All entries for Wednesday 04 April 2018

April 04, 2018

Mixed Methods Research Design: Should This Now Be Considered Suitable?

This past weekend has encouraged me to re-evaluate and re-explore the value of using both quantitative and qualitative data within my research project. This is an ongoing task that demands careful and reflective thought, and currently constructing diagrams that illustrate aspects of the design and the way in which these different aspects relate to each other, and the way in which the research shall now progress. Once I have completed these diagrams I shall be sending them to my supervisor for further feedback and confirmation of the design’s suitability. There are, not surprisingly, many thoughts, questions and ideas that I have about the emerging research design. As mentioned, going through all these thoughts, questions and ideas is an ongoing process but there are some key questions and ideas that I am focussing on at the moment with regards to the characteristics and aspects of the research design.


Firstly, and probably most importantly, should I reemploy a mixed methods approach? Is a mixed methods approach actually possible given the data collection context? Instead of collecting qualitative and quantitative data separately as is typically found in most mixed methods research, I have collected qualitative data and from this data set, both qualitative and quantitative data analysis shall be applied. I have a vision about what qualitative and quantitative data I want, but I am working through how this is going to be precisely and exactly realised particularly the quantitative aspect. I realise therefore I am not using mixed methods at the data collection level, but there appears to be a mixed approach at the data analysis methods level. This has implications at the methodology level: should mixed methods be confirmed as the appropriate approach to the research, then grounded theory becomes the qualitative method and not a methodology, whilst network analysis or some form of it becomes the quantitative method.


But here’s something to think about, and forms my second current thought and question: what comes between grounded theory and network analysis? What acts as the bridge that enables qualitative data to cross over into the quantitative realm? I think the answer lies in visualisation. In my understanding, a network is a visual representation or diagram of what is happening. A phenomenon can be understood through its aspects, features, events or activities and these can be represented as a network of nodes and connections. What I am attempting to do here is convert the concepts, categories and their relationships, products of grounded theory analysis, into a network. I am slowly working through how these grounded theory concepts can be converted into aspects of a network and this is going to take some time, but currently I am thinking that concepts and categories can be represented by nodes, and the relationships between categories can be represented by connections between nodes. What I am also interested in is exploring the relationships between these nodes because it is at these points where interesting observations and values can be obtained, but I’ve yet to figure out the way this can be fully considered. I’m thinking at the moment these relationships shall be related to the hypotheses that shall be developed as well as the properties and dimensions of categories and might also might be involved with quantitative analysis. The quantitative analysis shall be used to analyse these relationships to determine the strength between different types of nodes within different contexts, but the exact relationships and hypotheses that are to be explored are undetermined at this time and shall be until the qualitative data analysis section has been completed. This in a sense brings me to a third concern I am working on.


If my research is to adopt a mixed methods methodology again, what type of mixed methods should it be? My previous approach to mixed methods was a sequential exploratory type where qualitative data were to be collected and analysed first followed by the collection and analysis of quantitative data. This was therefore sequential in nature but I am not sure at this time whether my mixed methods approach now would be sequential or transformative: sequential because qualitative analysis will come after qualitative analysis, or transformative because it might be that some aspects of the qualitative data might be transformed into quantitative data. Is this even possible? It is in some context but I’m not sure if my qualitative data will be able to transform into quantitative and I am probably unable to know this till the qualitative analysis phase is complete and I begin to really look at the findings. At a push at the moment I'd say sequential exploratory: might be best to design both types just in case!


There are many other concerns that I now have that I shall be exploring further as my thinking and experimenting of the potential mixed methods approach progresses: in what way should I now present my research questions? The research questions shall have to change to better represent a potential mixed methods approach as the questions cannot be purely qualitative: a question must be qualitative and another must be quantitative but derived from an overarching question that brings both together.


Also, what are the implications on the use of literature and the roles of the literature reviews? At the moment I cannot imagine there being too many changes because of the important role that grounded theory shall continue to play in terms of identifying the nodes and connections of a network, which shall subsequently have some form or forms of quantitative analysis placed onto it (is this really network analysis, or something else?) although I shall have to double check the role of literature within mixed methods research.


What about the product of or the outcomes of the research? What is the nature of theoretical development within mixed methods research? A key role of mixed methods as described in some of the methodological literature is to both build and test a theory and / or a set of hypotheses. The qualitative aspect builds theoretical constructs and hypotheses and the quantitative strand tests these theoretical constructs and hypotheses.


What shall be or should be the extent to which grounded theory is used? Should I use grounded theory to the extent that a general theme of the learning phenomenon can be established and use that as the basis of the network construction and exploration? Or, should I use grounded theory to the extent that categories, relationships and hypotheses can emerge from the data, but use an existing overarching theoretical framework to guide their use in the network construction, and use quantitative analysis to test the identified relationships and hypotheses that come from the qualitative stage? I am not sure at this time.


What about the case study methodology? Should I return to thinking about the value of a case study methodology with mixed methods approach encased within? There is some debate about whether or not a mixed methods approach really is a methodology and not just a strategy of the way in which methods are to be sequenced or arranged. I shall have to revisit this debate area.


