March 29, 2017

It's All Starting To Click!

Within the early stages of the Ph.D. you shall be forgiven if you arrive at early conclusions regarding the relationship between philosophy, methodology, methods and data. It is easy in the early stages to subscribe to the notion that, for example, qualitative data and qualitative inquiry in general is situated only within a combined Philosophy of relativist ontology / subjectivist epistemology; similarly, it’s easy to subscribe to the notion that qualitative data comes only from interview methods.

Why is this the case?

I arrived at these assumptions prior to and early in the Ph.D, based on what I was reading at the time. Research papers gave the impression that statistical analysis and experimental designs aligned only with objectivist perspectives and that qualitative data and associated analysis aligned only with a subjectivist perspective. However, the more I read the more I questioned my own assumptions about the relationship between philosophy, methodology and methods and found that this relationship is far more dynamic than I had imagined, and that really there is no such thing as a linear relationship between them. This relationship is fluid, and the more I read and thought about my own beliefs I am now finding much fluidity even between ontological and epistemological perspectives, and this is what I shall initially call Design Flexibility.

Design Flexibility

Design flexibility does not adopt a sceptical perspective of the existence of an actual relationship between philosophy, methodology and methods, but is sceptical of any assumptions of a linear relationship where a particular perspective entails the choosing of other specific perspectives. There is no rejection to the idea that ontological perspectives influence epistemological perspectives, which in turn influence methodological perspectives, but there is a rejection of a predetermined linear relationship. More recent methodological textbook authors arguably lean heavily in the direction of philosophical and methodological dynamism therefore acknowledging that reality and our understanding of reality is so complex that there are limitless ways in which reality can be perceived and the way in which we come to know this reality, which influences the way in which we explore this reality.

Applied to my own thinking, my philosophical beliefs line with subtle realism, developed by Hammersley. Typically, a realist ontology is accompanied by an objectivist epistemology suggesting a reality independent of our thinking and knowing, and knowledge of this reality being discoverable and accessible within this reality as knowledge itself exists independently of our minds. But design flexibility suggests that even though the realist ontology and objectivist epistemology is commonly observed particularly in the natural sciences, it doesn’t mean that they are in a strict dependent relationship. Hence, my epistemological beliefs align with subjectivism: I perceive a reality independent of our minds but we do not have access to all knowledge and truths of this reality. We will never come to fully know or grasp objective reality and truth of this reality through our perceptions and theories about what is occurring within this reality: the best that we can do, and the best that I can do with the theory that I am developing, is to represent certain actions and events within reality without claiming that I know for certain that what I theorise is really what is happening.

Another example of design flexibility is at the methodology level. Typically, qualitative inquiries are not associated with realist philosophies as they are mostly aligned with constructivist or interpretivist based perspectives (relative ontology; subjectivist epistemology) but I am attempting to place my qualitative inquiry within the context of realist ontology, subjectivist epistemology with the type of subjectivism leaning towards interpretivism. There is a small but growing body of literature that suggests the usefulness of qualitative inquiries being situated within this philosophical context therefore it is an aim of mine to attempt to contribute towards further discussion and development of this area of qualitative inquiries.

Then there are the methods and various qualitative approaches within which these methods are situated. Qualitative inquiries can not only be situated within a variety of different ontological and epistemological combinations but also adopt a variety of possible different general approaches with the most typical being ethnography, phenomenology, grounded theory and case study, but there are many more approaches and each of these can typically be combined e.g., an ethnographic case study. The qualitative approaches that shall be used are case study and grounded theory.

And to add to this already banging-head-on-keyboard-moment-as-you-work-through-all-this-stuff are the various types of case studies and the various types of grounded theories that have to be selected or further developed if no existing version exactly matches research aims and general context of the research design. For example, because of the adopted philosophical perspectives, I have to not only think of ways in which the particular type of case study and particular type of grounded theory adopted, or further developed, in this research work with each other, but work with each other within the philosophical perspective, which should lead to plenty of opportunities to expand on current discussions and development of research designs.

What has been discussed in this blog post is not the full story either: there is so much more beyond what I have discussed here but for the purpose of this blog (and my sanity) I have kept discussions brief and relative to my continuous thinking and development progress,

There you have it: completely and utterly bewildering and confusing at first, but keep fighting your way through because it is worth it. I think, perhaps, yeah, it is, I’ll let you know in time……..

March 19, 2017

Realism: ontological or epistemological version?

A key early sub-question that relates to the version of realism to implement is to decide if the version of realism that is being implemented refers to ontology or epistemology. Remember that ontology deals with the existence and state of being and what there is in reality that is real, whilst epistemology deals with whether or not we can come to know something about reality and if this is possible, to what extent can we know something and the way in which we can know something. I have decided upon the philosophical classification of realism but before I get to that point, I’ll provide arguably simplistic conceptualisations of each that suffices for the purposes of this blog post.

Ontological and Epistemological Realism:

Philosophical discussions relevant to research and knowing relates specifically to the idea of truth about reality. Is there such a thing as objective truth, and if so in what way can we come to know this truth about reality? What does this truth consist of and in what way can we understand aspects of this truth? Does objective truth exist or is truth simply a subjective construction invented in our own minds? If objective truth exists can we really attain it? Or, is it simply that what we know and theories progressively move towards objective truth? Although there is much debate, differences and variants of realism at both the ontological and epistemological levels it suffices for the purpose of this post to give the following basic and far too overgeneralising conceptions (but it’s a start!):

Ontological realism can be defined in general as arguing for objective truth that exists independently of our minds, as opposed to ontological idealism that suggests that mind and reality are as a single unit. Objective truth exists and therefore all assumptions, theories, beliefs and ideas that we form must be tested against this truth of reality therefore truth of reality is knowable.

