All entries for Thursday 15 October 2015

October 15, 2015

Ph.D. research design: as it currently stands

If there is ever a time to really think about the research methodology, the research questions, and the compatibility between research methodology and research questions, it’s now early in the Ph.D. process. The first year was really more of an introduction to research methodologies and to give you a chance to explore various methodologies and methods, but the second year (of the part time version anyway) begins the nitty gritty of really thinking about your methodology and methods in preparation for collecting and analysing data and also in preparation of the Upgrade paper and presentation (not to mention the literature review and methodology chapters of the thesis). When I really think about the design that I am creating, it is fairly flexible: it needs to be, and it needs to be absolutely accurate and correct because the design advocates a theory building context so the validity, reliability, accuracy, compatibility, comparability, and the use and merging of different forms of data and methods are well thought out and documented otherwise the theory could simply fall apart.

Previously I had been thinking about combining quantitative and qualitative data in with Grounded Theory but I’m having difficulties in figuring out the way in which these very different forms of data could merge (even though there are some comments in literature that suggests that this is possible) given that Grounded Theory’s analytical processes really are designed for qualitative data. Even the Constructivist Grounded Theory from what I can currently understand (still learning about it) does not deal with quantitative data. I do understand though that Constructivist Grounded Theory does take into account the values, perspectives, and so on, of the participants and the researcher more so than previous versions of Grounded Theory when it comes to the development of a theory. A potential problem here that I can vision is that a lot of the perspectives of the participants are due to be collected using quantitative processes within a survey method: I might have to redo the design of the survey to increase compatibility but I will have to do more reading and thinking into this area of using surveys with Grounded Theory.

Alternatively, I might not need to alter anything too much as I have found an interesting paper that described its research methodology as a mix of Grounded Theory and other methods including a Survey not in a Mixed Methods context, but in a more flexible context. Further reading into such a design that accommodates both qualitative and quantitative data and the use of multiple methods and perspectives with the aim of developing a new theory has led to the finding of what could effectively and broadly conceptualise and explain my research design. What is it called? Drum roll please………..

A flexible, triangulated theory building design

Now then, obviously I am taking on a fair bit here because I am not planning, designing, developing and implementing a single method, single approach design: I am planning, designing, developing and implementing a multi-method, potentially multi-perspective, research design that aims to develop theory as reliability and valid as is possible.

The biggest challenge here for me is to design not only the individual methods, but to design the entire methodology in a way that the results from all methods can merge as cohesively, coherently, reliably, feasibly and validly as possible, in a way that can assist with effective theory building and a substantial understanding of what is really going on within the phenomenon of investigation.

This shall include very careful consideration of the design of each method, suitability of each method, and very carefully planning the merging of the data at analysis level. There are going to be lots of areas to address in particularly the possibility that the research shall contain both positivist and interpretivist paradigms. I am not sure if this really will occur but if so, given that I am a constructivist this might prove to be interesting. Also what needs addressing are the different arguments for and against different methods, and the problems associated with each method and a way that a cohesive and coherent plan and design can minimise or eliminate these problems and therefore generating more reliable and valid findings, leading to the development of theory that is grounded in research that is well designed.

Interesting times in the research design: lots to think about, lots to write about, lots to read about, and lots of planning, designing, experimenting and implementation! It all feels a little daunting, but I know that I am on the right track and the methodology that I propose is the right methodology for the context and phenomenon of exploration.

Obviously all this shall be in consultation with the supervisor and shall be assessed at the Upgrade presentation. In the meanwhile: strong hot chocolate and late nights!

Initial thoughts about Constructivist Grounded Theory

The more I consider my own perspectives of reality and the way that researchers acquire knowledge of reality, the more I lean towards Grounded Theory as part of my Ph.D. research design. Grounded Theory, regardless of its flavour, is a research methodology that guides the researcher into constructing a theory of a phenomenon from an interpretation of the data itself using a series of codes, concepts and categories. It is a method of abstract and conceptual thinking where theory is built from these codes, concepts and categories and relies on logical, reasonable interpretations of the data and extensive documentation (in my case, the Ph.D. thesis and probably some part of the appendices).

