November 27, 2017

A Grounded Theory Update: Coding and Memos

Initial Stage of Grounded Theory Coding

Coding the data using the initial stage of the Grounded Theory process, known as Open Coding or Initial Coding, has progressed substantially since the previous update. In fact, I’ve actually completed the task of coding through the first set of data during the previous week, which I had not expected but has put me ahead of schedule!

Just as a brief reminder, Open Coding or Initial Coding refers to identifying concepts within the data and the use of codes that summaries or describes the meaning or characteristics of that particular data segment, and therefore identifies these concepts. You could say that coding gives data segments an identity that you can refer to time and time again as you progress through your coding, depending on the characteristics that you identify and interpret within each data segment. You are essentially making practical, empirical observations of the data, and interpreting that data to mean something that is of value or in some way contributes towards characterising the phenomenon of interest that you are exploring. Whilst all your codes and code-data segment matching is an interpretive process, it is also objective as all codes are grounded in the data, particularly with the process of comparisons between data segments for similarities of characteristics. I shall be talking more about this in my future short blog series of Grounded Theory from next week.

At the time of writing this blog post, I think I have about twenty or more different codes that I have used across the whole data set, and this is actually a reduction on the amount produced during previous coding sessions. What I am increasingly discovering within the grounded theory approach is the influential impact and role of context on my interpretations, and perhaps the way that I should be interpreting and coding the data, and identifying the appropriateness of code-data segment matching. What is assigned a particular type of code in one context would be coded as something completely different in another context. This appears to be the nature of exploring learning processes and phenomena using grounded theory: the understanding and acquirement of knowledge regarding the development and process of learning differs between contexts. With collaborative learning for example, the collaborative activities, processes and communication shifts and moulds what is happening within the data as time progresses, and can illuminate different patterns at different times depending on the context; depending on what is being dealt with at the time. It is simply not a case of observing a particular process and thinking that it’s always universally understood because learning processes and phenomena have a nuanced existence that is shaped and moulded by events, happenings, actions and others within collaborative situations.

Therefore, as a grounded theory researcher, when you are exploring learning phenomena, the context that envelopes or provides the basis for the learning process is able to mould and shape this learning process over time, yet grounded theory enables you to identify the nuanced existence and subtle differences between the characteristics of similar concepts. Beyond reading the textbooks on grounded theory, the biggest learning curve and learning experience of my application of grounded theory has been trying to understand the importance of context and the way in which this really impacts my interpretations and observations of the data. I’m still learning now. I’m still wondering and questioning if I have really coded everything correctly even though I have checked through things several times during the past week and have altered the coding where I feel necessary.

Writing Memos

Along with coding, I’ve also been writing plenty of memos. Memos is a technique of grounded theory that helps you to build your theory by capturing all of your thoughts about the development of your codes, what you have observed, the similarities and differences that you find between coded segments, and the comparisons between different coded segments e.g., their characteristics and contrasts between similar and different concepts and what makes those data segments really what they are.

Additionally, all this information contributes valuable insights and input into your theoretical sensitivity and theoretical awareness of the data, as well as developing theoretical sampling. Theoretical sampling is a qualitative sampling method that determines what to sample next (e.g., what information or data you need next) based on the emerging theory: the observations and questions derived from the data and the codes all guiding and directing the next set of data to pick up and analyse. I shall be talking about this more either during the short blog series of grounded theory or at some point early next year.

What Next?

Focussing on rewriting the memos shall be the focus of the rest of the week in an attempt to communicate my ideas more clearly, to tidy them up a bit, and to reduce their number and organise them into something that makes a bit more sense. The set of memo writing sessions just completed involved writing a memo page (in some cases several pages) per code, within which each data segment coded with that respective code was explained and compared to previous segments in order to identify and locate subtle differences between each segment, leading in some cases to identification of potential categories (which are basically a combination of various codes and provides the core of the theory) and categorical properties and dimensions.

Writing a memo per code worked fine for a while, and the potential categories identified so far are suitable although these obviously need to be re-examined continuously (shall talk more about categories next month) but what I have realised is I have been taking these data segments out of their context and trying to explain them as standalone entities. As I went deeper into the data I began to realise that data segments can be logically connected, therefore trying to explain them independently of each other was becoming an increasingly difficult task. I found myself referring to these logically connected data segments in order to provide a contextual explanation for the data segments and their difference between other similarly coded data segments.

What I shall do next is rewrite the memos and add more details about the context. Instead of writing about each data segment as stand alone entities, I shall now write about complete units of logically connected data segments. This way, I can break the unit down into constituent segments and attempt to explain them individually and then discuss their relationship to each other as part of that unit. Doing it this way, I think I can then explain the meaning of individual segments without losing its contextual meaning and relationship with other segments. And, I can compare data segment to data segment, and data unit (a series of logically connected data segments) to data unit. It makes sense, um, well, currently in theory……..

What’s The Aim Then?

At the conclusion of the week I aim to have a complete coded first set of data (shall be rechecking again), a full set of rewritten memos and an updated theoretical framework. This will then, as far as I am currently aware of, bring grounded theory work to a conclusion for the year. I shall send everything off to the supervisor for feedback and guidance, and up to the Christmas holiday I shall work on the first literature review chapter, and write the blog series on Grounded Theory!

Plenty to come; watch this space (or just read the blog!)

