Envisioning Future Roles: How Women Medical Students Navigate the Figured World of Medical School

An Introduction to the Wonderful World of Theory

I feel excited about this blog, if only because I get to declare a conflict of interest (COI), which I never get to have, unlike all the cool people out there:

  • I affirm that I was on the editorial team that helped to publish this paper and that the first author, Emiko Blalock, is a close colleague of mine.

Huh. That COI was not as exciting as I had hoped. No problem: the article holds its own excitement-wise! Like many of the articles I’ve shared here, this one uses qualitative methods–in this case their method of data collection was one-on-one interviews using a longitudinal approach1 (interviewing people over time) and their method of analysis was narrative inquiry2 (while I totally disagree with the idea that themes just “emerge,” overall this video is a nice intro to narrative research). I love these authors because not only are they rigorous qualitative researchers, but they are up front with what they have done so that others can follow their lead in their own research:

Five phases of analysis
(Blalock et al., p.4)

Then, here is where it gets fun–for us and for the authors of this piece: we (me and my co-editors of this series: Lara Varpio and Katie Schultz) asked for an analysis of their data using theory as method: i.e., using a social science theory as the driver for your research design choices: writing a research question, selecting participants, collecting data (we cheated a bit on this one since these authors had some existing data and did a secondary analysis), analyzing that data, and organizing it to report it out.

We asked Blalock and her colleagues to use something called the theory of figured worlds.3 Through the lens of this theory, “medical school” is a “world” in which people have access to particular identities and can use action, language, and imagination to orchestrate their own role in that world. This theory allows the authors to see things they might not see with the lenses of their own life experiences alone: e.g., how these women “interrupted gendered discourses, drawing on their perceived limited positionality as women medical students to see and imagine new aspects of their own agency.” (Blalock et al., p.5).

Now, there may still be readers (out of the 2 whole readers I actually have–hello, Kerry and Rosh!) who haven’t figured out yet why this article is so exciting to me (other than my generalized state of overexcitement, which is likely at least partially connected to caffeine intake). Here’s why: any theory can be used as a method!4 Now, this is not to say that any theory should be used as a method for any given project or set of questions, just to say that there are a lot of educational and social theories out there that reveal interesting things about the world that you can take and apply in your work!5 You can find this wonderful things called theories all over the place, from popular podcasts to TED Talks to your colleagues over at the library.

I’ll end with another COI: I love theory–I love thinking about it, talking about it, playing with it, and using it to see new problems and approaches in my own and others’ research. So if you can’t figure out how to approach a research problem or even what you would like your research to focus on, email your local theory nerd and let’s chat!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on either this content or these methods and if any of this has gotten you interested in starting a project, reach out for research support any time! And I always take recommendations for articles to blog about!

These reflections are based on a 2023 article from The Clinical Teacher (open access): Blalock AE, Miao S, Wentworth C. Envisioning future roles: How women medical students navigate the figured world of medical school. The Clinical Teacher. 2023 Aug 7.

Other References

1Balmer DF, Varpio L, Bennett D, Teunissen PW. Longitudinal qualitative research in medical education: time to conceptualise time. Med Educ. 2021;55(11):medu.14542.

2Clandinin DJ, Connelly FM. Narrative inquiry: experience and story in qualitative research Jossey-Bass; 2000.

3Holland D, Lachicotte W, Skinner D, Cain C. Agency and identity in cultural worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard. 1998.

4McOwen KS, Varpio L, Konopasky AW. How to… use theory as method in HPE research. The Clinical Teacher. 2023 Aug 7:e13615.

5Samuel A, Konopasky A, Schuwirth LW, King SM, Durning SJ. Five principles for using educational theory: strategies for advancing health professions education research. Academic Medicine. 2020 Apr 1;95(4):518-22.