June 10, 2018

Previous Week's Update Part B: New Research Design

I have now settled on a new research design. The philosophical and epistemological perspectives remain the same (ontological realist; epistemologically, presently, a mix of interpretivism and constructionism but this needs further elaboration) and the methodological approach is the same (qualitative, possibly moving onto mixed methods methodology though should the need arise). But I have changed methods from a qualitative grounded theory set of methods to a qualitative multi- modal approach that incorporates both thematic analysis and discourse analysis. As a side note, multi-modal is different to a mixed methods: multi-modal is the utalisation of different analytical methods set within the same methodological approach, which in this case of my research the methodological approach is qualitative. A mixed methods methodology would include both qualitative and quantitative analytical methods. The reason for this change, as has been mentioned in previous blog posts, is because the data characteristics that I became interested are, what I argue to be, difficult if not impossible for grounded theory to capture and integrate into a theory of the phenomenon of interest.


During the previous week I have been reading more papers about thematic analysis and discourse analysis that consists mostly of the philosophical and methodological approaches to these methods. This has helped me to understand the way in which they align with my philosophical position, which is important in various ways. Firstly, from the philosophical level, it goes without saying that the use, value, understanding and application of research methods are situated within our understanding of the world, whether we are conscious or unconscious of our philosophical perspectives, and whether or not we make this explicit or implicit. More fundamental than the methods level however is the data level: our philosophical perspectives of the world highly influences the way we value and perceive different types and sources of data upon which we apply the research methods. Secondly, from a methodological perspective, the multi-modal approach has to consist of analytical methods that are used in a way that are compatible with and complements each other; where, for example, findings from each method either support each other, or extend or build upon each other in some way.


I shall be using thematic analysis and discourse analysis together in a way that findings are built upon each other. I am working this out though, and continuing to fine tune their utalisation and compatibility the more I read the literature and understand their application within the context of my philosophical beliefs, the methodological orientation, the wider purpose and objectives of research, and the type and source of data. There is a substantial need, therefore, to ensure that thematic analysis and discourse analysis are combined in a way that not only advocates a sense of unity and extended construction of findings, but also in a way that is methodologically rigorous, valid, authentic and sound. This is a huge topic that I shall engage with to a significant and detailed level in the methodology chapter (talking thousands of words and page after page after page after page after page…….you get the idea!) of the thesis with discussions posted on this blog. However in the meantime it suffices to say that I shall be carrying out a thematic analysis first, then a discourse analysis. It might be an idea, actually, and as recommended by some authors, to verify the products and results of a thematic analysis with existing published literature before engaging with discourse analysis. Either way, what is intended with thematic analysis is the generation of different themes of the phenomenon of interest through coding the data. Following this (and possible verification with published relevant literature), discourse analysis shall be utalised to analyse the discourse within and around these identified themes, leading possibly to a deeper and more substantial understanding of the way in which different social objects are used in certain learning contexts and also the way in which objects can relate to each other.


A reason why this topic is complex and vast is in part because there are various types of thematic analysis and various types of discourse analysis, aligning with differing philosophical and theoretical perspectives (a bit like Grounded Theory and near enough any other method) and therefore differing in process of analysis with each version. This is why methodological compatibility is important; that the variation of thematic analysis and discourse analysis are methodological compatible and are methodologically sound and valid, in part determined by whether or not they can capture and analyse the data characteristics of most interest regarding the phenomenon of interest.


Before I even get to this stage however, the very first task that I shall be engaging with during the coming week, along with the continuing to elaborate on my philosophical and theoretical thoughts and approaches to the research design, is to check the work that I have done so far. Because various authors have suggest that thematic analysis is similar in approach to the open coding aspect of grounded theory (both approaches use an initial coding phase), I have to check that the codes that I have used whilst using grounded theory are compatible or are in whatever way suitable for thematic analysis. From what I can currently understand, the only real difference between thematic analysis and grounded theory is that thematic analysis’ intention is not to develop a full theory but can contribute towards theorisation as a beginning phase of a multi-modal qualitative project. Also, I have to check that the codes I have created can be formed into themes, which are, from what I can currently understand, conceptually different to Grounded Theory categories. At the moment I cannot imagine there being any substantial differences in the coding engines of thematic coding and the initial stage of open coding, or initial coding as other grounded theory writers call it, but obviously this needs further checking.


I am just scratching the surface here with this blog post! It’s going to be a very busy summer with data analysis and the rewriting and further construction of the methodological chapter(s). It’s going to be challenging but exciting, and it helps that I am feeling more confident and happier with my approach compared to grounded theory.


It’s a challenging task alone to work out your research design and the methods to use especially in qualitative, emergent based research. But the best thing you can do is continue to be guided by your data. My research design is data driven: I have come away from grounded theory and onto a combined approach of thematic analysis and discourse analysis exactly because of what I have been observing in the data and coming to know that grounded theory is not able to capture what I really want to explore in the data.


Keep going!


Previous Week's Update Part A: Thesis Writing

I have now switched for the time being from the literature review to the methodology chapter(s). Unsurprisingly, there shall be a substantial amount of editing and rewriting of existing chapter sections as they were written at a time I was using a pure grounded theory approach. I think it would be a mistake however to focus any allocated time frame on just a single thesis chapter because, in my opinion, the construction of a thesis is not a linear process particularly in qualitative research. There is fluidity in the intellectual movement across thesis chapters as they are being constructed and / or edited. As you are reading and writing for a particular chapter, ideas and thoughts relevant for earlier or later chapters might be revealed. Do not fight these happenings and occurrences: record them in whatever way is convenient at a particular time, even if it’s just a few words written down quickly on a piece of paper, so that you can follow up on your ideas at a later time. We all develop a strategy for doing this: for example, I write more extensive ideas down on paper before transferring them to the computer and extending and amending accordingly; any terms I want to explore further I simply type some key words into a search engine and save the results for future exploration. Whatever you do, do not dismiss or undermine any ideas that come to you, because during the Ph.D. so far I have found a lot of value in keeping ideas, documents, papers, word processed pages of previous ideas etc. as it was proven recently that lots of previous work has suddenly become quite relevant. Don’t dismiss or discount anything that comes to you!


