July 10, 2016

Change, uncertainty, and doubt: opportunities or challenges?

Change, uncertainty and doubt are three concepts that define the dynamics and intricacy of post graduate research. Change occurs as time progresses and can manifest itself in many different ways such as a change to research question, a change to the philosophical perspective, a change to methodology, and a change to research methods. The extent to which a design changes over time depends on the open mindedness, awareness, knowledge and skills that a researcher possesses, which entails realisation of any faults of their research design in relation to the context of the research.

I have experienced change to my research design from the research question all the way to the research methods, as I have been documenting on this blog for quite a while.

But does change entail uncertainty? Should change entail uncertainty? In what way should change be observed? In what way can we observe and deal with uncertainty? In what way should we manage change and uncertainty so that they can lead to opportunities and not difficulties? In what way can we manage doubt?

These are complex questions that provoke different answers. Different researchers will have different ideas about the certainty, or uncertainty, of their design based on their open mindedness, awareness, knowledge, and skills. Uncertainty could come about through a change in the initial selection of design components, which could cause the researcher to think immediately about the validity and relevance of the design to the context. In this context, change causes uncertainty particularly to the validity and relevance of research design. Alternatively, uncertainty could have caused that change to take place: comprehensive reading and thinking could lead the researcher to feel uncertain to the extent that changing a component eases this uncertainty. In this context, uncertainty causes change. When I mention uncertainty I’m talking about reasonable uncertainty and not emotional uncertainty; that uncertainty is born from reason and logically thinking about the design and relevant literature, and not some emotional connection with a particular component.

There is a third scenario: this uncertainty, whether occurring before or after a change in design components, might be found to be built on contestable foundations therefore further thinking and reading could actually render this uncertainty as invalid therefore no changes to research components would be required. In these cases, uncertainty and doubt might not come from this awareness and open mindedness but from other domains or dimensions of the self: confidence levels, self esteem, and so on.

In my opinion based on my own experiences, change can lead to uncertainty but that does not mean that it shall occur every time, and it should be embraced more as an opportunity to improve the design rather than opening the door to being defeated and consigning the design to the bin. During the past year or so I have continuously changed certain aspects of my design. A couple of main examples I have talked about on here is a change from pure qualitative methodology to a mixed methods methodology, and a change from constructivist grounded theory method proposed by Charmaz to a version of the grounded theory method developed by Strauss and Corbin. Additionally, the identification of critical realism as being the most appropriate philosophical guide of exploring the context and phenomena of interest.

These changes have introduced a mixture of uncertainty and certainty, and this still continues. I feel more certain that the research design is the correct way of exploring the phenomena of interest within the defined context as a result of all the literature that I am continuing to explore and question, as well as the critiques and arguments that are developing. But there is a continued sense of uncertainty because of the apparent uniqueness of the design within the context of the research, and therefore is in a sense unproven, and additionally few relevant theoretical and conceptual papers actually exist regarding the design specific to the context. This shall make the research itself a challenge in the sense that whilst certainty in the validity and feasibility of the design shall improve in the future, certainty in its verifiability and applicability cannot be reasonably determined until the research has been completed, although the trial study shall certainly help in this aspect. Even following the trail period I shall never reach absolute certainty about the research design: this is impossible without actually applying the design, reflecting upon the design, and critiquing it.

Change, uncertainty and doubt can bring about feelings of being overwhelmed (although that itself can cause uncertainty) and probably an element of self doubt. Whilst this is understandable (been there, done that, and shall no doubt go through such feelings again particularly of being overwhelmed), change and uncertainty need to be embraced as providing excellent opportunities for development. Embracing them as such opportunities shall lead to creative thinking and of developing unique solutions to existing problems, and therefore provide interesting opportunities to further the platform of debate and discussion about such solutions and problems. In my opinion, uncertainty about research design should be celebrated and embraced, because uncertainty can lead to a researcher’s most prosperous, creative, and inspiring design choices and insights into the phenomena.

‘till next time: keep calm!

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