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Tools for using Critical Theory in interpretivist research

My goal is to offer a tool for qualitative, interpretivist researchers to use Kincheloe & McLaren’s 2011 chapter applying Critical Theory to relativist research studies. I believe Critical Theory has much to offer less “realist” researchers such as I, and I would like to share this with anyone who might find it useful.

I’m going to address a few background issues to explain what I mean (so I don’t get an angry horde on the internet, should anybody ever read this post – lol), and then I’ll offer the source and my tool.

First, some background

When I was writing my dissertation proposal in leadership theory, I planned to use constructivist Grounded Theory (in the tradition of Kathy Charmaz) to study my question. My study morphed away from that design (and the various jokes about how dissertations start grand but end …. far less grand have certainly been true in my case).

Screenshot of a Tweet by Daniel Bolnick with a photo and a phrase, "Thesis Proposal. Thesis." The photo includes two images side-by-side. The left is a beautifully carved wood railing on a staircase featuring a majestic stallion rearing up on his hind legs.  The photo on the right shows a normal stair railing ending in a plastic toy horse strapped to it. Expectations vs reality.

In my original proposal, I included a discussion of why Critical Theory adds value to my inquiry. I wasn’t intending to do a CT study, but leadership studies that don’t at least pause to consider issues of power and structural disenfranchisement (and gaining some wisdom from our CT friends on that) strike me as naive. Has the researcher considered who is “in” and who’s “out” and how that affects the validity of their research data (even if they’re doing a wholly qualitative study)?

My husband — who was trained at UGA as a qualitative researcher in education — challenged me on this point. He pointed out that Critical Theory rests on a realist approach to epistemology, and my study was stating a constructivist foundation (to stay in line with the approach I wanted to use for GT). He argued that CT demands a realist framework, and I had proposed something with an inherent contradiction.

OK, fair point.

He also suggested that I move instead to “being ‘informed’ by CT” — sensitized to its concepts and questions. This offered me a way to keep an eye on those critical questions which mean a lot to me as a researcher. My committee didn’t push me too hard on that point, and the compromise made it into my proposal.

I’m currently elbows-deep in writing my results and discussions chapters, analyzing the data from what ended up being an exploratory case study (Covid conditions and the short timeframe imposed by my institution for this program made grounded theory impractical). I am definitely at the “plastic horse” stage of the writing. lol

In my data analysis, I ran across Kincheloe and McLaren’s excellent 2011 book chapter on the useful applications of modern Critical Theory to qualitative, interpretivist research. (I resisted the urge to print all 50 pages and slap it down on my husband’s desk in triumph.)


The original source for my tool

Kincheloe, J. L., & McLaren, P. (2011). Rethinking Critical Theory and Qualitative Research. In K. Hayes, S. R. Steinberg, & K. Tobin (Eds.), Key Works in Critical Pedagogy (pp. 285–326). SensePublishers. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-6091-397-6_23

(PDF of the chapter)

We can be against critical theory or for it, but especially at the present historical juncture, we cannot be without it.

Kincheloe & McLaren, 2011, p. 286

Kincheloe and McLaren argue that many dimensions of critical inquiry align with the overarching purposes of the qualitative researcher who seeks to shake up established “truths” and challenge norms. The purpose of their chapter is to work through a variety of dimensions in an attempt to give an “idiosyncratic” definition of what Critical Theory is (and isn’t) as we move deeper into the 21st century. “The following points briefly delineate our interpretation of a critical theory for the new millennium” (p. 288).

A critical postmodern research requires researchers to construct their perception of the world anew, not just in random ways but in a manner that undermines what appears natural, that opens to question what appears obvious. … [I]nsurgent researchers ask questions about how what is has come to be, whose interests are served by particular institutional arrangements, and where our own frames of reference come from. Facts are no longer simply “what is”; the truth of beliefs is not simply testable by their correspondence to these facts. To engage in critical postmodern research is to take part in a process of critical world making, guided by the shadowed outline of a dream of a world less conditioned by misery, suffering, and the politics of deceit. It is, in short, a pragmatics of hope in an age of cynical reason.

Kincheloe & McLaren, 2011, p. 315 (emphasis mine)

The tool: Use a Critical lens and reflect on your research design and data

So how could this treatise be of use? I immediately saw the value in taking notes on each sub-section, skimming through the critical dimensions to remind myself of elements that might be useful to me later. I wrote a series of questions aligned to the article and saved my notes for later.