The current methodological writing process at the moment is on paper instead of on the computer. I find this beneficial because with writing on paper sometimes I feel that I can explore my own ideas and play with my ideas better than I can on the computer. You could call this experimental writing of ideas, where try to carefully elaborate on my ideas and test according to what is suggested in the literature, and to think carefully about the way that literature supports my ideas. I obviously cannot write a thesis chapter on paper, but what I can do more effectively is to experiment with my writing and with my thoughts. I can also do this on the computer, but I feel that it’s best to start with on paper, but that’s just my preference! Opposition is welcome too, because if you engage with opposing views you can carefully construct a reasonable response that continues to support your views. As long as what you construct is logical and counters the opposing claims in a reasonable way with well grounded elaborations and explanations, supported where necessary and appropriate by relevant literature.


The topic of my current methodological writings is philosophy; more specifically, my ontological beliefs and the way that my ontological beliefs are shaping and guiding the utalisation and perspective of the newly assigned methods, as well as the way they are shaping my views of the type and source of data. Briefly, I consider myself an ontological realist (more moderate than staunched), which impacts, as mentioned, the way that I perceive the value of different types and sources of data, and explains the way in which research methods shall be utalised. Being a realist impacts what I perceive to be real, what I consider to be a more truthful or accurate representation of reality, and therefore the way in which different types and sources of data are to be engaged with in order to best understand this reality. These are the topics I have been writing about and obviously there is much more to think about and, therefore, this is an ongoing process. Obviously as time goes on these notes shall be extended and amended in various ways.


What I intend to do is write the methodological chapter as I go through the analysis process. At least, the sections that more closely relate to the utalisation of these research methods, as the methodology chapter(s) contain sections where you have to explain and critique your own understanding and utalisation of whatever research methodology and methods you use for your research. In the meantime however, I shall be working on elaborating on my philosophical beliefs and their relationship with the research method, and the source and type of data before progressing onto engaging with the first stage of analysis, which shall be reanalysing the data.


More on this in the next blog post!


May 25, 2018

Some Latest Thoughts on the Literature Reviews and Research Design

I have lost count of the amount of times I have rewritten literature review sections and I am now completely rethinking the structure, layout, content and even the number of literature review chapters given the planned changes to the research design. I have quite frankly given up on all ideas of being settled on any kind of literature review format, layout etc. till the day I actually print out the thesis……..


I have a lot of thoughts about the literature reviews. I am now planning on going for at least two literature review chapters with the first engaging with the relationship between society, culture, education and other concepts that I have now come to know as relevant, and the second focussing on the concepts and characteristics of the phenomenon of interest and technologically enhanced learning. The third chapter was going to focus on the exploration and examination of the different theories and models used to explore the phenomenon of interest in different ways. I am not sure now though whether it is best to keep the planned third chapter the way it is, or to discuss and critique existing models and theories when I have developed my own model of what it is I am exploring. However because my research design is emergent, there is a requirement to save critiquing empirical literature most relevant to the phenomenon of interest till the later chapters where literature can be integrated with research findings in order to compare findings, and to authenticate and validate the emerging model or theory. As you can tell I’m not yet decided about the third chapter because of the complexity of the research design……….


Thoughts On The Research Design


The research design has changed because I have now come to fully realise the multi-dimensional and multi-layered nature of the phenomenon of interest. More importantly, I have come to realise or have become more aware of the characteristics of the data that I want to explore as a result of further rereads of the data and, therefore, the result of coming to realise that Grounded Theory simply isn’t going to capture these characteristics.


This realisation has led me to viewing the phenomenon of interest as multi-layered and, therefore, the need to carry out a multi-level approach to data analysis. There is care needed here with language: there is a difference between a multi-level approach and a multi-staged or multi-phased approach. I am saying that the phenomenon of interest can be explored using different levels; in the case of my research, three levels, but I need not go into any detailed explanations as to what they are on here at this time. Therefore I am saying that the phenomenon can be understood in three different ways, but combined they can provide potentially a powerful insight into the complexity and process of the particular learning phenomenon of interest. Whether or not the multi-level perspective of the phenomenon of interest shall lead to a multi-staged (e.g., Mixed Methods) research design remains to be determined. It is likely though to become mixed methods with the way I am currently thinking about the way I would like to investigate the phenomenon of interest.


What I can say is the first phase naturally aligns with the work I have already completed: Grounded Theory coding, or at least the first stage Open Coding. I am not, however, sure at this time if I need to fully develop the codes into grounded theory categories, or if they can simply be left as they are and not call it Open Coding but simply call it another coding process. Either way, I shall be rereading the data again and reread all the codes and theoretical notes that I have made, and the product of the rereading and reanalysis of the data should lead me to decide exactly what further analytical methods I shall be adopting in the further phases.


I do like the idea of using the graph / network analysis as previously discussed and I feel that there is a need for some sort of quantitative analysis of the data (which would make it mixed methods) but I need to ground this need in the data and the literature (though I’ve read enough to consider these approaches as possible).


Grounding the need to change or amend a research design within an emergent research context is an important point to make, because it is easy to think (as has been argued by some authors) of emergent research designs as ‘anything goes’ but this isn’t the case. Not every research project, particularly emergent designs, is fully planned at the beginning stages of the research project. It can take some time and several reanalysis of the data for the design to really emerge and this accompanies the way in which the researcher becomes sensitised or becomes aware of the extent and complexity of the phenomenon of interest, and the way in which is the best approach to understanding this complexity.


