Teaching qualitative research: a metaphorical approach


  • Stephen H. Cook BA MA MSc MPhil DipNEd RN,

  • M. Frances Gordon PhD MEd RN RNT RCNT

Stephen Cook,
Middlesex University,
School of Health and Social Sciences,
Department of Mental Health,
A7, Archway Campus,
Highgate Hill,
London N19 3UA,
E-mail: s.cook@mdx.ac.uk


Background.  In the Western tradition, drawing attention to the linguistic significance of analogy and metaphor can be traced back to the writings of the early Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. More recently, philosophers of science have drawn attention to the role of analogy and metaphor in the development of scientific theory. Also, linguists and psychologists now suggest that, in addition to being distinctive uses of language with various rhetorical functions, metaphors constitute fundamental processes of thought with basic epistemological functions.

Aim.  Drawing on numerous sources from outside the nursing literature, this paper seeks to show the implications of current theory relating to analogy and metaphor for nursing and educational practice. It also seeks to demonstrate, using a practical example, how this theory can be applied to the teaching of qualitative research.

Method.  Using reflection on our experiences of using analogy and metaphor in teaching the qualitative research process on a Master's degree programme, we assess the potential for using analogy and metaphor as a teaching strategy. This experience is also used to explore and discuss the wider implications of the use of analogy and metaphor in health and educational practices.

Discussion.  While analogies and metaphors can help students make creative and imaginative links between existing conceptual frameworks and those associated with new knowledge, thereby facilitating its assimilation, the use of analogy and metaphor remains an under-researched area of nursing and educational practice. The cultural specificity of a metaphor does not necessarily prevent its usefulness cross culturally. The use of metaphor and analogy can also facilitate the injection of humour to a subject students frequently find ‘dry’ and intimidating.

Conclusion.  Analogies and metaphors are potentially powerful teaching and learning strategies. However, much is still not known about how they work at the cognitive level. Consequently, there is considerable scope for further research in this area in nurse education and clinical practice.