November 17, 2017

Initial Reflections of Reapplying Grounded Theory to Previously Coded Data

During the past week I have focussed on applying Grounded Theory to my data. The current task is to recode the data that had previously been coded in order to find or discover anything new that had not been previously observed. It is quite fascinating when you have reread the collected data several times, because with each reread you do observe interactions, events, happenings, and actions that were not previously perceived or observed. You begin to construct hypotheses and explanations that you had not previously constructed, thought about, or even were anywhere near being consciously aware of their importance and relevance to your research. This is the beauty of Grounded Theory! It’s not simply the case of trawling through all of your data and note every observation on your first reading, and that’s it. It takes several readings to really get to know the data you are going to be coding, and beyond that it takes several readings to observe everything that is going to be observed.
But even if we have reread all the data several times, is it really possible to observe every single event, happening, interaction, object, action and so on in relation to our aims and objectives? There are means and ways in which we can be sure that what we are observing or perceiving is as close to the data (or reality) as is possible through abductive reasoning and Hypotheses testing. But this does not enable us to become consciously aware of every event, action, interaction, happening, and objects that could possibly be observed in the data. I wonder if this is actually possible? Can this possibility or impossibility even be known? In what way can something be known or something be missed if we do not become consciously aware of or theoretically sensitised to its existence?

Earlier, I caught myself in a mode of thinking that I am coming to know is very much incompatible with Grounded Theory, and is something I need to slap out of myself. During lunchtime I was planning out the afternoon work when a sudden realisation came over me: you cannot plan Grounded Theory work. Yes! You read that right. You cannot plan Grounded Theory work. Ok, I said to myself that I intend on recoding ten separate sets of data but I was basing the quality of what I do on the quantity of what I was going to achieve. This is impossible because with grounded theory, what matters is not the quantity of data that you code within a particular session, but the detail, depth and breadth of your observations of what is happening in the data. This detail, depth and breadth of observations not only come from what you observe and code in the data, but also of the theoretical memos that you write. These memos capture your thoughts and ideas about what might be going on in the data as well as enabling you to compare between data sets, to compare data segments and codes, and to hypothesise and imagine beyond what you are observing in the data. Perhaps what you are observing beyond the data relates to what you had previously read about in existing published literature.

I am finding that coding the data is not taking too long but I do need to be careful not to rush anything, and to be careful that the codes that I construct closely relates to the reality of what is occurring in the data, whilst at the same time accepting that I might not be fully reflect reality because of my philosophical beliefs influencing the way I use Grounded Theory and indeed engage with the data.

What is taking the time is writing the memos. Heck, earlier I wrote a memo on what I was observing in the data within particular data points and it came to over three thousand words! Other memos have come to a few hundred words each. The most unpredictable aspect of grounded theory I find is when it’s appropriate to write a memo, because inspiration can occur at any point in your reading of the data.

The interesting point here is that you are not being guided fully by your prior knowledge and theoretical understanding of what you are observing, but you are being guided by the data itself shaped by your philosophical beliefs. The data itself is guiding when I write a memo, what the content might be, and the purpose of the memo. I cannot predict when or where I shall write a memo and therefore, this is the main reason why it’s difficult to quantify your grounded theory work plan of any single session you do grounded theory work. You have to simply let go of control and let the data and your philosophical beliefs shape and guide what you do, when, where, why, and in what way.

In general, as I recode the data I am observing events, objects, happenings and occurrences of phenomena that I had not previously observed, understood, perceived, or was aware of. I think because of my readings of Philosophy and the increased awareness of my own philosophical beliefs, as well as all the other readings I have carried out for the literature review so far, has helped me to become more theoretically sensitised and arguably more aware of what is going on in the data. This is not to say that I have a complete and full understanding because this understanding is forever in development, and I have to argue if I can really reach the ultimate reality of what is really going on in the data. Hence, the data and the use of the Grounded Theory methodology are shaped by my philosophical beliefs. Nevertheless, this might explain why I have been able to observe what I have not previously observed. I can view things beyond the data that I had not been able to view before, but I have to be careful here that I still ground abstract thoughts and concepts in the data itself.

It’s an exciting journey! Lots of ideas and observations going around, which I never thought were possible just a few weeks ago. This is the beauty of grounded theory and of unchaining yourself from dogmatic, restricted approaches to thinking and research. With grounded theory you have to think as broadly, as detailed, as comprehensively and as complete as you possibly can, whilst keeping everything grounded in the data itself. Hence the name, “grounded theory!”

‘till next time!

November 05, 2017

Ph.D Update: Literature Review Progress, and current Grounded Theory thoughts

Literature Review Update

The first literature review chapter drafting has officially begun, and during the week I have been able to write more structural and content details (the vision) of the chapter whilst exploring the relevant literature. The vision of the chapter is taking shape: it shall provide the social, pedagogical, and technological context of the phenomena of interest. The chapter shall detail the notion of a contemporary society, the relationship between Education and society, and the way in which technological advancements have assisted Educational aims and directions connected to the notion of contemporary societies. Debates about contemporary society, Education and technology provide the basis for explaining why there is a need to focus research upon the particular learning phenomena, and explain the importance of the focus.

Beyond detailing more of the chapter content and structure, and rewriting the first paragraph about a million times or so before I became somewhat happy with it (took a while to find a starting point: still not fully happy with it, but shall look at the starting point again soon), I found that Grounded Theory reading needed extra focus. Deciding this was the result of being generally happy with current progress of the literature review, and also because I felt at the time I had to decide what grounded theory procedure to adopt. Although I have been open to the possibility of having to combine different methods of grounded theory from different authors to suit the complexity of the research, deciding on the way in which grounded theory should be or can be applied, and which procedures to adopt (and possibly create), to my research is not quite straightforward.