What’s important in my current thinking is not that you are able to perceive multi-level complexity or that you potentially or eventually come to the idea that you need to combine various methods in order to capture this complexity, but that you can fully and elaborately justify your choices and justify why you perceive the phenomenon of interest in the way that you do. Everything has to be grounded in data as well as in sound, authentic reasoning and logic that can stand up to scrutiny (which goes right up to your ontological and possibly meta-philosophical considerations), and of course in the literature.


The next step now is to move away from writing the literature review for a while and refocus on analysing the data and continuing to draft the methodology chapters, but I shall explain this further in the next blog post that shall be coming soon. The coming summer months shall be spent therefore mostly on data analysis!


‘till next time!


May 23, 2018

Updated Thoughts on Discourse Analysis: Brief Comparisons With Conversational Analysis

Thoughts About Definitions


There has been a plethora of definitions of discourse and many approaches to discourse analysis defined, and understanding them is going to take some time. Judith Baxter in her paper “Discourse-Analytic Approaches to Text and Talk” published in the book “Research Methods in Linguistics” brings some much-needed clarity in this early stage of deepening my understanding of discourse and language. As I had expected, different theoretical orientations, philosophical perspectives, and the disciplines that provide some of the contextual and situational characterisations have caused the emergence of differing definitions and perspectives of discourse and its analysis.


Baxter suggests three general definitions of discourse. Firstly, that discourse can be viewed as language above the sentence: any piece of text that consists of more than just a single sentence can be considered a discourse. Secondly, and is a definition that appeals most to me personally, is the, as Baxter puts it, “functional and sociolinguistic” definition that views language as language-in-use with a focus on the context and situational aspects of discourse. The third definition revolves around the existence of discourses and not just a single discourse, which when placed within a post modernist, post structuralist perspective refers to the emergence of social realities from these discourses, with a focus on power structures and authorities. The first two definitions from what I can currently understand aligns more with a realist ontology perspective of discourse, with Baxter later suggesting that Conversational Analysis is situated within a more realist perspective compared to discourse analysis.


I have some reservations about a post structuralist, post modernist view of discourse that leads to the construction of a social reality. That’s more than likely because I identify myself as an ontological realist or at least some flavour of realism where I believe that external objects exist and through discourse and language can be referred to by learners. I have difficulties in accepting that certain objects are simply constructed by learners, which is advocated by Parker who in 1992 suggested that objects and reality itself are constructed through discourse and language. As mentioned in yesterday’s post, evidence is an externally existing object that is not constructed by the learners at that time (although one could argue that ultimately evidence is a human constructionbut it’s not exactly black or white and quite frankly that’s another matter) but is externally referenced through discourse and language. What we have therefore is a mix of what is real (evidence exists; it is real independent of a participant knowing about it) and what is a construction (the relationship between evidence and another relatable object that needs evidencing, and the discourse surrounding the evidence, which might differ between different types, between different people, and different contexts).

Philosophical Thoughts


It appears to me from the literature that I have read so far, different authors have different philosophical ideas about what discourse analysis is. There appears to be some sort of consensus that discourse analysis is commonly used within a post structuralist, post modernist, Foucauldian theoretical perspective (even though Michael Foucault actually rejected post structuralism and post modernism labels) as well as hermeneutic and interpretive perspectives. Conversation analysis is positioned typically within a more empiricist, realist perspective. Both deal with discourse and language in different ways and there is a huge amount of debate and discussion regarding both. For example, some authors have aligned discourse analysis with a social constructionist epistemology and therefore assume a relativist ontology; however, other social constructionist authors have argued that a social constructionist epistemology does not necessitate a relativist ontology. From what I have read about social constructionism previously and from the notes I have taken, I remember thinking about social constructionism as an epistemological concern and not an ontological concern.


Conversational analysis, meanwhile, according to Baxter works better within the empiricism and realism orientations. From what I can understand with my initial readings, the core attack against Conversational Analysis refers to its philosophical assumptions: some authors suggest that language and discourse cannot be analysed objectively or reveal truth about reality, because those authors believe that the truth of social reality is embedded within the discourse and thus revealing a relativist social reality. This is again something I have difficulties accepting when exploring the phenomenon of research interest because, as already mentioned, as already mentioned through the previous discussion of evidence.


Brief Summary


I appear to be developing a philosophical understanding of Conversational Analysis and Discourse Analysis and therefore from the Philosophical level it could be argued that I am learning towards Conversational Analysis. However, as I think about the methodological application of both I am finding that things are not quite so black and white. And this is where I have a challenge now because it is coming clear that Grounded Theory is not able to capture the characteristics of the data that I am becoming more fascinated with and desire to explore more (and there is a need in literature to explore these characteristics). The question is, which methodology or method do I now use? Which is the most suitable and in what way shall I know which is the best to use? Will graph theory now be affected? Could I still go for a multi-method or mixed method approach to understanding the phenomenon of interest?


Those questions I shall begin to answer in the next post that shall be written soon!


May 22, 2018

Initial Thoughts and Ideas of the Definition and Philosophy of Discourse Analysis

Emergent research designs are shaped by what you observe in your qualitative data. This can include part of the design, perhaps such as the methods that you use to analyse your data or holistic reconfigurations which can include your research questions and even research directions. This is what I am finding with my research design at the moment. I am finding that I am being drawn to characteristics and aspects of the data that are not likely to be captured by grounded theory, but I previously thought they could. I was wondering which methodological direction I could turn or perhaps use in addition to Grounded Theory. I found usefulness in graph theory or network analysis but this still, as far as I can currently understand, is not able to capture the characteristics that I really want to study and explore the most in relation to the phenomenon of interest and characteristics of that phenomenon. After thinking about this further and in conversation with my supervisor I returned to reading about a method I had previously read about but did not think was relevant, till now (plenty of this happening recently!) and that method is Discourse analysis.