Epistemological realism argues that knowledge itself exists independently of our minds; that knowledge is not a construction within our minds as is believed by epistemological idealists, but that knowledge is discoverable and attainable outside of the mind. The knowledge or perceptions that we hold in our minds about reality corresponds with reality itself; there is a correspondence between what we know, and the way that the world is, with this knowing attained through our experiences and interactions within the world.

Both ontological and epistemological realisms are much debated and discussed in philosophical and research methodology textbooks and published papers.

My Stance: Ontological Realism

The category of focus for my research is ontological realism, because I have the belief that there are universal and objective truths independent of whether or not we perceive, experience, or know about this truth and the extent of objectivity. I cautiously reject epistemological realism because I do not have the belief that what we know about the world corresponds with the way that the world is, because our mental states (knowledge, perceptions and so on) and cognitive processes (the act of perceiving, theorising, knowing, thinking and so on) are fallible. Therefore, whilst I do have the belief in objective truth and that aspects of reality do exist independent of our minds, we cannot really fully know this objective truth or objective reality: the best we can achieve is to progress towards objective truth but never actually attain it. And that from a general perspective and relative to my current understanding and knowledge relates well to my case study methodology and grounded theory method.

Brief Introduction to Realism and my Research: Initial Key Questions

When you have defined the limits of your discussions the next step is to define the key questions that shall help you to begin your further explorations and developments of your philosophical justifications. For me, the key questions are: what kind of realism am I talking about? And, what does realism offer to my research methodology?

What kind of realism?

As part of the philosophical justifications it’s important to be clear on the variant of realism that you are adopting for your research, and there are many variants of Realism in existence within the social sciences with the most popular being Critical Realism. When I adopted a mixed methods methodology I did begin to propose critical realism as the underpinning Philosophy, but began to doubt the relevancy of the human-structure relationship and the general idea of causality in the social sciences. I shall talk about this more in the future as my understanding further increases but essentially, critical realism defines a three layered ontology and has the aim of locating unobservable causes of observable phenomena within the social sciences, and it’s the notion of causality that I have trouble accepting as the way in which to understand social phenomena. Hence, I’ve moved away from critical realism but subscribe to a realist philosophy in general.

A current task therefore is investigating different types of realism to find out if any existing versions align with my own thinking about reality, or if I have to develop my own realist philosophy, or build upon previous realist ideas in some way. This will take some time to develop but this is a key question when it comes to communicating and elaborating on your realist philosophy in your thesis.

Do note that I am not suggesting that critical realism is not important in Educational research, but for my specific research I no longer feel that it is appropriate in accordance to my own beliefs, and also the phenomena of exploration.

What does Realism offer to methodology?

Not only is it best to explain the variant of realism that you are adopting or developing, but also the way in which that variant links in with and guides the methodology. What are the precise details of the realist approach and in what way does it align with and support the progress of the methodology? This is an area that is currently under continuous development, reformulation and reconstruction as I learn more about the variants of realism and the way in which realism feeds into my methodology.

A key benefit with the methodology I am using is that case study and grounded theory are philosophical-independent, meaning that they can work with a variety of different philosophical positions and therefore there is no right or wrong answer. The way in which realism needs to be implemented is dependent on the phenomena of interest, the research problem, and the research question. This is exactly where it is important to fully elaborate on your philosophical justifications for the methodology that you are using, and to explain why realism is the most appropriate philosophical approach compared to other approaches. What is it exactly about your approach that makes your approach to realism suitable and relative to the context of exploration?

In summary:

This is all work in progress, but no matter what I have read and what I have looked at, and from the trial study, realism is what makes the most sense to me based on the phenomena of interest and the way in which I am collecting the data. It is argued in some cases that philosophical perspectives can change as a person really delves into the research and collects and analyses the data. Whilst this is true, and I have read earlier about a couple of Ph.D. candidates who transitioned from critical realism to social constructionism, I am cautiously and currently convicted by my beliefs in a realist perspective of reality.

Brief Introduction to Realism and my Research: context and boundaries

Long term blog readers will no doubt have had their brains melted as I have debated and discussed the use of different philosophical perspectives as a guide for the research methodology, beginning with a constructivist perspective before navigating towards and settling on a realist philosophy. Subsequently, methodology has transitioned from pure grounded theory methodology, to a mixed methods methodology with grounded theory used as a method, before navigating towards and settling on a case study methodology using grounded theory as a method, using a realist philosophy to guide the methodology. Feel free to have a search about my blog to find relevant discussions!

I have been thinking about this for a long time now, and a realist approach is the only overarching philosophical approach that makes sense to the context of my research; therefore, I am beginning to understand and further develop my philosophical justifications and arguments for realism as a philosophical drive for my research design. It is such a complex area however with many variants, directions, debates, discussions and applications; therefore, there needs to be a series of limits set to what can realistically be explored and discussed in the thesis, and on this blog. These limits I find come naturally within the boundaries of my research.

Limits Of Realist Discussions

Different people will have different approaches, but for me so far it’s easier to contextualise discussions of realism within the boundaries of my own research. It is important to lay out a set of limits because it will keep you focussed about what you need to explore, and what you need to discuss in terms of your philosophical justification and the way in which it applies to your research methodology. It’s easy to travel off in different directions as realism like any philosophical perspective is vast, complex and well debated and discussed.

The following are limitations that I have placed on my own investigations and discussions of realism:
· I talk about realism only in the context of social sciences and not the natural sciences
· I talk about realism only in the context of qualitative research
· I talk about realism only in the context of case study methodology
· I talk about realism only in the context of grounded theory method
· I talk about realism specific to the type of case study and grounded theory used

Obviously this blog is not as “formal” or “academic” as the thesis therefore I shall be a little less restrictive about these compared to the thesis so I can talk about, for example, realism in other methodologies and compare to the selected methodology of case study in general. I can also do this in the thesis but it would be more specific, e.g., I assume it would be important for example to compare the use of realism in phenomenology and case study relative to the phenomenon of investigation, as this can contribute to the philosophical justification of the selected philosophical perspective.

