April 04, 2018

Research Design: A Reflection and Possible New Direction

Not only have I been stuffing my face full of Easter goodness (hot crossed buns and Easter eggs) but given that the newly added methods to my research design have been confirmed and accepted as being appropriate as a result of coming to know the phenomenon of interest in a way I had not previously considered, I have been rethinking the structure and process of my research design. This is particularly since this past weekend where I had the revelation that perhaps I should return to and re-evaluate the value, worth, role and purpose of combining qualitative and quantitative data within my project. A current task is therefore to think very diligently, carefully, strategically, and comprehensively about how qualitative and quantitative methods can analyse the data, and how qualitative and quantitative data can be combined or utilised in a way that can comprehensively describe and explain the phenomenon of interest unachievable by a single approach.


An Emergent Research Design?


What has struck me recently is that my research design can be characterised as emergent. The newly added methods and the possible re-evaluation of the methodological approach has emerged from further understanding of the data, further understanding of existing literature, and further understanding of the different types, structures, processes and outcomes of the phenomenon of interest. Further, these sources appear to triangulate to provide some sort of justification for what has emerged e.g., what I have observed in the data and the need to explore these observations further can be backed by existing literature, and both give rise to the need of the additional data analysis methods and perhaps a rethink of the methodology and research questions. This idea of an emergent research design appears to be a characteristic not just of grounded theory but qualitative research design more generally.


Essentially and I shall be writing more about this in the future, the research design emerges as the data analysis progresses with further readings as necessary to support the need for any emergent research design aspect. Where I am now with the research design and the inclusion of network analysis as a method has come from what I have observed in the data. In other words, the need for such a method has emerged from understanding the data, from observing particular patterns and trends, thinking carefully about the way these trends and patterns could be explored more comprehensively, and the potential value and worth their explorations might offer to the research.


Let’s take a brief journey in time to reflect on where I have been with the research design


The Journey of the Research Design so far


The Ph.D. research began prior to the Upgrade process as a mixed methods project, where mixed methods approach was introduced at the data collection level where the idea was to collect qualitative data from observations of the learning phenomenon and quantitative data from surveys. After a series of doubts started to creep in following the submission of the original Upgrade paper about the data collection methods and the context of the quantitative data collection and analysis aspect, and after discussions with the Upgrade member panel and the supervisor, the approach was dropped. The qualitative aspect was kept and therefore, grounded theory became the sole focus of the research design. Grounded theory became the methodology and its coding package became the methods of data analysis.


For many months after I began to downplay the relevance of mixed methods approach in my research and began to focus exclusively on learning about Grounded Theory and the way that I can utilise Grounded Theory within my research context, which again has been documented extensively throughout the previous year. I also began to realise and became aware of the complexity of my philosophical beliefs both at the ontological and epistemological levels though had not travelled down to the methodological and methods level because of my continued denial of the value of a mixed approach to understanding the phenomenon of interest. I did, however, later in the year and earlier this year seriously began to challenge the theoretical orientation of grounded theory and began to really believe that symbolic interactionism (the most common theoretical framework of grounded theory) was not compatible with the research context and began to search for other possible frameworks. Again this has been documented in earlier blog posts. I also began, through reading through more existing literature and the draft writing of earlier thesis chapters, to challenge my own understanding of the phenomenon of interest: the way I perceived it, the way I approached its exploration, and the way I could define it.


This led then to me challenging the way I had used grounded theory previously to analyse the data and I came across a startling thought: grounded theory could be used to recognise a central theme of the phenomenon of interest and theorise about the phenomenon around this theme, but I began to doubt grounded theory’s ability to theorise or hypothesise about the progress and process of the phenomenon of interest over a period of time. It was not, so I came to eventually realise, the central theme of the learning phenomenon that was the only product of the research that is of interest to me: it’s the way in which the learning phenomenon initiates and is sustained over a period of time. This I think is an area that is not addressed by grounded theory.


Where am I now with the Research Design?


Grounded Theory is still of interest and of importance to the research in terms of, from what I can currently understand, identifying a central theme to the phenomenon of interest, and to theorise about the phenomenon in accordance with this key theme. However, in what way do I explore the progress of the phenomenon of interest and the way in which this learning process can be sustained over time? This is where network analysis comes into play. But here is something else: I have always created diagrams and “networks,” if you will, about what is occurring in the data in order to help me understand what is going on in the data but I had not considered these diagrams as being somewhat of an independent data analysis method in their own right as I always thought of them as part of the grounded theory. But as I drew out more of these diagrams I began to realise that I was making observations and identifying trends that perhaps grounded theory on its own might not be able to explore to a substantial extent. At least, not to the extent that I am now interested in.


More significantly, I’ve very recently began to think about the way in which I could use these diagrams to further explore the phenomenon of interest through network analysis and the inclusion of quantitative analysis to test hypotheses and theoretical constructs that have and shall continue to emerge through grounded theory analysis. And therefore, a reintroduction of an old idea: the mixed methods approach!


And that shall be the topic of the next blog post!


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