Discourse analysis is a complex, fluid, flexible and adaptable set of ideas, competencies, approaches and methods suitable for the analysis of discourse and language use that can be situated with a variety of different theoretical and philosophical theories and ideologies. Because I have only just begun rereading the relevant literature and contextualise the literature within my own philosophical and theoretical frameworks, this blog post briefly sets out some of my initial thoughts of the definitions and philosophies of Discourse Analysis.


Thoughts about definitions


Discourse analysis is, unsurprisingly, the analysis of discourse and language that occurs in a variety of different contexts and situations. Unsurprisingly therefore, many authors of papers and textbooks note the difficulty in creating a universal definition of discourse because different contexts and situations creates different emphasise, types, structures and formations of discourse. Educational discourse, for example, would be different to political discourse, which in turn would be different to scientific discourse, and so on, not to mention there are many internal differences e.g., Educational discourse differs depending on the its purpose and context e.g., teacher-learner discourse is different to, say, student-student discourse. Teacher-learner discourse could be based on power relationships and acknowledgement of authority whilst student-student discourses could emphasise learner empowerment and the impact of democratic classrooms.

I am beginning to align with the perspective of Julianne Cheek where in a paper titled, “At the margins? Discourse Analysis and Qualitative Research” the author argues that to understand discourse analysis is to effectively understand our own theoretical and philosophical positions because discourse analysis can effectively be placed within any theoretical or philosophical orientation. Julianna Cheek situates discourse analysis within Foucauldian Theory, Post Structualism, and Post Modernism; therefore, the author situates their discussions and applications of discourse analysis within those theoretical frameworks.

A while ago I came to the point where I do not consider myself a post structuralist or post modernist in relation to my own views of the phenomenon of interest and I have further acknowledged this through disagreeing with a quote by an author named Parker who in 1992 suggests that all objects of reality and perhaps reality itself is created by our own discourses and language. I find this a little difficult to accept within Educational circles because in a social learning situation where learners disagree, the person who disagrees with another’s claim needs to present an alternative claim and, ideally, some sort of evidence. Where has this evidence come from? If this evidence has come from an external source then it cannot be possibly suggested (from my current understanding) that evidence is constructed by our discourses and language because this evidence has a real, external existence and would exist independent of our own ideas and awareness of it. What might be more correct to suggest, possibly, is that it is not evidence that is constructed by the learners but the discourse and language that is contained within and surrounds the use of this particular piece of evidence in relation to a claim being made within the context of, for example, challenging another claim. Here you have important questions such as what is the relationship between evidence and claim? What is the nature of the evidence? What is the nature of the claim? What is the nature of the relationship? In what way is the other claim being opposed? What are the discourse and language structures being applied? In what way do these differ from person to person and from context to context? It’s a complex field and that’s just a basic example, from what I can currently understand!


Philosophical Thoughts


It’s quite an idea to get your head around: to best understand discourse analysis is to best understand your own philosophical ideas, because it is your philosophical frameworks, both ontological and epistemological, that determines the way in which you frame your qualitative data and your framing of the way in which discourse can be and shall be analysed.

As I have discussed on this blog, I align more with a realist ontology than a relativist ontology (I’ve also hinted towards this in the previous section) and therefore I have difficulties in accepting definitions of discourse that suggest that reality itself is constructed by our discourses and language. I am developing my arguments and critiques of this but it suffices to say currently that perhaps in some cases it is not that the object itself is created by our discourses and language, but it is the meaning and interpretations that we apply to an object that is constructed by our language and discourse but that doesn’t mean that our discourse reflects the reality of it and that doesn’t mean that each account is equally true.

Another observation I have made in the literature is that some authors associate discourse analysis with Social Constructionism. I have talked about Social Constructionism briefly previously on this blog, and what I have found with the previous readings of Social Constructionism is that it does not necessarily align itself with a relativist ontology as some authors attempt to make out (remember though that papers and textbooks are usually written to align with an author’s conceptions of reality) but that it is ontologically neutral. I have to reread the literature on Social Constructionism again but from what I can remember and what I can remember writing about it, Social constructionism as an epistemology can work with varieties of realism as well as relativism. Whichever Social Constructionism is situated ontological depends on you and your conceptualisations of reality.

The philosophical concerns of discourse analysis appear to be very open for debate and therefore there does not appear to be any universally acceptable definition or philosophical positioning of Discourse Analysis. This very much depends on the understanding that you have of yourself and your own philosophical positioning.

This is all work in progress but I do feel that there is a place for Discourse Analysis in my research as it aligns now with the way I have been observing and exploring the data and my observations of Grounded Theory being able to capture what I have been observing. Whether or not I keep Grounded Theory and Graph Theory approach, and whether or not this research is going to be multi-method or mixed methods, depends entirely on the way that I can use discourse analysis, and the way in which it can complement other approaches. A blog post shall be written either soon or sometime in the future about my initial thoughts of the methodological thoughts of discourse analysis.

It’s a complex field!

‘till next time!


May 13, 2018

Changes To The Literature Reviews and Research Design: A Need To Enter Time Of Reflection!

I was going to write a few blog posts this weekend to provide updates as to where I am, but then realised that I need to spend some time reflecting upon the recent changes that have happened since Easter to the research and to reflect upon the more immediate ideas that have come about during the past week.

