A Year In Reflection, Part A: Philosophical Changes
A key change enabled me to understand the data in ways that I had not previously considered. This new philosophical understanding paved the way for changes at the methodological level (my approach to coding and interpreting the data: discussed in the next blog post). These changes are as a result of carefully thinking about the nature, structure, source, and origin of the data. All of this shall be discussed in the thesis.
In a nutshell, several years ago initial thoughts about the social learning phenomenon led me to consider different kinds of texts that could represent the social learning process of interest. Putting the research questions and research issues central enabled me to decide which type of text best represented the possibility for a real understanding (reality, or as close to reality as possible) of the social learning process. Essentially, it came down to deciding between investigating the beliefs and experiences that participants had of the learning process, and the investigation of the learning process itself and bypass beliefs and experiences of the process. Because my research revolves around the search for what is real instead of what is perceived, I decided to investigate the process itself. Thinking back, I know I made the right choice. In order to better understand the process of learning you have to explore the process itself or so I shall argue in my thesis.
The problem I had at the time, even as recent as earlier this year, was this idea of what is “real,” what is “truth,” and the extent to which the particular body of text produced by the participants demonstrated a truthful representation of the process. In a nutshell, my observations during the year, so I came to realise, enabled the transition from a more realist (particularly subtle realist) perspective to a post-structuralist perspective of the data. In a nutshell, this closer, but not necessarily absolute, leaning towards post structuralism came about because I found myself beginning to interpret certain data segments and their relationships or logical connections with other data segments in different ways, and I had not previously expected this. My previous thinking was that I expected myself to perceive or interpret data segments and connections between data segments in a specific (I suppose I could say linear) way. I had previously thought that these patterns of occurrences would be quite common and, therefore, discovering (interpreting?) that “real” essence of a particular process of social learning. What I found, unexpectedly, was something different: I was able to perceive or interpret the same data segment, and the same pattern of segment interactions, in different ways. So, not only did my understanding of the data change in terms of seeking specific characteristics and structures relevant to my research project, but the way that I perceived and interpreted the data changed.
This is not the conclusion of the story, however, and I have a lot of issues, questions, and challenges at the philosophical level with regards to the data, and the phenomenon itself. Some papers suggest that post structuralism does not reduce itself to relativism. In other words, from what I can currently understand, a post structuralist perspective does not necessitate the idea of there being multiple realities. I suppose what could be suggested is that post structuralism acknowledges and enables the possibility of multiple interpretations and perspectives of the same data set. But what does this mean ontologically? What ontological claims could be made? Is there really a form of reality that does exist beyond the text, but it ultimately has to be accepted that we can never truly acquire absolute knowledge about this reality? Is it a case that we can only slowly progress towards the truth of reality without completely attaining it? Is post structuralism, at least as is relevant and appropriate for my research, an epistemological perspective? If post structuralism is an epistemological perspective, then I cannot make any absolute claims of knowledge or knowing about the process of social learning; that, therefore, the segments and patterns relevant to the social learning process of interest can be interpreted in different ways. In other words, different sets of understanding and different threads of knowing can be established from the same set of data. I have been able to identify and interpret different sets of understanding from the same data set, but I have to stick with a “single” set of interpretations that best suit the research questions and the general research agenda, whilst, of course, acknowledging the potential for multiple interpretations. This is where post structuralism, from my current understanding, comes into play. Additionally, all this is, of course, accompanied with the relevant concerns and ways in which interpretations, etc, can be validated, verified, made more accurate, credible, etc. as discussed in a recent blog post. This is quite a topic to get your head around!
Either way, these are some of the questions I am asking myself at the philosophical level. As can be understood and appreciated, this is a complex topic and my ideas and arguments are in continuous development. Indeed, I am coming to accept that there are questions that I simply will not be able to answer, but being unable to answer a particular question that I have should not mean that I cannot present the question and begin to formulate some relevant arguments and possibilities. After all, a Ph.D. is not only a completion of a particular research project but it should also represent the beginning of something exciting and the beginning of new discussion and analytical possibilities.
In general, some of the philosophical concerns expressed here (not an exhaustive list) are ongoing concerns and are a part of a wider ongoing debate in academia. As mentioned, I am not expecting or expected to provide any solid, definite answers to these philosophical questions, but I am expecting to be able to contribute appropriately to ongoing discussions and debate about these, and more, issues.