Ph.D Update: Philosophical Thoughts, Critical Review, and The Literature Review
Since the previous blog post, I’ve been working on various edits of an accepted critical review, along with writing an essay about Education (shall discuss this more another time), the literature review, and have been rethinking ideas about reality.
Conceptions of Reality
You might remember previous blog posts where I have conceptualised my epistemological beliefs as Social Constructionist and the subsequent posts where I have discussed my doubts about my own conceptualisations (yes, folks, you are allowed to question your own conceptions!). I am absolutely convinced that because of my increased awareness of the ontological existence of the phenomenon of interest that my epistemological beliefs go beyond constructionism
Constructionism, according to my current understanding of it based on the readings I have so far completed, originated in sociology and focusses on the importance of language and culture. It suggests that language is the driving force behind knowledge construction and attainment and cannot be separated from its culture. In other words, access to knowledge of reality is provided by language alone, and our understanding of reality and therefore knowledge attainment and construction is culture-specific.
Despite initial acceptance of this I began to struggle with knowledge derived from language and culture. The grounded theory methodology can allow language to be considered in its representation of nuanced occurrences of what might or actually exists, represented as concepts in the data and relationships between these concepts, there is no way I can gain understanding of cultural influences on the behaviours of the participants. I as a researcher am not embedding myself within any particular culture, and I do not have any direct access to the participants’ beliefs and perspectives. Therefore, as mentioned, I have no way in determining the way in which culture impacts the behaviours and thoughts of the research participants. But this, I realised, doesn’t really matter because investigating culture and its impact on participant behaviours isn’t relevant to the research problem that I have identified.
Another reason I began to struggle with a pure constructionist epistemology is that I have become more aware of the complexity of my epistemological beliefs and because of this, I am now taking inspiration from various epistemological perspectives including constructionism. Just very recently, I have come to understand that consciousness and awareness are important features of my thinking about reality and thinking about the existence of the phenomenon of interest.
What really is reality? What is the nature of existence of social objects? Do these objects really exist? How do these objects come into being within social interactions? Social objects come into existence because of interactions, but does that mean that if a particular social object does not occur at a particular point that they don’t actually exist? What if they do exist within a particular social interaction but are not perceived to exist? Does existence entail perception? What about awareness? Do we have to become aware of something in order to perceive a social object as being real? What if our perceptions are fallible and that what is perceived to exist does not really exist? How can I tell that what I perceive is real, and, how can I tell that the way that I perceive is just and sound?
These are just some of the questions that I am now asking myself with regards to the occurrences / existence of social objects within a social reality. This is important because how can we say that something exists if we are just perceiving it? How can we know that what we perceive really exists and what gives us any justification to claim that something exists?
This is where phenomenology comes into play, and I’m only just recently beginning to appreciate its potential value. I originally rejected it as anything relevant to my research because I was perceiving the value of phenomenology through the lens of a research methodology, and not a philosophy. Phenomenology as a philosophy is different to its conceptions as a research methodology, and understanding this is a continuous task, and there shall be a blog post about this soon.
The Critical Review
The critical review of my conference experiences back in May has appeared is complete and sent in for final confirmation and publication! It has most certainly been a learning curve given that this is the first time I’ve ever written a critical review for publication, but at the same time it has been a fulfilling, satisfying learning experience. Writing the critical review has really helped me to shape my understanding of how experiencing the conference, engaging with the audience and their feedback and engaging with various presentations at the conference contributed towards further development of my thesis structure, content and layout. This will lead to a stronger, more comprehensive thesis with a tightly integrated structure, with the concepts taken from the conference leading to a theory that is closer to the truth and reality of the phenomenon of interest than previously conceived.
Specific to the thesis, the background, literature review, results and discussion sections have been enhanced with new concepts to explore and where possible, develop hypotheses to test and possibly include in the theory as part of the validation and verification process. Speaking of the literature review……..
The Literature Review
The original plan of the literature review many months ago was to divide it into independent, loosely coupled sections titled Knowledge, Argumentation, Interaction and Technology. I have no idea what possessed me to think of these sections as independent and loosely coupled, because it doesn’t make any sense to do so. I think at the time I was feeling overwhelmed with the sheer amount of existing literature that has been published and the relationship between literature and the grounded theory approach. I think at the time I wanted to gather a sense of understanding the sheer volume of existing literature in each of the categories (and by this time I had already been reading about some of these topics for many years) within the context of my research problem (context is important! I cannot emphasise this enough because context plays a part of the lens from which you shall view the literature). Several months on I am now changing my approach to the literature review to thankfully something a bit more logical.
I’ve come to realise I cannot talk about one category independent of other categories. I can to a certain point, however, but I cannot view each category as fully independent. I can, for example, discuss relevant types of technology in terms of its features and affordances, but beyond this I cannot talk about technology independent of the research context and the research questions, and I cannot talk about technology independent of the way in which it, for example, facilitates interaction. Similarly, I can discuss argumentation to a certain extent but I cannot talk about argumentation fully independent from the way in which knowledge is handled through argumentation. A strong example of how my thinking about the dependency / independency relationship between these categories of literature is with argumentation. I attempted to write draft critiques of and relate definitions of argumentation. However, after reading a paper from Andriesson et al (2003) I became aware of the difficulties that I would have if I continued along the path of attempting to define and critique definitions of argumentation independent of discussions of other literature categories, even if only to understand the diverse literature that exists within each category.
The basic fact is, when I talk about argumentation, interaction, knowledge, technology and other possible concepts, all discussions must be situated within the context of Education. This is a Ph.D. in Education and obviously, the thesis is the product of the discipline within which it has been written, therefore it would not make sense to talk about these concepts outside of the context of the discipline and particularly outside of the context of the research problem. It doesn’t really matter if conceptions and perspectives are bought in from other disciplines such as sociology, psychology etc. the key guiding focus of the literature review is the disciplinary context and the research problem.
There have been various changes during the past few weeks with the key changes being the literature review and its structure and content. The other key changes have been my continuous increasing awareness of my own beliefs of reality and the way in which we can obtain knowledge of this reality, but this shall be discussed more in another blog post. And to emphasise, managing the literature is a huge part of the Ph.D. especially for grounded theory based projects. But for the purposes of the literature review, all discussions of all concepts have to be situated within the context of the discipline, in my case Education. And, I am now finding it impossible to discuss concepts fully independent of each other and really, this is what the literature review entails. It’s not just some bullet pointed facts-of-the-matter chapter, it’s a serious business of critiquing, analysing, evaluating and synthesising literature in order to provide the intellectual and evidence filled basis for the need of your research.
Andriessen, J., Baker, M.J. & Dan Suthers, D. (2003). Argumentation, computer support, and the educational context of confronting cognitions. In J. Andriessen, M.J. Baker & D. Suthers (Eds.) Arguing to Learn: Confronting Cognitions in Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning environments, p.1-25. Dordrecht, The Netherlands : Kluwer Academic Publishers.