Essentially, I am now making substantial changes to the function and content of the literature reviews. I feel that as I have thought and read further into the phenomenon of interest and the learning contexts within which it has been and can be situated, my previous ideas of the literature review have become disjointed. Whilst in the first chapter I have been able to discuss the link between society, culture, Education and specific technological contexts of social learning (ongoing task), I am starting to realise that some of these discussions could be better addressed in the second chapter. The first chapter is about that aforementioned relationship; therefore, what I can do is strengthen and extend existing discussions and debates about this relationship, whilst taking a lot of the specific technological learning context discussions and merge them with the technological discussions that have taken place in the second chapter, which revolves around concepts related specifically to the phenomenon of interest and the specific technological learning context of interest.

The problem with chapter two is that I think I am being too specific and perhaps should widen the discussions and therefore merge with sections of chapter one. I am not entirely fully sure in what way I shall be achieving this, and although I have some vision or plan this obviously needs to be further articulated. During the week I shall be planning out how I can merge sections of the two chapters together so I can properly form and define that distinctive nature, role and purpose of each chapter whilst making them relative to the research aims and objectives, and logically flow between each other. At the moment with my current approach I am not convinced I can fully elaborate and clearly relate the two chapters. As mentioned, I have a rough vision in my head but it’s going to take a while to work out the way in which this can be achieved. This is especially since I have come to realise that quite a large amount of literature and the different categories of literature that explores the phenomenon of interest in different ways that I thought were irrelevant are now actually relevant! The different sorts and kinds of literature that I have come to know as relevant now alters the layout and content of each chapter. I am also considering scrapping the third chapter that I have previously discussed on my blog, but I shall talk about this more in future blog posts.

As for the research design and the way I shall be exploring the phenomenon of interest, I feel this is going through a transition and as blog readers shall know, this started back at Easter but really, it’s been ongoing for a while. As I think about my data and the patterns I have been observing, and as I think about the purpose and function of my research and what I desire to achieve, my thinking about the research design is also changing. Grounded theory is still on the cards but I’m not sure the extent I can now use grounded theory to achieve what I want to achieve now compared to what I thought I wanted to achieve several months ago. Graph theory and sequence analysis are becoming more and more fascinating as they align with what I want to achieve, and other research methods I once thought were irrelevant have now become relevant to consider and critique either in conjunction with or even replace Grounded Theory completely.

Thinking about the research design more, I wonder if in the methodology chapter I should go all out and define the research design as emergent and therefore talk about how I have viewed and explored the data, and the way that my observations have led and is leading to a variety of different methods being considered and eventually adopted / adapted for context suitability. What I once thought was going to be understood through pure grounded theory approach many months ago is not turning out to be so; that what I am observing and investigating is more complex than I considered, but I have been cognitively and academically flexible enough to accept the possibility of this complexity and have been open enough to consider all possibilities. Now am I really at a point where I no longer believe that using just grounded theory is going to help me achieve what I really want to achieve and to best theorise about, provide a practical solution of, or both, the problem.

During the week I shall be reflecting on all of this, planning and visualising the way that I can merge certain sections of the literature reviews, and to begin to explore other methodological options. I shall also be coming out of the literature review phase soon and return to data analysis and the writing of the methodology chapters.

I shall be writing and reflecting on my blog during the week on all of this and possibly more, so blog readers might be interested in keeping a watch out for blog posts during the coming week!


May 06, 2018

Latest General Ph.D Research Updates

Progress With The Literature Review


Since writing the previous blog post before Easter, most of the attention has been given to the second literature review chapter. This chapter has the purpose of documenting the exploration and critical analysis of the definitions, theoretical perspectives, philosophical and methodological considerations, and practical, empirical applications and findings of the specific social learning phenomenon of interest within various learning contexts. This is ongoing and continuous work.


Currently I am working on two sections of the literature review chapter. The first section refers specifically to the social learning phenomenon: the many definitions from various disciplines (sociology, anthropology, psychology, etc.), its structure and its different kinds. Such discussions are then followed by discussions and critiques of its pedagogical uses and the way it has been applied and used within different learning contexts. This part of the section is currently being developed. The other section of the chapter discusses the many practical applications and methodological approaches of the phenomenon of interest within specific technologically enhanced learning contexts.


Both of these sections along with the third planned literature review chapter contain, and shall contain further developments of, extensive and intensive analytical critiques, discussions and engagements with the social learning phenomenon from both a general learning perspective outside of technological contexts, and from within technological learning contexts, with the critiques situated within various associated practical, pedagogical, methodological, theoretical and philosophical approaches.


A couple of things I have noticed with the second literature review chapter, which shall probably also be the case for the third, is that the structure is emerging as I write as opposed to following a strict pre-planned structure I previously constructed. This I am absolutely fine with because it is showing that I can identify and engage with constructs, ideas, empirical findings and theoretical discussions that I had not previously identified or thought of as relevant when I wrote the original plan. If I attempted to fit everything within the pre-planned structure I would severely limit myself as a reflective and critical reader, and would limit my ability to observe new ideas and connections between ideas. Writing a literature review should not render your ability to observe new ideas and new connections limited; writing a literature review really entails having an open mind because every time you read a new piece of literature or even reread a previous paper you are not only likely to make new observations, but are more than likely to make observations you had not previously made. Even recently, and something I am continuing to do, I have been returning to more literature that I thought was irrelevant. This is being driven by my continuous refinement of my conceptual understanding of the phenomenon of interest, and of the continuous refining of my contextual understanding of the phenomenon’s many applications and theoretical perspectives.


