In response to: Chan Z.C.Y. (2010) Reading plays to learn qualitative data analysis: the example of Death of a Salesman. Journal of Advanced Nursing 66(2), 475–476.


Chan (2010) is correct that plays as well as poetry can be used as textual data (Heidegger 1962, van Manen 1990) to teach students the skill of qualitative data analysis. It is also the case that commercial films, short stories, photography and even works of art can be used as text when they are relevant to the student’s focus of study. As I mentioned in a previous article on the use of commercial film in teaching (Raingruber 2003), aesthetic approaches deepen student’s enthusiasm, encourage reflective depth and promote understanding.

The unfolding, dynamic nature of action and the pervasive influence of context within plays, poems, movies and short stories help students recognize the importance of obtaining a thorough and nuanced understanding of their participant’s lifeworld once they begin interviewing. Literary and artistic works assist students to notice behaviour patterns and belief systems that unfold over time. The complexity that is presented in works of art mirrors the complexity within everyday life. Exposing students to this complexity helps them learn that participants also often hold deep and sometimes contradictory views that have evolved over time and been shaped by their own history and culture. By reflecting on the unfolding and complex nature of the behaviours and views of characters within a work of art, students develop an appreciation of the nuanced material they may elicit during an interview.

Interpretive work requires a rich understanding of one’s participants but also an understanding of oneself. As Mohr (1995) commented the use of aesthetic teaching methods allows students to engage in ‘imaginative participant observation’ and synthesize their own oftentimes contradictory perspectives (p. 369). Interpretative researchers are obliged to have a sense of their own taken-for-granted perspectives (Benner 1994). Aesthetic approaches help students to develop this insight as they reflect on their own experience and attitudes compared with those portrayed by the main characters in the artistic work. As part of their assignment students can also discuss the perspective or assumptions the author wove into the work (DeFronzo 1982). Even though in Heideggerian phenomenology it is perfectly acceptable for a researcher to adopt a given perspective, it is still necessary to reflect on what that perspective is (Heidegger 1962). Having students consider the perspective of their selected author and the characters in the work is a good way to remind students to analyse the voice, assumptions and perspective with which they undertake interpretive work.

Chan (2010) provides an interesting description of how one play, the Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller can be used to help students gain skill in qualitative data analysis. In addition to the instructor assigning one play or poem or short story or movie for students to interpret, it is also effective to allow students to self select an artistic work that is consistent with the focus of their qualitative study. Students come from a variety of backgrounds, religious views and cultural groups. Allowing a student or an interpretive group of students who are working together to self select their work of art is an effective way to honour this rich background. It is also a good way to assist students to bridge gaps within their own experience and understanding. As Younger (1990) mentioned, students are able to broaden their worldview by reflecting on life stories presented works of art and fiction. van Manen (1990) commented that life and art are always more complex than any explication of meaning.

Even when allowing students to self select their preferred artistic genre, it is important that the instructor also have a sense of the work. It is necessary for the literary or artistic work to be sufficiently complex to yield rich discussions and interpretations. As educators broaden their own repertoire and familiarity with plays, poetry, short stories and film, they expand their worldview as well. By learning more about a spectrum of literary and artistic works, educators are able to re-new themselves and enrich their nursing related knowledge at the same time.

In addition to using plays to teach students principals of concept identification and thematic analysis as Chan (2010) suggested, works of art can be used to help students learn the methods and approaches used in Heideggerian and Husserlian phenomenology and ethnography as well. The possibilities and potential within aesthetic approaches to pedagogy are as broad and expansive as the profession of nursing, the domain of art and literature, and the richness of everyday life.