stronger than any of the original theories. The model in Figure 22.1, from a meta-synthesis of the concept of caring conducted by Finfgeld-Connett (2008), shows that caring is a combination of technical tasks, sensitivity, and intimate relationships (see Chapters 30 and 31).

Mar 15, 2018 | Posted by in NURSING | Comments Off on Linking and Ordering Concepts

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