Secondly, I am starting to appreciate and value the use of tables within literature reviews to present a large volume of information that would arguably make my critiques and arguments of empirical literature and findings appear disjointed and difficult to read if presented as large reams of text and references. The tables consist of what could be classed as meta-information about the papers e.g., the author, the target discipline and population, pedagogical goals, research goals, etc. I am still constructing and completing the tables at this time, but I can visualise these tables as being useful reference points when I rewrite and further develop my critiques and arguments


Importantly and perhaps crucially, through creating these tables I am able to make further observations that I had not made before, and probably would not have made easily if I had not created these tables. Essentially, I can use these tables to store meta and contextual information of empirical literature without such information ‘getting in the way’ (so to speak) of the flow, logic, order and structure of my arguments and critiques. This should lead to a more complete analysis of the empirical findings, although the tables and information within shall be referenced in some way, and a way that does not disturb the logic and flow of argumentation that could otherwise have happened without the tables.


This is ongoing work and I am planning to spend most of the month continuing to refine, reread and rewrite the literature review sections (and perhaps move onto chapter three) before moving onto focussing more time on data analysis.


Research Design


The new research design that I have been discussing recently has been approved, so as soon as I am happy with the literature review chapters (ha! Like that’ll happen!) I shall be moving onto reanalysing the data and analysing more data.


To recap, I have extended my grounded theory approach to include graph theory / network analysis. This shall involve converting or translating grounded theory findings into suitable graph form and then perform relevant numerical and possibly statistical analysis upon the graph where necessary. Although I have completed a series of diagrams that illustrate the way the design might work in theory, I won’t really know for sure till I go through each data analysis stage.


However, I do feel that this extended grounded theory approach is something that I feel is required and something that I feel addresses concerns that I have had over the past few months, based on what I have observed in the data in terms of the patterns that have been emerging. I feel that I can no longer simply limit myself to grounded theory to explain everything and provide a complete picture, because as mentioned previous blog posts I feel that grounded theory explains “what” is going on in the data, but from my current understanding does not properly or fully elaborate sequential or patterned observations. I might be wrong, but from all that I know, understand and have observed so far I feel that this is the correct approach, which I have been told is workable and justifiable.


There are other options that I am thinking about particularly case study methodology and mixed methods approach. In fact, I have just read a research paper prior to writing this post that explored a particular phenomenon of interest within a very similar technological learning context that adopted a case study approach, so that might be worth following up further. I am not sure if this is a mixed methods approach: it definitely contains a qualitative strand through grounded theory, but I am not sure if the inclusion of the graph theory / network analysis makes the project mixed methods or simply muilti-method. Mixed Methods is a very precise approach to research with its own methodological and theoretical approach to exploring, combining and explaining data in order to explore complex questions.


When I read through literature on mixed methods I can find that there are approaches and reasoning that are related to my project, but then I can also find some doubts that it is mixed methods. If anything, it might definitely not be mixed methods at the level of data collection methods (everything is coming from a single type of data) but is more likely to be mixed methods at the data analysis level.


I am not entirely sure at this time about the inclusion of case study and mixed methods but these are ideas I have been flirting about with for a couple of years or so. I am keeping a very open mind about the design: I have to be, since the research design is emergent in nature, as this design as emerged through making certain observations in the data. Therefore, when I come to analysing further data it might be identified that a case study approach is appropriate. It is challenging, yet fascinating!


Thanks for reading. Have a lovely bank holiday weekend UK readers!


‘till next time!


April 21, 2018

Ph.D Thesis Literature Review Update

What a busy time it has been since I wrote the previous couple of posts about my new research design. I am thinking about this new design constantly and I shall be writing more about the design following on from the previous blog posts in due time, but it suffices to say that the blog posts relate to the second part of the new research design: the graph theory / network analysis stage. The idea at the moment is to convert what shall be the developed grounded theory categories into elements of a network and perform, where and as deemed appropriate, various numerical and quantitative analysis upon the data. I have picked up some really interesting papers and other resources about this so far and some I shall share when I get round to writing the blog posts about the networking side of the research design. I am not entirely sure if it will be mixed methods or multi methods as the need shall emerge from the data analysis but I shall discuss this in future blog posts.

Attention for the time being has been shifted to the rewriting of sections of the second literature review chapter, where I am discussing and exploring specifically the phenomenon of interest and related constructs. The main focus at the moment is continuously rewriting the first section of the second literature review chapter that focusses on the main phenomenon of research interest. I am furthering my exploration of literature and this is leading to a deepening of my conceptual understanding and the potential nuanced existence that the phenomenon of interest takes not just in its own existence but in its co-existence with other learning phenomenon. This is an ongoing process, but this continuous exploration is helping me to further contextualise my discussions of the phenomenon and to really understand the way that this phenomenon fits the context of the research. This first section is important, because it revolves around the reflective, analytical, evaluative and critical exploration of existing conceptualisations and definitions of the phenomenon of interest, the different kinds, and the different ways in which it has been applied within general educational contexts.

The more I develop my depth and breadth of understanding the phenomenon and the more I deepen my explorations into literature, the more I can deepen the breadth and depth of my conceptual understanding, of existing and relevant arguments and debates and engage with them accordingly, and further develop justifications for exploring the phenomenon of interest in the ways that I am presenting. This has always been a long term, continuous process and it continues now, and I am really beginning to observe and understand its complex existence and that it’s part of a complex network of learning phenomena. I am asking a lot of questions about the potential product of the research and the way that the emerging theoretical framework shall be situated between other theoretical frameworks related to exploring other learning phenomena, and therefore the way that it competes with or complements the use of other frameworks. I’m going in directions here I never thought was possible even just a couple of years ago.

As for the process of rewriting the literature review sections, I’ve basically more or less completely rewritten each drafted section completely and continuously extending, amending, and further adding arguments and ideas. Sometimes this can take up the majority of your reading and writing sessions: I spent a whole day recently rewriting a single section because as I was able to develop a concept, idea, argument or critical commentary of a piece of literature or existing argument I was finding that I could reference different aspects of a piece of literature and the ideas and critiques in other areas, effectively leading to a domino effect or a chain of increased idea development across all aspects of that section.