Brief Update on current Grounded Theory thoughts

During the week I have read through selective chapters of “The Discovery of Grounded Theory” by Glaser and Strauss, “Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory” by Strauss and Corbin, and “Constructing Grounded Theory” by Charmaz. Glaser, Strauss and Corbin are who I consider to be among the key Grounded Theory authors alongside Clarke and Bryant. At the time of writing this post however I have yet to reread the work of Clarke and Bryant and have yet to read through the other publications of Glaser, Strauss and Corbin (these are current tasks however) therefore , this section of the blog post refers only to the aforementioned texts. I therefore acknowledge and accept that views presented here are tentative and changeable. But, it suffices for the purposes of tracking the continuous development of my understanding and thinking about Grounded Theory.

The key authors do share common ground, upon which stands the most common and typical features of a grounded theory implementation: the importance of a coding procedure, of theoretical sampling, of theoretical saturation, of writing theoretical memos, of using a constant comparison method, and of developing theory. The key areas where the authors disagree are the nature and application of the coding procedure, and Philosophical perspectives.

From my readings of the texts, all authors appear to support different philosophical traditions. Glaser and Strauss (and perhaps which can also be found in Glaser’s later writings) lean towards pragmatism and realism; Strauss and Corbin appear to lean towards a post-positivism perspective, and Charmaz appears to lean towards a Constructivist approach with hints of post-modernism. Because of the complexity of my philosophical beliefs (a middle-range realist ontology accompanied by an interpretivist / relativist epistemology), there are philosophical and methodological claims and approaches of all key authors that I agree with, and some I do not.

Arguments for and against claims and approaches are driven by the nature of the research problem, the source of the data, and the nature of the relationship between myself and the research participants. Strauss, Corbin and Charmaz base their writings on interview data located within Ethnographic designs, and advocate a strong connection between researcher and research participants. This is, I find, more so with Charmaz as there is a section in her book pertaining to the use of Grounded Theory within Ethnographic research.

The design of my Grounded Theory research therefore differs to what Strauss and Corbin and Charmaz appear to be discussing, and appears to be closer to Glaser’s more realist grounded theory writings. But this is not actually that easy to suggest as it appears (at least tentatively) that ontologically I align with Glaser whilst epistemologically I align with Strauss, Corbin and Charmaz. This is why at the practical level, the application of grounded theory procedures is not straightforward.

Thankfully, at the practical level of procedures, the key authors do agree in general on the purpose, function, process and application of the beginning coding procedure (termed either “open coding” or “initial coding”), the general idea of merging codes and classifying similar codes into categories, and the development or “filling out” of these categories within the realm of theoretical saturation. What happens next with the filled out categories in order for these categories to be investigated and linked theoretically to form a theory is a matter of substantial debate and disagreement among all key authors (and, indeed, many critics and commentators of Grounded Theory).

Whilst I need to give some consideration to the later coding stages, I’m more concerned at present about the beginning coding stage. I have coded some of the data before, but for various reasons beyond the scope of this blog post I shall be reanalysing the data as I am viewing the data from a slightly different perspective than before. I am not utterly convinced that my codes that I have initially created make sense, so shall be combing my way through them soon before continuing with more coding of the data.

What I am assuming shall happen is that I shall be able to select (or create, as necessary) and apply the correct coding procedures as defined by either Glaser, Strauss, Corbin and Charmaz (and others) depending on the way that I perceive the nature, structure and the processes involved with constructing the data, and the way that I think the coding is progressing. The only way this is possible, in my view, is to code the data, examine and integrate codes to form categories, and really develop and explore these categories. I think it is only then will I be able to decide the direction of the next stage beyond initial coding and category development.

The problem I have is that the source of data for coding is different in nature to what is typically and commonly used by grounded theorists. Therefore, this is providing unique challenges. But these challenges, whilst formidable, will be overcome!

Or so I keep telling myself………

‘till next time!

October 27, 2017

Ph.D. Update: Literature Reviews, and the Literature Management Process

During the past couple of weeks following my brief time off, the focus has been the identification, selection, evaluation and organisation of literature, and the development of the appropriate documenting procedures of these phases. All of these phases are part of what I call the literature management process. I’ve also been amending the literature review chapters’ structure and layout.

Literature Review Development

Those who have been reading my blog for a long time might remember me talking about different types of literature reviews e.g., meta-analysis and meta-synthesis, and the possibilities of adopting a style suitable for my research. At the time, I was planning a mixed methods methodological approach, which eventually proved to be unworkable. Altering my methodological approach from mixed methods to grounded theory entailed vast changes to engagement with literature. The role and placement of different types of literature is the subject of much debate among grounded theorists. Whilst discussing these debates is way beyond the aim of this blog post, it suffices to state that there is consensus among grounded theorists as to the placement of the literature within a grounded theory thesis: the literature review chapters, and the results and discussion chapters. Each placement entails (in my view) different types of literature, and different purposes. I shall return to further discussion of placements, types and purposes of literature within a grounded theory thesis at a later time.

The style of literature review, as conventionally defined and conventionally placed near the beginning of any Ph.D., thesis, within a grounded theory project is what I suggest (as far as I currently understand) to be narrative and contextualised. I am attempting to use, as mentioned before, the three literature reviews as a progressive narrative. The aim of the progressive narrative, in a nutshell, is to enable the reader to situate themselves within the educational and philosophical backdrop of the research, develop initial conceptual understanding and definitions of the phenomenon of research interest, and come to understand the need and value of the research.

These literature reviews have not changed in purpose since I previously wrote about them on this blog, but they have changed in content. The first chapter now exclusively focusses on discussing society, Education and Pedagogy and the relationships between them in order to provide a backdrop or background to the phenomenon of interest. The first chapter also aims to evaluate existing debates, discussions and theories that explain and describe the way in which Education meets the needs of a modern, post-industrial society, and also to evaluate and discuss pedagogical approaches appropriate for modern learning settings. All discussions shall lead to development of arguments for and against different social, educational and pedagogical approaches, theories and perspectives regarding their suitability for facilitating and supporting the learning phenomenon of interest.

