All entries for March 2017

March 29, 2017

It's All Starting To Click!

Within the early stages of the Ph.D. you shall be forgiven if you arrive at early conclusions regarding the relationship between philosophy, methodology, methods and data. It is easy in the early stages to subscribe to the notion that, for example, qualitative data and qualitative inquiry in general is situated only within a combined Philosophy of relativist ontology / subjectivist epistemology; similarly, it’s easy to subscribe to the notion that qualitative data comes only from interview methods.


Why is this the case?


I arrived at these assumptions prior to and early in the Ph.D, based on what I was reading at the time. Research papers gave the impression that statistical analysis and experimental designs aligned only with objectivist perspectives and that qualitative data and associated analysis aligned only with a subjectivist perspective. However, the more I read the more I questioned my own assumptions about the relationship between philosophy, methodology and methods and found that this relationship is far more dynamic than I had imagined, and that really there is no such thing as a linear relationship between them. This relationship is fluid, and the more I read and thought about my own beliefs I am now finding much fluidity even between ontological and epistemological perspectives, and this is what I shall initially call Design Flexibility.


Design Flexibility


Design flexibility does not adopt a sceptical perspective of the existence of an actual relationship between philosophy, methodology and methods, but is sceptical of any assumptions of a linear relationship where a particular perspective entails the choosing of other specific perspectives. There is no rejection to the idea that ontological perspectives influence epistemological perspectives, which in turn influence methodological perspectives, but there is a rejection of a predetermined linear relationship. More recent methodological textbook authors arguably lean heavily in the direction of philosophical and methodological dynamism therefore acknowledging that reality and our understanding of reality is so complex that there are limitless ways in which reality can be perceived and the way in which we come to know this reality, which influences the way in which we explore this reality.


Applied to my own thinking, my philosophical beliefs line with subtle realism, developed by Hammersley. Typically, a realist ontology is accompanied by an objectivist epistemology suggesting a reality independent of our thinking and knowing, and knowledge of this reality being discoverable and accessible within this reality as knowledge itself exists independently of our minds. But design flexibility suggests that even though the realist ontology and objectivist epistemology is commonly observed particularly in the natural sciences, it doesn’t mean that they are in a strict dependent relationship. Hence, my epistemological beliefs align with subjectivism: I perceive a reality independent of our minds but we do not have access to all knowledge and truths of this reality. We will never come to fully know or grasp objective reality and truth of this reality through our perceptions and theories about what is occurring within this reality: the best that we can do, and the best that I can do with the theory that I am developing, is to represent certain actions and events within reality without claiming that I know for certain that what I theorise is really what is happening.


Another example of design flexibility is at the methodology level. Typically, qualitative inquiries are not associated with realist philosophies as they are mostly aligned with constructivist or interpretivist based perspectives (relative ontology; subjectivist epistemology) but I am attempting to place my qualitative inquiry within the context of realist ontology, subjectivist epistemology with the type of subjectivism leaning towards interpretivism. There is a small but growing body of literature that suggests the usefulness of qualitative inquiries being situated within this philosophical context therefore it is an aim of mine to attempt to contribute towards further discussion and development of this area of qualitative inquiries.


Then there are the methods and various qualitative approaches within which these methods are situated. Qualitative inquiries can not only be situated within a variety of different ontological and epistemological combinations but also adopt a variety of possible different general approaches with the most typical being ethnography, phenomenology, grounded theory and case study, but there are many more approaches and each of these can typically be combined e.g., an ethnographic case study. The qualitative approaches that shall be used are case study and grounded theory.


And to add to this already banging-head-on-keyboard-moment-as-you-work-through-all-this-stuff are the various types of case studies and the various types of grounded theories that have to be selected or further developed if no existing version exactly matches research aims and general context of the research design. For example, because of the adopted philosophical perspectives, I have to not only think of ways in which the particular type of case study and particular type of grounded theory adopted, or further developed, in this research work with each other, but work with each other within the philosophical perspective, which should lead to plenty of opportunities to expand on current discussions and development of research designs.


What has been discussed in this blog post is not the full story either: there is so much more beyond what I have discussed here but for the purpose of this blog (and my sanity) I have kept discussions brief and relative to my continuous thinking and development progress,


There you have it: completely and utterly bewildering and confusing at first, but keep fighting your way through because it is worth it. I think, perhaps, yeah, it is, I’ll let you know in time……..


March 19, 2017

Realism: ontological or epistemological version?

A key early sub-question that relates to the version of realism to implement is to decide if the version of realism that is being implemented refers to ontology or epistemology. Remember that ontology deals with the existence and state of being and what there is in reality that is real, whilst epistemology deals with whether or not we can come to know something about reality and if this is possible, to what extent can we know something and the way in which we can know something. I have decided upon the philosophical classification of realism but before I get to that point, I’ll provide arguably simplistic conceptualisations of each that suffices for the purposes of this blog post.

Ontological and Epistemological Realism:

Philosophical discussions relevant to research and knowing relates specifically to the idea of truth about reality. Is there such a thing as objective truth, and if so in what way can we come to know this truth about reality? What does this truth consist of and in what way can we understand aspects of this truth? Does objective truth exist or is truth simply a subjective construction invented in our own minds? If objective truth exists can we really attain it? Or, is it simply that what we know and theories progressively move towards objective truth? Although there is much debate, differences and variants of realism at both the ontological and epistemological levels it suffices for the purpose of this post to give the following basic and far too overgeneralising conceptions (but it’s a start!):


Ontological realism can be defined in general as arguing for objective truth that exists independently of our minds, as opposed to ontological idealism that suggests that mind and reality are as a single unit. Objective truth exists and therefore all assumptions, theories, beliefs and ideas that we form must be tested against this truth of reality therefore truth of reality is knowable.