It is a complex process that is continuously driven by the following questions: is what I am suggesting here accurate and correct? Is this the way I am really going to present my argument and critiques? Is the order of the current section logical? Does everything flow and connect appropriately? Does everything communicate exactly what I want to say at that specific time? Is there a way I can better present and build upon my ideas? Can I present my arguments better? Can I improve upon my arguments? Can I in some way enhance them? How can I enhance them? Have I gone deep enough? How do I go deeper into my arguments and ideas? How can I draw out fully the depth and breadth of my ideas and arguments, and their relationships? How do I know when I have achieved the ultimate level of depth and breadth? Is this even possible? How do I know if this is possible? How do I know that I know what is or is not possible? How can I use further literature to support my ideas? How can I use existing literature in different ways? What else do I need to do in various sections? Can I further the logical connections between ideas? Can I present these logical connections between ideas differently? Is this current structure the actual structure of the chapter?

When you think about it though, most of these questions are not just associated with the literature review chapters but every single chapter in the thesis and every single section of each chapter. This is where a line by line, sentence by sentence analysis is coming in handy because I am questioning the purpose, meaning, value, and worth of every sentence. I am questioning the linguistics, grammar, content, accuracy, validity, verifiability, and epistemic stance of each and every sentence. All guided by the questions just mentioned.

Is it taking me a long time to find that happy point with that particular section of the literature review? Yes I think so, but I think I am getting there now and I believe that I have the grounds upon which I can build the rest of the chapter and that might now mean rewriting the other sections of the chapter completely. I have another section that has developed substantially and other section that is in need of a lot of work, but that doesn’t really matter so much now because I can approach the rewriting of other sections within the context of the first section. Remember, everything has to be connected and flow logically. In my opinion there is not a high amount of value in writing disjointed and disconnected sections: you have to write each section in accordance to the first, because it is the first section that really should set the scene and contextual layout for the rest of the chapter sections.

Ongoing and challenging process, yet it is satisfying and a relief when you can observe substantial changes and improvements to the way you are writing your chapters and the way in which everything you want to say is being communicated.

‘Till next time!


April 08, 2018

Continuation of the Qualitative Thread: Current Thoughts on Axial Coding

In the previous blog post I talked about the role and function of Open Coding, which is to label data segments with meaningful codes that summarise the content, features, characteristics, events and activities within that data segment and from these codes, develop categories and their properties and dimensions. Remember that categories are a collection of similar codes, with data segment characteristics represented as properties and dimensions. Open Coding from what I can understand is essentially descriptive where it attempts to describe the features and characteristics of data through coding and category development, and as argued by some authors, carries realist assumptions based on its use of constant comparative analysis. I did ask questions about where to go next following Open Coding, and now I think I have the answer.


I had my doubts about Axial Coding initially simply because of the challenges and criticisms against Axial Coding from various authors, who shall be engaged with on here at some point and especially in the thesis. But you should never adopt or reject an approach just because others have criticised it: you should instead adopt or reject an approach based on its relevance and suitability for your research project. As long as you justify and reason why (and why not) you have used (or have not used) particular design components and that they are aligned more generally with your philosophical and theoretical (if appropriate) assumptions then you are within your right to use any coding form.


I have now come to the idea that Axial Coding is the most sensible next step level of coding for my research. Open Coding then is that descriptive approach to developing categories; Axial Coding, therefore, is a more abstract means of coding that involves linking or relating categories together in order to better understand a process not through the views and experiences of those experiencing a process, but through exploring the process itself. Axial Coding is beginning to be understood therefore as a means of developing relationships between categories, and of developing relationships between a category and its own properties and dimensions.


During the process of redeveloping my understanding of Open Coding, conceptions of categories were formed: what a category is, what information should best be part of a category, and the guiding questions I have when developing a category further in terms of its properties and dimensions. I have noticed upon further reading that some of the questions I ask of a category, some of the questions align with the purpose of Axial Coding but that’s fine as some authors have stated that the thinking about relationships between categories and between a category and its own properties and dimensions occur during the Open Coding stage. As I recode the data I shall have additional questions though, and are based on the development of the relationships and they include: what forms a relationship? How can I identify a relationship? What is the content of this relationship? What are the features and characteristics of this relationship? What is the influence and impact of the context of the situation upon the relationship? Axial Coding, then, not only establishes relationships but also appears to acknowledge and consider the context of the relationship. For example, a relationship between two categories might differ between different contexts and this is important when exploring learning phenomena.


Although Axial Coding can establish and identify relationships between categories, properties and dimensions, it does not, as far as I can currently understand, produce an actual network of activities and events relating to the sustainability and on-going nature of social learning situations but it can provide the foundational understanding of what is occurring within a discussion through categories, dimensions and properties. However, it might be possible that a grounded theory’s relationship identification process and network diagrams and associated analysis attains a better understanding of certain social learning processes.


This is simple a try it out and find out approach, but from what I have drawn out in a presentation that I am producing for the topic it appears that this is the limitation of grounded theory and hence the introduction of a network analysis method and the interest in quantitatively analysing relationships but this is for another blog post.


In all, Axial Coding makes more sense to my research now if I view it as a means of relating categories, and to relate categories with their properties and dimensions. This makes sense to me because clearly defining relationships between categories and their dimensions and properties shall assist with understanding the complexity and highly nuanced existence of certain learning phenomena and provide a basis upon which I can build complex networks and be able to quantitatively analyse the relationships between these categories.


That’s the picture of Axial Coding for now!


‘till next time!


