March 29, 2017

It's All Starting To Click!

Within the early stages of the Ph.D. you shall be forgiven if you arrive at early conclusions regarding the relationship between philosophy, methodology, methods and data. It is easy in the early stages to subscribe to the notion that, for example, qualitative data and qualitative inquiry in general is situated only within a combined Philosophy of relativist ontology / subjectivist epistemology; similarly, it’s easy to subscribe to the notion that qualitative data comes only from interview methods.

Why is this the case?

I arrived at these assumptions prior to and early in the Ph.D, based on what I was reading at the time. Research papers gave the impression that statistical analysis and experimental designs aligned only with objectivist perspectives and that qualitative data and associated analysis aligned only with a subjectivist perspective. However, the more I read the more I questioned my own assumptions about the relationship between philosophy, methodology and methods and found that this relationship is far more dynamic than I had imagined, and that really there is no such thing as a linear relationship between them. This relationship is fluid, and the more I read and thought about my own beliefs I am now finding much fluidity even between ontological and epistemological perspectives, and this is what I shall initially call Design Flexibility.

Design Flexibility

Design flexibility does not adopt a sceptical perspective of the existence of an actual relationship between philosophy, methodology and methods, but is sceptical of any assumptions of a linear relationship where a particular perspective entails the choosing of other specific perspectives. There is no rejection to the idea that ontological perspectives influence epistemological perspectives, which in turn influence methodological perspectives, but there is a rejection of a predetermined linear relationship. More recent methodological textbook authors arguably lean heavily in the direction of philosophical and methodological dynamism therefore acknowledging that reality and our understanding of reality is so complex that there are limitless ways in which reality can be perceived and the way in which we come to know this reality, which influences the way in which we explore this reality.

Applied to my own thinking, my philosophical beliefs line with subtle realism, developed by Hammersley. Typically, a realist ontology is accompanied by an objectivist epistemology suggesting a reality independent of our thinking and knowing, and knowledge of this reality being discoverable and accessible within this reality as knowledge itself exists independently of our minds. But design flexibility suggests that even though the realist ontology and objectivist epistemology is commonly observed particularly in the natural sciences, it doesn’t mean that they are in a strict dependent relationship. Hence, my epistemological beliefs align with subjectivism: I perceive a reality independent of our minds but we do not have access to all knowledge and truths of this reality. We will never come to fully know or grasp objective reality and truth of this reality through our perceptions and theories about what is occurring within this reality: the best that we can do, and the best that I can do with the theory that I am developing, is to represent certain actions and events within reality without claiming that I know for certain that what I theorise is really what is happening.

Another example of design flexibility is at the methodology level. Typically, qualitative inquiries are not associated with realist philosophies as they are mostly aligned with constructivist or interpretivist based perspectives (relative ontology; subjectivist epistemology) but I am attempting to place my qualitative inquiry within the context of realist ontology, subjectivist epistemology with the type of subjectivism leaning towards interpretivism. There is a small but growing body of literature that suggests the usefulness of qualitative inquiries being situated within this philosophical context therefore it is an aim of mine to attempt to contribute towards further discussion and development of this area of qualitative inquiries.

Then there are the methods and various qualitative approaches within which these methods are situated. Qualitative inquiries can not only be situated within a variety of different ontological and epistemological combinations but also adopt a variety of possible different general approaches with the most typical being ethnography, phenomenology, grounded theory and case study, but there are many more approaches and each of these can typically be combined e.g., an ethnographic case study. The qualitative approaches that shall be used are case study and grounded theory.

And to add to this already banging-head-on-keyboard-moment-as-you-work-through-all-this-stuff are the various types of case studies and the various types of grounded theories that have to be selected or further developed if no existing version exactly matches research aims and general context of the research design. For example, because of the adopted philosophical perspectives, I have to not only think of ways in which the particular type of case study and particular type of grounded theory adopted, or further developed, in this research work with each other, but work with each other within the philosophical perspective, which should lead to plenty of opportunities to expand on current discussions and development of research designs.

What has been discussed in this blog post is not the full story either: there is so much more beyond what I have discussed here but for the purpose of this blog (and my sanity) I have kept discussions brief and relative to my continuous thinking and development progress,

There you have it: completely and utterly bewildering and confusing at first, but keep fighting your way through because it is worth it. I think, perhaps, yeah, it is, I’ll let you know in time……..

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