Dorothy Pawluch and the Canadian Qualitatives: A Legacy

Will C. van den Hoonaard, University of New Brunswick
Deborah K. van den Hoonaard, St. Thomas University
Lisa-Jo K. van den Scott, Memorial University of Newfoundland
Jeffrey D. van den Scott, Memorial University of Newfoundland


It was with great pleasure that we accepted Michael Adorjan’s invitation to contribute to a festschrift special issue in honour of Dorothy Pawluch on the occasion of her retirement. While this paper did not align with the goals of the final product, we are pleased to be able to share it with the Qualitatives community. Each of us has been privileged to know Dorothy and to benefit from her contributions both to the theoretical development of symbolic interactionism in Canada and, more directly for us, to the Canadian Qualitatives, the premier symbolic-interactionist conference north of the 49th parallel.

The Qualitatives is independently organized each year by a volunteer ad hoc committee unconnected to any organization and has gone by many names since it was started in 1984 at University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. The first conference featured about 25 papers and was called, “Deviance in a Cross-Cultural Context.” In 1985, it was called, “Qualitative Research: An ethnographic/interactionist perspective.” The 1985 program includes the following observations by Herbert Blumer:

I am impressed very much by what you have in mind. Your objectives are excellent and your guiding rules are very much in order. Basically what is at stake is the question of how to see, to study, and to analyze human group life. The answer . . . is to probe into human group life as it is lived, to get intimately close to it, and to develop analytic schema that reflect honestly its empirical character. In my opinion, the prevailing approaches in the social and psychological sciences do not do this successfully, chiefly because of an unwillingness to get close to what is going on and then a reliance on substituting guess work and untested images. . . I wish you the greatest of success in you undertaking!

Over the years, the conference has acquired the affectionate nickname of “The Qualitatives.” It now usually includes between 150 and 200 presentations. Two of its notable accomplishments are continuing almost uninterrupted for almost 40 years without a sponsoring organization and retaining its warmth and friendliness as it has grown. Dorothy Pawluch’s contributions to these accomplishments are substantial.

A few years ago, the comment was made by a former prime minister of Canada that now is not the time to commit sociology. Immediately, the Canadian Sociological Association printed tee-shirts with the message, “commit sociology.” Thanks to Dorothy Pawluch and the other founders of the Qualitatives, the commission of sociology from a symbolic-interactionist perspective is ongoing and thriving in Canada. In the next few pages, each of the authors has written a personal account of the importance Dorothy Pawluch has had for the encouragement and development of our thought and careers, particularly in her role with symbolic interaction in Canada and the Qualitatives.

Symbolic Interactionism

Lisa-Jo, one of the authors of this paper, has had a long-standing debate with Gary Alan Fine about whether we can think of symbolic interactionism as having a Canadian stream. Of course, there is the second-wave Chicago School, of which Fine is a member, the Iowa School, the Indiana School, and so on. At last, Fine challenged, “what concepts have they contributed?” Well, now she could finally get started! What concepts, indeed? Among “generic social processes” (Prus 1987), the reinvigorating of “sensitizing concepts” (van den Hoonaard, W. 1997), “donning the cloak of competence” (Haas and Shaffir 1987), and “identity foreclosure” (van den Hoonaard, D. 1997), Dorothy Pawluch and Steven Woolgar’s concept of “ontological gerrymandering” (Woolgar and Pawluch 1985) comes immediately to mind.

Dorothy Pawluch, having graduated from McGill, belongs to a small group of interactionists who took up symbolic interactionism in Canada and helped to create a legacy. Ironically, most Canadians would not want to be thought of as having their own stream. This would mean they are apart from mainstream American sociology and interactionists. Dorothy is rather like this as well; humble, deflecting attention, and would be the last to argue that she was part of an intellectual movement that established symbolic interactionism in Canada. Well, tough. Despite her unassuming demeanour and beliefs about herself, Dorothy was a key part of this movement. Starting in the mid-1980s, she and her colleagues were prolific in creating a wave of publications and research that pushed forward interactionist thinking and theory. Her students, as you will see throughout this issue, are flung far and wide, emphasizing the focus on generic social process within the interactionist lens – a Canadian perspective Dorothy embraced, taught, and applied within the qualitative research community.

Will, another author of this paper, writes that her influence widened the scope of his own research interests, some of which breathed life only once or twice in the span of his own work, whereas others continued as an ongoing research topic. In the end, regardless of the longevity of each area of interest, exploring these varied topics left us with a fascination with research as a whole. From Dorothy, we each started to see the social processes uncovered in one line of research were interrelated to those present in other lines of research. Dorothy was part of that unfolding recognition of the generic nature of social processes.

