In response to: Raingruber B. (2009) Assigning poetry reading as a way of introducing students to qualitative data analysis. Journal of Advanced Nursing 65(8), 1753–1761.


Reading plays to learn qualitative data analysis: the example of Death of a Salesman

Raingruber’s (2009) thought-provoking paper offers nurse educators teaching qualitative data analysis some insights into the need for creativity and the integration of poetry into nursing pedagogy. Poetry is highly abstract but can capture aspects of the human life and experience. For example, my reflection on anorexia nervosa studies were presented as a poem, offering hidden understanding of this illness in a literature representation (Chan 2003a). Another example of poetry writing as an effective means of self-understanding is in my doctoral study (Chan 2003b). Indeed, the artistic nature and powerful manifestations of human belief and behaviour of poetry in a particular environment should be considered like any literature possessing a human dimension as in the line of nursing – a human work.

This is the era of knowledge integration and translation. The boundary between disciplines has become more fluid due to the knowledge explosion and rapid development of information technology. There are many novel ideas from other knowledge realms that can enhance nursing education and research. Raingruber shares innovative ways of teaching and learning by assigning poetry reading. Her attempt encourages nurse educators/researchers to try new forms of teaching qualitative data analysis that are beneficial both for learning qualitative data analysis and for adding depth to qualitative enquiry. Qualitative nursing research has great potential to enhance the understanding of nursing care, patients’ experience and health services from multi-faceted perspectives.

Based on the ideas of the potential and application of assigned poetry reading to introduce students to qualitative data analysis, I wish to share my thoughts on reading plays like Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, and the ways in which plays can enhance students’ sensitivity, critical thinking and compassion. Students will be able to understand research informants’ stories, experiences and narratives in qualitative studies through reading and rereading this play and discussing it with their fellow students. The background of this playwright, the main characters and the thematic analysis of the play can stimulate and enable students to sense and understand the narratives and stories and make a contextual interpretation that can enhance the depth and vividness of qualitative data analysis.

Arthur Miller was a great playwright and full of wisdom in grasping the American culture, such as the family values and sports of his time, which are represented in the plot of the play (Abbotson 2000). Reading his biography and analysis on Arthur Miller can offer students some ideas about how the writer’s past experience affects writings. Similarly, there is a need for reflectivity in qualitative researchers because the researcher’s self will affect the interpretation of the data. To understand the four characters of the play (Willy Loman, the father and the salesman, Linda, Willy’s wife, Biff, the older of Willy’s two sons, and Happy, the younger son) through dialogues and scene description, each character has emotions, personalities, and experiences and behaviours in relation to her/his family members. This learning exercise allows students to have a feeling for the myriad of emotions of research informants in qualitative data analysis. The languages of Willy’s family members should be understood in the socio-cultural context, intra-psychics and the family sphere. Likewise, the narratives and stories of qualitative data can make an essential meaning, reflecting that human psychological and social relations can only be achieved by the contextualization of the data. Therefore, assigning Death of a Salesman can yield many benefits in terms of encouraging students to be more sensitive and passionate in reading people’s life stories, in turn placing them into their nursing knowledge and improving their nursing care according to clients’ needs.

Even though Death of a Salesman is an example from western literature, it can be understood transculturally and applied in various contexts to the teaching and learning of qualitative data analysis. Next, I will turn to the ideology of assigning plays (both Chinese and English) in nursing research courses in order to make learning nursing research more fun and concrete by knowing who the playwrights are, who the main characters of the plays are, and how their stories can be interpreted in their contexts. More importantly, the analysis of plays can train students in the concepts and strategies of concept identification and thematic analysis. This can lead to the study of qualitative data analysis in a more comprehensive and practical manner for students. We need more work like that of Raingruber (2009) to use poetry reading as a tool for learning qualitative data analysis, and to explore more alternatives in adopting art and literature to enrich our qualitative research analysis as nursing embraces human experiences and caring dimensions. Certainly, art and literature can ignite our passions for patient care and human circumstances that eventually leave more qualitative results, not just at a descriptive level, but at a critical analysis level with a strong contextual basis.

The rationale for recommending Death of a Salesman is because it shares many common aspects of human pain, suffering and dreams, and the influences of socio-economic-familial factors on every individual. The ways of presenting the narratives are relevant to nursing research in managing the qualitative data. We are not playwrights, but we can learn from playwrights like Arthur Miller and his critical eye for human values and actions in a unique life situation. Just like our informants/participants in qualitative studies, we need more nurse researchers to have the ability of great playwrights, using these skills for the needs and strategies of scientific knowledge through rigorous research design and methods, the defining characteristic of qualitative research analysis.