In search of an adequate theory of human interaction – part 1

In search of an adequate theory of human interaction; an account of my thoughts on scientific research.

[1] Introduction (the context of this paper)
[2] Ontology and the definition of the object of research (What is?)
[3] Epistemology and the semantic theory of human interaction (Why do we study ‘What is’?)
[4] Methodology and the way to do research (How do we study ‘What is’?)
[5] Choosing a theoretical framework (A possible way to study nursing leadership)
[6] References
[7] Biography

1. Introduction

For my PhD I am doing research on nursing leadership. The main question of the thesis is: which leadership qualities do nursing managers in a general hospital in the Netherlands need to have, to be able to meet the changing challenges in their work?

In this paper I will describe the preliminary steps I have taken to study leadership in the nursing practice of general hospitals. I have observed the need for some form of theoretical adjustments in the social sciences, the need to find relevant works of creative minds because, as Jacques Slanger stated (in: Droit, 2007, p332), it is important to realise that we all live with ideas but only a few of us have the creativity and are capable to develop ideas. Scientific theories are important for sure, but how good are we at developing them?
Are there reasons to be discontent about our knowledge in the social sciences and cry for a creative turn?

In 1961 Harold Koontz wrote an article about the diversity in management theory (‘the management theory jungle’). Then, in 1980 Koontz wrote: “The various schools of or approaches to management theory that I identified nearly two decades ago, and called ‘the management theory jungle’ are reconsidered. What is found now are eleven distinct approaches compared to the original six, implying that the ‘jungle’ may be getting more dense and impenetrable. However, certain developments are occurring which indicate that we may be moving more than people think toward a unified and practical theory of management”.
The approaches Koontz detected were: (1) the empirical or case approach, (2) the interpersonal behaviour approach, (3) the group behaviour approach, (4) the cooperative social system approach, (5) the sociotechnical systems approach, (6) the decision theory approach, (7) the systems approach, (8) the mathematical or “management science” approach, (9) the contingency or situational approach, (’10) the managerial roles approach, and (11) the operational theory approach.

But this wasn’t the end. Du-Babcock in 2009 states: “Following Koontz, scholars in other fields have looked at their disciplines and found that jungles were also emerging in their respective fields of study. These jungles include a motivation jungle, a leadership jungle, a cross-cultural jungle, and a comparative international management jungle”.
I can agree with Du-Babcock that we should not have a jungle of theories, first of all because we lose track of all the theories and are thus unable to know if there are contradictory theories, second because scholars of one approach will not be accustomed to the terminology, concepts and models of another approach and third because different theories will use a different set of causal variables to explain some common phenomena. Her recommendations to avoid these problems are: clarification of terminology, clarification of the aspects of the field under investigation and development of theories that integrate theories of the underlying disciplines and of other relevant theories of the field. I will not elaborate on this further here.

The social sciences are characterized by many different fields of study, so we may expect that the observed theoretical jungle within each discipline, multiplies if you look at the social sciences as a whole. Abma (2012) gives a good historical and conceptual account of the different approaches in the social sciences (sometimes called the human sciences) and the attempts that have been made to formulate a unified theory of the social sciences.

For my specific research of nursing leadership I am looking for a theoretical framework that will help me uncover the mystery of what is called ‘leadership’ and if possible can also be used for research in the other fields of the social sciences. It should be a framework with the potential of integrating the theories within the field of leadership in organizations, realising however, as Du-Babcock noted, that approaches are sometimes too different to be integrated without a serious refinement of the theories involved.

In this paper I will try to work out my own ideas about what to look for and will do this by discussing shortly the three main issues at stake:
– what do I study (ontology)
– what do I study it for and which results should it deliver (epistemology)
– how will I investigate my subject (methodology)
– how will I inquire on nursing leadership (choosing a theoretical framework).

To be continued …


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