The concept of ontological gerrymandering (1985) is one of Dorothy’s key contributions to interactionism and the study of social problems. Things are not simply private issues or public problems; they are socially constructed as such. As academics, and others, wrestle over these boundaries, establishing phenomena as social problems, or not, they are performing ontological gerrymandering; including when a former prime minister calls on a population not to “commit sociology.” This concept has implications for labelling theory, deviance, and social problems theory, among other fields.

Dorothy has also made serious contributions in studying pediatrics and the medicalization of children (1996; 2003), HIV/AIDS (2000), social constructionism (2019), as well as professions and professionalization, with almost 2000 citations on Google Scholar. While all of these areas offer valuable sociological contributions, the most notable area for the authors of this section is Dorothy’s contribution to the qualitative research community. Dorothy Pawluch is one of the founders and a long-time supporter of the annual Canadian Qualitative Analysis Conference, affectionately known as the Qualitatives. This conference has been central in the promotion and development of symbolic interactionism and qualitative research in the Canadian sociology community. Each of us came into the Qualitatives community at different times in our careers and over the course of the last 38 years. In the next four sections, each author speaks to Dr. Pawluch’s legacy as students, mentees, early-career scholars, colleagues, fellow-retirees, and even as co-organizers of the “Qualitatives.”

Qualitative Research and the “Qualitatives”

Will C. van den Hoonaard – Conference Attendee since 1990

I have become profoundly aware of how the annual Canadian Qualitatives has shaped my academic life. Between the 7th Conference in 1990 and its 36th in 2019, I actively participated in 21 Conferences. The participation of qualitative researchers from other parts of the world who were invited to participate in these Conferences has led to my participating in other, newly established qualitative-research conferences in Oslo (2000), Slovenia (2000), and São Paulo (2004). My own participation in the “Canadian Qualitatives” also led to my increasing participation in the Couch-Stone Symposia and the Symbolic Interaction and Ethnographic Research Conference. In those contexts, I was sometimes an invited speaker (1997), a plenary speaker (2004), or a featured speaker (2015). I owe much to Dorothy Pawluch, a founder of the Canadian Qualitatives, for my embarking on these stimulating academic experiences.

Her profile, as indicated by her students, tells us she is a “tough grader,” a “caring” professor. There is no question that within the Canadian Qualitatives, Dorothy Pawluch has exercised a collegial and supportive approach to set up and organize the Qualitatives , that influenced many, whether as novice or as full scholars. No doubt, the personality and “style” of a person could offer the means by which scholars demonstrate how they anchor their respect for that one person. In my case, Dorothy was emblematic of someone who took a universal and deep interest in the topic at hand. This was not a heavy-handed interest. Dorothy would occupy a space at the Conference that encouraged participants from the audience whether at the side, the middle, up front, or even at the back of the room. Never discouraged by the topic, Dorothy’s interest never flagged. Her steady smile and gaze promised a scholar that their own presentation would be a success. If there were any questions or remarks that Dorothy felt impelled to make, they were modest and did not distract attention away from the presenter.

Dorothy, as I now see her, exercised an indisputable influence through her own interest, courtesy, and gentle manner. One should not be surprised that her influence cut across all kinds of participants. Her “clique” was the whole Conference. One may well assign such influence to a whole cadre of her colleagues, including William (Billy) Shaffir, who exemplified a magnetic temperament of wanting to nurture the best in all of us (For more about Billy Shaffir and his contribution to qualitative research in Canada see, “Festschrift for Billy Shaffir,” Qualitative Sociology Review 2020. XVI(2).

Deborah Kestin van den Hoonaard – Conference Attendee since 1992

I cannot think about the Qualitatives without thinking about Dorothy Pawluch. She has been at almost every conference since I started attending in 1992, and has been a welcoming and friendly face. The atmosphere Dorothy was instrumental in creating was like a breath of fresh air at a time when qualitative research and symbolic interactionism were truly marginal in North America and in Canada, in particular. More than once, the conference buoyed me up when my qualitative approach had marginalized me elsewhere. For example, when I applied for a tenure-track position at the university where I was completing a one-year contract and was not even short-listed, I was so discouraged that I considered skipping the Qualitatives –it was too humiliating to see others. But I knew that Dorothy would be there to encourage and to remind me that my research on the social meaning of widowhood for older women was valuable. This community of students and scholars at the Qualitatives has supported so many of us over the years as we struggled in isolation in departments that did not appreciate our approach.

