All entries for Tuesday 20 September 2016

September 20, 2016

Current Reflections On Mixed Methods Methodology

Right at the beginning of the Ph.D. all researchers are presented with an introduction to various research philosophies and methodologies, and the many ways in which these have been defined and applied. The research introduction is not extensive: it is designed to initiate your thinking about what philosophical perspectives, methodological approaches and methods might be suitable for your research. Usually it also introduces you to some of the general advantages and disadvantages of and some of the more general arguments for and against each approach. Basically, it acts as a platform upon which you jump off into a much wider arena of discussion, debate and application.

At this point, given that the state of the research is in the upgrade process, my experience of mixed methods has revolved around designing and developing mixed methods as a methodology guided by a case study strategy, which itself can be applied to a research design in many ways but this will be discussed in another blog post, underpinned by a critical realist Philosophy. Explaining the way all this fits together is beyond the purpose of this blog post, but specific to mixed methods and thinking about the way that mixed methods can work with my research design has been an extremely interesting adventure and continues to be so.

When I began thinking about mixed methods methodology I found various typologies that explain the way in which different components of a mixed methods methodology fit together, and their general functionality. Creswell is a prolific writer of mixed methods research, and has come up with various typologies of mixed methods designs: sequential, concurrent, embedded, and transformative. When I first began reading through the various types and their applications, I initially chose concurrent parallel variety but then changed to sequential exploratory. Read previous blog posts to read all about why the transition took place.

Initially, I thought these typologies were fixed with no flexibility with their amendments to fit particular contexts. I did struggle with this somewhat as the context calls for some amendments to take place, but had decided to put these amendment ideas aside for the time being. Through the trialling of grounded theory (to be discussed further another time) and through careful reading so far of relevant grounded theory and case study literature, I found that methodologies and methods are continuously shifting and amending based on current discussions of research methodology. Following this, literature was discovered from various authors criticising typologies from Creswell and other mixed methods authors, stating that these typologies are not meant to be used in an absolutely unchangeable way, but should be used as a guide and therefore amendable relative to the context.

Reading this has been somewhat of a relief. Since the research is based on theory development I wanted some process or element of the design to deal with theory refinement following the development and testing phases. I am now amending the sequential exploratory approach developed by Creswell to reflect an iterative, extra phase of theory refinement.

Reading methodologies, methods and even philosophies are continuously shifting concepts adds a new layer of complexity to understanding, designing, developing, testing and applying a research design. Not only are there actual philosophical perspectives and methodological approaches, and methods, but these are shifting positions all the time with researching continuously adding, for example, different philosophical arguments for or against different methodological approaches. Research can combine philosophies, methodologies and methods in various different ways relative to the research problem, the research questions, and the skills and experiences of the researcher. This would lead to not just simply applying a particularly defined approach to exploring reality, but also gives the researcher a chance to remedy criticisms and push the boundaries of methodological knowledge.

When a researcher begins to realise this, a new chapter begins. A new layer of understanding begins as you explore to the most detailed and in-depth level what research philosophies, methodologies and methods are about and to locate opportunities to extend and push current knowledge about these different philosophical and methodological approaches.

I have really only just begun to realise and push for developing new philosophical and methodological arguments and perspectives relative to the research problem and the phenomenon of interest. This is risky, I’m not sure if it will work, but I feel that what I am doing is right. Sometimes you just have to take that academic risk to push forward with what you want to achieve, because knowledge cannot push forward to new arenas if no person is willing to saddle up and ride the horse of knowledge! I’ll be talking about this adventure more in future blog posts.

‘till next time: keep playing with your designs!

Are All Research Designs Pragmatic and Relativist?

Developing a research design is quite an experience, and is a complex mesh of investigating and exploring different philosophies, strategies, methodologies and methods and, in the case of my research design, the way in which they can be combined and / or amended to fit the research context and research questions. I continuously reflect upon my research design and question it, and the process of actually getting to the point where I have a research design therefore sometimes I wonder if the design, regardless of its philosophical positioning, is actually pragmatic and relativist process.

I reflect on this question because research design development is based on our own prejudices, experiences, philosophies and theories, and the identified research problem. The way that we interpret and understand reality can in some way limit the way that we choose to investigate reality, or in some way restrict ourselves with our research design preferences, and the reality of the research problem. But should our own preferences determine the research design or should it be the research questions? This depends, in my opinion, on several factors including our experiences and developed skills, and enthusiasm for other approaches. A solid quantitative experimental researcher, for example, might not be able to learn about qualitative ethnographic or coding approaches within a short space of time required to complete a research project. They might not even be willing to actually do this instead continue to view reality and all research problems through the lens of an experimentalist. Research textbooks do emphasise the idea that research questions do drive the research design, but is this absolute? Are research questions the only factor?

Where do research problems come from? Are they constructed by the individuals or are research problems already out there independent of human thought waiting to be discovered? What makes us identify research problems in a different way to other researchers? I identified the basis of my research project many years ago through observation, and it has taken many years of reading and an MSc course to really refine the research to where it is now and even then refinement is still an ongoing process. Perhaps research problems exist independent of a researcher’s perceiving, understanding and knowing them but each researcher perceives and chooses to explore the problem in different ways based on prejudices, experiences and so on. Perhaps they are not actually independent and depends on our interpretations and engagement with the natural or social reality?

Our perspectives of reality do not have to be fixed and certain: my own philosophical views have changed from a relativist perspective to a critical realist perspective, and this has entailed a change to my methodological approach to investigating reality and the research problem. The research questions have changed numerous times as I have read and explored the phenomenon of interest further. Understanding reality is more than just statistically analysing two or more variables in order to correlate them and create a cause-effect relationship and then to go on testing this relationship. Understanding reality is also more than just a researcher enveloping or immersing themselves with participant observation and experiences. Reality is more than just being a single, certain, absolute reality easily accessible and understandable through using hypo-deductive scientific methods and it is more than just being based on our subjective knowledge and experiences of reality

Does this make the process pragmatic and relativist? Pragmatic as in, I am selecting “whatever works” to address the research questions and the research problem therefore I perceive from reflection upon my own perspectives of reality that a critical realist case study using a mixed methods approach is the most appropriate design for this research. Relativist as in, I have developed the research design relative to the research problem, relative to my own philosophical views, and relative to the methodological concerns that I have identified in existing published literature.

This is something that is worth continuing to think about!

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