The second literature review shall now exclusively focus on discussing and explaining what I believe to be the core set of initial concepts relating to the general phenomenon of interest, and concepts that have initially defined the direction of the grounded theory analysis. Indeed, some of the changes I have already made to the literature reviews in terms of addressing initial concepts have been the result of initial grounded theory coding of the data as part of the earlier Upgrade Process.

The third literature review shall now exclusively focus on evaluating and critiquing the various existing empirical, analytical models relating to measuring and assessing the phenomenon of interest in various learning contexts.

What has come across as obvious is that you can do your best to define the structure and layout of any literature review by thinking about the initial set of concepts you have developed, or have identified through previous experience or previous readings of the phenomenon of interest. However, you can never really tell with any sense of certainty what the layout shall be till you start reading the literature. It is therefore only through reading the literature and writing the literature reviews that you become fully aware of the form, structure, layout and content the literature review shall and can take. But, I do believe that it is not a waste of time to at least initially outline your literature review based on the concepts you already have, because those initial concepts are your starting points. Again this is a matter of debate among grounded theorists, but I am starting to believe in the importance of having some initial concepts to at least to begin your investigation.

As the theory emerges from the data, concepts can be derived from the theory’s categories, properties and relationships between categories and properties that could act as further inputs into the earlier literature review chapters. More likely however, and more appropriately, these concepts shall guide me in my search for empirical literature that shall be used to verify and validate relationships between categories and properties, and therefore leading to a verifiable, workable, and validated theory. This would be in addition to verification and validation through the grounded theory process of theoretical sampling.

Literature Management Process

During the past couple of weeks I’ve also been carefully documenting the identification, selection, evaluation and organisation phases of the literature management process as so far completed at this time. Therefore, it’s nowhere near complete yet and shall not be completed till towards the end of the Ph.D. as this process is continuous due to the nature of grounded theory research. Even what I have completed now is in addition to previous literature management sessions. It’s only just recently that I’ve had an “ah ha” moment about the way I can write and present the literature management process. A part of this “ah ha” moment is the inclusion of ideas I had been developing several years ago about the way in which software could be used to assist with the evaluation and organisation phases, but these ideas are work in progress and I have yet to test these ideas out, but during the rest of the year I should be able to test some of my ideas.

At some point before my Christmas time off (or at least, before I get to the point where I am referencing Noddy Holder or Roy Wood instead of Strauss or Glaser), I shall be writing a blog series on the literature management process, in accordance to what I know and have experienced up to that point.

What’s next?

Lots on! I shall now more than likely be working on a few key tasks between now and Christmas. Rereading Grounded Theory from the perspective of my new philosophical understanding (becoming aware of the complexity of my own philosophical beliefs: have talked about this before and shall talk more about this in the future). This shall be followed by recoding data that had already been coded, and code more data and therefore, continue to develop the emerging theory. During the rereading of Grounded Theory and recording / coding of the data, I aim to write the first full draft of the first literature review chapter.

Lots to do and plenty of blogging material to come!

October 22, 2017

Moving Forwards: the Beginning of the Academic Year!

It’s incredible to think that the fourth year of the Ph.D. has started! The previous year was simultaneously scary, exciting, awe inspiring and successful. A successful conference, a published research paper and the successful upgrade from MPhil to Ph.D. were some of the highlights of the highly interesting and inspiring year of the Ph.D.

But that was the previous year! This is a new year (academically speaking) and the new year comes with a new, energised focus and the determination, more than ever before, to continue to write as a comprehensive, detailed, immaculate, complete thesis as I can possibly write within eighty thousand words. The key chapters that I have been working on recently have been, as mentioned in previous blog posts, the literature review chapters (three different literature review chapters serving different but related purposes) and the methodology chapter. My approach to these chapters and the thesis in general has continuously changed in style, structure and content outlines. This has been a result of continuous improvements to my understanding of the different styles, approaches, purposes and construction of different literature reviews; changing nature and style of my methodology and methods of choice, and of developing my academic language and finding my academic “voice.” Further, changes to the thesis have come about as a result of becoming more conscious of my identity as a researcher, as a social scientist, as a philosopher, as a researcher, and of my positioning within this vast and diverse world of academia and educational research.

Becoming conscious of and developing your own identity is an important aspect and product of Ph.D. engagement, and has been the subject of many published journal papers.

It can take a whole Ph.D. program and beyond to really understand who you are as a researcher and where you position yourself in the academic world. I understand my own identity as a researcher more than I have ever been able to understand before, but I know that there is always room for improvement. I can always learn new skills, develop new knowledge, explore new areas and try out new methods and methodologies. There is always much to learn and develop, and there is no doubt that identity awareness and development shall always be a progressive, developmental journey. I have no doubts, therefore, that as the year progresses I will gain further understanding of my position as a researcher and where I position myself in this academic world.

It’s really important that at the beginning of a Ph.D., you don’t hold the belief that you know what it is that you know with absolute certainty. Your research interests might change (I’ve found a new fondness for the Philosophy of Mind and Philosophy of Language that I did not possess a few years ago), your ideas might change, your methodology and methods might change, your research context might change, and you will change as a researcher. As you really wrap yourself into your research and as you continue to travel along that path of inquiry and questioning of everything, you will gain new knowledge, skills and wisdom to acknowledge the need for changes, and to cope and adapt to these changes. This is not a bad thing, because organic, progressive, natural changes to your Ph.D. as a result of your experiences and increased wisdom (don’t forget to document extensively these changes) will evidence your developing skills and your adaptable and flexible identity as a researcher. Allow any changes to your Ph.D. research be organic and natural and never forced: let those changes be guided by your intuition, by your experience, by your observations, and by your thinking and cognitive connectivity with your research context and reality itself. By fully documenting these changes, you assist yourself in understanding why these changes have occurred in the first place, and what led your research to these changes. The Ph.D. is not just a process of understanding your research phenomena of interest and contribute new knowledge thereof, but also a process of developing your understanding of who you are as a researcher.