This weekend, as I’ve been reflecting on the entirety of my MAXQDA codes from my subject interviews, I returned to my notebook with its handwritten list of questions and created a Word document. Not all of these questions were relevant to my needs, but the exercise helped me clarify the role of power and power-structures in the context of my research. Lots of good “future directions for research” ideas on there too.

So here is my tool in document form:

Link to Word file | Link to PDF file

The Word file will be more useful than the PDF, but both are here.

CC-BY license logo: Creative Commons - free to use, share, and remix with attribution

Creative Commons – BY license: You are free to share, remix, and use this tool freely, with attribution. Thanks!

Draw what you read

Ran across this on LinkedIn (don’t laugh; it was my once per 6mo jaunt through old messages and eyerolls because LinkedIn’s ad structure is just so …. obnoxious) and ran into Jeremy Waite’s brilliant book sketches. He reads and then draws visual notes and representations of concepts to help him remember what he read.

I like to say “All good ideas are stolen” — by that, I mean that we’re always borrowing good ideas we see out in the world, adding them to the ideas we already have, and remixing them into new things. I enjoy visual notetaking.

What I like about Jeremy’s style:
– it’s very neat and readable; he can save these and refer back to them or share them with others, and they’ll instantly be useful
– the colors truly help because the whole page isn’t color; he uses the color to draw his eye back to headings or ideas
– the mix of text and visual elements is much more text-heavy than what I usually see in people’s visual note-taking, but it’s more in line with what my visual notes look like (except mine are a hot mess compared to this)

Personal goal

I don’t think I should commit time to anything new right now, but I might try sketching a few more visual notes as I read core books and posting them here. No promises on this one; my bandwidth is mostly claimed and I’d lose myself in the joy of colored pencils rather than slaving in the salt mines of reading articles from my Zotero pile. 😀

Shared leadership rests on established, supporting structures?

Running down this side idea as part of my research dreading today, in conjunction with my data analysis.

Specifically — and this is something I’ve “felt” about research but haven’t articulated until I saw this in another paper’s discussion — leadership doesn’t take root in a vaccum. In the case of socially constructed leadership theory, such as the Relational Leadership Theory that I’ve been reading (in particular, the social constructionist stream), leadership is happening in the “spaces between” individuals as much as it’s a direct influence.

But in most RLT discussions, things still end up boiling down to either the leadership actions people take (making strategic decisions, choosing to interact with an unhappy colleague to resolve a difficulty, asking questions, listening) or in their attempts to communicate (to exert leadership influence over others, for example). Talking (writing) or doing, that seems to be it, right? Does all “leadership theory” boil down to this?

I’m currently rereading a paper on RSCL (Relational Social Constructionist Leadership) Theory by Endres and Weibler (2017) which will likely provide an RLT model I’ll reference in my data analysis. I will probably write about that more some other time.

Endres, S. & Weibler, J. 2017. Towards a Three-Component Model of Relational Social Constructionist Leadership: A Systematic Review and Critical Interpretive Synthesis.International Journal of Management Reviews, Vol. 00, 1–23 (2016). DOI: 10.1111/ijmr.12095

For example, I like the way they integrate the social constructionist perspective into RLT: “Relational social constructionism is inextricably linked to the notion of ongoing interaction among individuals who are involved in intersubjective processes of interpreting and constructing social realities” (p. 225). We socially construct our understanding of our contexts, our teams or departments, the way we relate to “leaders” or “influencers” or people who seem to just be “followers.” We socially construct our responses to limitations — budgets, resources, social mores, unspoken expectations — as well.

There’s a reality out there, sure, but in the world of work, there’s also a reality inside my head which interacts with other people’s head-realities in ways that forces mine to adapt.

What caught my eye today in their discussion was this notion (emphasis mine) that structures are also integral to how leadership develops:

Huxham and Vangen (2000) revealed the informal, emergent nature of leadership in interorganizational collaborations, and developed the notion of leadership as not only being carried out by individuals, but also through the structures and processes. Similarly, Weibler and Rohn-Endres (2010) described the empirical manifestation of leadership in interorganizational networks as an emergent phenomenon appearing as highly developed learning conversation and occurring through the interplay of structures, individuals and the collective.

