Nothing More Practical Than A Good Theory

We are almost in the middle of our EdD last course and diving down into the fine detail that will inform our piece of research/thesis/gift to the world.  At the moment we are wrestling with defining our theoretical framework before heading for our comprehensive exams in June.

Being of a positivistic bent – or at least coming from a profession that is newly academic, and mainly unconsciously atheoretical, I struggle with the concept of theory. Theory means something quite specific in science – something you test, a hypothesis.  Scientific principle tells us that everything is infinitely testable (like quantum field theory that ultimately underpins the practice of radiation therapy).  But “theory” or “a theoretical framework” in the social sciences, and indeed in grad school, is something different, a tool that no good researcher should be without.  My current bedtime reading Introducing Critical Theory (literally a cartoon book about Marxism – which is the only way I can deal with it) tells me sternly that an undertheorised student is a failing student, and our UBC Profs tell us that theory is a lens through which we examine the world.  On the other hand, there is the view that theory is for those with the luxury of being able to sit and reflect (perhaps in their ivory towers), not busy practitioners who are out there in the “real world” (wherever that may be). But figure this out and pick a theory I must!

Most of us in the EdD program are there to try and make our little bit of the world a better place. This aligns with the aim of the EdD, which is geared towards practice, examining it and ultimately improving it. A critical theory lens takes an emancipatory, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-do-something-about-it stance and accepts that “there are dirty problems like racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and poverty to be solved” (Sikes p.45). If we look at the world and see that “mainstream research practices are generally, although most often unwittingly, implicated in the reproductions of class, race and gender oppression” (Kinchloe and McLaren, p. 304) we turn to critical theory for help – be it feminism, race theory or critical lesbian and gay theory (my wheelhouse). There are other broad theories/paradigms which we could use – ones that aim to deconstruct current ideas, or understand them – and there is good old fashioned positivism which is all about prediction. For a closer look at this try here. But I think I am a critical theory girl at heart ♥

One thing is sure, once you start looking at (any kind of) theory there are a LOT of “doctoral-level” words that need to be nailed down. I hope to have a few of these impressively roll off my tongue before the comps in June. To help you recognize them in class, impress your love object and to encourage you to sprinkle a few on your grad work, here is your free Valentine’s Day EdD bingo card. Enjoy!



Sikes, P. (2006). Towards useful and dangerous theories. Discourse : Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 27(1), 43–51

Kinchloe, J and McLaren, P. (2005) Rethinking critical theory and qualitative research. In Denzin, N and Lincoln, Y (Eds) The handbook of qualitative research. 3rd ed. pp. 303-342. Thousand Oaks, CA. Sage.


What’s the question???


Our last summer course was intended to get us to take the first steps towards our research question. We looked at conceptual frameworks and methods, literature reviewing and tried to find a “home” – or a way of thinking about research that felt right to us. We all vaguely knew what our fellow-cohort members were thinking about investigating but we workshopped, we brainstormed with flip charts, we picked holes and (sometimes) we patted backs. A few people have thrown out the research thoughts they started with and found new ones, job roles have changed, interests have shifted and the cold light of day is starting to show some of the cracks in our idealistic initial ideas.

One of the reasons I wanted to do this degree was the luxury to be able to focus on a substantial piece of research. I had always wanted to re-examine my experience as a queer health care professional (HCP) – partly for me, as I get older I find I want to look at things from another angle, perhaps to see what I missed the first time. The other reason is that quite a bit of attention has been paid to making the experiences of LGB patients better – but almost all research that looks at HCPs is from a deficit perspective – focusing on negative experiences such as bullying or homophobia in the workplace. I think it is a lot more nuanced than that – I know that LGB staff can help LGB patients feel more “at home” –  but I also think that the delicate and daily dance of coming out still looms large in many HCPs’ lives and that we can do a better job at understanding, and supporting, us/them.

So after a brief dalliance with patient experiences (see last blog!), and a pretty hot and heavy flirtation with Dorothy Smith this summer (of Institutional Ethnography fame), I am back to the beginning.  Last year I was thinking of using interviews, and phenomenology – but the further I travel, the more I want to bring my own experience into the mix. Isn’t that why I got into this? In one of my assignments I talked about this process being like a “late life coming out” and after having stood up a few times and “exposed myself” as a lesbian behind a podium talking about my recent paper… front of my actual work colleagues, peers and friends…..that is exactly what it feels like.  I wrote in February about finding my research voice – it’s clear that my voice is critical, and very personal.  I mean critical in the way described by Kinchloe and McLaren (2005, p. 304) in that research can never be entirely neutral or value free, and that “mainstream research practices are generally, although most often unwittingly, implicated in the reproduction of class, race and gender oppression.”

This fall I am looking at narrative inquiry (my last elective) – and reading a lot! In health care storytelling pops up in narrative medicine (described in this Ted talk by Rita Charon) and in illness narratives like those of Arthur Frank in “The Wounded Storyteller” where he explores the very human need to make sense and meaning from illness (interestingly, he says that he wrote it partly as an exercise in “self-healing . . . to assure myself I wasn’t crazy”).  As a lifelong lover of reading, I think I may have found the perfect fit for my research approach!