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Using theory in qualitative research. Qualitative Health Research Collaboration (QHeRC) 12 May 2009 Julie Leask Senior Research Fellow, NCIRS Conjoint Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Medicine, USYD. Summary. 9.30 Presentation and discussion of two articles on theory

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using theory in qualitative research

Using theory in qualitative research

Qualitative Health Research Collaboration (QHeRC)

12 May 2009

Julie Leask

Senior Research Fellow, NCIRS

Conjoint Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Medicine, USYD

  • 9.30 Presentation and discussion of two articles on theory
  • 10.20 Researchers using theory
      • Stacy Carter
      • Charlotte Rees
  • 11.15 morning tea
aims of session
Aims of session
  • To review what some qualitative researchers are saying;
  • to explore the advantages and disadvantages of using theory;
  • to better understand how theory is used in
    • grounding the assumptions of a study
    • enriching findings;
    • making recommendations useful
  • to share ways of sourcing appropriate theories/frameworks.
case project
Case project

Impact of quarantine for

suspected swine flu

  • psychological
  • emotional
  • social/occupational
  • infection control behaviours
  • usefulness of information/support

Pictures from

why theory is useful
Why theory is useful
  • Theories provide complex and comprehensive conceptual understandings of things that cannot be pinned down: how societies work, how organisations operate, why people interact in certain ways.
  • Theories give researchers different lenses
    • to look at problems
    • focus attention
    • provide framework for analysis
Macro level theories
    • non specific, abstract
    • hard to operationalise
    • verify on empirical basis
  • Mid-range theories
    • more specific
    • fewer concepts
    • reduced range of contexts
  • Micro-level theory
    • narrowest range of interest
    • specific phenomena/context
Critical thoery

Roots in work of Karl Marx, more recently Foucault etc

Critiquing and changing society

Organisation of power and knowledge

Equality in relation to age, race, SES, religion, sexuality etc.


Collective behaviours and perceptions

Examines symbols used in daily encounters, esp language

Herbert Blumer

Act towards things on basis of meanings things have for them

Meaning derived from social interaction

Meanings handled/modified via interpretive process used by the person


Edmund Husserl;

how individuals give meaning to social phenomena in their everyday lives;

subjective “lived” experience.



how are theories and methodologies related
How are theories and methodologies related?
  • Some historically related eg, same discipline, often taught together eg, interactionism and ethnography.
  • Other theories linked to multiple methodologies eg, critical theory
article 2
Article 2

Aust N Z J Public Health 2007; 31:438-43.

what is social theory
The social context of human actions;

Relatively recent – post revolutionary France and Europe “the state”, “the people”, “society”.

What is social theory?
why social theory
Why social theory?
  • Qualitative methods – developed by social sciences
  • used increasingly in nursing, medicine, etc;
  • researchers feeling constrained by quantitative methods can see qualitative research as “attractive option”
  • common approach
    • identifying a setting
    • conducting personal interviews
    • reporting with extensive and evocative quotations
why theory
Why theory?
  • Above approach
    • can deliver interesting insights
    • does not demand extensive training in social sciences
  • Issue of generalisability
    • to other groups / settings
    • to aid decision making
  • Theory essential to rigour in design, implementation and analysis of research
why theory15
Why theory?
  • “Knowledge of social theory is as important to high-quality qualitative research as knowledge of statistics is to the conduct of good epidemiological studies”
some theories
Some theories
  • Conflict theory
  • Structural functionalism
  • Symbolic interactionism
  • Sociology of knowledge theories
  • Feminist theories
symbolic interactionism
Symbolic interactionism
  • Blumer – social interaction underpins the process of learning who we are and the symbolic meaning of things;
  • Eg, women and physicians negotiate touch during vaginal examination
symbolic interactionism18
Symbolic interactionism
  • Erving Goffman applied SI to stigma
    • Abnormal in body, character or social group made to feel ashamed, disrupted, spoiled social identity;
    • Adapt by hiding/covering stigma to pass as normal or…
    • Join a social group of like individuals.
example of using theory in research design
Example of using theory in research design

Obese patients as “non-compliant”

  • Symbolic interactionism: Those who hide ‘spoiled; identities v attending ‘fat friendly’ venues
  • Constructionism: debates in different settings
  • Conflict theory: Working class/middle class
  • Structural functionalism: Access to healthy food
  • Feminism: Men/women – gender roles

not simply a demographically varied


How might we use symbolic interactionism to better understand the impact of quarantine?

  • Categorising first data according to theoretical concepts;
  • assessed for relevance;
  • Review theory/sample as required
drawing research conclusions
Drawing research conclusions
  • No easy way of summarising findings
  • “Boxed sets of interview quotes appear to be an attractive way of avoiding word length restrictions but seldom amount to analysis, let alone a theoretically informed analysis”
  • High quality qualitative research depends on flexible use of theory for its rigour;
  • this requires considerable skill;
  • not easily acquired;
  • researchers should have basic understanding;
  • better alternative is team research including a social theorist
  • Does close adherence to theory in analysis
    • become merely a theory confirming exercise?
    • conscribe the mind of the researcher?
    • stifle analytic creativity?
    • limit potential for new insights to emerge?
  • Must we use only one theory?
  • If multiple, how can we avoid being superficial given publishing word limits?
  • How do we take theoretically informed conclusions to help inform policy and practice?
  • Is there a difference in the final product?
  • If Willis et al are right, how do we find good theories/social theorists?
  • To study the impact of quarantine on the individual
  • Phenomenology
  • Symbolic interactionism
further reading
Further reading
  • Carter SM, Little M. Justifying knowledge, justifying method, taking action: epistemologies, methodologies and methods in qualitative research. Qualitative Health Research 2007; 17(10): 1316-1328.