Endres & Weibler 2017, p 226

Weibler wrote a paper with Rohn-Endres in 2010 which I can’t get my hands on (grrr) that notes in its abstract, “More importantly, our findings support the idea that individual network leadership would not emerge without embeddedness in certain high-quality collective processes of relating and dialogue.”

OK, so dialogue takes us back to talking, which is already well-entrenched in leadership studies. But how about “embededdness in …high-quality collective processes”? That sounds like a structure to me — a folkway, a set of expectations in play, something that people built (or maybe allowed to happen) and now it exists outside the humans themselves as a supporting player.

I’m not pretending this is a new idea — there’s oodles of research on “leadership structures,” team leadership, what contextual factors enable or hinder shared leadership to develop, how context affects relationships among people at work.

Process leadership theories in general take a look at more than traditional, hierarchical views of leadership theory might consider, such as how people are engaged in a web of influence and relationship, or an ongoing rather than “moment in time” perspective of what leadership looks like.

I used the Connected Papers tool (it’s so cool! Try it out!) to track down other papers which have referenced Weibler and Rohn-Endres’s 2010 paper.

None that I found in my quick review seemed to dig specifically into context-specific, structural factors which might influence how leadership emerges and develops in groups. Not saying it’s not there, I just didn’t put my hands on anything quickly (though I did skim some excellent articles on shared leadership research).

Researchers have investigated a number of individual factors typically present in one’s working environment, so I might just need to go looking specifically for organizational structures which enhance leadership emergence.

But not today. Today I’m back to data analysis and writing chapter 4. 🙂

Well-written: Stephen Allen, Exploring Quaker organizing | Relational Leadership

Allen, S. (2019). Exploring Quaker Organising to Consider the Possibilities for Relational Leadership. Quaker Studies, 24(2), 249–270. https://doi.org/10.3828/quaker.2019.24.2.5

https://www.liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/journals/article/28888#B30


Sometimes I read an article and think to myself, “Well, that’s it. Roll it up, walk away for today. You’re not going to write anything better than this.”

It’s both discouraging and encouraging at the same time. Yes, I could write crisp, clear sentences that communicate exactly what I’m trying to say, sentences which perfectly encapsulate complex concepts synthesized from multiple scholarly sources, yet condensed in a way that brings greater meaning out of the whole.

Yeah, sure. I’m sure there are days when I might could possibly write sentences like that. Just….not most days. lol

Allen’s article on relational leadership as an aspect of Quaker egalitarian practice caught my eye the other day because of its theme (RLT, one of my research interests). I sat down this morning to “bag and tag” it into my Zotero collection, taking time to read the article through. (If you head to the link above, click to “Full-text” to read the full thing online, or you can download the PDF. I appreciate open-source journals.)

Allen’s article is a master class in clear writing. His literature / thematic review of RLT within Leadership theory artfully and succinctly summarizes decades of research. Here’s one paragraph from the review where he carefully explains one element that distinguishes RLT from standard theories of leadership:

The concept of relational leadership suggests that leadership influence is momentary among evolving relations. As suggested by Wood and Dibben, from a process perspective ‘leadership does not congeal into human subjects, but is always an achievement that is momentary within an ever-evolving field of relations’ (2015: 39). They go on to argue that ‘leadership [is] not given, but [is] always in the process of becoming, on the way in or out’ (Wood and Dibben 2015: 39)—it is an ‘event in the making’ (41). What this means is that because the interactions between people, places, words and actions happen in dynamic interplay (e.g. we physically move around, events change our views and offer us new information, words gain new meanings and associations based on our experiences) so the spaces for leading emerge through and among these flowing relations. Consequently, the possibilities for influence and being influenced are formed and reformed by the changing constellations of our social and physical relations.

Allen, 2019, p. 253

Likewise, his study design is straightforward and clean; his description of abductive data collection and thematic data analysis offer a short yet sufficient explanation of his research methods.

The article continued to impress me as I read his summary of his interview data and the themes he identified. Tying each emerging theme back to the literature review, Allen demonstrates a qualitative investigation of proposed theory, enriching the literature by investigating RLT within the Quaker context where members pride themselves on rejecting power hierarchies.

