All entries for January 2017

January 23, 2017

The Problem With Reality

Positivist perspective suggests reality is fully independent of human perceiving, thinking, knowing and knowledge of that reality, with all knowledge of that reality being readily accessible to the researcher through objectivist methods e.g., experimental methods and closed ended surveys. Interpretivism suggests reality is fully constructed within the mind, therefore fully dependent on the mind, and therefore no reality or aspect of reality exists independently of human perception or knowledge of it therefore our understanding and knowledge of reality mirrors reality itself. Realism suggests that there is a reality independent of the human mind but we cannot ever attain a full understanding of it, whilst Pragmatism does not really care either way (basically). At least, this is the way that onotological beliefs are presented in typical academic texts and research papers but in reality (no pun intended) there are nuances within each therefore the spectrum of ontological beliefs is more complex than what most authors tend to express. And, this is where my problem is.

Typically, a researcher at the ontological level is defined as either a realist, where there is a reality independent of the human mind, or a non-realist, where to some extent the researcher perceives reality as being dependent on the human mind. But in the context of my research and as a researcher, I find it difficult to imagine a reality that is completely independent of all human perceiving, understanding, and knowing. There simply cannot be a reality that is completely independent of the human mind when it comes to social sciences because humans are far too complex socially, emotionally, cognitively, spiritually and psychology to simply dismiss as empty states within research projects. Researchers also cannot be treated as empty states completely divorced from any influence upon the research process, as they come with a background of experience, perspectives, knowledge and preconceptions. Conversely, there simply cannot be a reality that is fully dependent on the mind of the participant or the researcher; in other words, I find it difficult if not impossible to imagine a reality that is constructed solely by our language, thoughts, perceptions, knowledge and experiences of that reality. This is primarily because ordinary observers can be misguided in some way with their thoughts, perceptions, knowledge and experiences of reality: just because we observe empirically that a stick bends in water does not mean that a stick really bends when it enters water. The mental states that are involved with developing our thoughts and perceptions might not be functioning properly, and therefore perceive objects that might not actually exist, or have certain thoughts that do not mirror what is really going on in that reality external to the observer, or believer. Or, we might have a sound set of mental states involved with the production of our perceptions and interpretations, but objects might be perceived differently based on our knowledge schemes and definitions of these objects. I’ll give an example:

Is a mountain bike a mountain bike because of a successful mapping between our knowledge schema and the reality of a bike? Or is it a mountain bike because of the way that we perceive its behaviour perhaps based on an internal knowledge schema: that it moves and functions as a mountain bike? Or is it a bit of both? What about if the mountain bike has a wheel missing: can it then be called a mountain bike if we define a bike in its characteristic of being able to move and transport a person from place to place? Can it still be called a bike just because it is similar to our knowledge schema of it? What about a bike that is left to rust for many many years and is no longer functional? Is a bike still a bike even if it can therefore change its formation from time to time?

A key ontological question here is: does a mountain bike really exist in itself, in its own form within reality, or does the mountain bike exist in accordance with the internal knowledge schema and successful mapping of this schema onto reality? It can be tentatively suggested here that a bike or a form of a bike really exists independent of our knowledge of that bike whether a person knows of a bike or not. A mountain bike might not exist in a person’s world, but that is not to suggest that it doesn’t exist at all: it has simply yet to be discovered. Now this is important because if we say that a mountain bike really exists in reality then we simply discover it, and the knowledge schema in our minds about a bike’s formation is simply an interpretation of what it really is. Another, shorter, example: some argue that a tree is a tree because it is a tree: it exist independently of our imagination and our minds therefore it is simply waiting to be discovered and not perceived or constructed. Others argue that a tree is a tree because we define or interpret it as a tree: a tree still needed to be defined in the first place as a tree, therefore its general shape and behaviour is interpreted as a tree.

