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Thinking With Theory in Qualitative Research: Viewing Data Across Multiple Perspectives

reviewed by Sandra Quinones & Gary Shank - September 05, 2014

coverTitle: Thinking With Theory in Qualitative Research: Viewing Data Across Multiple Perspectives
Author(s): Alecia Youngblood Jackson & Lisa A Mazzei
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415781000, Pages: 168, Year: 2012
Search for book at Amazon.com

First, let us start by addressing what you might already be asking yourself. “Since when are book reviews written by two authors?” Fair enough. Although collaborating on a book review may not be ‘business as usual,’ we do so here in a symbolic move to offer differing viewpoints about the same book. In this case, a book about qualitative research that aims to view data across multiple perspectives.

You might also be thinking—Who are we? So, let’s move on immediately to the labeling and positioning game so prevalent in the academy. The first author is a first generation PhD Latina assistant professor in a tenure track position in the Department of Instruction and Leadership in Education at Duquesne University. She completed a qualitative dissertation in 2012, has a few publications ‘under her belt’ and is working on additional publications in a strategic, purposeful, and goal-oriented manner. The second author is a first generation PhD White male full professor in the Department of Educational Foundations and Leadership at Duquesne University. He has a solid publishing record, including a textbook that proposes and describes a personal skills approach to the teaching and learning of qualitative research.

Now that we have briefly labeled and positioned ourselves, let’s get started with what we were invited to do: write a review of Alecia Y. Jackson and Lisa A. Mazzei’s (2012)’s Thinking With Theory in Qualitative Research: Viewing Data Across Multiple Perspectives. In this text, the authors attempt to do something quite meaningful. They use theory as the basis for looking at real data in real world studies. More specifically, Jackson and Mazzei take a look at a set of highly respected postmodern theorists—Derrida, Spivak, Foucault, Butler, Deleuze, and Barad.  Each theorist is noted for some key interpretative perspective. Derrida was the inventor of deconstruction, Spivak is an early postcolonial voice, Foucault talked of the role of power in grounding morals and inquiry, Butler looks at performance and role, Deleuze addressed the broad scope and domain of desire, and Barad focuses on intra-activity.

Working with a qualitative data set of first generation college women who went on to become professors, Jackson and Mazzei extract out two cases from their original ten participants, and “plug in” the ideas of each of the theorists in turn. In this way, they sought to see what this exercise would yield in terms of unique insights into the interpretation of their data.

On the one hand, Sandra found this book incredibly generative. For her, the notion of “plugging in” theory made sense and was like a spark plug that provides a supply of power to the meaning making process of a qualitative researcher. She welcomed and embraced the author’s purpose of challenging qualitative researchers “to use theory to think with their data (or to use data to think with theory) in order to accomplish a reading of data that is both within and against interpretisvism (p. vii).” As Sandra read the book, she was reminded of her professors in graduate school who vehemently challenged the idea that teacher education, as a field, was largely atheoretical.

In other words, for Sandra, it was business as usual to think, analyze, and make meaning of data sources as if Foucault (to give an example) was in the room or looking over one’s shoulder. The need to have a strong understanding of theoretical concepts in order to appropriately ask (and later respond to) theory-driven questions of the data was emphasized—and practiced—through multiple and ongoing individual and cooperative activities in and outside of the classroom. During her doctoral studies, Sandra immersed herself in this kind of thinking with theory and reveled in the process of viewing data across multiple perspectives. Therefore, Sandra highly recommends Jackson and Mazzei’s (2012) book. In fact, she even used the chapter on “Spivak’s Thinking with Marginality” in the development of a collaborative manuscript (Martinez-Roldán & Quiñones, forthcoming). Put simply, Sandra draws from, and cites, this text as a qualitative researcher and teacher educator.

On the other hand, Gary found this book incredibly frustrating. For him, the notion of “plugging in” theory as illustrated by Jackson and Mazzei, was more like a cork plug, a dense mass of material that obstructs the meaning making process of a qualitative researcher. To further explain this point, Gary stated the following to Sandra during a discussion of the book:

…Over 135 years ago, Peirce (1877) offered us a way out of the mire of having to address questions of meaning within a framework of scientifically formulated empirical inquiry, without falling prey to Cartesian notions of subjectivity and objectivity. But because the pull of “science” and its Cartesian framework is so powerful on qualitative researchers, we see example after example of tortured language and thought attempting to stay true to science and yet address the compelling demands of meaning on its own terms on the other hand. It is hard to imagine a more Cartesian approach to meaning. When you set out to look at the world serially from a priori restricted perspectives, you get a set of circumscribed pictures of the world. Or, to put it another way, it is the triumph of “lenses” yet again. Or finally, it is the six blind men and the elephant all over again. Its use, over and above a well-done intellectual exercise, is hard to discern. For me, Thinking with Theory in Qualitative Research is yet one more example of a long line of conceptual and linguistic jujitsu in service of trying to be serious about meaning and belief and yet stay true to Cartesian roots. Instead what we need to do is find out what the experiences of the participants mean to them, in their own words and on their own terms. Look at their triumphs and mistakes. There are key insights and actions in all of our lives. In other words, start with genuine doubt—a la Peirce—and see where that takes you.

After that discussion, Sandra went into scholarly solitary confinement and read Shank’s (2005) book. She reflected upon their points of convergence and divergence and tried to make sense of it. As a result of an abductive reasoning process, this collaborative book review was birthed. A different kind of book review that cannot exist without the sum of its parts . . .

Despite our initial, seemingly antagonistic responses and reviews of this book, both of us agree with Jackson and Mazzei that understanding meaning is more important than verifying meaning. Indeed, our interpretations are partial, provisional, and ongoing. That being said, we need to be mindful of not "forcing the fit" between theory and data. At times Jackson and Mazzei seem to force the fit between theory and data. Such moments magnify the constraints of language and the insidious nature of Cartesian thinking. An appropriate theoretical framework is one that galvanizes our thinking, offers explanatory power, and helps us make meaning clear. If a theoretical framework does not do so, then we must seek out other alternatives.

In closing, we want to reiterate Jackson and Mazzei’s argument of moving away from reduction and simplification as we engage qualitative inquiry in education. Indeed we need to be explicit about the use of theoretical frameworks as a means for gaining and building interpretive understanding. After all, isn’t the primary goal of qualitative inquiry to reason to meaning, a meaning that never stands alone?


Shank, G. D. (2005). Qualitative research: A personal skills approach (2nd Edition).  New York, NY: Pearson.

Martínez-Roldan, C., & Quiñones, S. (forthcoming).  Resisting Erasure and Developing Networks of Solidarity: Testimonios of Two Puerto Rican Scholars In the Academy. Submitted to the Journal of Language, Identity, and Education.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 05, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17673, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 3:35:14 PM

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About the Author
  • Sandra Quinones
    Duquesne University
    E-mail Author
    SANDRA QUINONES is an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Duquesne University. She is the co-author of Martínez-Roldan, C., & Quiñones, S. (forthcoming). Resisting Erasure and Developing Networks of Solidarity: Testimonios of Two Puerto Rican Scholars In the Academy. Submitted to the Journal of Language, Identity, and Education.
  • Gary Shank
    Duquesne University
    E-mail Author
    GARY SHANK is a Professor in the School of Education at Duquesne University. He has just published Understanding Education Research: A Guide for Critical Reading with Launcelot Brown and Janice Pringle for Paradigm Publishers, and is now completing The Semiotic Inquirer in the Age of Signs for Mouton.
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