His analysis sections tie back into the theory, adding useful content to the overall leadership discussion. For example, although Quakers pride themselves on non-hierarchical structures, clearly all of his participants use mental categories of “leadership” — perhaps from an even less reflective stance than if they participated in a community where leadership influence was regularly examined — to help them understand their interactions with certain peers. Allen found that the Quaker members he interviewed were able to hold complex dynamics in mind, but he also questions whether RLT is too mired in capitalist, hierarchical perspectives to offer enough tools to analyze a non-hierarchical society.

I appreciate Allen’s non-fussy approach to “doing qualitative research” – a simple thematic analysis which he then aligns to three core concepts in his literature review. Yes, this is “basic” good research writing. It’s also extremely difficult to do well, and I think Allen’s article represents a great model for anyone looking.

Tip of the hat to Stephen Allen. He brought his A-game to this study.


Learning from Allen’s example

Rather than packing it in for today and going home (though tempting, I’ll be honest), I’m going to jot down some takeaways for my own research.

First, while I can’t go back in time and change my doctoral research choices, I commend Allen and his faculty advisors (assuming he did this at University of Sheffield, probably for a masters or doctoral thesis) for locating his research within a community that naturally offers a unique case to explore for the theory he’s studying. I imagine Allen is a Quaker (or at least raised in the community); he was able to combine a situation he understood with a theory to help him understand it better. I do not feel as confident in my own study context, but I know the “solution” is to persevere and bring as much light to the situation as I can from the interviews I’m conducting.

Second, speaking more specifically to the article itself, I admire Allen’s concise and eminently readable literature and theory review section covering leadership theories. I can return to my own chapter 2 (literature review) discussions to summarize points for greater clarity. (And I should remember that this is likely Allen’s re-write of his actual research, condensing his main points to make them clearer. Dissertation literature reviews are often tasked with being extensive rather than being succinct.)

Third, my chapters will improve (*knocks on wood*) once they are complete and I have a chance to revise them specifically for clarity. I’ve considered hiring an editor to help me with this stage because two brains are better than one, and a good editor is worth double their weight in gold to polish ideas until they are easily understood.

Finally, as I contemplate my adjustment of research methods toward case study and away from formal grounded theory, I found Allen’s thematic analysis to be readable and accessible. I may return to his article as an inspiring example when in the trenches of my own interview analysis and coding.

A tiny APA rant

To its discredit but not its fault, APA (5th edition) was the fourth documentation system I had to learn during my academic career, and as such, I’ve always held a bit of resentment in my heart toward APA style.

The in-text parenthetical citations are cludgy and interrupt the reader’s flow through the body text. My first graduate degree followed Turabian style, and I learned to glory in a well-written footnote which provided commentary or analsys beyond a mere citation note. The ability to hold a conversation with yourself via footnotes is utterly lost for APA readers, and it is truly their loss.

I’ve made my peace, for the most part, with the APA references page. I understand why they move the year near the head of the reference: I can get behind advancing the chronology of sources. Using sentence case for article titles sets my teeth on edge though … but at least APA 7th has simplified most references down to their bare bones.

Today, I’m here to rant about the 7th edition decision to strip out nearly all authors’ names in the text. Anything past two, and you’re instructed to use et al.

I realize that some fields (especially in sciences and medicine) stack in names like it’s the thank-you list for a Kickstarter. I also know that the position of the names varies within disciplines; in some, the second name is the advisor or sponsor; in other fields, like some sciences, the final name in the list indicates the person who sponsored or funded the research.

But my point is, in fields where author lists don’t tend to be longer than 3-5 names, stripping everything down to “et al” also removes an important narrative thread from the reader’s view. I cannot trace one scholar’s thread through the chronology.

Any given scholar’s name will change position in the author list depending on their role for the research. One person might be lead in one project and third name in another, but a central cast of characters orbiting the topic remains the same even as peripheral authors jump in or drop off.

For example, Mary Uhl-Bien is a well-recognized name in leadership and organizational theory research. In my dissertation chapters, were I allowed to show you more than 2 names at a time, you too could trace Uhl-Bien’s journey through the entity approach to LMX theory, which some term “relational leadership” and writing alongside Russ Marion on Complexity Leadership Theory, into her work with Sonia Ospina to define a constructionist approach to Relational Leadership Theory that represents a good movement in the field away from positivist research.

But you won’t see that in my dissertation chapters, because APA 7th won’t actually let me show you.

This may be the nerdiest post I’ve ever written. :)’

Just give me back my damn footnotes…. *grumbles* *thinks about switching to history*