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Models versus theories as a primary carrier of nursing knowledge: A philosophical argument

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Theories and models are not equivalent. I argue that an orientation towards models as a primary carrier of nursing knowledge overcomes many ongoing challenges in philosophy of nursing science, including the theory-practice divide and the paradoxical pursuit of predictive theories in a discipline that is defined by process and a commitment to the non-reducibility of the health/care experience. Scientific models describe and explain the dynamics of specific phenomenon. This is distinct from theory, which is traditionally defined as propositions that explain and/or predict the world. The philosophical case has been made against theoretical universalism, showing that a theory can be true in its domain, but that no domain is universal. Subsequently, philosophers focused on scientific models argued that they do the work of defining the boundary conditions-the domain(s)-of a theory. Further analysis has shown the ways models can be constructed and function independent of theory, meaning models can comprise distinct, autonomous "carriers of scientific knowledge." Models are viewed as representations of the active dynamics, or mechanisms, of a phenomenon. Mechanisms are entities and activities organized such that they are productive of regular changes. Importantly, mechanisms are by definition not static: change may alter the mechanism and thereby alter or create entirely new phenomena. Orienting away from theory, and towards models, focuses scholarly activity on dynamics and change. This makes models arguably critical to nursing science, enabling the production of actionable knowledge about the dynamics of process and change in health/care. I briefly explore the implications for nursing-and health/care-knowledge and practice.

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