Editor’s note: Throughout the TQ Workshop June 16-20, U of A writing studies instructor, longtime journalist, and Education PhD student Christina Grant blogged about her experiences in “The Lived Experience: A PhD student’s journey through the TQ Workshop.” See: https://iiqm.wordpress.com/
The following is a final feature story on the 13th Annual Advances in Qualitative Methods (AQM) Conference June 23-25 in which she incorporates information and observations from several conference events and speakers—including keynote presenter Dr. Rosaline Barbour.
Playful Exploration: Roleplaying with the Audience on the Role of Theory in Applied Qualitative Research, led by Dr. Sally Thorne & Dr. Sarah Wall
On Tuesday at 8:30 am, a novel session got underway that involved dramatic props and audience participation. Billed as a “Choreographed Interactive Debate on the Role of Theory in Applied Qualitative Research,” it featured Dr. Sally Thorne and Dr. Sarah Wall assuming the hypothetical roles of “doc student Noh Way and “Professor ILove Theory” discussing whether or not theory should play a role in a study on how homeless people exert their right to refuse shelter.
Sarah started things off by sharing some “pro-theory” thoughts of her own and other experts: “People have lot of reactions” to theory,“ she noted, adding that “in practice disciplines (50% of the audience raised their hands to show they were in that category) tend to have a ‘love-hate’ relationship with theory.” Sarah made a case for including theory, which encompasses major findings on a topic that have come before, in all new qualitative research. “I tell students it “just an explanation,” a way to help us understand.” She skipped through a selection of quotes such as “theory is alive—something we create, produce, modify live with everyday in our lives,” and how it helpfully “guards against ‘obviousness,” and “makes research findings generalizable.” Indeed, she expounded, “publishing without it stunts the development of qualitative health research.”
Sally then came forward beneath an “anti-theory” banner and tore down everything Sarah had said, noting that despite good intentions, theory has become nothing less than “rigid, scientifically accepted explanations” and commits a plethora of sins such as ensuring that research “fits rather than shapes conventional wisdom” and “solves problems by reducing their complexity.”
The theoretical flames in the room thus fanned, the drama began with Sally the ‘student’ donning a red baseball cap and Sarah ‘the prof’ a blue velvet PhD hat and perching on tall chairs, to face off. Shortly into their opening salvos, an audience member rose up and came forward to loud applause, took the red hat and chair, and joined in. And thus the drama unfolded, a lively, often hilarious, and thought-provoking ad-lib bit of theatre that riveted everyone in the room for almost an hour. Finally it petered out, and a few final remarks wound down the session.
As people burst into animated cluster conversations immediately afterwards, Sally beamed: “We could have fallen on our faces,” she admitted, with the playful experiment which conference organizers had never tried before. That, of course, didn’t happen; half a dozen audience members strode to the front, one at a time, under enthusiastic applause to don one hat or the other and give their two cents’ worth. “I was thrilled with people’s willingness to engage in the silliness of the format to think about serious issues,” Sally said. “There’s something about pushing polar extremes to realize that we have trouble positioning ourselves on either side. Looking at two opposite views exposes different ways of thinking about it.”