January 29, 2016

Thoughts On The Research Design

The previous week I had mentioned that the decisions made at a certain level of the research design can influence other decisions at other levels, so now I shall explain more about what I mean by that, with future blog posts delving into this further.

The research design is the description and documentation of the processes, and their interrelations, involved with the collection, analysis and use of data within a particular study. The design of a study is determined by the research problem that has been identified and the research questions that have been developed.

The first level that needs to be engaged with is the Philosophical level, and by this I mean the researcher, including the Ph.D. candidate, needs to establish their perspectives of reality (ontology) and the way that knowledge of this reality should be attained (epistemology). There is a large variety of different Philosophical perspectives from Absolutism to Relativist therefore it can take a while to establish understanding and even then this might actually change. As has been documented throughout previous blog posts, I had considered myself an Interpretivist and a Constructivist therefore holding a Relativist Philosophical position of reality and therefore of research. However as I further critically analysed the methodology that I had selected at the time the more I subconsciously began to align with a Pragmatist perspective of research. Subconsciously because I was developing a methodology that I thought aligned more with a Relativist position; briefly, I was trying to be a Pragmatist within a Qualitative methodology, and for this research that simply was not working. I realised that my research design was following a Pragmatist route when I discovered that a particular model of Mixed Methods methodology suited the problem and the questions. Everything then started to make more sense.

Have I always been a Pragmatist when it comes to research? Perhaps I always have and never really realised it till I had the opportunity to really think about my own views about reality, to select initially what I thought was the appropriate methodology and then to critically analyse this methodology within the context of research. What’s interesting about Pragmatism is that whilst some authors suggest that Pragmatism attempts to locate the middle ground between Absolutism and Relativism, it can be argued that being pragmatic about research can lead to a person being a relativist about research. This is because since Pragmatism allows the researcher to select the methodologies and methods that work best, those methodologies and methods would be selected relative to the research problem and research questions.

So after all that Philosophical thinking, is the rest of the research design easier? In theory yes; in practice, sort of! It is important to remember that a methodology and the subsequent methods cannot be selected without careful thought and consideration of not only the context of the research but also in the context of other methodologies and methods and their appropriateness. Remember as a Ph.D. candidate it is important to be able to learn about a variety of methodologies and methods so that it is possible to justify why certain methodological and method selections have been made, and to explain the inappropriateness of others. This is something that is ongoing with my own work, and I need to decide to what extent do I really engage with methodological debates and discussions and contribute to them.

There is a wide variety of different methodologies, methods, and approaches to using these methods, available to select and integrate into the research design but again what is selected must be the most appropriate to deal with the research problems and handle the research questions. A methodology therefore describes and analyses a variety of characteristics of the design including the general approach used to handle the problems and the questions, along with the methods used, the order in which they are used, and the importance of each method in providing the required data.

My methodology of my Ph.D. is Mixed Methods, with the specific model of the methodology being Convergent and Triangulated, referred also as the Convergent Parallel model, and the selection was determined by identifying methodological problems of existing research and the development of the research questions, along with understanding to the suitable level which methodology would best address the research problem and research questions. Briefly, the Mixed Methods methodology defines the use, ordering, importance and value of the methods in many different ways than other methodologies, such as a case study, and remember that each model of the Mixed Methods methodology differ from each other slightly in these respects.

So, when the methodology has been decided upon it’s time to choose the methods. Whatever methods are suitable for the methodology is endless as there is no right way and depending on their structure a method can be used with multiple methodologies. As an example, the case study methodology can be either quantitative based, or qualitative based. If the case study is to be quantitative then methods that generate figures and numbers would be used, such as closed questions on a questionnaire; qualitative based case study methodology would need methods that generate data that expressed the perspectives and experiences of the individual, such as an Interview technique. With Mixed Methods methodology this is even more complex, because it can’t be either quantitative or qualitative: both strands have to be used and therefore there is wide variety of methods that can be used and several ways in which these strands can be converged or combined appropriately.

Developing the research design is a complex task and goes way beyond what has been described in this blog post. I’ve simply presented a general overview of some of the ideas that I have about research design and some of the key points that need to be considered carefully when designing research. I’m still learning; I’m still learning about my own research design and still adjusting the design in accordance to what I am reading not only from research methodological textbooks but also the way that other researchers have implemented methodologies and methods and designed their research in general, particularly those relevant to the Mixed Methods designs. I have decided fully on the methodology as Mixed Methods, the model of Mixed Methods as Convergent Parallel, and decided on the data collection and most of the analysis methods that shall be used. The key areas of the design are now in place with the finer details of the design continuing to be thought about.

The sheer amount of Philosophical perspectives, methodologies and methods that can be thought about and used is diverse and complex, with much overlapping, but must be something that the new researcher including Ph.D. candidates much engage with. It simply is not the case where a Ph.D. candidate can jump into a research project with any random methodology and methods because this might go against the Philosophical stances that the researcher is claiming. Apparently in several Ph.D. theses a researcher would claim to follow a relativist position when they use methods that subscribe more to the positivist position. So this needs to be carefully thought about. Additionally therefore there is a need to be fully aware of all the methodologies and methods that can be used, select that or those which best fit, and develop argumentation as to why those methodologies and methods are most appropriate. In my opinion, the argumentation that develops to justify and defend methodological and method selections, and the overall design of the research, is just as important as the selection itself.

Till next time: keep thinking!

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