A Guide, Not A Strict Structure!

It’s important to some extent to treat these limits as a guide rather than an absolute rigid structure of discussions. Think about it as being set free within the boundaries of your research as defined by the discipline in general, and the overall research design. There is little point, for example, in talking about realism in phenomenological research if your research design is not based on phenomenology; however, that doesn’t stop you from discussing realism applications within that methodology if you can apply it in some way that is relevant to your own methodology. That’s an example of what I am talking about in terms of being set free within the boundaries of your research.

Now that limits have been set, key questions must be asked that shall help develop an overview of what needs to be known, and this is the subject of the next blog post.

March 12, 2017

Literature: changing perspectives and roles in a grounded theory project

Grounded theory research involves developing a theory or theoretical framework from the data using a series of coding procedures that differ depending on which authors and philosophical positions are adhered to. This approach is in contrast to the top down approach where an existing theoretical framework is applied to the data and therefore the data is “forced” to fit around pre-defined categories, which in itself, I shall further argue in the thesis, limits creativity and potentially unique insights. In the thesis I shall give various examples of coded data and apply existing frameworks to the data in order to demonstrate the unsuitability of the majority of existing theoretical frameworks for the aims and objectives of my research.

A key aspect of grounded theory and therefore to the development of the emerging theoretical framework is literature, and literature is important for many reasons. Initially I began reading the literature for the purposes of contextualisation and identification of knowledge gaps. Contextualisation means to determine where your research fits within the vast arena of published research literature in order to determine the way in which your research differs from or builds on existing research. Identification of knowledge gaps means to find out what knowledge might potentially be missing or what direction or aspects of the phenomenon of interest have not yet explored fully. I have found the knowledge gaps that I want to address and have situated my research within existing literature therefore this aim has been achieved. Now this has been achieved a part of the reading purposes is to develop philosophical and methodological justifications and arguments for why I want to explore particular phenomena of interest using the research design that I have created.

But that’s not all there is to literature, because more than any other method or methodology grounded theory commands a strong integrative relationship between the emerging theoretical framework and the literature. In other words, the role of existing literature particularly empirical literature (but any and all types of literature shall suffice) goes beyond merely supplying findings that are either in agreement with current research findings or not: it is tightly integrated with all aspects of the emerging theoretical framework and is therefore used to act as extra empirical evidence or data to confirm or disprove hypotheses that form a part of the emerging theoretical framework. Grounded theory advocates a strong relationship between analysis of data, data collection, and exploration of existing empirical literature, leading to findings of existing literature integrated with the emerging framework in order to achieve further theoretical development.

Ok, so, literature is really important to grounded theory research projects at all stages but in my experience this can really only be fully appreciated when you actually begin coding the data. I have coded about half of the first case so far although, and not to go too far off topic here, I’ve reread this first half several times because each time the data is reread, new insights and relationships between different codes and aspects of the data are identified but that is the nature of grounded theory: but more on this in later blog posts. Following the coding of half of the first case and constructed somewhat of a, admittedly rather crude, theoretical framework (crude and rather basic: but we all have to start somewhere!) based on some of the data, I began to reread the literature that I had already referenced in the upgrade paper’s literature review, and I am really starting to understand the way that existing findings might be able to integrate within the emerging theoretical framework in order to achieve further theoretical development.

What I have found, and what other Ph.D. candidates carrying out grounded theory projects might come across, is that perspectives of the literature changes. With me, specific to empirical findings, my perspective had changed from viewing empirical findings as an important measurement of determining what has been discovered and what has yet to be discovered, to an important part of possible theoretical development through proving and disproving hypotheses and relationships.

Going further into this, I am rereading the empirical findings and I can start to find similarities and differences between what has been published and what I have discovered in the data; what I have discovered in the data and my reasoning and philosophising of this data (including developing hypotheses and potential explanations for identified relationships and so on) is guiding my perspective of the literature. I am finding myself saying, “ah! I have identified that in the coded data!” or “oh! I have not thought about that idea before, I wonder in what way that might already confirm what I have already discovered, or in some way guide my thinking about and analysing of the data.”

Essentially, I have transitioned or am making the transition from reading the literature in order to identify methodological issues and knowledge gaps, to forming justifications for the proposed research design and to confirming and disconfirming what has so far been discovered in the data and documented in the form of relationships and hypotheses in the emerging theoretical framework. This is quite a revelation because I had not automatically realised this transition until I actually started rereading the literature following several rereads of the data (and several rewrites of relevant areas of the upgrade paper). It’s like as if I had subconsciously developed a framework in my mind of the data coded so far, and then subconsciously applied this framework to the literature and then came to an immediate realisation of this transition. But this is positive because it shows a progress, a shift, in reading intentions as the research continues to mature and continues to progress, and this can only be a positive thing.

But I have to be careful and approach everything with due caution. I must not and cannot take anything that I read in the literature or any reanalysis of the data as gospel and I cannot therefore immediately reject a hypothesis just because I have coded only half of the first case and have read several papers the offer empirical evidence for the rejection of this hypothesis. This is because as I code through the other half of the case and then several cases after that I might actually find more data that proves the hypothesis. This would actually give me excellent material and platform upon which I can argue for the relevancy and effectiveness of the theoretical framework. But as I say it’s very early in the development of the theoretical framework, and therefore at this moment in time I cannot accept the first set of rejections and confirmations as they come along. It’s better therefore to make notes of existing findings and constantly compare with emerging findings as more data is analysed and coded.