What I am thinking currently is, in order to perceive an object of reality, that object has to have existed or exist in some form within the external reality. We simply could not have perceived a tree to be a tree or a bike to be a bike if some sort of formation that led to such definitions had not existed in the first place. Therefore in the context of my research work on learning processes within the social sciences, there has to be an independent reality or, more likely, there has to be aspects of learning processes that exist independently of my own understanding and knowledge of those aspects and independent of the understanding and knowledge of the participants. When we think about an interpretivist perspective, surely my interpreting of these aspects or objects of a learning process entail the existence of these objects, but those interpretations are what they are: fallible notions and theories of what is going on, and therefore susceptible to constant revision.

Therefore, interpretation is different to construction; interpretive philosophy, therefore, has to be different in form and function to constructivism philosophy despite them sharing aspects of relativism and subjectivism; but at the moment I find it difficult to adhere completely to an interpretive philosophy because I have the belief that aspects of reality exist independently from our interpretations. All interpretations are not necessarily wrong, but it might be the case where certain interpretations are closer to what is really going on in reality than other interpretations, but in what way can this be known? Can we really find out exactly what is going on in reality? Will it really be the case that our interpretations could match exact reality? This might be difficult to realise, because of the complex backgrounds that researchers bring to data analysis of learning processes and also dependent on what aspect of the learning process they are exploring. But if the learning process or even aspects of the learning process really exists, what aspects are they? And, in what way can I tell if they really exist or if I just perceive them to really exist?

More questions can be asked: what does this all mean for an interpretivist and constructivist methodology? Remember my previous blog post about methodological liberalism: I do not believe that methodology has to be tied to a particular philosophy; therefore in my research the case study methodology and grounded theory method can align with either realism or interpretivism. But what are the implications on case study and grounded theory?

I have starting points, backed up with the firm epistemological belief that our knowledge of reality is simply an interpretation of objects, object behaviours and of their relationships, and each researcher therefore shall attain different knowledge and understanding of these objects and their relationships relative to their experiences and knowledge of the phenomena of investigation. This does not suggest, though, that there are actually multiple realities but does suggest that to some extent there are independent objects and object behaviours that are interpreted by us. As mentioned, all interpretations would not be completely right, but some might be more right than others. I have starting points so I will be building up on these.

Ideas and arguments are continuously developing, but currently in the context of my own research some questions are: what exactly are the aspects that are independent of the mind, and what aspects are dependent? To what extent, therefore, can I claim to be a realist or an interpretivist? And, although I shall be able to ground my own interpretations of the data within the data itself, in what way can I judge which interpretations and hypotheses accurately reflect reality the most? Therefore, what would be the criteria for this grounding? Would my interpretations be different to others, and if so to what extent? And in what way would this affect the validity and reliability of the new theory?

And, no, I’m not going to talk about perceptions of fairies and pixies!

January 13, 2017

Philosophical and Methodological Relationship: Beginning of Higher Level Understanding

Finding a starting point in developing a higher level of philosophical awareness and understanding of the position of philosophy within the overall research design (not to mention tackling the limitless and diverse range of approaches, debates, discussions and analysis of approaches) is not easy. I originally approached the position of philosophy through coming to understand my own philosophical beliefs from which I selected the methodology and methods. Now the Ph.D. is beginning to enter the stage of more intense engagement with philosophy with the following guiding question: what is the precise relationship between ontology, epistemology, methodology, theoretical purposes, and methods? Perhaps the answer here is more subjective and relative to my research: surely the answers that I shall form to explain and detail the relationship are not universally acceptable? There is no right or wrong or easy answer to this question in general.

Philosophical and Methodological Independency

To begin forming an answer to this question it is important to understand Philosophy as an abstract, domain independent discipline. Philosophy as a general discipline explores reality in terms of the study of appropriate behaviour (ethics), the study of interactions with and beliefs about reality (metaphysics or ontology) and the study of our knowledge about reality and whether or not there is any real sense of knowing about reality at all (epistemology). It is domain independent because philosophy itself is not exclusive to any discipline although every discipline and category of disciplines has their own philosophy. For example, there is a philosophy of the natural sciences (natural world) and a philosophy of the social sciences (social world or social reality), and within each there is a philosophy associated with each discipline: with social sciences, a philosophy of economics, philosophy of religion, philosophy of psychology, philosophy of education and so on.

