All entries for February 2017

February 26, 2017

Philosophical Domains

Three Domains Of Philosophy

I have now at this point identified three domains of Philosophical considerations that a Ph.D. candidate might want to engage with whilst developing a philosophical understanding of their research. The three domains are:

The Philosophy Of The Self

This domain deals with the ontological and epistemological beliefs of reality, and therefore the way in which we situate ourselves within the context of the perceived reality. These beliefs form our perception of reality and answer questions such as: in what way do we perceive reality itself? In what way can we come to know this reality that we perceive?

At the ontological level there is a spectrum of beliefs that span from realism on one side to relativism on the other side with the different points in between determining the extent to which aspects of reality is either dependent on or independent of the actions of the mind. A realist perceives a reality that is independent of the thoughts and actions of the mind but the points along the spectrum progresses from a view of reality as being fully independent of the mind to a view that suggests there are aspects of reality that are dependent on the mind. On the relativism side, different flavours or points of relativism progresses from aspects of reality that are dependent on the mind to a reality that is fully dependent on the mind or in other words that reality is nothing more than what exists within our minds; our perceptions and beliefs mirrors reality itself.

Epistemological beliefs relate to the way in which we come to know reality and from what I can understand there are more theoretical categories of beliefs at this level than at the ontological level and it would take a long time to go through each theory on a single blog post but suffice to say that epistemological beliefs are, like ontological beliefs, situated along a spectrum with objectivism on one side and subjectivism on the other side. Objectivism states that knowledge of reality already exists therefore knowledge of reality is discovered and not constructed; knowledge of reality is attained through the belief that reality is a single layer, and that knowledge of this single layer reality is accessible through variables and experiments involving these variables and a researcher acting as a conductor and not a constructor of knowledge. Subjectivism is the exact opposite: knowledge of reality does not exist independently of the mind therefore knowledge is constructed and not discovered; knowledge is attained through the idea that there is more than a single layer to reality; and therefore knowledge of reality is obtained through understanding and exploring people situated within that reality via more qualitative methods such as ethnography.

This domain is important to engage with because if we become more engaged with our own philosophical beliefs about reality we can provide a philosophical justification for the research design and indeed for the selection of the phenomenon of interest in some way. This philosophical justification is itself a big subject but it suffices to say that philosophical justifications enable us to better explain and argue the way in which we come to know reality, the way we come to gain knowledge about reality, and the way in which reality is explored in order to gain this knowledge.

My beliefs about reality are based on ontological realism and epistemological subjectivism (relativism), but still working out which exact flavour of each my thoughts align with. But at a general level I do not accept that there is a reality that is fully independent of our minds but at the same time I do not accept that there is a reality that is fully dependent on our minds.

The Philosophy Of Research Design

The philosophical beliefs that we have about reality acts as an input to the research design hence the importance of engaging with our own selves as researchers and our philosophical beliefs.

I have discussed extensively (relatively speaking), and shall continue to do so, about the different philosophies that I have been considering for my research and that I have now selected for the research. Regardless of which philosophies have been selected, it is clear that my philosophical beliefs have guided not only the general selection of a case study grounded theory based research design, but the specific types of case study and grounded theory approaches. It’s important to remember here that there are multiple key writers that have detailed different types of case study and grounded theory approaches situated within different philosophies. Also, away from the key writers there have been other versions of both case study and grounded theory developed, and there will no doubt continue to be different versions developed, led by particular philosophical beliefs.

My own philosophical justification for using case study and grounded theory and the way in which they are being used is being guided by realism and relativism, but without a strict adherence to absolute realism and absolute relativism. These philosophical thoughts are being continuously thought about and explored. It is a substantial area of discussion and debate.

The Philosophy Of The Phenomenon Of Interest

This is a new consideration that I have come across recently and needs more elaboration and exploration before I can begin to define any definite ways in which the phenomenon is being perceived philosophically. But to explain briefly, in general and not specific to my research there appears to be learning processes and sub-learning processes, which can be categorised as either individual learner based, or collaborative or group based. There are many of these processes: it would be fairly easy to develop a Ph.D. proposal based on just a single learning process or sub-process nevermind an actual category, once you were aware of the literature and existing problems!

What I am considering at the moment, and again I can make no commitment to any actual statements of knowing about this area, is the relationship between my own philosophical perspectives of the learning process as I am coding and exploring these processes, and the philosophical perspectives that the research participants might have taken in their demonstration of learning processes. Here we can branch out into many different directions because the philosophical considerations of these processes go right back to Ancient Greece where the likes of Socrates and Aristotle defined certain processes in an absolute and certain way: that learners could engage with their learning in an absolute and certain way. Contemporary philosophers consider more uncertain and relativist approaches to engagement with learning processes and its impact on, for example, the construction of knowledge within learning contexts.

But there are many social and cognitive processes of learning, and whilst there have been much written on these processes there is much that is still to be written and discovered about them. The philosophy of the learning process is something that I have come across recently and still elaborating ideas on and reading about therefore I cannot at this time put forward any detailed arguments of the way in which I am viewing learning processes.

