April 17, 2019

Research Design Chapter Philosophical Section: How Much Is Too Much? Part A

When writing the research design chapter, and indeed when engaging with postgraduate research, a key issue is Philosophy. Philosophical issues relating to the phenomenon of interest and the research context have to be acknowledged, identified, documented, critiqued, reflected upon, and strongly associated with the research methodology. Philosophy drives methodology, and the methodology provides the framework that guides the research methods and procedures. It is imperative to ensure that strong links, cohesiveness and cohesion exist between philosophy, methodology, methods and procedures of the research within your writings so that the design can stand up to academic scrutiny, and to ensure that findings are consistent, correct, appropriate, and suitable for the context and the main research objectives.


Those are separate topics for another time, but referring to writing the Philosophical section of the research design of a thesis a key question is, how much is too much? This is an interesting question that I continuously have asked myself when writing the philosophical section of the research design. I am of the firm belief that nothing is ever, and should ever, be wasted. Nothing you write on the Ph.D. is ever wasted as something can be turned into something else, even a publishable form of something else.


During my time on the Ph.D. I have written extensive notes on paper and in digital form about numerous philosophical, both ontological and epistemological, positions. Even back at this time I was questioning how I could apply what I was exploring to the methodology, how each position affected my perspective of the phenomenon, and the way I could best record and express the positions in the thesis. Whether you are writing in pre-draft form on paper or in digital form, don’t be afraid to ask yourself questions early, but don’t restrict your creativity and inquiry. Allow your thoughts to come out, to develop, and to become as complex as they are required to be. You know how complex your ideas should be, and you know how complex you want them to be to fit the context. But again, don’t reject anything. I have been writing the draft form of the research design chapter for quite a while. The Philosophical aspect has experienced a number of rewrites as my pre-draft form ideas matured further and as I engaged with more philosophical ideas and different philosophical authors.


Where to begin with this minefield? I began fairly early in thinking about research design to read the theses of other post graduates. It did not take long to find a stumbling block: there is no universal law or standard that appears to guide how much is too much or too little. The problem, and difficulty, is that theses, although they might focus on the same methodology, differ widely in their philosophical coverage. Some theses make a passing suggestion towards philosophy and include it in a discussion about methodology, whilst other theses provide more detail and include a separate Philosophical section followed by a discussion of methodology. Even the Philosophical section, however, differs with some making short references to ideas about reality and knowledge, whilst others talk about knowledge without referring to any sense of reality even though they reference an ontological position.


What is important to remember is that despite the diverse range of philosophical coverage, there is some sort of expectancy to ensure cohesiveness and consistency in your approach. You cannot, for example, say that you’re adopting constructivist ontology and an objectivist epistemology supporting an experimental methodology. You cannot, in my view, talk about epistemology and pay lip service to ontology if you’re making explicit statements about how you come to understand reality. If you are talking about reality, then you’re talking about ontology. If you’re talking about the nature, structure, limits and origins of your knowledge and of coming to know this reality, then that’s epistemology. If you’re talking about how you are to gain knowledge about reality, that’s methodology. It’s important to remember this.


Is it worth reading though these theses? Yes, it is. Engaging with other theses enables us to become more acquainted with the self or being as a researcher. It makes us question how we should present our philosophical stance, and to wonder why such diversity in Philosophical coverage exists.


Engaging with these theses has in party contributed to increasing the value and importance of acknowledging, recognising, critiquing and engaging with my own philosophical stance, and the way my stance could be communicated. There is no particularly strict guide, and it’s important to explore and experiment in order to find what is best. This takes many redrafts. I’m sure many of the longer term readers of this blog have followed my Philosophical battles as I oscillated between different positions in order to situate or locate my views of reality within the extended literature. One needs to be careful to not pigeon-hole their beliefs or to ‘stuff’ their beliefs within a particular position just to tick a box. Your beliefs need to be engaged with critically and reflectively. They need to be intellectualised, and to be intellectually engaged with, so that they can logically be applied to your research, be integrated cohesively within your research design, and communicated consistently within your writings.


How much is too much or too little? It simply depends on what is right for your research, and how you relate your philosophical position to your research, and how valuable discussing ontological and epistemological issues are in relation to your research, research question, and phenomena of interest.


I shall cover this more in the next blog post where I discuss and explain further my experiences so far!


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