Therefore the hypotheses, relationships, concepts and aspects that have already been constructed as part of the emerging theoretical framework might be proven to be irrelevant and therefore rejected this time next year; or on the other hand be strengthened and confirmed. With grounded theory, you cannot predict at all what you are going to find and what might or might not be confirmed, but that’s the beauty of grounded theory. That’s what attracts me to grounded theory.

The key message from this blog post is this: within a grounded theory project your perspectives of the literature are likely to change as well the aims and objectives of your literature search and analysis of literature. This is fine because it indicates progress and research maturity and your own personal maturity of understanding and being aware of the way in which literature can be used within your research. But don’t take anything as certain and absolute, because later in the process you could come across more literature or more examples in the data that could defeat what you discovered earlier. Best thing is to make lots and lots of notes of everything that you read and observe in the data, and use these notes as reflective points when you are coding data or integrating data from multiple sources. Most of all: have fun! Grounded theory is challenging, but it is equally exciting!

February 26, 2017

Philosophical Domains

Three Domains Of Philosophy

I have now at this point identified three domains of Philosophical considerations that a Ph.D. candidate might want to engage with whilst developing a philosophical understanding of their research. The three domains are:

The Philosophy Of The Self

This domain deals with the ontological and epistemological beliefs of reality, and therefore the way in which we situate ourselves within the context of the perceived reality. These beliefs form our perception of reality and answer questions such as: in what way do we perceive reality itself? In what way can we come to know this reality that we perceive?

At the ontological level there is a spectrum of beliefs that span from realism on one side to relativism on the other side with the different points in between determining the extent to which aspects of reality is either dependent on or independent of the actions of the mind. A realist perceives a reality that is independent of the thoughts and actions of the mind but the points along the spectrum progresses from a view of reality as being fully independent of the mind to a view that suggests there are aspects of reality that are dependent on the mind. On the relativism side, different flavours or points of relativism progresses from aspects of reality that are dependent on the mind to a reality that is fully dependent on the mind or in other words that reality is nothing more than what exists within our minds; our perceptions and beliefs mirrors reality itself.

Epistemological beliefs relate to the way in which we come to know reality and from what I can understand there are more theoretical categories of beliefs at this level than at the ontological level and it would take a long time to go through each theory on a single blog post but suffice to say that epistemological beliefs are, like ontological beliefs, situated along a spectrum with objectivism on one side and subjectivism on the other side. Objectivism states that knowledge of reality already exists therefore knowledge of reality is discovered and not constructed; knowledge of reality is attained through the belief that reality is a single layer, and that knowledge of this single layer reality is accessible through variables and experiments involving these variables and a researcher acting as a conductor and not a constructor of knowledge. Subjectivism is the exact opposite: knowledge of reality does not exist independently of the mind therefore knowledge is constructed and not discovered; knowledge is attained through the idea that there is more than a single layer to reality; and therefore knowledge of reality is obtained through understanding and exploring people situated within that reality via more qualitative methods such as ethnography.

This domain is important to engage with because if we become more engaged with our own philosophical beliefs about reality we can provide a philosophical justification for the research design and indeed for the selection of the phenomenon of interest in some way. This philosophical justification is itself a big subject but it suffices to say that philosophical justifications enable us to better explain and argue the way in which we come to know reality, the way we come to gain knowledge about reality, and the way in which reality is explored in order to gain this knowledge.

My beliefs about reality are based on ontological realism and epistemological subjectivism (relativism), but still working out which exact flavour of each my thoughts align with. But at a general level I do not accept that there is a reality that is fully independent of our minds but at the same time I do not accept that there is a reality that is fully dependent on our minds.

The Philosophy Of Research Design

The philosophical beliefs that we have about reality acts as an input to the research design hence the importance of engaging with our own selves as researchers and our philosophical beliefs.

I have discussed extensively (relatively speaking), and shall continue to do so, about the different philosophies that I have been considering for my research and that I have now selected for the research. Regardless of which philosophies have been selected, it is clear that my philosophical beliefs have guided not only the general selection of a case study grounded theory based research design, but the specific types of case study and grounded theory approaches. It’s important to remember here that there are multiple key writers that have detailed different types of case study and grounded theory approaches situated within different philosophies. Also, away from the key writers there have been other versions of both case study and grounded theory developed, and there will no doubt continue to be different versions developed, led by particular philosophical beliefs.

My own philosophical justification for using case study and grounded theory and the way in which they are being used is being guided by realism and relativism, but without a strict adherence to absolute realism and absolute relativism. These philosophical thoughts are being continuously thought about and explored. It is a substantial area of discussion and debate.

The Philosophy Of The Phenomenon Of Interest

This is a new consideration that I have come across recently and needs more elaboration and exploration before I can begin to define any definite ways in which the phenomenon is being perceived philosophically. But to explain briefly, in general and not specific to my research there appears to be learning processes and sub-learning processes, which can be categorised as either individual learner based, or collaborative or group based. There are many of these processes: it would be fairly easy to develop a Ph.D. proposal based on just a single learning process or sub-process nevermind an actual category, once you were aware of the literature and existing problems!

What I am considering at the moment, and again I can make no commitment to any actual statements of knowing about this area, is the relationship between my own philosophical perspectives of the learning process as I am coding and exploring these processes, and the philosophical perspectives that the research participants might have taken in their demonstration of learning processes. Here we can branch out into many different directions because the philosophical considerations of these processes go right back to Ancient Greece where the likes of Socrates and Aristotle defined certain processes in an absolute and certain way: that learners could engage with their learning in an absolute and certain way. Contemporary philosophers consider more uncertain and relativist approaches to engagement with learning processes and its impact on, for example, the construction of knowledge within learning contexts.

But there are many social and cognitive processes of learning, and whilst there have been much written on these processes there is much that is still to be written and discovered about them. The philosophy of the learning process is something that I have come across recently and still elaborating ideas on and reading about therefore I cannot at this time put forward any detailed arguments of the way in which I am viewing learning processes.