Domain Interconnection

My thoughts on the interconnections between the aforementioned domains, like my thoughts on the philosophy of learning processes, are in their early exploration and development stages. However, early indications show that there is a relationship between these three domains of philosophical considerations, there just needs to be further explorations and readings into what exactly this relationship is, what it entails, what it impacts, and what conditions are required for a relationship and different types of such relationships to exist.

Are my philosophical beliefs of reality providing an impact not just on the development of the research design, but also the way in which I perceive or view the learning processes?

Are my philosophical beliefs influencing the way in which I perceive participant approaches and perspectives of their learning processes?

Could a mismatch exist between the way that I perceive demonstrated learning processes, and the way in which participants perceive them?

Is there ultimately an ideal way in which learning processes should be perceived philosophically?

These are just few of the questions that I have with regards to this incredibly complex and challenging area of thinking and development, but it is worthwhile engaging with your own beliefs and engage with plenty of reading in order to develop and fully elaborate on a philosophical justification or serious of justifications as to why you are doing what you are doing. It is worthwhile engaging with your own beliefs as you can fit your research and yourself within the domains of philosophical considerations. A challenging area, but a worthwhile investment!

February 12, 2017

Latest Ph.D. Work Update!

Changes to Thesis, Upgrade Paper, and the Influence of Research Directions

Both the thesis and the upgrade paper have had significant changes made during the year so far in terms of their structure, particularly the thesis, and their content, particularly the upgrade paper. As I mentioned in the previous blog post the fact that a document has been rewritten several times shows progress of ideas and research directions, and different versions can act as a means of reflecting on the journey that has been made and the distance that the research has come. What’s useful is the continuous rewriting and editing efforts of the upgrade paper have acted as a guide for editing the structure and planned content of the thesis, particularly its literature review and background chapters. As a result all previous planned versions of the background and literature review chapters have been binned.

The change to both documents has come about through a more detailed exploration of a particular learning process that resulted in identification of a specific sub-process that appears to act as the backbone to many other sub-processes to a certain extent, as well as generating more concepts from existing literature that shall contribute towards contextualising the research in the literature review. The specific sub-process remains under researched: there are models and theories available that explain this particular process but I don’t think they are adequate or substantial enough to really explain what is going on within this process and its relationship with other sub-processes. That’s not to say that these models and theories should be considered no longer important: they are in particular contexts depending on the purpose and aim of the research, but for me they don’t explain the process in a particular way that I think is important and I think has been largely neglected.

All these changes to the research directions since the upgrade presentation have entailed the discussed changes to the thesis and the upgrade paper. The aim of the upgrade paper is still to prove the worth of my research, whereas the aim of the thesis is to communicate the completed research and its outcomes. An aim of the literature review now is to contextualise my own research through evaluating and critiquing the existing models and theories (as well as introducing relevant philosophical, theoretical, psychological and empirical concepts and literature) therefore identifying gaps within current research, and explain the way in which my research shall contribute towards solving identified issues.

The key here is to know where to start: and that is the challenge! Developing the structure however is helping me to know where to start, because structuring a literature review or any other chapter of the thesis or any other academic document means setting a structure for ideas. But this is in a non-regimented way: structuring ideas does not entail strict adherence therefore sections of each chapter can be chopped or changed around. It is up to you to decide the way in which your own literature review is structured, based on what you have read, the concepts you have developed from the literature, the critiques and evaluations of existing theories and models, and the categories within which you have placed the concepts you have developed as well as other thoughts, notes and analysis of the literature you have carried out. This is an ongoing and continuous task.

Philosophical Ideas

The more I read into philosophical ideas the more that I am beginning to be convinced of an ontological realism and epistemological relativism as being appropriate for my research, but it’s important to note that these are not exactly strictly adhered to. It has to be noted that I am not claiming to be a strict ontological realist and a strict epistemological relativist: these points are acting as a starting base for the research. Both points are the foundations for more substantial explorations into philosophical thinking and theories about the research design.

Currently, there are various philosophical writers that I am currently taking an interest in and are currently influencing my philosophical understanding of reality, and these are: Nietzsche’s Perspectivism, Popper’s Critical Rationalism, Hume and Kant’s discussions on causality, and various writings on fallibility, defeasibility, and social constructivism. From my current understanding all these different concepts of our understanding of reality is compatible with variants of realism and variants of relativism. Variants that recognise whilst there are aspects of reality that exist independent of our minds, not everything is independent; and, whilst objective knowledge and truth of reality might exist, attaining objective truth and knowledge of reality is difficult to achieve. I am beginning to form the belief that we will never achieve fully objective truth as our perspectives are all subjective to some extent. The best that can be achieved is to edge closer towards the truth and knowledge of reality.

Building the starting platform around ontological realism and epistemological relativism enables the beginnings of a philosophical justification for the research design, which is in addition to the methodological justifications built from knowledge gaps identified through analysing and synthesising research findings and the methodological approaches behind these findings.

