How to … use theory as method in HPE research

Katherine S. McOwen*, Lara Varpio, Abigail W. Konopasky

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Recognising that scholars in health professions education (HPE) are often unfamiliar with theory-informed research, we provide guidance on a robust method for using theory as a method to inform every aspect of research design from research question formation to data analysis and reporting. Using the Figured Worlds theory to illustrate the process, we mapped six concepts of particular importance to HPE: the figured world, agency, improvisation, discourse, positionality and power. Together the concepts were helpful analytic tools for our topic of interest. The concept of the figured world informed the construction of our program of research. Agency was useful in exploring the ways that subjects acted or did not act. We crafted interview questions to illustrate participants' unique improvisations. Discourse, or the world's artefacts both verbal and embodied, informed our understanding of the world's norms. Positionality allowed us to compare the agentic action of different participants. Finally, power offered an opportunity to recognise the intersection of the positional identities of participants and their stories of action or inaction. While theory-informed analytic tools offer an opportunity to construct nuanced understanding, generating new insights into study subjects and their worlds, caution is necessary as qualitative inquiry is an evolving process of give and take. Everything from the study's questions, methods and even theories might need to flex in response to the data. Ultimately, though initially intimidating, theories offer concrete methodological tools HPE scholars can rely on.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere13615
JournalClinical Teacher
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2023
Externally publishedYes


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