Understanding philosophy as an abstract, domain independent discipline enables ontology and epistemology to set out assumptions about the nature and structure of reality and the way in which this nature and structure can be known, but allows the theories and methodologies of a discipline to determine the specific approaches to knowing this reality. In other words, in the context of my research my own ontological and epistemological beliefs are imposed onto the research therefore the research investigation has set assumptions about the nature and structure of social reality and the way in which this social reality can be known. The methodology and methods detail the approaches used to come to understand and know this social reality, continuously working towards the development of a theoretical framework that conceptualises and explains certain aspects and relationships between certain aspects of social reality. They key here now is to begin enhancing, detailing, elaborating, and fully establish the relationship between the philosophical assumptions and methodological approaches.

When I began thinking about philosophy’s position in general in my own research, I came across Yeung’s paper titled “Critical Realism and Realist Research in Human Geography.” (For the record I’m not strictly following a critical realist route nor am I doing research in human geography but it’s an ideal situation to be able to expand your reading scope and think about concepts and approaches in other disciplines: but that’s another topic). In this paper, Yeung offers the position that “philosophy deals with the ontological and epistemological aspects of the social world whereas substantive social sciences themselves address the theoretical and methodological issues” (P.2). His position not only enables the beginning of understanding the relationship between philosophy, methodology, theory and method but also notions independency between them.

Methodological liberalism

The independency enables an argument to be made about free movement occurring between philosophy, theory, methodology and method or in other words methodological liberalism. But this is not usually observed as there is a sense of exclusivity among methodological writers: particular methods are associated only with particular methodologies and particular methodologies are associated only with a particular set of philosophical assumptions. Linking back to the previous discussion, philosophical and methodological considerations are related in the context of a research project, but are in general independent of each other in that a particular methodology does not necessarily have to always associate with a particular set of philosophical assumptions. This independency and liberalism of methodology can be quite a difficult idea to grasp but I am beginning to develop a firm belief that this is what is or should be really happening when learning about all these different philosophical and theoretical perspectives and methodological approaches. I’ll give you an example.

An original key author of grounded theory, Glaser, did not explicitly state ontological and epistemological assumptions therefore grounded theory is classed essentially as being independent of any philosophy. This has worked in its favour (or not, depending on your perspective) because different versions of grounded theory developed over the past few decades carry different philosophical (e.g, pragmatism and constructivism) and methodological (e.g., ethnographic grounded theory, phenomenological grounded theory etc.) assumptions and approaches suitable for a variety of different research designs and different types of data. Despite this sense of liberalism, most texts I have come across associate grounded theory with a qualitative methodology and therefore relativist assumptions about reality. Glaser and his writing partner Strauss professionally parted ways and Strauss with Corbin developed a different version of grounded theory, termed Straussian grounded theory, that was more methodologically comprehensive in that it contained a wider and broader set of principles and guidance for coding data. But even then, no explicit philosophical assumptions were made about Straussian grounded theory until several decades later when Strauss and Corbin made explicit associations with pragmatism and symbolic interactionism. Even so, this version has been used in a variety of different research contexts and it could be argued that its pragmatic nature enables it to be used in a variety of different contexts.

In my research I am using a case study as the methodology and grounded theory as a method, guided by a realist philosophy therefore both have to align with the realist assumptions adopted for the research. This is where I begin to establish that detailed, intricate relationship between philosophy and methodology: not only shall I explain the way in which case study and grounded theory aligns with the adopted realism principles in general, but also the specific version of grounded theory and case study and in what way they align with each principle. You can’t just say “I’m doing a case study” or “a grounded theory study” as you have to be explicit with the variety and variation of variety of the method and methodology you are using, as well as being explicit about the philosophical assumptions. Not easy, but it is worth it.