Domain Interconnection

My thoughts on the interconnections between the aforementioned domains, like my thoughts on the philosophy of learning processes, are in their early exploration and development stages. However, early indications show that there is a relationship between these three domains of philosophical considerations, there just needs to be further explorations and readings into what exactly this relationship is, what it entails, what it impacts, and what conditions are required for a relationship and different types of such relationships to exist.

Are my philosophical beliefs of reality providing an impact not just on the development of the research design, but also the way in which I perceive or view the learning processes?

Are my philosophical beliefs influencing the way in which I perceive participant approaches and perspectives of their learning processes?

Could a mismatch exist between the way that I perceive demonstrated learning processes, and the way in which participants perceive them?

Is there ultimately an ideal way in which learning processes should be perceived philosophically?

These are just few of the questions that I have with regards to this incredibly complex and challenging area of thinking and development, but it is worthwhile engaging with your own beliefs and engage with plenty of reading in order to develop and fully elaborate on a philosophical justification or serious of justifications as to why you are doing what you are doing. It is worthwhile engaging with your own beliefs as you can fit your research and yourself within the domains of philosophical considerations. A challenging area, but a worthwhile investment!

February 12, 2017

Latest Ph.D. Work Update!

Changes to Thesis, Upgrade Paper, and the Influence of Research Directions

Both the thesis and the upgrade paper have had significant changes made during the year so far in terms of their structure, particularly the thesis, and their content, particularly the upgrade paper. As I mentioned in the previous blog post the fact that a document has been rewritten several times shows progress of ideas and research directions, and different versions can act as a means of reflecting on the journey that has been made and the distance that the research has come. What’s useful is the continuous rewriting and editing efforts of the upgrade paper have acted as a guide for editing the structure and planned content of the thesis, particularly its literature review and background chapters. As a result all previous planned versions of the background and literature review chapters have been binned.

The change to both documents has come about through a more detailed exploration of a particular learning process that resulted in identification of a specific sub-process that appears to act as the backbone to many other sub-processes to a certain extent, as well as generating more concepts from existing literature that shall contribute towards contextualising the research in the literature review. The specific sub-process remains under researched: there are models and theories available that explain this particular process but I don’t think they are adequate or substantial enough to really explain what is going on within this process and its relationship with other sub-processes. That’s not to say that these models and theories should be considered no longer important: they are in particular contexts depending on the purpose and aim of the research, but for me they don’t explain the process in a particular way that I think is important and I think has been largely neglected.

All these changes to the research directions since the upgrade presentation have entailed the discussed changes to the thesis and the upgrade paper. The aim of the upgrade paper is still to prove the worth of my research, whereas the aim of the thesis is to communicate the completed research and its outcomes. An aim of the literature review now is to contextualise my own research through evaluating and critiquing the existing models and theories (as well as introducing relevant philosophical, theoretical, psychological and empirical concepts and literature) therefore identifying gaps within current research, and explain the way in which my research shall contribute towards solving identified issues.

The key here is to know where to start: and that is the challenge! Developing the structure however is helping me to know where to start, because structuring a literature review or any other chapter of the thesis or any other academic document means setting a structure for ideas. But this is in a non-regimented way: structuring ideas does not entail strict adherence therefore sections of each chapter can be chopped or changed around. It is up to you to decide the way in which your own literature review is structured, based on what you have read, the concepts you have developed from the literature, the critiques and evaluations of existing theories and models, and the categories within which you have placed the concepts you have developed as well as other thoughts, notes and analysis of the literature you have carried out. This is an ongoing and continuous task.

Philosophical Ideas

The more I read into philosophical ideas the more that I am beginning to be convinced of an ontological realism and epistemological relativism as being appropriate for my research, but it’s important to note that these are not exactly strictly adhered to. It has to be noted that I am not claiming to be a strict ontological realist and a strict epistemological relativist: these points are acting as a starting base for the research. Both points are the foundations for more substantial explorations into philosophical thinking and theories about the research design.

Currently, there are various philosophical writers that I am currently taking an interest in and are currently influencing my philosophical understanding of reality, and these are: Nietzsche’s Perspectivism, Popper’s Critical Rationalism, Hume and Kant’s discussions on causality, and various writings on fallibility, defeasibility, and social constructivism. From my current understanding all these different concepts of our understanding of reality is compatible with variants of realism and variants of relativism. Variants that recognise whilst there are aspects of reality that exist independent of our minds, not everything is independent; and, whilst objective knowledge and truth of reality might exist, attaining objective truth and knowledge of reality is difficult to achieve. I am beginning to form the belief that we will never achieve fully objective truth as our perspectives are all subjective to some extent. The best that can be achieved is to edge closer towards the truth and knowledge of reality.

Building the starting platform around ontological realism and epistemological relativism enables the beginnings of a philosophical justification for the research design, which is in addition to the methodological justifications built from knowledge gaps identified through analysing and synthesising research findings and the methodological approaches behind these findings.

The thesis is said to include several pages of philosophical insights therefore it is likely that an argument or even a small series of arguments shall be provided and fully elaborated upon, linking to the case study methodology and the grounded theory and interview methods. Providing a philosophical justification as well as a methodological (e.g., why is a particular research design use? Why are various components being used and in what way are they related through philosophy? Etc.), and practical justifications (e.g., why should the particular phenomenon be of interest? Why is the phenomenon of interested being explored using a particular research design?) That way, the thesis shall present cohesive, well structured, well grounded and logically and significantly elaborated research.

