January 17, 2016

Engagement at the Philosophical level

The Ph.D. is not just about generating new knowledge about a phenomenon: it is also about being engaged at the Methodological and Philosophical levels. Being engaged at the Methodological level means really thinking about the methodologies and methods that have been used to explore and develop new knowledge about the phenomenon of investigation. The uniqueness of a Ph.D. therefore lies not just in thinking about it in terms of developing new knowledge but about the way in which this new knowledge is developed and understood. Being engaged at the Philosophical level means to think about your own perspectives of reality, the way that knowledge of this reality is collected, and understanding a variety of different Philosophical perspectives of reality and their relevance towards the research project along with understanding the way in which your perspectives of reality influences research design. This post shall deal with being involved at the Philosophical level.

Previous Thinking

Previously I thought of myself as a constructivist, an interpretivist, a relativist and a contextualist. I began to reject the notion of an objective reality and therefore had the idea that we create or construct our own reality, that therefore reality is a little different for each of us and that the way we come to understand and attain knowledge within this reality is different for all and our perceptions of the usefulness of related processes also differ.

This view was initially reflected in my own research design through favouring a qualitative methodology and using qualitative based methods to explore the phenomenon of interest. As time progressed however and a more significant understanding of the research problem and research methodologies was attained, I began to grow an appreciation for quantitative methodologies and methods. Philosophical and Methodological battles therefore began to occur as I attempted to understand the way that quantitative data could be included in a qualitative methodology. These battles were a reflection of the fact that what was occurring was going against the way that I perceived the relationship between reality and research exploration with Social Science disciplines: that you cannot define behaviour and generalise behaviour of phenomena through using statistical analysis and relationship between variables. But the more I thought about this (and the more that I continue to think about this) the more that exploring particular aspects of the phenomenon using quantitative analysis made more sense. Using a methodology where quantitative and qualitative approaches complement rather than compete with each other made more sense when an aim is to attain a substantial understanding of the phenomenon.

Current Thinking

There appears to be a group of researchers who subscribe exclusively to quantitative methodologies and methods and therefore perceive reality as absolute; that reality exists independent of our thoughts and behaviour of the mind and therefore can be understood through deconstructing or reducing reality down to a series of variables and exploring relationships between them. There is another group of researchers at the other side of the Philosophical and Methodological Spectrum who are exclusively qualitative; that they perceive reality as being relative and contextual, and that therefore each person develops their own reality within the context they are within. Then there are those in the middle who believe that reality can be understood through the complementation of both perspectives. Remember however that within Mixed Methods there can be no “mixing” or combining of these perspectives, only that they are used to deal with separate but related research questions and problem areas.

So where do I stand with all of this at the moment? I still consider myself as a constructivist: I perceive reality as being subjective, that each of us develop our own realities and that this construction of reality and reality itself is relative only to the context that we are within. But, I do and am beginning to value the quantitative relative to my own research problem and research question therefore I would place my own perspectives and research itself now towards the middle.

General Thoughts

Note that I am not suggesting that all Ph.D. candidates should immediately start considering the middle as the answer to everything. Which side you place your research is influenced by your own stances and understanding of its Philosophy and Methodology, and a sound grasp, understanding, and critical analysis of the relevant, current literature. The research questions, the research problems, the research purposes, the methodology that you select, and methods that you adopt should be led not by your own agendas and Philosophical perspectives, but by the needs identified in the literature.

What are you really investigating? What do you want to investigate? What are the constructs of your research? What are your Philosophical views? What way do you perceive reality? What methodology are you adopting? What methods are you going to use?

All these questions, and more, should be led by that understanding of the literature, and your own biases and assumptions need to be placed aside as much as possible. But this is not always achieved, as even the most objective person has even the smallest amount of bias and favourability towards particular research methodologies and methods. Researcher bias therefore is a big topic of debate within academia and the way in which researcher bias influences the results and therefore questions are asked as to what influences researcher bias to occur in the first place.

It is challenging when you really start questioning your own perspectives because some can go into a complete denial about the complementary aspects of differing methodologies and methods, but this is a challenge that all Ph.D. candidates should tackle. Again, don’t feel that you should subscribe to a particular methodology or method just because it appears fashionable, but go with what is right for your own research questions and problem areas. Once you feel authentic, you begin to produce authentic work, and therefore raise the respect and authenticity levels of research work as a whole.

‘till next time: question yourself and your views of reality, and do what is right for the context you are in!

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