Janice M. Morse
We are proposing a theory of theories that sees theory as a conceptual system invented to some purpose—when seen in its full consequences—has revolutionary possibilities.
—Dickoff & James (1968, p. 203)
Theoretical coalescence is a method of combining a series of studies into a whole, to create a higher level theory. The advantages of theoretical coalescence are obvious. It gives new meaning to mid-range theory, enabling it to be moved “up a notch” to a higher level; it enables a theory with increasing scope to be developed, and it encompasses increasing complexity. In this way it counters many of the problems we have been discussing with qualitatively derived theory, while at the same time retaining the connection of the theory with the data and the applicability of theory with praxis.
Since the 1990s, researchers have been encouraged to obtain increasing depths of understanding around a research topic. Rather than conducting one small research study after another in a scattered area, they have been encouraged to conduct multiple research projects in a general area, connected laterally or horizontally, to increase knowledge and generalizability of the project. In qualitative inquiry, this is to create a larger theory; in quantitative research this is to develop certainty.
THE LIMITED SCOPE OF MID-RANGE THEORY
Qualitative inquiry is always limited in scope. Qualitative theories are usually small and developed from a small sample within a restricted group and a delimited context. Further, because of the nature of saturation and because the researcher is usually working alone, qualitative studies are often narrow and delimited. However, at the same time there is great confusion about the ability of these mid-range theories to generalize. As each of these “small” studies is published, so does the researcher’s “evidence base” and compiled understanding of the whole—of the mid-range theory—become revealed, piece by piece, to build a comprehensive understanding. Theoretical coalescence is a method that formalized these processes of theoretical integration.
Developing Theory From Multiple Qualitative Projects
How do you plan and select these studies? All of the studies are complete projects in themselves and published separately. Investigators are generally interested in a topic and keep conducting studies around that topic. Previously this was called a research program, but a more interesting term, multiple methods, is now used. Importantly, multiple-method designs are conducted so that the projects will be deliberately synthesized at some point. Research programs were “looser,” less well integrated. Previous studies were used to justify the next study (or series of studies) as the investigator worked toward solving some particular problem. With qualitative studies used for theoretical coalescence, the researcher is still seeking understanding, Some of the studies may be partly synthesized and minor models developed, but the end results are very different than a quantitative “solution”—and the application of the research, as a theory, bears no comparison—yet it is equally important for practice.
Developing a Theory of Increasing Scope
Because research is conducting studies according to a certain topic, these studies may be conducted in different areas, with different age groups, cultural groups, illnesses, and at different times in the illness process. Some of the studies may be of different levels of analysis—microanalytic or macroanalytic. Some may even involve quantitative analysis or different methods of qualitative inquiry, producing a different type of data and different types of findings. Some studies may be conducted at a particular point in time; others may be longitudinal. In this way the scope of the overall theory expands in ways that a single study cannot. Conducting a collection of such studies provides differing perspectives, until the research has “3D” vision of the topic, and can answer broad and significant analytic questions. These “data” form the basis for the emerging theory.
Developing Theory of Increasing Complexity
The differing contexts, patient groups, perspectives of those involved (patients, caregivers, families), points in time, levels of analyses, and types of results produce a mirage that resembles the complexity of reality. But the researcher has control. The researcher has a unique perspective that is both within and removed from the patient, and can view the problem from many angles and directions so that inquiry does not stop with a pile of publications. The most exciting part of the inquiry is about to begin. The researcher can then answer the “so what?”, and start to bring forth the most interesting and significant ramifications of the previous years of effort.
Can theoretical coalescence be conducted with a collection of studies carried out by others and pieced together as a meta-analysis? Perhaps. It is much easier if the researcher has access to the data and knows it intimately. In this way, cognitive sliding is less likely to occur. Researchers will not be guessing about meanings and bending interpretations unconsciously nor deliberately as they fit their findings.
Can theoretical coalescence be conducted by a research team? Certainly—but ideally the team will share the same lab so that constant communications will be the norm. The team should not “fit and force” findings, but work together as they conduct each project, knowing intimately the nuances of each, asking questions of each other’s data and emerging analyses. Such research is expensive, but the rewards are paradigm-molding.
Theoretical Coalescence: Developing a High-Level Mid-Range Theory
Theoretical coalescence is a process of:
1. Identifying significant concepts.
2. Evaluating the development of the concepts common to each study: This will have probably been conducted as each study was conducted, but, for instance in quantitative studies, this may be so. Do these core concepts need to be present in each study? No—other studies may contribute to other types of knowledge. At this point do not exclude any study that you may think may be useful.
3. Diagramming the concepts, and their position overall: Locate each concept for each theory, its level of abstraction, and position on the trajectory (noting the target population and so on). Map the concept in position according to the primary contribution it makes to the overall theory.
4. Identifying the attributes common to each example of the concepts. Open each of the concepts and seek common attributes between the concepts. This will provide some indication about how the concepts interlock and share attributes or characteristics across conceptual boundaries. Link them laterally or horizontally by connecting them according to shared attributes.
5. Developing analytic questions about the nature of the overarching concept, identifying the answers in each study, and the attributes/characteristics of each study.
6. Diagramming and writing the mid-range theory.