In summary

Upgrade paper has more or less been completed and was sent earlier the previous week for feedback, whilst the thesis is ongoing, as are therefore philosophical considerations. I am pleased with the progress that I have made, and moving forwards now it’s just a continuous case of developing the structure of the background and literature review chapters, as well as the methodology chapter, continue to code the data, continue to evaluate and synthesise existing literature, and continue to build a philosophical justification as well as fully elaborate on methodological and phenomena based justifications.

February 10, 2017

Thoughts About The Upgrade Process

The upgrade paper is no doubt met with a diverse range of opinions and experiences of both writing and presenting the paper, and it’s probably safe to say that more times than not there are Ph.D. candidates who begin to bang their heads on the keyboard as they attempt to unravel the mysteries of the upgrade process, nevermind the mysteries of their own research. But does it have to be so much of a mystery? The upgrade process is an academic process by which it is expected that an academic document, the upgrade paper, is produced along with a presentation but it’s also an emotional process. Doing a Ph.D. itself is not devoid of all human emotion and it does play on your emotions: happiness, sadness, anxiety, doubt, elation, depression, it’s an utter mixed bag relative to the mindset and perspectives of the individual. There is no getting away from that, hence why Universities have a set of student support services that are available for both undergraduates and postgraduates to use when they need. If you ever need them, use them!

Anyway, I am going off topic. I have been asked a question recently as to whether or not I view the rewrites of the upgrade paper as an unneeded distraction from the core of the research work that needs to be completed. It did not take me long to reach the conclusion that I do not find the rewrites and edits annoying at all, nor do I find that it distracts me. Why is this? Each rewrite and edit demonstrates further progression of the research and pushes and stretches my ideas into new directions I had not previously thought about whether that be philosophical, methodological, conceptual understanding of the phenomena of interest, or the structure and content of the earlier chapters of the thesis and potential, indicative ideas for the later results and discussion chapters though obviously it’s too early to determine those chapters.

Although, is the process of research development directly because of the process of actually writing the upgrade paper, or is it directly from my continuous reading and thinking about the subject? In a sense it can be a mixture: I am thinking about the subject as I am reading, and I am thinking about the subject as I am writing therefore the processes of reading, writing and thinking are all interlinked. As I am reading about the subject, my thoughts are linking together and as I am writing about the subject the ideas can forge new relationships with other ideas I never thought possible, and this can set up a whole new chain of thinking and reading requirements, and the cycle continues and the reedits flow. I do find this to be a positive process as my ideas progress, the directions of the research and of the thesis become clearer, arguments improve, and abstract relationships between concepts are established and recorded in each edit of the upgrade paper. I have a stack of digital copies of previously amended upgrade papers, which really only serve the purpose of demonstrating and tracking the development of my research. If you read the latest version of the upgrade paper that I have sent earlier for feedback, it looks near enough completely different to the first draft that I wrote. The original version is not even recognisable and I don’t even recognise it as my upgrade paper: but just the first draft that was completed in late summer.

What has proven to be of key importance with the process is that, in addition to an internal dialogue between my thinking and thought development, it has led to an effective, open, honest and productive dialogue between myself and my supervisor where we are really becoming acquainted with each other’s ideas and where we are coming from, and this I think is healthy and productive. I have stacks of emails sent between us as we discuss and debate different aspects of not only the upgrade paper but also of different aspects of my research and we have really engaged in that effective dialogue of thought development, and has helped to create new ideas and directions and upon researching these further, further ideas and directions have developed.

Do I find the process distracting? Not at all: the mixture of rewriting and reediting the upgrade paper, the internal dialogue between my thinking and thought processing, the dialogue between myself and the supervisor, and the almost you could call the general triangulation of thought development between thinking, reading and writing is a really beneficial experience. But it is important that this relationship between reading, writing and thinking go beyond the upgrade paper and onto the thesis.

Some Ph.D. candidates might become frustrated with the upgrade process, but stick with it and think of it as a means to opening an effective dialogue between yourself and your supervisor, and the internal dialogue as mentioned earlier. Think of it as a positive, beneficial experience of enhancing your research ideas, enhancing the directions, and a process that can take your ideas to places you never thought possible and relationships between ideas you never imagined existed.

Most importantly: be happy, be humble and feel blessed in that you have the ability and capability to enhance your thoughts and thinking, and to take your research to directions you never imagined possible and relationships established between ideas you never even considered at the beginning of your Ph.D. journey.

It’s a long journey: buckle up and enjoy the ride!

January 23, 2017

The Problem With Reality

Positivist perspective suggests reality is fully independent of human perceiving, thinking, knowing and knowledge of that reality, with all knowledge of that reality being readily accessible to the researcher through objectivist methods e.g., experimental methods and closed ended surveys. Interpretivism suggests reality is fully constructed within the mind, therefore fully dependent on the mind, and therefore no reality or aspect of reality exists independently of human perception or knowledge of it therefore our understanding and knowledge of reality mirrors reality itself. Realism suggests that there is a reality independent of the human mind but we cannot ever attain a full understanding of it, whilst Pragmatism does not really care either way (basically). At least, this is the way that onotological beliefs are presented in typical academic texts and research papers but in reality (no pun intended) there are nuances within each therefore the spectrum of ontological beliefs is more complex than what most authors tend to express. And, this is where my problem is.

