All entries for Thursday 21 February 2019

February 21, 2019

Update On The Ph.D Work, Part B: Literature Positionality and Theoretical Framework

Literature Positionality


Because of the nature of inductive based qualitative research, different types of literature are positioned in different areas of the thesis. This took me a long time to understand and to understand where to position different types of literature in order to achieve different purposes, but things are getting there!


As has been mentioned, with the literature review chapter at the beginning of the thesis, literature is being used to develop a context within which I can justifiably place my research. This justifiable position comes as a result of critically analysing the way in which the social learning process and the technology of use has been defined, explored, and used before in various learning scenarios. This builds up a picture of the need to explore the specific social learning process within a particular learning scenario that is arguably unexplored or has not been yet fully explained, facilitated by particular technologies. This involves plenty of comparisons between different learning contexts and scenarios, and explorations and comparisons of the definitions, functionality and use of social learning processes and technologies within different learning contexts. That’s the aim of the earlier literature review in a nutshell. The type of literature therefore takes a broad view of the research context e.g., exploring the social learning process of interest within different technological contexts and learning contexts, and exploring the use of the technology of interest and its facilitation of social learning processes within different learning contexts. This gives weight to the justification of the research context of interest, because it indicates how the process and technology have been used and explored in different contexts, and can be used to explain how a different context can further explain aspects of the phenomenon of interest that arguably remains unexplored or / and unexplained.


Other types of literature shall be included in later thesis chapters specifically relating to the discussion of the themes. In a nutshell, the literature involved here shall involve literature that consist of similar themes to what I have found (if I did not do this, I would be falsifying findings, give misleading accounts, and would reduce the validity and verifiability of the themes), but I would use the discussions to show how I have explored the themes in a different way. This would include showing the differences in how I have explored the themes, the differences in context of theme construction, and the way in which my themes build upon what has already been discovered. The literature here is very specific and has a very specific purpose: to validate and verify the themes, and to provide a platform upon which I can build upon what already exists.


Thematic Framework


This is the core of the research and its development is a continuous and ongoing task and shall be right up to Easter and perhaps a bit beyond. However, feedback has suggested that I am nearly there! The themes appear to be fine and the codes themselves still need some work doing to them, but what I am finding is that changes to the codes do not necessarily mean changes to the theme, and indeed changes to the names of codes do not always necessitate changes to its meaning.


Meaning is a key word here and to write about the meaning of meaning (meta-meaning?) would take a thesis in its own right, but essentially because of the inductive nature I am applying meaning to what I interpret and perceive from the data (note that this does not reduce itself to relativist research as I am not adopting a relativist ontology). Themes and codes therefore capture the meaning that I am interpreting from the data, and together they describe and explain the phenomenon of interest: its behaviour, structure, impact, and existence.


In general I am getting happier with the way in which the thematic framework is going. There is still work to be done to it up to Easter and perhaps beyond, but I am pleased with where it’s going so far!


Update On The Ph.D Work, Part A: Literature Review

During the past few months I have come to grips with what should be included in the literature review, taking into account its nature as part of an inductive, thematic analysis approach that differs from that which can be found in quantitative based theses. With quantitative based literature reviews, the goal is, quite generally, to critically explore existing empirical literature to find a very specific theoretical or practical gap in the collective understanding of the phenomenon of interest. Typically, this gap is then addressed through building a testable theoretical framework that essentially frames the findings and associated discussions. In other words, the theoretical framework predefines data characteristics and findings that are of most interest and use to the research and in answering the research questions that derive from the framework. There is a very strict order here: the literature is explored first, and from the literature review comes the theoretical framework, from the theoretical framework comes the research questions, and as data is found relevant to the research questions their discussion context is framed by the theoretical framework. Every part of the research, as far as I can understand, is framed around the selected theories that guides data analysis.


Inductive based qualitative literature reviews are different in that there is no predefined theoretical framework that is developed, and, therefore, there is no need to test theories or have any discussions and findings framed around existing theories. The core aim of inductive based qualitative literature reviews, from my own understanding of them, is to establish the general overall context of the research and to justify why the research is being carried out. Arguably then where quantitative based literature reviews are used to develop a deductively testable theoretical framework, qualitative based literature reviews are used to establish a justifiable context for inductive analysis (though do note that the theoretical framework still needs justifying!).


With all that then, I am using the literature review to explore the broader questions. For example, with the specific technology I am using to facilitate social learning processes I am asking questions about how that piece of technology has been used more generally in Education. In what way has the technology of interest been used for so far within the context of social learning processes? What are the differences of use of these processes between different technologies and what makes a particular technology of interest more appropriate? What definitions have been provided regarding the particular social learning process? How have these social learning processes been realised in various learning scenarios through technological facilitation?