Dorothy Pawluch’s work was and is always fascinating and thought-provoking, and she is well-known for presenting at the Qualitatives with her students. She never takes the limelight, but the high quality of her students’ work reflects the high standards she sets for them. When I make my own presentations, I know that, if Dorothy is in the room, I can count on an interested and supportive person. The Qualitatives are known for their collegiality, friendliness, and supportive questions and comments, particularly when students are presenting. Dorothy’s presence and quiet influence is always felt throughout.

It was in 1998 that Dorothy, along with a few other founders of the Qualitatives, convinced Will and me to host the conference in Fredericton, New Brunswick. It would be the first time it would take place outside of Ontario. We were skeptical that people would be willing to come to New Brunswick for the conference, but Dorothy’s quiet encouragement led us to agree. We put out the call for papers at the conference in May, and I can remember sitting in the cafeteria at St Thomas University, the venue for the 1999 conference, deciding that we could go ahead with 50 presentations. By the time the conference took place, we had 150 presenters from eight countries. Putting together the Qualitatives for the first time was a huge amount of work, but we had the support of Dorothy and others who had hosted the conference before to help us through the bumpy spots. In the end, we were thrilled to welcome everyone to the Qualitatives that year but thought we would break the tradition – up to that point – of having the same hosts two years in a row. It was Dorothy Pawluch who convinced us that the second year would be easier (it was) and who stepped up to host the Qualitatives in 2001 when no one else offered to take it on.

Dorothy Pawluch’s contributions to the Qualitatives are long-standing and ongoing. She has always been there in the background helping things to run smoothly. It is no accident that, one particular year when a graduate student was concerned about someone’s behaviour at the conference, it was Dorothy who was approached and who worked with the organizers to find a solution to the problem. This situation speaks to the high esteem in which and trust others have for her.

One cannot overstate the importance of the Qualitatives in the establishment and continuation of a strong community of symbolic-interactionist and qualitative researchers in Canada. Students have found a home at the conference and, it is not surprising, that a new generation has taken up the reins to ensure its continuation. It is thanks to Dorothy Pawluch (and the other founders of the conference) that this new generation was welcomed and nurtured so strongly that they felt enough ownership to step up and make sure that the beloved Qualitatives will continue into the foreseeable future.

Lisa-Jo Kestin van den Scott – Conference Attendee since 2008

I wish I had known, in 1999 and 2000, when my future spouse and I were helping fold programs for my parents, Deborah and Will, that I was getting a glimpse of my future intellectual home, my best supporters, and my “people.” I first attended the Canadian Qualitatives in 2008, and the circle was complete. Because of the tone Dorothy and her colleagues had set, I was welcomed even as a naïve newcomer with tentative ideas. It was later, as an organizer, that I came to truly appreciate what Dorothy undertook, and how important her vision of supporting graduate students was to her accomplishments in qualitative research in Canada. The Canadian Qualitatives are an immense gift, and I am honoured to carry that torch forward with others.

I have now been on the organizing team of the Canadian Qualitatives since 2014. In 2017, I had the honour of playing second fiddle to Dorothy Pawluch on the organizing committee. I cannot overstate my appreciation for all I learned from her. The hardest thing, however, was convincing Dorothy to accept any thanks or appreciation. At first, I could not even convince her to make a little speech at the banquet. I explained to her that women of my generation need examples from women of her generation of how to gracefully accept success. We cannot continue to explain ourselves away! We need to feel comfortable and confident in the limelight! Dorothy broke with her strict policy of humble backstage support and did say a few short words at the banquet, to the grateful delight of us all.

Aside from the extraordinarily careful and well-structured feedback she has provided me on my work, itself, she has also created a foundation for qualitative researchers in Canada through her contributions to the Canadian Qualitatives. Several books and special issues have emerged from this conference, including her own edited volume, along with Billy Shaffir and Charlene Miall, Doing Ethnography (2005). She is an example to me now of how to push my students from behind, rather than drag them along by their hands. Most importantly, I have learned that organizing a conference is about service and, most importantly, about love; love for our craft of qualitative research, love for the intellectual project of sociology, and love for the community she helped to create.