April 06, 2018

Some Current Thoughts on the Qualitative Strand and Open Coding

There has to be a sense of emergence where codes are derived from data and categories are derived from codes. This idea of emergence makes sense as I have not been able to identify an existing framework that is suitable and relevant for the type of data I am using and the way that I am now exploring the phenomenon of interest, and therefore, theoretical constructs, relationships and hypotheses must emerge from the data.


I read an interesting paper the other day where an author aligned the idea of an emergent approach with the realist ontology: truth emerges from the data after a continuous cycle of coding and recoding, but this brings about a couple of problems. First of all, what is defined as truth and of being true? How can it be measured? How can I know that something is true even after going through continuous cycles of coding and recoding? How can I know that this truth emerges from the data and not simply a reflection of my interpretations of the data? Is it absolute truth that emerges from the data or is it that with each coding and recoding I could come closer to the truth without completely attaining it? How do I know either way? Is there some set criteria for truth? If so, then would this criteria itself represent truth if it’s simply been constructed by another human being? Would it therefore be better to consider the set criteria is bringing one closer to the truth rather than mirroring the location of absolute truth?


One thing I do know is when I think about the qualitative strand, the purpose that it brings to the research, and what I currently would like to achieve with the strand, allowing the data to speak for itself; to enable this “voice” to emerge naturally and to code in accordance to what is believed to be occurring within the data makes sense. And this is where it is interesting because some authors suggest that enabling the data to speak for itself (please note that data do not literally speak!) and to therefore let understanding and meaning emerge from the data, but it is clear that there is an interpretation process happening. We as researchers interpret what we are observing in the data and attach to chunks of data what actions and events we believe are occurring within that data segment. Question here therefore is what is the relationship between truth and meaning? Is meaning objective and already exist within the “voice” of the data? Or, do we define meaning and apply it to what we perceive or interpret to be happening within the data? There are techniques within grounded theory such as theoretical sampling and constant comparisons that provide some answers to these questions but to what extent is truth realised by just grounded theory alone? Can ultimate truth really be attained?


What is the purpose of the qualitative strand within a mixed methods approach? From what I have been rereading, mixed methods can be used to build and test a theory, theoretical constructs, relationships and hypotheses. Their development occurs in the qualitative strand and then tested in the quantitative strand, and therefore adding an extra dimension of richness, integrity, authenticity, verifiability and validity to the research design.


A question I am working on at the moment given that Grounded Theory is part of the qualitative strand is to what extent do I use grounded theory? I have now more or less worked out the initial phase of qualitative data analysis, and this initial phase shall consist of Open Coding also known as Initial Coding. I think this is more or less a definite because it is through Open Coding or Initial Coding that meaningful data segments are labelled with suitable codes that describe what is happening; where a technique known as constant comparison is used to identify similarities, differences and variances, and where (in broad terms) these similarities, differences and variances contribute towards categorical development. I have recoded my data a few times and so far I have lots of codes, and some initial categories developing but shall now have to recode the data since developing new ideas about the research design and about the way I want to explore the phenomenon of interest. And also because I understand the data more now. This leads me to an interesting thought: not only do our theoretical understanding of what is occurring in the data develops over time along with the need for particular research design elements (assuming emergent research design), but also understanding of the data itself emerges from the way that we perceive and interpret what is going on. There is an interesting relationship going on here between our own perceptions and interpretations, the development of these perceptions, and the data itself. What role does the data play in this relationship?

I can begin to observe what I had not previously observed and I can understand the grounded theory techniques better than before. I have started to draw out the steps and phases of the new research design with the current focus on the qualitative strand. I understand more now about categorical development and have outlined more questions I want to ask about the data as I proceed with recoding the data and continue to develop categories.


Aligned with my philosophical beliefs, I believe that there is a truth out there behind the process of the phenomenon of investigation but whether or not this real truth can occur only from coding and recoding for the context of my research is doubtful. But a mixed methods design perhaps could lead me closer to that ontological truth without actually reaching absolute truth. Aligned with my epistemological beliefs, the logical process (abductive) that underlies my use of grounded theory (develop hypotheses inductively from the data and use deductive methods to test the hypotheses against the data) aligns with my beliefs that knowledge is not certain and absolute. We need to continuously think about the data, think about what is happening in the data, think about how we interpret the data and how we know what we know to be true or perceive to be truth (meta-Philosophy) as long as everything is grounded in the data. All hypotheses, ideas, observations, and thoughts must be grounded in the data. We need to question our own biases and acknowledge them. All this while we maintain our sanity long enough to do so!


A big question that I have next is: when I have all the codes, and have developed all the categories and identified relationships between each category and the relevant properties and dimensions, what then? Grounded theorists talk about bringing everything together to form a theory whilst other grounded theorists discuss the idea of linking categories together to identify relationships in a process known as Axial Coding. I think I am currently leaning towards axial coding or some sort of coding technique that enables me to relate categories, because it is through the relation of categories and really understanding the way that categories interact with each other could I then begin to understand the way that the particular learning phenomenon of interest progresses from start to conclusion. This is challenging and whilst I shall try to work it all out for the sake of the diagrams I am drawing out as plans, the only way I think I am going to know for sure what I shall do is to simply do the coding. But the way I am viewing this at the moment is whilst the categories in themselves explain what is happening with certain parts of the phenomenon, by themselves they do not explain the process. There needs to be that extra step that identifies the process and the relationships therefore between elements of this process in order to better explain the phenomenon.


Once I have developed the ideas of the way I am going to approach the qualitative strand I shall then deal with the quantitative strand, fit everything within a mixed methods scenario if proven to be the most appropriate strategy, as well as a case study methodology if necessary, and then actually test my ideas against the data and remodify accordingly after receiving feedback from the supervisor.


‘till next time!


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