I can imagine that every aspect of my Ph.D. shall experience a sense of growth during the year. Identity will more than likely be a part of that growth.

It’s going to be an exciting yet challenging Ph.D. year! This is really the key year that I build the Ph.D. thesis, continue to push forwards with theoretical development, position myself further within this vast universe of academia, and think about the way in which my theoretical contributions can impact philosophical and practical aspects of the research context.

I’m excited, I’m nervous, I’m determined, I’m inspired, I’m driven, I’m motivated, I’m scared, I doubt, I think, I write, I read, I……am…….me……

‘till next time!

October 05, 2017

Reflections Of The Past Academic Year Part B

Complexity of my Philosophical beliefs

I again have written extensively about philosophical beliefs, both ontologically and epistemologically related, particularly during the past year as I explored my ideas further and explored, and continue to explore, published philosophical literature. I found that my beliefs do not fit exactly within any particular and specific ontological framework or theory and therefore, have become consciously aware of the complexity of my ontological beliefs. For several months I have experimented with different ontological theories and frameworks and have found that I am drawing on authors and ideas related to mild forms of realism (namely Michael Hammersley’s “Subtle Realism”), Philosophical Phenomenology, and Complexity Theory. This realisation has come about through observations in the data collected so far, observations that have led me to form the belief that events and instances of concepts are perhaps not quite so straightforward in their existence and appearances that perhaps some analytical models would perhaps lead a person to believe that represents reality.

I also found this to be the case with my epistemological beliefs. I spent many months trying to fit my beliefs within a particular framework with the final attempt being with constructionism. With constructionism, I was convinced that I found a framework or theory that aligns with my own epistemological beliefs (the way that we can come to know reality). After reading further into constructionism, I came to realise that I was only agreeing with parts of the theory, and not all parts.

I am finding that I am beginning to draw on authors and concepts related to contextualism, relativism, constructivism and interpretivism.

Becoming aware of the complexity of my own beliefs has been a milestone, because this has altered my conceptions of the learning phenomenon as possessing a more complex existence than I had previously imagined. Additionally, coming to recognise the complexity of your own philosophical beliefs, and having a sound and comprehensive understanding of how you have come to recognise the nature of your own beliefs (meta-ontology and meta-epistemology, or meta-philosophy) begins to form the basis of your own identity. That is a positive step towards you becoming self-aware as a researcher, which enables you to begin to situate your identity within the complex world of academia.

It’s really important that you don’t fight against your self-awareness regardless of the extent to which your beliefs are complex. If you fight against what you have observed in yourself and you try to pigeon-hole your beliefs within a framework that really isn’t compatible, you start to develop a false identity based on your anxiety and unwillingness to explore further. If you fight against what you have observed in yourself and you don’t explore further, you would be lying to yourself, lying to your supervisor, lying to the thesis assessment panel, and lying to the academic community. Be real.

Multiple Literature Reviews

The fourth key milestone is the development of multiple literature reviews. I will talk more at length about this in the future, but at the moment it suffices to say that I have become aware of the possibilities of structuring and outlining the thesis in different ways. Through reading through more literature on constructing literature reviews, I have become more aware of my own aims and objectives with the literature review. And the complexity of these aims, the amount of different aims as well as the different types of literature that shall be used within the thesis has led me to believe that multiple literature reviews are required.

Each literature review deals with a set of particular aims and different types of literature, and each subsequent literature review builds on the ideas and concepts presented in the previous chapter. The first literature review chapter deals with the backdrop as discussed in a previous blog post. The second literature review chapter deals with specific debates and discussions regarding specific concepts related to the phenomenon of interest and relevant to the research. The third literature review chapter critically evaluates existing analytical models pertaining to identifying and assessing the learning phenomenon. Then following all these literature reviews shall be a summary section that provides a summary of my arguments regarding the need for the research.

I do feel better with developing three literature reviews as in my opinion, trying to write a single literature review chapter that serves to achieve multiple goals and objectives and utalises a variety of different types of literature would make the literature review appear disjointing. Patterns of thought and the development of argumentation would not be easy to follow through.

Developing three literature review style chapters entails a logical, progressive narrative of conceptual and argument development and progress where each chapter logically develops and progresses the concepts presented in the previous chapter(s). Idea and concept development shall be easier to follow therefore, and reading shall be more flowing and easier and comprehendible.


I feel that it’s been a successful academic year with key milestones reached and achieved.

After the brief time off I can plan to move forwards and progress with developing the theory, and produce the best thesis that I can possibly write!

Reflections Of The Past Academic Year Part A

There are no formally set “terms” or “semesters” on a Ph.D. You are responsible for organising your holiday periods and this should be based on the status of your work. The nature of the Ph.D. entails difficulty in planning exactly when to organise time off (if you wanted to plan a while ahead) because you cannot tell what leads and possible directions that shall come about because of your reading, experimenting and analysis of the data. This is both exciting and challenging: challenging because some people cannot handle uncertainty and the relative academic freedom that a Ph.D. entails, but exciting because those who can handle uncertainty and relative academic freedom shall feel energised and determined.

