As part of our Ph.D. research and training, we must try to avoid polarising our beliefs and, therefore, subscribe to a stance, position, approach or method just because it appears to be the most convenient and approachable. What might be convenient and approachable might not be appropriate and relevant for the research problem and nature of the research context. It is part of our emerging identities as researchers to think very carefully about who we are and what we do, to take a critical stance towards every decision that we make, reflect on our decision making to ensure that there are no gaps that could cause methodological or practical problems, and to therefore ensure that every element of our research design connects reasonably and logically.
Earlier this week as part of the qualitative section of the methodology chapter, I began to describe the characteristics and features of qualitative research. As I began to relate characteristics and features to the research setting and context, phenomena of interest and the position of myself as the researcher (research positionality: I shall discuss this more in the future), I noticed that I was beginning to discuss the idea of complexity. Qualitative research, I was saying, is useful for exploring the nuanced, complex existence of social phenomena and the complexity of the setting of the phenomena of interest. It struck me there and then that this complexity of the existence of the phenomena of interest and the way that we come to know this complex existence was not mirrored by my awareness and discussions of my epistemological beliefs. What was going on here? Was I beginning to doubt my own epistemological beliefs? Or did I simply become immediately aware of the possible inadequate way in which I was perceiving and labelling my epistemological beliefs? This begs the question: can our epistemological beliefs shift as we progress through our research projects, or are our epistemological beliefs always in a constant state but that our awareness of their states continuously changes? Are epistemological beliefs therefore a construction in our minds, or do they pre-exist and we simply become more aware of them through various experiences?
Whilst I was tackling these complex questions (which are still being tackled), I completed the rough first draft of the qualitative section and began to tackle the grounded theory section. As I was writing this section I began reading through Birks and Mills (2015) publication “Grounded Theory, a Practical Guide.” Based on their comprehensive discussions of the philosophical and methodological developments of grounded theory, situated within the controversies and movements of the time, the authors advised students to be mindful of the possibility of what I call grounded theory methodological fluidity. I’ve talked about the idea of fluidity before and shall talk about this more in the thesis, but essentially the authors suggest that Ph.D. candidates should not simply subscribe to a specific grounded theory variety but to explore and experiment. Ph.D. candidates are therefore advised by the authors to draw upon and build upon the ideas and approaches of the multiple varieties and writers of grounded theory. This would lead to the development of a grounded theory approach that best matches the research problem, the nature of the research setting and context, the data collection method, and the position of yourself as the researcher. This overwhelmed me, because not only was I grappling with my own increased awareness of the complexity of my epistemological beliefs, I was also now beginning to grapple with the possibility of needing to draw from multiple varieties of grounded theory, and to build upon procedures and techniques presented in different varieties as necessary. I have the belief that there has to be a connection between the two: that a change in my awareness of my epistemological beliefs has led to a change in using grounded theory to analyse the phenomenon of interest.
Where am I with all of this now? Ontologically I’m still a realist: I still believe that there is a social reality that exists outside of our conceptualisations and perspectives of social reality and therefore there are social elements of social reality that do exist. The revelation here is that perhaps I have limited myself in the way in which I can come to understand these objective social elements or phenomena. Perhaps constructionism alone cannot fully capture everything that I am and everything that my epistemological beliefs have led me and are leading me in terms of my research design. But how can I at any time suggest that any particular epistemological stance really reflects how I can attain knowledge and understand phenomena of interest if my epistemological beliefs are continuously evolving? Or, more likely, that I am becoming more aware of what pre-exists in my mind? The simple fact is: I can’t! From the many months of reading and thinking about different epistemological stances, nothing really fits completely within my realm of coming to know about the phenomena of interest. This has to be because all of these difference stances: positivism, post-positivism, constructivism, constructionism etc follow set assumptions about the way that we as researchers come to know reality, the nature of our research problems, and our positionality. How we might come to understand and know about the phenomena of interest might follow a more post-positivist line, but my positioning of myself as the researcher and the way I engage with the data reflects a more dynamic approach. The best way I can really “label” my beliefs is to reread in more detail literature on different epistemologies and draw upon ideas and approaches from various authors and approaches, and develop strong argumentation for why I perceive the research setting and phenomena of interest the way that I do.
Methodologically, grounded theory is the only approach, situated in a qualitative methodology, that makes any sense to me. But what flavour now? Because of my increased awareness of my epistemological beliefs and the way in which I position myself in the research, and of the nature of the research setting, I cannot fully subscribe to the techniques and ideas of Strauss and Corbin’s version of grounded theory. I shall explore these issues and reasoning as the research progresses, but at this time it suffices to suggest that I will have to follow the advice of Birks and Mills (2015) and other authors. Their advice is to carefully, thoughtfully, reflectively, progressively, and critically draw on approaches and ideas from various key grounded theory authors (Glaser, Strauss, Corbin, Charmaz, Clarke and Bryant) that are most relevant and appropriate for my overall research design and research context. And, where necessary, to reformulate or build on existing grounded theory techniques.
To try to summarise all this: becoming more aware of the complexity of the research setting has caused me to become more aware of the complex nature of my epistemological beliefs. But a key question that I might like to tackle in the thesis is whether my epistemological beliefs have changed to become more complex, or if my epistemological beliefs have always been complex and I’ve only just become aware of this complexity. Can they change? Or is it simply the case that we become more aware of their complexity? Or is it a bit of both depending on what we experience and the way that we come to understand and build on this experience? This has to be reflected in my now new position on Grounded Theory: I cannot possibly capture the complexity of the research phenomena using just the procedures and ideas described by Strauss and Corbin. There has to be some sort of way that I can draw upon and build on the procedures and techniques from multiple authors that are most appropriate for my research design and research setting. But this I can only find out as I progress with my reading and testing of different techniques.
As for rereading the literature on epistemological theories and grounded theory approaches, as many authors state it’s not a matter of which array of writers you draw from and build upon, but it’s the way in which you can strongly defend and justify your positioning. What this means is there really are no right or wrong answers, but there is such a thing as a justifiable, defendable answer. And this, ultimately, forms the core of your thesis chapters and what you need to present at your viva. Overwhelming perhaps, and a little scary, but at the same time challenging, thrilling, motivating and exciting!
Reference / Bibliography
Birks, M., Mills, J (2015): Grounded Theory, A Practical Guide (2nd Ed). SAGE Publications
Urquhart, C (2013): Grounded Theory for Qualitative Research: A Practical Guide. SAGE Publications.
I have included Urquhart because she was the other author who influenced my now changing approach to grounded theory, though haven’t mentioned the author in the blog post as Birks and Mills publication was the first to really confirm the need for a change. That being said, both books are worth a read through if only to find out more about the idea of researcher leading the methodology and not methodology leading the researcher!