I have so many questions at this time, so many more than answers but I have a plan to work through all these different questions and issues that I have discussed here and more besides. I shall probably be writing on here on a regular basis now if only to document this challenging yet exciting journey and therefore to help me reflect upon my ideas and their development.


Thanks for reading! If you’re on your Easter holidays still, continue to have fun!


Research Design: A Reflection and Possible New Direction

Not only have I been stuffing my face full of Easter goodness (hot crossed buns and Easter eggs) but given that the newly added methods to my research design have been confirmed and accepted as being appropriate as a result of coming to know the phenomenon of interest in a way I had not previously considered, I have been rethinking the structure and process of my research design. This is particularly since this past weekend where I had the revelation that perhaps I should return to and re-evaluate the value, worth, role and purpose of combining qualitative and quantitative data within my project. A current task is therefore to think very diligently, carefully, strategically, and comprehensively about how qualitative and quantitative methods can analyse the data, and how qualitative and quantitative data can be combined or utilised in a way that can comprehensively describe and explain the phenomenon of interest unachievable by a single approach.


An Emergent Research Design?


What has struck me recently is that my research design can be characterised as emergent. The newly added methods and the possible re-evaluation of the methodological approach has emerged from further understanding of the data, further understanding of existing literature, and further understanding of the different types, structures, processes and outcomes of the phenomenon of interest. Further, these sources appear to triangulate to provide some sort of justification for what has emerged e.g., what I have observed in the data and the need to explore these observations further can be backed by existing literature, and both give rise to the need of the additional data analysis methods and perhaps a rethink of the methodology and research questions. This idea of an emergent research design appears to be a characteristic not just of grounded theory but qualitative research design more generally.


Essentially and I shall be writing more about this in the future, the research design emerges as the data analysis progresses with further readings as necessary to support the need for any emergent research design aspect. Where I am now with the research design and the inclusion of network analysis as a method has come from what I have observed in the data. In other words, the need for such a method has emerged from understanding the data, from observing particular patterns and trends, thinking carefully about the way these trends and patterns could be explored more comprehensively, and the potential value and worth their explorations might offer to the research.


Let’s take a brief journey in time to reflect on where I have been with the research design


The Journey of the Research Design so far


The Ph.D. research began prior to the Upgrade process as a mixed methods project, where mixed methods approach was introduced at the data collection level where the idea was to collect qualitative data from observations of the learning phenomenon and quantitative data from surveys. After a series of doubts started to creep in following the submission of the original Upgrade paper about the data collection methods and the context of the quantitative data collection and analysis aspect, and after discussions with the Upgrade member panel and the supervisor, the approach was dropped. The qualitative aspect was kept and therefore, grounded theory became the sole focus of the research design. Grounded theory became the methodology and its coding package became the methods of data analysis.


For many months after I began to downplay the relevance of mixed methods approach in my research and began to focus exclusively on learning about Grounded Theory and the way that I can utilise Grounded Theory within my research context, which again has been documented extensively throughout the previous year. I also began to realise and became aware of the complexity of my philosophical beliefs both at the ontological and epistemological levels though had not travelled down to the methodological and methods level because of my continued denial of the value of a mixed approach to understanding the phenomenon of interest. I did, however, later in the year and earlier this year seriously began to challenge the theoretical orientation of grounded theory and began to really believe that symbolic interactionism (the most common theoretical framework of grounded theory) was not compatible with the research context and began to search for other possible frameworks. Again this has been documented in earlier blog posts. I also began, through reading through more existing literature and the draft writing of earlier thesis chapters, to challenge my own understanding of the phenomenon of interest: the way I perceived it, the way I approached its exploration, and the way I could define it.


This led then to me challenging the way I had used grounded theory previously to analyse the data and I came across a startling thought: grounded theory could be used to recognise a central theme of the phenomenon of interest and theorise about the phenomenon around this theme, but I began to doubt grounded theory’s ability to theorise or hypothesise about the progress and process of the phenomenon of interest over a period of time. It was not, so I came to eventually realise, the central theme of the learning phenomenon that was the only product of the research that is of interest to me: it’s the way in which the learning phenomenon initiates and is sustained over a period of time. This I think is an area that is not addressed by grounded theory.


Where am I now with the Research Design?


Grounded Theory is still of interest and of importance to the research in terms of, from what I can currently understand, identifying a central theme to the phenomenon of interest, and to theorise about the phenomenon in accordance with this key theme. However, in what way do I explore the progress of the phenomenon of interest and the way in which this learning process can be sustained over time? This is where network analysis comes into play. But here is something else: I have always created diagrams and “networks,” if you will, about what is occurring in the data in order to help me understand what is going on in the data but I had not considered these diagrams as being somewhat of an independent data analysis method in their own right as I always thought of them as part of the grounded theory. But as I drew out more of these diagrams I began to realise that I was making observations and identifying trends that perhaps grounded theory on its own might not be able to explore to a substantial extent. At least, not to the extent that I am now interested in.


More significantly, I’ve very recently began to think about the way in which I could use these diagrams to further explore the phenomenon of interest through network analysis and the inclusion of quantitative analysis to test hypotheses and theoretical constructs that have and shall continue to emerge through grounded theory analysis. And therefore, a reintroduction of an old idea: the mixed methods approach!


And that shall be the topic of the next blog post!


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