It is usually around this time I have a short amount of time off from the Ph.D. to recharge my batteries. I try to keep it around August / September time but it has been a little late this year because I really wanted to complete the outlining, structuring and drafting of the literature reviews and the methodology chapter as much as can be achieved at this point in time. I also wanted to update the searching, selecting and sorting of literature as much as can be completed at this point in time. Evaluation of the literature shall take place following the short time off. Plenty of blog post material here!

Before I take some time off I usually enter a period of reflecting and planning. It has been quite a year between the previous September to this September (traditionally defined as the academic year) with various important milestones achieved:

Successfully Passed Upgrade Stage

When you first begin the Ph.D., you are not immediately placed on the Ph.D. course but are enrolled on the Master of Philosophy. Some people can get confused with the terminology here when referring to the term “Philosophy” in this context.

The term “Philosophy” in this context does not refer to you actually engaging with the academic discipline of Philosophy, but in my view (and many people will have other ideas) the philosophical aspects refer to the requirement of engaging your philosophical thinking. This engagement is at both the ontological and epistemological levels and such questions you might ask are: “what do I know?” “What can I know?” “How can I know?” “What are the limits to what I can know?” “How do I know what I know?” “What does it mean to know anything?” “Is knowing anything even possible?” “Can we acquire knowledge?” “How do we acquire knowledge?” “Does reality exist?” “How can we know reality?” The answer to these questions, and many others, form a part of the development of your research design, because how you answer these questions can determine the methodologies and methods that you can use in your research project. That being said, it’s not quite as straightforward and linear as what some introductory textbooks suggest as there is much fluidity depending on your discipline, your background, your research interests, and the problem context.

Transitioning from the Masters level to Ph.D. level involves writing what is known as an “upgrade paper” where you outline the background, provide some form of literature review, and be descriptive and explanatory of your research methodology and methods along with providing some initial research findings that you might have obtained through a trial study. I have talked much about this at significant length throughout the past year and a half on this blog, but it suffices to say that the upgrade paper eventually reached seven thousand words! And following changes that I knew I had to make, the University passed me through. I’ve been upgraded from Master of Philosophy to Doctor of Philosophy and this in my view is a defining moment. I was shocked and happy to receive the news. This does not mean, however, that I have or will actually receive a Ph.D., only that I am working at Ph.D. level.

Successful Conference Attendance and a subsequent Published Research Paper

These two are separate but related key achievements for me personally. Again I have written vastly on my conference experiences earlier this year on this blog, but it suffices to say that this really has been a milestone. Presenting at the conference has been beneficial for me personally as I feel more confident with presenting my own ideas and methodologies to a wider audience, and it has been beneficial academically as it has changed the structure of my thesis (shall discuss this more in part two), leading to what I think shall be a more detailed and comprehensive thesis. It really was an incredible experience and I am excited about any future conferences that I attend!

Relating to the conference is the publication of my second journal paper. This research paper was written as a critical review of my attendance and presentation experiences of the University of Warwick’s Centre of Educational Studies’ Fifth Annual Postgraduate Conference. Writing this paper was itself a beneficial experience for me personally and professionally. In the paper, I presented my ideas and arguments about the way in which attending conferences can be a positive experience in terms of thesis development and professional development. I also presented arguments about the existence of a relationship between our epistemological beliefs and the way that we perceive reality, and the way that we therefore engage with conferences. I am suggesting that our philosophical beliefs directly influence the way that we perceive and engage with conferences. I was pleased to have written this paper, and pleased that the editorial board accepted it for publication.

Part B is coming up!

The Difference Between Research Background and Research Backdrop

In the previous blog post I suggested that there is a difference between a research background and a research backdrop, and that it is my belief that both need to be treated separately though in relation to each other. What do I mean by this? Let’s take a look at each term for clarification.

The Research Background

The research background typically comes as a separate chapter in a Masters dissertation or a Ph.D. thesis. The chapter typically outlines and details the problem context of your research. By this, you are specifying the exact research problem; explain how you are exploring this problem, and why you are exploring this problem. When I say what you are exploring, you are describing the research problem: what is the research problem that you are exploring and what are its defining features and concepts. When I say how you are exploring the research problem, you are briefly explaining the methods and approaches that you are going to use in order to explore the problem and provide a possible solution. When I say why you are exploring the problem, I am suggesting that you explain your interest in the research problem, explain why you are carrying out your research, and why there is a need for your research and reasons for solving this problem.

The background therefore addresses the relationship between the research problem and your reasoning behind the research, but it does not address the relationship between the research problem and the general disciplinary context. This is where the backdrop plays a role.

The Research Backdrop

The research backdrop situates your research within the wider disciplinary context. The background is the explanation of the research problem and problem context, and the backdrop is the explanation of the wider disciplinary context therefore appropriately situating the research problem and research context and establishing the relationship between research problem context and the wider disciplinary context.

Using my research as an example, my research focuses on the description and explanation of a learning phenomenon, therefore my research can be classed as both descriptive and explanatory. It explores the learning phenomenon from, what I believe to be, a different philosophical perspective than most research projects. As for the research problem, briefly I am attempting to argue that this particular learning phenomenon has not been explored in a particular way, leading to fairly narrow assessment opportunities over a longer period of time or larger amount of instances. And, that there are benefits in moving away from a typical view of the learning phenomenon to another way that from what I can understand has not been properly or fully explored.

Because of my increasing interest in the Philosophy of Education, I am situating the learning phenomenon within the backdrop of Philosophical considerations of Education. Typical questions involved with the Philosophy of Education are: what is the goal of Education? What are the aims of Education? What is the nature of teaching and learning? What is the nature of the teacher and the learner? What are the contemporary characteristics of teachers and learners? What are the contemporary characteristics of learning environments? What is the relationship between Education and the wider society? What is the nature of society and what is the role of Education within contemporary society? What are the nature, role and function of classrooms? What is the nature of the relationship between teachers and learners?