Typically, a researcher at the ontological level is defined as either a realist, where there is a reality independent of the human mind, or a non-realist, where to some extent the researcher perceives reality as being dependent on the human mind. But in the context of my research and as a researcher, I find it difficult to imagine a reality that is completely independent of all human perceiving, understanding, and knowing. There simply cannot be a reality that is completely independent of the human mind when it comes to social sciences because humans are far too complex socially, emotionally, cognitively, spiritually and psychology to simply dismiss as empty states within research projects. Researchers also cannot be treated as empty states completely divorced from any influence upon the research process, as they come with a background of experience, perspectives, knowledge and preconceptions. Conversely, there simply cannot be a reality that is fully dependent on the mind of the participant or the researcher; in other words, I find it difficult if not impossible to imagine a reality that is constructed solely by our language, thoughts, perceptions, knowledge and experiences of that reality. This is primarily because ordinary observers can be misguided in some way with their thoughts, perceptions, knowledge and experiences of reality: just because we observe empirically that a stick bends in water does not mean that a stick really bends when it enters water. The mental states that are involved with developing our thoughts and perceptions might not be functioning properly, and therefore perceive objects that might not actually exist, or have certain thoughts that do not mirror what is really going on in that reality external to the observer, or believer. Or, we might have a sound set of mental states involved with the production of our perceptions and interpretations, but objects might be perceived differently based on our knowledge schemes and definitions of these objects. I’ll give an example:

Is a mountain bike a mountain bike because of a successful mapping between our knowledge schema and the reality of a bike? Or is it a mountain bike because of the way that we perceive its behaviour perhaps based on an internal knowledge schema: that it moves and functions as a mountain bike? Or is it a bit of both? What about if the mountain bike has a wheel missing: can it then be called a mountain bike if we define a bike in its characteristic of being able to move and transport a person from place to place? Can it still be called a bike just because it is similar to our knowledge schema of it? What about a bike that is left to rust for many many years and is no longer functional? Is a bike still a bike even if it can therefore change its formation from time to time?

A key ontological question here is: does a mountain bike really exist in itself, in its own form within reality, or does the mountain bike exist in accordance with the internal knowledge schema and successful mapping of this schema onto reality? It can be tentatively suggested here that a bike or a form of a bike really exists independent of our knowledge of that bike whether a person knows of a bike or not. A mountain bike might not exist in a person’s world, but that is not to suggest that it doesn’t exist at all: it has simply yet to be discovered. Now this is important because if we say that a mountain bike really exists in reality then we simply discover it, and the knowledge schema in our minds about a bike’s formation is simply an interpretation of what it really is. Another, shorter, example: some argue that a tree is a tree because it is a tree: it exist independently of our imagination and our minds therefore it is simply waiting to be discovered and not perceived or constructed. Others argue that a tree is a tree because we define or interpret it as a tree: a tree still needed to be defined in the first place as a tree, therefore its general shape and behaviour is interpreted as a tree.

What I am thinking currently is, in order to perceive an object of reality, that object has to have existed or exist in some form within the external reality. We simply could not have perceived a tree to be a tree or a bike to be a bike if some sort of formation that led to such definitions had not existed in the first place. Therefore in the context of my research work on learning processes within the social sciences, there has to be an independent reality or, more likely, there has to be aspects of learning processes that exist independently of my own understanding and knowledge of those aspects and independent of the understanding and knowledge of the participants. When we think about an interpretivist perspective, surely my interpreting of these aspects or objects of a learning process entail the existence of these objects, but those interpretations are what they are: fallible notions and theories of what is going on, and therefore susceptible to constant revision.

Therefore, interpretation is different to construction; interpretive philosophy, therefore, has to be different in form and function to constructivism philosophy despite them sharing aspects of relativism and subjectivism; but at the moment I find it difficult to adhere completely to an interpretive philosophy because I have the belief that aspects of reality exist independently from our interpretations. All interpretations are not necessarily wrong, but it might be the case where certain interpretations are closer to what is really going on in reality than other interpretations, but in what way can this be known? Can we really find out exactly what is going on in reality? Will it really be the case that our interpretations could match exact reality? This might be difficult to realise, because of the complex backgrounds that researchers bring to data analysis of learning processes and also dependent on what aspect of the learning process they are exploring. But if the learning process or even aspects of the learning process really exists, what aspects are they? And, in what way can I tell if they really exist or if I just perceive them to really exist?

More questions can be asked: what does this all mean for an interpretivist and constructivist methodology? Remember my previous blog post about methodological liberalism: I do not believe that methodology has to be tied to a particular philosophy; therefore in my research the case study methodology and grounded theory method can align with either realism or interpretivism. But what are the implications on case study and grounded theory?

I have starting points, backed up with the firm epistemological belief that our knowledge of reality is simply an interpretation of objects, object behaviours and of their relationships, and each researcher therefore shall attain different knowledge and understanding of these objects and their relationships relative to their experiences and knowledge of the phenomena of investigation. This does not suggest, though, that there are actually multiple realities but does suggest that to some extent there are independent objects and object behaviours that are interpreted by us. As mentioned, all interpretations would not be completely right, but some might be more right than others. I have starting points so I will be building up on these.

Ideas and arguments are continuously developing, but currently in the context of my own research some questions are: what exactly are the aspects that are independent of the mind, and what aspects are dependent? To what extent, therefore, can I claim to be a realist or an interpretivist? And, although I shall be able to ground my own interpretations of the data within the data itself, in what way can I judge which interpretations and hypotheses accurately reflect reality the most? Therefore, what would be the criteria for this grounding? Would my interpretations be different to others, and if so to what extent? And in what way would this affect the validity and reliability of the new theory?

And, no, I’m not going to talk about perceptions of fairies and pixies!

January 13, 2017

Philosophical and Methodological Relationship: Beginning of Higher Level Understanding

Finding a starting point in developing a higher level of philosophical awareness and understanding of the position of philosophy within the overall research design (not to mention tackling the limitless and diverse range of approaches, debates, discussions and analysis of approaches) is not easy. I originally approached the position of philosophy through coming to understand my own philosophical beliefs from which I selected the methodology and methods. Now the Ph.D. is beginning to enter the stage of more intense engagement with philosophy with the following guiding question: what is the precise relationship between ontology, epistemology, methodology, theoretical purposes, and methods? Perhaps the answer here is more subjective and relative to my research: surely the answers that I shall form to explain and detail the relationship are not universally acceptable? There is no right or wrong or easy answer to this question in general.

