Social structure and nursing research

Nursing Philosophy 10 (3):191-202 (2009)
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Abstract

The concept of social structure is ill defined in the literature despite the perennial problem and ongoing discussion about the relationship between agency and structure. In this paper I will provide an outline of what the term social structure means, but my main focus will be on emphasizing the value of the concept for nursing research and demonstrate how its erasure in some research negatively effects on our understanding of the nurses' role in clinical practice. For example, qualitative research in nursing has largely focused on agency through such theories as phenomenology, hermeneutics, and symbolic interactionism. The result is that social structure may be erased or seen as epiphenomena of agency. My purpose is to provide a theoretical discussion of social structure and how such a discussion can help us to understand how nurses live and experience clinical practice. While not denying the importance of agency, I will argue that the thinned out approach to social structure places limits on our understanding of the constraints nurses experience in their working lives. The result is that nurses' attitudes and clinical failings are individualized, resulting in ever more calls for improved education, when a more thorough examination of structural issues may elucidate more fundamental problems.

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