When answering the questions relevant for my research, the focus is on the learning phenomenon. The learning phenomenon becomes the key guide in all of my questions and discussions that shall involve three different literature reviews that addresses different questions using a variety of different types of literature.


Remember: the background addresses the characteristics and concepts of the problem context as well as your own interests in the problem. The backdrop situates your research problem and problem context within the wider, traditional and contemporary discussions and debates of the discipline within which the problem is based.

October 01, 2017

A Personal Insight Into Reworking Research Paper / Essay Ideas Into A Thesis

The Ph.D. journey is full of opportunities and experiences. Opportunities to showcase your research design and research findings in many diverse, creative, expressive and individual ways: setting up seminars, presenting at conferences, writing research papers, entering various video and poster based competitions, among many other opportunities. The thesis is obviously the key piece of work; the key outcome, of your Ph.D. and the journey to this outcome is beyond description! When you take part in other activities you have to balance out those activities with the thesis writing. Every opportunity that I listed is of some benefit, especially getting papers published and presenting at conferences, however you should not feel that you have to try to do absolutely everything: you don’t have the time for that. You have to choose carefully and make sure that what you do is not so distinct from your research that you cannot reuse it in some way in the future.

During the past few weeks I have been working on an essay referring to the Philosophy of Education but due to personal reasons (nothing terrible!) I had to forfeit the essay. One of the personal reasons was that I felt exhausted after completing and sending in the previous research paper that has now been accepted for publication. You know, it’s not just the act of writing and thinking (and thinking about what you are writing) that can tire you out, I can handle that, it’s the emotional side as well. Those feelings of doubt, of wondering if they are going to accept that paper, those slightly nervous feelings that can keep you on your toes. And then comes the feeling of elation and excitement that only academics can understand when they are told that their journal paper is to be published! Not to mention immense feelings of relief and personal satisfaction. All these mixed emotions can tire you out and that’s not including the fact that you are continuing to work on different aspects of the Ph.D. through these experiences (e.g., thesis chapters, and continuing to search for and evaluate different types of literature and determine their position within the thesis). This is the Ph.D: it’s the highest academic publically accessible award you can achieve (others such as Professorship and the Doctor of Letters or Doctor of Science are available to those ‘inside the circle’). It is challenging. It is an emotionally charged experience.

But I had to forfeit the essay, which wasn’t a formal requirement anyway just something else I would have liked to have published. I didn’t feel disappointed either, because I quickly realised that something more substantial was in the offering, only I just had to realise it………

Arise, Phoenix!

Greek Mythology aside, it’s been a couple of weeks since I made that decision and I’ve been going flat out in my attempt at reworking the essay into the thesis in some way, and then I came to a realisation. I could rework the essay to act as a foundation, or a backdrop, to my research problem, research design, and eventually the research findings. I have always known the research problem and the background to the research problem (e.g., the way I identified the problem, the genesis of the problem etc.) but I had no backdrop. You can describe the background to the research such as, what your research is about, what do you propose, what is the research problem etc. but I think a thesis can be further enhanced by using a backdrop that you can place the research on. This backdrop provides a clear relationship not only between research problem and research methodology, but relate both to a much wider, grander research context where you can fully contextualise your research proposal, your research design and, eventually, your research findings.

What this has led to me now proposing and developing are what I would call three separate but related literature reviews within the thesis. This reflects the general backdrop idea, the complexity of the research phenomena, the diverse types of literature that shall be used and continue to collect, and the diverse set of aims and purposes that I have of the literature. The use of the literature, in my opinion, is made more dynamic and complex because of grounded theory. Grounded theory utalises different sets of literature in ways that are much different to other research approaches. I shall be writing about this more in a future blog post.

Three different literature reviews (I call them literature reviews at the moment: I shall be giving them more formal names as the writing proceeds) are now being proposed and developed for the thesis after reading through various theses and realising that this is actually possible. I am obviously not going to go into too much detail of the content of the chapters on here, but it suffices to state that the first literature review chapter is based on providing a background. Here I shall be talking about the relationship between Society and Education and be detailing how contemporary society and Education demands particular understanding, perspectives and views of the way in which the world behaves, and of the characteristics and behaviours of modern classrooms and learners. The second literature review shall be much more specific to the phenomena of interest, identifying gaps in the literature and providing various philosophical and practical justifications for the need of my research and for understanding and exploring the phenomena of interest in a different way.

The third literature review shall then launch a series of critiques and explorations of, and comparisons between, different analytical models related to the phenomena and this shall provide the theoretical and practical foundations upon which I can argue the need for my research. These critical reviews of the literature shall then be followed by the methodology chapter, followed by the findings and discussion chapters, which shall emerge as the theory develops.

In summary:

The key message here is, don’t try to do everything and most importantly don’t throw away any ideas that you might have. I had to forfeit the essay but this turned out to be the best option because I was able to rework ideas of the essay into my thesis, from which three separate but related literature reviews have been generated. This I feel shall now provide a much richer reading experience of the thesis, and a more substantial and comprehensive understanding of the phenomena of interest. This has actually meant more to me than the actual essay, because, when all said and done, and as much as I will be writing more papers in the future, the thesis is the top priority!

Oh, and keeping your sanity is also important……..

September 13, 2017

Phenomenology: what is it, and what are its possibilities for my Research?