Jeffrey van den Scott – Conference Attendee since 2011

I almost killed Dorothy Pawluch following the 2012 Qualitatives in St. John’s, Newfoundland – or so she would have you believe. The day after the conference finished, weinvited/convinced Dorothy, alongside Billy Shaffir, Flo Kellner, and a handful of other conference attendees to draw on my experience (nearly a decade prior) as a tour guide on a puffin and whale watching tour out of Bay Bulls. While there were no whales to be seen, it was a sunny day in late June, with fog waiting for us at the end of the harbour, and hundreds of thousands of seabirds at Gull Island. Despite the calm waters, though, our intrepid group of sociologists let the water get the best of them and spent most of the two-hour tour “green,” wishing they had just stayed on shore. For years following, when meeting at the Qualitatives, each of these “landlubbers” would remind me of my attempt to kill them following the Newfoundland conference.

These were my second Qualitatives as a participant (not including the aforementioned program-folding of 1999 and 2000), and the first time I really spent significant time with Dorothy. Despite my position at the centre of her “near death” experience, Dorothy invited me to join a small qualitative-research writing group at McMaster during the 2015-16 year, and then the organizing team for the 2017 conference in Hamilton, Ontario. It was during this period that I had the chance to see Dorothy in action as a leader, mentor, and simply a kind human being. It was also during this period that I could see Dorothy’s commitment to interactionist scholarship in Canada.

Coming to the Qualitatives as a musicologist with leanings toward ethnomusicology and the sociology of music, I always felt welcomed – not only by the early-in-career scholars of my generation, but by the established scholars and organizers of the meeting such as Dorothy. In the decade I have attended the conference, and the half-decade I have been part of the organizing teams, I have witnessed continued interdisciplinary expansion of the conference; an expansion that welcomed me and fortified my interest in bringing a symbolic-interactionist approach to my ethnomusicological work - a position advanced by Howard S. Becker (in far more eloquent words) in his 1988 keynote address to the Society for Ethnomusicology (Becker 1989). In turn, I hope to use whatever influence I may have through my service to the Qualitatives to spread similar devotion to the possibilities of interactionist theory, making manifest its influence in the many disciplines now represented at the conference.

In the Qualitatives I have found an academic home seeing my worth as a human and recognizing that my position in the academic precariat (Mauri 2019) is not a flaw but a reality of a decaying global academy which relies on part-time faculty and contract-work, thereby allowing less opportunity for tenure and tenure-track appointments (Gagné 2020). Dorothy is a key element in the creation of this home, and I am humbled to have a role in honouring her in this issue and in my continued service to the Qualitatives and the interactionist community in Canada.


Dorothy Pawluch may be retiring, but, as our musings demonstrate, her legacy and influence on Canadian symbolic-interactionism is guaranteed for the foreseeable future. We hope that she will continue to be a presence at the Qualitatives.


Becker, Howard S. 1989. “Ethnomusicology and Sociology: A Letter to Charles Seeger.”

Ethnomusicology 33(2): 275-285.

Gagné, Ann (ed). 2020. The Canadian Precariat: Part-Time Faculty and the Higher-Education System. Montreal: Universitas Press.

Hass, J., and W. Shaffir 1987. Becoming Doctors: The Adoption of a Cloak of Competence. Greenwich, CN: JAI Press.

Mauri, C. .2019. “Formulating the academic precariat.” Pp. 185-204 in: The Social Structures of Global Academia edited by F. Cannizzo, and N. Osbaldiston. London: Routledge.

Pawluch, Dorothy. 1996. The New Pediatrics: A Profession in Transition. New York: Aldine De Gruyter.

Pawluch, Dorothy. 2003. “Medicalizing Childhood.” Pp. 219-225 in Social Problems: Constructionist Readings edited by Donileen R. Loseke and Joel Best. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Pawluch, Dorothy. 2019. “On the Unbearable Lightness of Being a Constructionist.” American Sociologist 50: 204-219.

Pawluch, Dorothy, Roy Cain and James Gillett. 2000. Lay Constructions of HIV and Complementary Therapy Use. Social Science and Medicine 51: 251-264.

Pawluch, Dorothy, William Shaffir and Charlene Miall (Eds.). 2005. Doing Ethnography: Studying Everyday Life. Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press.

Prus, R. 1987. Generic Social Processes: Maximizing conceptual development in ethnographic research. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 16(3): 250-93.

van den Hoonaard, D.K. 1997. Identity Foreclosure: Women’s experiences of widowhood as expressed in autobiographical accounts. Ageing & Society 17: 533-51.

van den Hoonaard, W.C. 1997. Sensitizing Concepts. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Woolgar, S., & Pawluch, D. 1985. Ontological Gerrymandering: The Anatomy of social problems explanations. Social Problems, 32(3), 214–227.