Reflection of Applying Initial Stage of Grounded Theory, Part A: Philosophical Stance
My experiences of engaging with grounded theory at a practical level from the late summer till just a couple of weeks or so ago illuminate the importance and role of philosophical beliefs. I have confirmed to myself since the summertime that the philosophical stance of a researcher not only gives rise to the need of grounded theory, but also determines philosophy-data-source compatibility. I have come to realise over the past few months that different types of text documents hold differing existence properties, different knowledge characteristics, and different properties that enable access to this knowledge. Although, access to the knowledge held within text based documents are arguably realised more through the methodology and methods that are selected, rather than our philosophical beliefs. Researchers, regardless of access to held knowledge within text documents, need to think about the way in which their philosophical beliefs not only impact their engagement with reality, but also act as a lens through which different text documents are perceived and analysed. The researcher needs to be mindful of the characteristics and values held by the text documents, and the meanings, interpretations and assumptions that are placed upon each document.
As an example, an interview transcript arguably holds a constructivist or relativist existence where the document portrays or represents a single voice (relativist) and knowledge that can be a co-construction between researcher and participant (constructivist) depending on the nature, structure and purposes of the interview. A discussion transcript is more difficult to define, in my opinion, because a discussion transcript represents multiple voices and can change context and knowledge content over time. I am finding, however, that context of learning is having a profound impact on what I perceive and hypothesise what is occurring within the data. This context is not just the environment within which the research is taking place, but also the context of the learning content, which is altering and shaping the course of the learning that takes place, and the knowledge that occurs.
As has been documented on this blog, during the summertime I came to the realisation that my ontological and epistemological beliefs are more complex than I had previously been consciously aware of, hence I was not able to align my beliefs with a single pre-existing ontological or epistemological perspective or theory. What I have arrived at now is the realisation and awareness of my ontological beliefs being a mixture of realism, pragmatism and complexity theory, and my epistemological beliefs leaning towards interpretivism and contextualism. This, I feel, at least in part, lies at the intersection between the philosophical grounding of Glaser, Strauss, Charmaz and Bryant.
What does that mean in the actual practice of using grounded theory? I am still working through my ideas (I have no doubt that this shall also be the case beyond the Ph.D. but that is the nature of research), but currently the impact that my ontological and epistemological beliefs on my use and understanding of grounded theory are briefly described as follows:
Realism: my belief that there is a reality independent of our minds implies that I perceive certain text documents as being capable of capturing the events and instances of learning processes, and that these events and instances occur regardless of whether or not participants are consciously aware of their existence. I suppose more generally it could be argued that learning can happen whether or not the learner is consciously aware of the fact that they are learning, or are engaged with some sort of learning activity. Since I am not a hard-line realist (I consider myself more of a moderate: subtle realism, influenced by the writings of Michael Hammersley) I do not believe that what I observe in the data fully or accurately mirrors reality itself. What I perceive to happen in the data needs further testing and exploration.
Pragmatism: it is argued that pragmatism is well suited for research that aims to change practice in some way. My issue with pragmatism however is that it does not concern itself with ontological and epistemological issues therefore it is not concerned with truth, but with usefulness. If something can be usefully applied within a practical context and if it offers real value to whoever is applying that something, then it would be considered adequate. There are aspects of Pragmatism that I do agree with regarding its use with grounded theory, such as the idea of fallibilism, with Bryant leading the way for such discussions. Fallibilism suggests that knowledge is always fallible and never represents the truth of reality, therefore, as mentioned earlier, I always accept the possibility of my emerging theory, whilst progressing towards truth, can never fully represent truth. I need to be careful here though, because whilst a theory can arguably never represent truth there cannot be two assessment systems that represent truth equally: one must be able to represent truth over the other.
Complexity Theory: learning processes, as previously described, have a complex existence. They have a complex existence because characteristics and events related a learning process could either be perceived to occur, or actually occurs, at any given point. Question: can a learning event that is actually occurring at any given point, or could probably occur, be perceived to be occurring? Another question: just because an event is perceived to be occurring, does it mean that it is actually occurring? Here we have a battle between perceptual occurrence and actual occurrence, along with the possibility or probability of occurrence. I’m dealing with phenomena here so the way that I perceive and interact with phenomena might not be in complete alignment with the intentions and beliefs of the learning participants. With this, I can also observe elements of Phenomenology in my ideas here, but these ideas are as yet incomplete and are continuing to be worked on and developed further. Another interesting aspect to the existence and occurrence of events is that context can influence what can be perceived to or can actually exist (e.g., technological environments might alter significantly what can be perceived or actualised compared to face to face learning environments).
As for my epistemological beliefs:
Interpretivism: There is an element of interpretation because coding data segments is based on my perceptions of what is occurring or happening within the data: the events, patterns, happenings, relationships, objects, instances etc. The knowledge that I gain from the transcripts that I analyse using grounded theory is really an interpretation: I interpret data segments to mean something and I label each data segment with a relevant code to represent the meaning I place upon that data segment. Here, however, is where my realist ontological beliefs come into play: because I view reality as being independent of my beliefs and that truth is a progressive journey, I have the belief that my knowledge and interpretations do not mirror reality itself. Therefore, my interpretations, hypotheses etc that are products of the data analysis are tested against further data, several times before being confirmed as part of the emerging theory.
Contextualism: what I am coming to realise is that subtle changes to the context within which the learning process occurs can mould and shape the direction and formation of that learning process and therefore, what I can perceive happening within the data. I think my ideas of contextualism is probably a little different to what other philosophers and authors define as contextualism, but I’m still working on these thoughts.
That’s Part A completed! The next blog post shall briefly cover the application of Grounded Theory, where I discuss the way in which I applied the initial coding stage: open coding, and the writing of memos.