Phenomenology has been defined as both a philosophical perspective and as a basis for various research programs and methodologies. My current understanding and interest of Phenomenology leads me to focussing on it as a philosophical movement as founded and discussed by the famous philosopher Edmund Husserl. Whilst I am sure that a phenomenological ontology can lead to a phenomenological research design it is not my intention to carry out a phenomenological study. Therefore, discussions of phenomenology as a research methodology are not relevant for this blog. At least, not at this time. My understanding of Phenomenology is continuous, therefore this blog post represents a snapshot of what phenomenology is.

What is Phenomenology?

There are many definitions of Phenomenology, but I shall focus this discussion on the definitions of it by its founder Edmund Husserl, who originally discussed phenomenology within the context of realism. It is the study of phenomena, the ways in which we experience phenomena, and what the structures of these experiences are, all from a first-person perspective. It can be suggested that phenomenology also includes the study of the relationship between phenomena, experience, and experiential structures in relation to that phenomena being experienced. Experiential structures is considered a main focus of Phenomenology, and various structures have been defined including intentionality, consciousness (of objects), perception, self-awareness, and consciousness of the self and others.

Phenomenology offers descriptive accounts of experiences with little or no concern with causes or explanations of these experiences. This is because, according some writer suggestions, causes and explanations are concepts situated exclusively within the natural sciences and not contexts appropriate to phenomenology, notably social sciences and qualitative contexts. However, this is a subject of much debate, with writers and researchers arguing for and against the adoption of causal and explanatory accounts within social sciences. On a personal note, I have the belief that causes and explanations can be play a role in understanding social reality and social phenomena from a qualitative perspective, particularly theoretical development projects that uses grounded theory as the methodology. Although my research does not use grounded theory to discover and explain causes, grounded theory is used to develop a theory that provides non-causal explanations and understandings of specific learning phenomena

Phenomenology suggests that experience always involves some sort of object of reality. We cannot experience something without having an object of experience, therefore we cannot have an experience ‘about’ something or an experience ‘with’ something. It has to be an experience ‘of’ something. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the word ‘of’ defines a point of orientation, and hence when we experience something there has to be an object of that experience that exists and that we can experience. Before experiencing an object however, we must be consciously aware of that object’s existence and therefore, I find it difficult to agree with the notion of separating and isolating fully an object’s existence and the experience that it provides. How can something be experienced if you have not considered the existence of that something? This, I am coming to know, is not an easy question to answer in the social world because in the social world, what comes to existence is a result of interactions between people. More specifically, certain types of interactions bring about the existence of certain social objects.

Going deeper there is a question (of many): if interactions bring about the existence of certain objects, is it the process of interaction itself that brings social objects into existence or is it that the participants of that interaction are consciously aware of its existence? This leads to another question: can we be consciously aware of the existence or, perhaps better to suggest, the possibility of existence of social objects before engaging with interactions? We could, based on our reflections of previous interactions, but here we are thinking abstractly or theoretically and therefore, we cannot call abstracts an experience. This is because we would be thinking ‘about’ something, not thinking ‘of’ or experiencing ‘of’ something, or be conscious ‘of’ something. We would simply be thinking or being conscious about the possibilities and not experiencing the actualities, as far as I can currently understand. To be conscious we must be conscious of something, and therefore when we say that we are consciously aware we are effectively stating that we are consciously aware of a particular object.

This is just a snapshot of my current and ever developing thinking of the idea of consciousness and its relationship with awareness, experience, objects and existence. It’s a huge subject!

The Possibility of Phenomenology in my Research

A typical phenomenological project involves exploring the way in which participants experience the phenomena, with relevant data of such experiences collected most commonly using interviews. This is not what I am thinking about though. What I am thinking about is using phenomenology as a mode of introspection, self-analysis and self-reflection, which is a part of being conscious of who we are as Ph.D. researchers and therefore is a fundamental part of the Ph.D. experience. The Ph.D. and each example of a Ph.D. experience such as writing a journal paper, writing the thesis, attending a conference, attending specific presentations, setting up a seminar, etc., could all be explored phenomenologically.

When I read through some of the transcripts that I have collected, I observe things. I observe happenings, events, actions and possibilities that the participants appear not to have been able to perceive or realise. I can view beyond what the transcripts are telling me. I can hypothesise and theorise about what is happening, and what might happen in the future within similar situations in other transcripts. Using Grounded Theory, I can test and evaluate these hypotheses and develop them as part of the theory if necessary. But why? Why am I able to perceive social objects resulting from certain interactions but the participants were not able to perceive them? Do social objects that I perceive or become consciously aware of exists in reality at the time of perceiving or being aware of their existence, or possible existence? If not, then how can I perceive what exists and is there a need to hypothesise their existence and test against similar conditions and situations using grounded theory? How does this compare to what is perceived by the participants? How can I claim to know that what I perceive is real? What is the nature of my own awareness as a researcher?

More questions: What is the nature of existence of social objects? Do these objects really exist? How do these objects come into being within social interactions? Does existence entail perception? What about awareness? Do we have to become aware of something in order to perceive a social object as being real? What if our perceptions are fallible and that what is perceived to exist does not really exist? How can I tell that what I perceive is real, and, how can I tell that the way that I perceive is just and sound? What if I am able to be aware of the existence or occurrence of a social object but the research participants did not become aware of such? Would that mean there is an issue with my own awareness or their awareness? These are just some of the questions that I am now asking myself with regards to the occurrences / existence of social objects within a social reality. This is important because how can we say that something exists if we are just perceiving it? How can we know that what we perceive really exists and what gives us any justification to claim that something exists?

So many questions! Essentially, I am interested in investigating and exploring my own consciousness and awareness, and the ways in which these affect the experiences that I have and what I can perceive that others do not, and perhaps try to reason out why. This is, obviously, an ongoing process!

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