Philosophical and Methodological Independency

To begin forming an answer to this question it is important to understand Philosophy as an abstract, domain independent discipline. Philosophy as a general discipline explores reality in terms of the study of appropriate behaviour (ethics), the study of interactions with and beliefs about reality (metaphysics or ontology) and the study of our knowledge about reality and whether or not there is any real sense of knowing about reality at all (epistemology). It is domain independent because philosophy itself is not exclusive to any discipline although every discipline and category of disciplines has their own philosophy. For example, there is a philosophy of the natural sciences (natural world) and a philosophy of the social sciences (social world or social reality), and within each there is a philosophy associated with each discipline: with social sciences, a philosophy of economics, philosophy of religion, philosophy of psychology, philosophy of education and so on.

Understanding philosophy as an abstract, domain independent discipline enables ontology and epistemology to set out assumptions about the nature and structure of reality and the way in which this nature and structure can be known, but allows the theories and methodologies of a discipline to determine the specific approaches to knowing this reality. In other words, in the context of my research my own ontological and epistemological beliefs are imposed onto the research therefore the research investigation has set assumptions about the nature and structure of social reality and the way in which this social reality can be known. The methodology and methods detail the approaches used to come to understand and know this social reality, continuously working towards the development of a theoretical framework that conceptualises and explains certain aspects and relationships between certain aspects of social reality. They key here now is to begin enhancing, detailing, elaborating, and fully establish the relationship between the philosophical assumptions and methodological approaches.

When I began thinking about philosophy’s position in general in my own research, I came across Yeung’s paper titled “Critical Realism and Realist Research in Human Geography.” (For the record I’m not strictly following a critical realist route nor am I doing research in human geography but it’s an ideal situation to be able to expand your reading scope and think about concepts and approaches in other disciplines: but that’s another topic). In this paper, Yeung offers the position that “philosophy deals with the ontological and epistemological aspects of the social world whereas substantive social sciences themselves address the theoretical and methodological issues” (P.2). His position not only enables the beginning of understanding the relationship between philosophy, methodology, theory and method but also notions independency between them.

Methodological liberalism

The independency enables an argument to be made about free movement occurring between philosophy, theory, methodology and method or in other words methodological liberalism. But this is not usually observed as there is a sense of exclusivity among methodological writers: particular methods are associated only with particular methodologies and particular methodologies are associated only with a particular set of philosophical assumptions. Linking back to the previous discussion, philosophical and methodological considerations are related in the context of a research project, but are in general independent of each other in that a particular methodology does not necessarily have to always associate with a particular set of philosophical assumptions. This independency and liberalism of methodology can be quite a difficult idea to grasp but I am beginning to develop a firm belief that this is what is or should be really happening when learning about all these different philosophical and theoretical perspectives and methodological approaches. I’ll give you an example.

An original key author of grounded theory, Glaser, did not explicitly state ontological and epistemological assumptions therefore grounded theory is classed essentially as being independent of any philosophy. This has worked in its favour (or not, depending on your perspective) because different versions of grounded theory developed over the past few decades carry different philosophical (e.g, pragmatism and constructivism) and methodological (e.g., ethnographic grounded theory, phenomenological grounded theory etc.) assumptions and approaches suitable for a variety of different research designs and different types of data. Despite this sense of liberalism, most texts I have come across associate grounded theory with a qualitative methodology and therefore relativist assumptions about reality. Glaser and his writing partner Strauss professionally parted ways and Strauss with Corbin developed a different version of grounded theory, termed Straussian grounded theory, that was more methodologically comprehensive in that it contained a wider and broader set of principles and guidance for coding data. But even then, no explicit philosophical assumptions were made about Straussian grounded theory until several decades later when Strauss and Corbin made explicit associations with pragmatism and symbolic interactionism. Even so, this version has been used in a variety of different research contexts and it could be argued that its pragmatic nature enables it to be used in a variety of different contexts.

In my research I am using a case study as the methodology and grounded theory as a method, guided by a realist philosophy therefore both have to align with the realist assumptions adopted for the research. This is where I begin to establish that detailed, intricate relationship between philosophy and methodology: not only shall I explain the way in which case study and grounded theory aligns with the adopted realism principles in general, but also the specific version of grounded theory and case study and in what way they align with each principle. You can’t just say “I’m doing a case study” or “a grounded theory study” as you have to be explicit with the variety and variation of variety of the method and methodology you are using, as well as being explicit about the philosophical assumptions. Not easy, but it is worth it.

Therefore, when you are developing your research projects try to think about philosophy, methodology, theory and method as independent but related and important constructs of your research. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that certain methods belong to certain methodologies or that certain methodologies belong to a set of certain philosophical assumptions because this stifles and limits potential and creativity.

A question therefore has to be asked: in what way, exactly, do we justify the use of methodology and methods in our research? Perhaps the answer here lies not just in the common approach of comparing methodological application within empirical literature in order to identify knowledge gaps and therefore methodological needs, which itself is important, but also through philosophical justifications. Why are we always explicit in the comparison of different designs and base justifications on this comparison and existing methodological gaps in the literature, but yet are not explicit and reflexive enough on our own philosophical assumptions of reality and therefore offer little in the way of philosophical justifications?

And that, readers, is a different topic entirely.

‘till next time, keep thinking!


Glaser, B.G., Strauss, A.L (1967): The Discovery Of Grounded Theory: Strategies For Qualitative Research, USA: Transaction Publishers

Strauss, A., Corbin, J.M (1998): Basics Of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory, California: SAGE Publications

Yeung, H.Wai-Chung (1997): Critical Realism And Realist Research In Human Geography: A Method or a Philosophy In Search of a Method? Progress In Human Geography, 21 (1), pp. 51 - 74

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