The thesis is said to include several pages of philosophical insights therefore it is likely that an argument or even a small series of arguments shall be provided and fully elaborated upon, linking to the case study methodology and the grounded theory and interview methods. Providing a philosophical justification as well as a methodological (e.g., why is a particular research design use? Why are various components being used and in what way are they related through philosophy? Etc.), and practical justifications (e.g., why should the particular phenomenon be of interest? Why is the phenomenon of interested being explored using a particular research design?) That way, the thesis shall present cohesive, well structured, well grounded and logically and significantly elaborated research.

In summary

Upgrade paper has more or less been completed and was sent earlier the previous week for feedback, whilst the thesis is ongoing, as are therefore philosophical considerations. I am pleased with the progress that I have made, and moving forwards now it’s just a continuous case of developing the structure of the background and literature review chapters, as well as the methodology chapter, continue to code the data, continue to evaluate and synthesise existing literature, and continue to build a philosophical justification as well as fully elaborate on methodological and phenomena based justifications.

February 10, 2017

Thoughts About The Upgrade Process

The upgrade paper is no doubt met with a diverse range of opinions and experiences of both writing and presenting the paper, and it’s probably safe to say that more times than not there are Ph.D. candidates who begin to bang their heads on the keyboard as they attempt to unravel the mysteries of the upgrade process, nevermind the mysteries of their own research. But does it have to be so much of a mystery? The upgrade process is an academic process by which it is expected that an academic document, the upgrade paper, is produced along with a presentation but it’s also an emotional process. Doing a Ph.D. itself is not devoid of all human emotion and it does play on your emotions: happiness, sadness, anxiety, doubt, elation, depression, it’s an utter mixed bag relative to the mindset and perspectives of the individual. There is no getting away from that, hence why Universities have a set of student support services that are available for both undergraduates and postgraduates to use when they need. If you ever need them, use them!

Anyway, I am going off topic. I have been asked a question recently as to whether or not I view the rewrites of the upgrade paper as an unneeded distraction from the core of the research work that needs to be completed. It did not take me long to reach the conclusion that I do not find the rewrites and edits annoying at all, nor do I find that it distracts me. Why is this? Each rewrite and edit demonstrates further progression of the research and pushes and stretches my ideas into new directions I had not previously thought about whether that be philosophical, methodological, conceptual understanding of the phenomena of interest, or the structure and content of the earlier chapters of the thesis and potential, indicative ideas for the later results and discussion chapters though obviously it’s too early to determine those chapters.

Although, is the process of research development directly because of the process of actually writing the upgrade paper, or is it directly from my continuous reading and thinking about the subject? In a sense it can be a mixture: I am thinking about the subject as I am reading, and I am thinking about the subject as I am writing therefore the processes of reading, writing and thinking are all interlinked. As I am reading about the subject, my thoughts are linking together and as I am writing about the subject the ideas can forge new relationships with other ideas I never thought possible, and this can set up a whole new chain of thinking and reading requirements, and the cycle continues and the reedits flow. I do find this to be a positive process as my ideas progress, the directions of the research and of the thesis become clearer, arguments improve, and abstract relationships between concepts are established and recorded in each edit of the upgrade paper. I have a stack of digital copies of previously amended upgrade papers, which really only serve the purpose of demonstrating and tracking the development of my research. If you read the latest version of the upgrade paper that I have sent earlier for feedback, it looks near enough completely different to the first draft that I wrote. The original version is not even recognisable and I don’t even recognise it as my upgrade paper: but just the first draft that was completed in late summer.

What has proven to be of key importance with the process is that, in addition to an internal dialogue between my thinking and thought development, it has led to an effective, open, honest and productive dialogue between myself and my supervisor where we are really becoming acquainted with each other’s ideas and where we are coming from, and this I think is healthy and productive. I have stacks of emails sent between us as we discuss and debate different aspects of not only the upgrade paper but also of different aspects of my research and we have really engaged in that effective dialogue of thought development, and has helped to create new ideas and directions and upon researching these further, further ideas and directions have developed.

Do I find the process distracting? Not at all: the mixture of rewriting and reediting the upgrade paper, the internal dialogue between my thinking and thought processing, the dialogue between myself and the supervisor, and the almost you could call the general triangulation of thought development between thinking, reading and writing is a really beneficial experience. But it is important that this relationship between reading, writing and thinking go beyond the upgrade paper and onto the thesis.

Some Ph.D. candidates might become frustrated with the upgrade process, but stick with it and think of it as a means to opening an effective dialogue between yourself and your supervisor, and the internal dialogue as mentioned earlier. Think of it as a positive, beneficial experience of enhancing your research ideas, enhancing the directions, and a process that can take your ideas to places you never thought possible and relationships between ideas you never imagined existed.

Most importantly: be happy, be humble and feel blessed in that you have the ability and capability to enhance your thoughts and thinking, and to take your research to directions you never imagined possible and relationships established between ideas you never even considered at the beginning of your Ph.D. journey.

It’s a long journey: buckle up and enjoy the ride!

February 2017

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