Threshold concepts bite back

Long story cut short: I'm currently writing a paper on a piece of work I presented at the (fairly) recent conference on Threshold Concepts, that was hosted here at Waikato. In order to do this, I'm needing to learn a new language, namely that of qualitative research. 

Qualitative Research is not something that comes naturally to a physicist. The most obvious problem is that it requires a paradigm shift – from the positivist approach that underlies most of science, and particularly physics, to the (ahem) social constructivism that is common-place in the qualitative literature. I need help. 

So, yesterday, under cover of darkness*, with heavy coat and thick scarf wrapped around my face, I sneaked into the library, passed by the familiar  'Q' section and headed across the corridor** to raid the 'H' section***. I knew my target – I'd already searched the on-line library catalogue in the safety of my office – so it was a quick mission. Get in there, grab the books, get them issued (on the self-service kiosk, certainly not the front desk lest I be recognized for what I was – a scientist carrying subversive literature) and get out of there before any of my colleagues, or worse still, any of my students, spotted me. Catching a positivist (or p******ist, as they're refered to in the social science literature) raiding the 'H' section would be sure to inflame cross-disciplinary tensions so discretion was absolutely paramount.  Mission safely accomplished, I returned to the safety of EF-link block.  

However, my mission has hardly begun. The next step is to decode the language. The words might be English, but they're written in some kind of secret code known only to practioners of social constructivism. Fortunately, my wife Karen has come across such writing before and is familiar with teasing out some of the hidden meanings in the language. With some tuition, and hard work, I've begun to make a little sense of this writing. It is a hard and frightening task – there is so much that is just utterly alien to me. I feel that there must be some underpinning concept behind it that I just haven't grasped, that makes it so troublesome – if I get it – if I discover what that secret code really is – it will all fall into place and at last I'll be able to see what qualitative research really is about. 

But one thing I do know, is that I'm dealing with a threshold concept here. And there's the deep irony. In order for me to support my paper on threshold concepts, I need to get into the qualitative research literature, and this in itself is a threshold concept to me. The introductory chapter of one of the books, which explicitly states that it is for people with no familiarity with qualitative research, is still intractable to me. Why? The words are English, the sentences aren't long, but somehow it appears to draw from hidden knowledge that I am not familiar with.  I just don't get it – the sense isn't there – the concepts are so troubling. I'm sure then the very notion of 'qualtiative research' is, to someone trained as a scientist, a threshold concept in itself. And I'm not yet over that threshold. Not completely, anyway. . 

So, to close, I'm still grappling with this stuff. But perhaps the greatest impact is that I now have some idea of what my students are going through when they complain "I just don't get it" when dealing with what I feel is the blatantly obvious


*OK, so it was actually about 9.30 in the morning, but that doesn't sound as dramatic. 

**One might actually say 'crawled under the barbed wire laid long the border': This metaphor has echos of Glen S. Aikenhead (1996) Science Education: Border Crossing into the Subculture of Science, Studies in Science Education, 27:1, 1-52.

***The Q and H refer to US Library of Congress coding of books – Q is (broadly) where physics lives, H is where the qualitative research methods books hang out, looking menacing.

Leave a Reply