Grounded Theory was originally a marriage between two different perspectives of reality from two different sociologists: Barney Glaser and his stance on Positivism, and Anseim Strauss and his stance on a more interpretivist approach, and eventually because of these differing stances they both professionally separated and promoted their own versions of Grounded Theory in a series of their respective publications. However, despite various flavours of Grounded Theory the variety that is currently receiving a lot of attention from me, and therefore selected as the preferred flavour of Grounded Theory, is Constructivist Grounded Theory, whose Philosophical roots lie in Pragmatism and Relativism and is developed by a student of Glaser and Strauss called Kathy Charmaz.

I first came across Constructivist Grounded Theory right at the beginning of the Ph.D. over a year ago but had not given it much thought at the time: what attracted me initially at the beginning was the term “constructivism,” which immediately suggests that some sort of marriage between the researcher, the participants, and the construction of reality. Now that I have gone back to re-examining my research design, Constructivist Grounded Theory is my favourite type of Grounded Theory so far. There are arguments made by various authors, particularly Glaser, that suggests that Constructivist Grounded Theory goes against the principles behind the development of Grounded Theory, but it can also be suggested that Grounded Theory was originally conceived at the time when Positivism and Realism were the dominant philosophies of research. Constructivist Grounded Theory was developed in the 1990s at a time when Social Science research paradigms began to lean more towards Constructivism, Interpretivism and Relativism based Philosophies.

I shall be using Constructivist Grounded Theory as part of my research design to build a new theory of the phenomenon being investigated, primarily because of the social constructivist orientation and also because it encourages the development of a literature review prior to data collection whereas the other varieties of Grounded Theory advocates the development of a literature review after the data collection and analysis and I do not really agree with that perspective.

More ontological and epistemological considerations

I am beginning to reject the notion of an objective reality and the notion that researchers should be as objective as possible when considering their research design. That probably caught your attention, so I shall rephrase that: I am beginning to reject the notion that most people can reach objective truth of reality; objective reality exists, but in ideological form rather than a realised form that is easily accessible. I suggest that everything that we know about reality, the way we come to know reality and the processes involved in developing our knowledge and understanding of reality is subjective, contextual, temporary and situated. Objective truth and the development of objective knowledge of this reality is impossible to attain because no human being can possess the totality of human knowledge and if any human being were capable of doing so, the total amount of all knowledge that exists and can be known is nowhere near as much as what is yet to be known. What is yet to be known could be described as being infinite: we simply cannot predict what we could know in the future, both on a personal level and on a wider, social, communal, global level.

I am therefore beginning to come to understand and believe that there is more to our role as junior and senior researchers than passively standing “objectively” aside, observing reality and collecting data of this reality and its behaviours using whatever data collection techniques we choose and analysing this data using whatever analytical models and methods we choose. There appears to be arguments, especially in the Social Science areas, that support the notion that the researcher’s perspectives, beliefs of reality, perspectives of knowledge and of knowledge acquirement and development influence the design of the research.

I have held a constructivist perspective for many years: I believe that we as individuals construct our own reality and have our own ways of acquiring knowledge of this reality. Cognitive Constructivism, advocated by Piaget, explains this from an individualist perspective whilst Social Constructivism, with its roots in Vygotskian theory, involves the construction of meaning and awareness of this reality within a social setting and is a very common Philosophical perspective of researching social learning. A sense of building a common consensus of objective meaning and knowledge of reality could be possible within a social learning setting but this could also be classed as subjective because the group would only be working with firstly the amount of knowledge and awareness that currently exists within the group, and the amount of extra awareness and knowledge that is obtained throughout that group’s timeframe of existence.

The following questions I have been thinking about and might consider developing answers and arguments for within the Ph.D. thesis:

Could a researcher, even within a Social Science discipline, really be objective?

Is a researcher drawn towards research methodologies more so because that methodology and methods match their framework of perceptions, beliefs, perspectives, values and attitudes of and towards reality?

Are we as individuals within our society really be able to reach or understand objective truth about reality, or will people forever be led by their own preconceptions, perspectives, values and attitudes of and towards reality?

What should be the extent or role of a researcher’s subjective framework of beliefs of reality play on their role of being a researcher and the development of their research design?

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