Questions like these assists with building a picture of what has been achieved before and be able to set the research within a justifiable context. For example, through asking how social learning processes have been realised and explored in various learning scenarios, you begin to understand how social learning processes have been approached, defined, and understood. From this understanding, you can begin to critically question this understanding and of what exists, and this in turn leads to locating your research within the existing literature with justifiable supports.


The literature review is still ongoing although much of it has now been completed. There is still a couple of concepts left to explain, but this can occur at a later time. The core of the literature review has now been completed!


A Year In Reflection, Part C: Thesis Progress

I apologise for the lateness of the continuation of the reflective posts, where I reflect over the past year’s progress. With this final blog post in the series of reflective posts, I shall focus on the thesis.

I find myself in an interesting position when it comes to the order in which the thesis chapters are being written. Typically, the chapters of a thesis are written in order: introduction, literature review, research design, findings and discussion of findings (I accept this is a very simplistic overview!). I appear to find myself switching between chapters at different times, that writing sections in later chapters help to further develop previous chapters, and that I appear to be writing the findings and discussion of findings chapter (albeit in very rough form) at the same time as engaging with data analysis.

Most influentially, the engagement with the data analysis process has shaped the development and direction of the literature review, the use of the literature, as well as the direction of the research design and the construction of the research design chapter. This is probably to do with the nature of the research: I am adopting an inductive approach to qualitative analysis, and I am coming to realise that inductive research shapes our understanding of not just the data but also the wider literature landscape. Additionally, the changes to philosophical and methodological stances, as has been reported in the two previous blogs, have occurred through engagement with the data. Furthering this, it is the process of critical engagement with the data e.g., the act of asking questions about the data, about what I was perceiving and interpreting from the data, that led to alterations of my philosophical and methodological stances. Ultimately this has led to the reworking of the research design chapter’s philosophical sections.

Reflecting further, I did attempt to write the research design chapter prior to data analysis, as is typically the case, but I found this difficult. I found this difficult because I had to predict what methods I was going to use, but because I was experimenting with different ideas I could not rationalise the decision making at that time. Therefore, I found it better to write the research design chapter (particularly writing about the application of the data analysis methods) at the same time as actually performing data analysis. I have found this to be very beneficial because not only have I detailed the different steps that I took (and as I continue to take) to analyse the data, I also detailed reasons why and justified every phase, every step, and every method of data analysis, and continue to do so. I do believe that I made the right choice in writing about the data analysis at the same time as actually engaging with data analysis.

Every stage and every phase have been carefully documented, related, and justified, with every data analysis method used also being justified. In addition to all of this, I have been writing continuous theoretical memos to document the analysis insights, observations, etc. that shall go towards the findings chapter and the chapters related to each identified theme.

Essentially, engaging with the data has not only added to my literature review chapter, but also added to the research design chapter and, as mentioned, impacted upon the directions of the research design including my ontological position as previously discussed. What I am saying is, yes you can begin with an ontological or / and epistemological stance with various research methods, and as much as you might get on well with those methods it does not mean that they are the correct approaches. I was using Grounded Theory for a while and I was getting on well with it till I started to perceive the data differently. These changes entailed a shift in ontological understanding of the data, which led to changes in the methods used.

Have some ideas to begin with but be prepared to be flexible and changeable in terms of your ontological and even epistemological positionality. What’s interesting is that my epistemological positioning hasn’t changed much: it’s the ontological position that has changed. This might sound a bit odd given that ontological concerns impact the epistemological level. Some writers argue that epistemological concerns logically entail ontological positioning. Whilst this is true, what I am arguing for is that there does not have to be a strict adherence to this relationship. A realist ontology should not always necessitate an objectivist epistemology, for example.

In summary, try not to trap yourself in the idea that you simply must write a thesis in a particular order and in a particular way. It’s best to be adaptable and dynamic and allow yourself to be guided by your thinking, your observations and your analyses rather than what could be perceived to be a set institutionalised approach to your writing. Of course you have to get the chapters completed in good time to be reread, proofread, etc, but not in such a restrictive way. If you find, like me, that your research is naturally guiding you towards writing more about the research design at least initially than the literature review then so be it. Be guided by what you do and what you observe. Seek advice and clarification yes, but be true to who you are and what you believe is right for your thesis.

Remember: you are the author of your thesis. No one else can write your thesis in the way and order that you believe shall bring out the best in yourself, and your thesis!


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