Therefore, when you are developing your research projects try to think about philosophy, methodology, theory and method as independent but related and important constructs of your research. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that certain methods belong to certain methodologies or that certain methodologies belong to a set of certain philosophical assumptions because this stifles and limits potential and creativity.

A question therefore has to be asked: in what way, exactly, do we justify the use of methodology and methods in our research? Perhaps the answer here lies not just in the common approach of comparing methodological application within empirical literature in order to identify knowledge gaps and therefore methodological needs, which itself is important, but also through philosophical justifications. Why are we always explicit in the comparison of different designs and base justifications on this comparison and existing methodological gaps in the literature, but yet are not explicit and reflexive enough on our own philosophical assumptions of reality and therefore offer little in the way of philosophical justifications?

And that, readers, is a different topic entirely.

‘till next time, keep thinking!


Glaser, B.G., Strauss, A.L (1967): The Discovery Of Grounded Theory: Strategies For Qualitative Research, USA: Transaction Publishers

Strauss, A., Corbin, J.M (1998): Basics Of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory, California: SAGE Publications

Yeung, H.Wai-Chung (1997): Critical Realism And Realist Research In Human Geography: A Method or a Philosophy In Search of a Method? Progress In Human Geography, 21 (1), pp. 51 - 74

Welcome the New year, and welcome back to my blog!

Hello dear readers and welcome back to the blog at the start of a new year, 2017! It appears that you’ve all recovered from eating far too much turkey (insert vegetarian alternative) and consumed far too much cola (as if) so you can get down to the serious nitty gritty of understanding what I am going to be talking about so if anyone can work out what it is I am saying during the year, do let me know!

The year is shaping up to be the busiest year yet for the Ph.D. with the key tasks of the year being the formal drafting of early draft thesis chapters namely the background, literature review and methodology chapters, and also contribute significantly towards the development of the theoretical framework, which shall be the main output of this research. There are going to be various opportunities during the year such as attending research conferences and also writing conference papers as well as research papers, as well as taking part in various courses that shall help improve my skills and myself as a professional in general. It’s a bit too early to begin writing research papers so I predict that around half of the year will be spent working on the theoretical framework as well as drafting the thesis chapters. Opportunities for conference papers will come in the summertime and probably around autumn time I shall be ready to formally approach research journals to ask if they would be interested in a paper idea of mine at the time, more than likely based on an emerging theoretical framework but not sure if this is actually possible. Either way, I shall be searching for many opportunities to get myself published beyond the blogosphere.

Speaking of the blog, what’s the aim of this blog for the next year?

For the past couple of years, I have been writing primarily about the development of the research design and longer term readers shall probably remember the many changes this design went through before being settled on a research design. That’s the way research projects work! Now that I am much more settled on a research design (still some specifics to work through but in general it’s in place) and the general phenomenon of interest, assuming that everything is alright with the design I am changing the purpose of the blog. I want to engage more at the philosophical level because I am developing a substantial and deeper fascination with philosophy particularly in relation to research design. Therefore, discussions are going to be shifting more towards general methodological and philosophical discussions but still keep these grounded in the context of my own research. What I mean by this is, discuss different philosophical theories and perspectives and engage with debates and discussions about methodologies in the context of my own research design e.g, realism, case study and grounded theory, but also where appropriate and necessary discuss other philosophical and methodological approaches. The idea is to now slowly and carefully build philosophical justifications for the research design, and contribute towards existing debates and discussions. Obviously not everything will be discussed on this blog as a lot of ideas to come will probably be kept for research papers and the thesis, but anything I feel is appropriate and general for this blog I shall put it up on here. I will still be writing weekly or fortnightly posts keeping you all up to date with progress and shall be writing on here about my engagement with theory development, data management, thesis chapter structure and writing, and perhaps discuss specific research papers but primarily the focus is going to shift more towards philosophy of research designs. The overall aim of the blog is still to chart and track my thinking, through processes, and development of these.

It’s going to be a challenging and exciting year with potentially lots of opportunities and possibilities, and I will keep those interested up to date through this blog!

Welcome to the New Year, and welcome back to my academic blog!

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