Epistemological realism argues that knowledge itself exists independently of our minds; that knowledge is not a construction within our minds as is believed by epistemological idealists, but that knowledge is discoverable and attainable outside of the mind. The knowledge or perceptions that we hold in our minds about reality corresponds with reality itself; there is a correspondence between what we know, and the way that the world is, with this knowing attained through our experiences and interactions within the world.

Both ontological and epistemological realisms are much debated and discussed in philosophical and research methodology textbooks and published papers.

My Stance: Ontological Realism

The category of focus for my research is ontological realism, because I have the belief that there are universal and objective truths independent of whether or not we perceive, experience, or know about this truth and the extent of objectivity. I cautiously reject epistemological realism because I do not have the belief that what we know about the world corresponds with the way that the world is, because our mental states (knowledge, perceptions and so on) and cognitive processes (the act of perceiving, theorising, knowing, thinking and so on) are fallible. Therefore, whilst I do have the belief in objective truth and that aspects of reality do exist independent of our minds, we cannot really fully know this objective truth or objective reality: the best we can achieve is to progress towards objective truth but never actually attain it. And that from a general perspective and relative to my current understanding and knowledge relates well to my case study methodology and grounded theory method.


Brief Introduction to Realism and my Research: Initial Key Questions

When you have defined the limits of your discussions the next step is to define the key questions that shall help you to begin your further explorations and developments of your philosophical justifications. For me, the key questions are: what kind of realism am I talking about? And, what does realism offer to my research methodology?


What kind of realism?

As part of the philosophical justifications it’s important to be clear on the variant of realism that you are adopting for your research, and there are many variants of Realism in existence within the social sciences with the most popular being Critical Realism. When I adopted a mixed methods methodology I did begin to propose critical realism as the underpinning Philosophy, but began to doubt the relevancy of the human-structure relationship and the general idea of causality in the social sciences. I shall talk about this more in the future as my understanding further increases but essentially, critical realism defines a three layered ontology and has the aim of locating unobservable causes of observable phenomena within the social sciences, and it’s the notion of causality that I have trouble accepting as the way in which to understand social phenomena. Hence, I’ve moved away from critical realism but subscribe to a realist philosophy in general.

A current task therefore is investigating different types of realism to find out if any existing versions align with my own thinking about reality, or if I have to develop my own realist philosophy, or build upon previous realist ideas in some way. This will take some time to develop but this is a key question when it comes to communicating and elaborating on your realist philosophy in your thesis.

Do note that I am not suggesting that critical realism is not important in Educational research, but for my specific research I no longer feel that it is appropriate in accordance to my own beliefs, and also the phenomena of exploration.

What does Realism offer to methodology?

Not only is it best to explain the variant of realism that you are adopting or developing, but also the way in which that variant links in with and guides the methodology. What are the precise details of the realist approach and in what way does it align with and support the progress of the methodology? This is an area that is currently under continuous development, reformulation and reconstruction as I learn more about the variants of realism and the way in which realism feeds into my methodology.

A key benefit with the methodology I am using is that case study and grounded theory are philosophical-independent, meaning that they can work with a variety of different philosophical positions and therefore there is no right or wrong answer. The way in which realism needs to be implemented is dependent on the phenomena of interest, the research problem, and the research question. This is exactly where it is important to fully elaborate on your philosophical justifications for the methodology that you are using, and to explain why realism is the most appropriate philosophical approach compared to other approaches. What is it exactly about your approach that makes your approach to realism suitable and relative to the context of exploration?

In summary:

This is all work in progress, but no matter what I have read and what I have looked at, and from the trial study, realism is what makes the most sense to me based on the phenomena of interest and the way in which I am collecting the data. It is argued in some cases that philosophical perspectives can change as a person really delves into the research and collects and analyses the data. Whilst this is true, and I have read earlier about a couple of Ph.D. candidates who transitioned from critical realism to social constructionism, I am cautiously and currently convicted by my beliefs in a realist perspective of reality.


Brief Introduction to Realism and my Research: context and boundaries

Long term blog readers will no doubt have had their brains melted as I have debated and discussed the use of different philosophical perspectives as a guide for the research methodology, beginning with a constructivist perspective before navigating towards and settling on a realist philosophy. Subsequently, methodology has transitioned from pure grounded theory methodology, to a mixed methods methodology with grounded theory used as a method, before navigating towards and settling on a case study methodology using grounded theory as a method, using a realist philosophy to guide the methodology. Feel free to have a search about my blog to find relevant discussions!

I have been thinking about this for a long time now, and a realist approach is the only overarching philosophical approach that makes sense to the context of my research; therefore, I am beginning to understand and further develop my philosophical justifications and arguments for realism as a philosophical drive for my research design. It is such a complex area however with many variants, directions, debates, discussions and applications; therefore, there needs to be a series of limits set to what can realistically be explored and discussed in the thesis, and on this blog. These limits I find come naturally within the boundaries of my research.

Limits Of Realist Discussions

Different people will have different approaches, but for me so far it’s easier to contextualise discussions of realism within the boundaries of my own research. It is important to lay out a set of limits because it will keep you focussed about what you need to explore, and what you need to discuss in terms of your philosophical justification and the way in which it applies to your research methodology. It’s easy to travel off in different directions as realism like any philosophical perspective is vast, complex and well debated and discussed.

The following are limitations that I have placed on my own investigations and discussions of realism:
· I talk about realism only in the context of social sciences and not the natural sciences
· I talk about realism only in the context of qualitative research
· I talk about realism only in the context of case study methodology
· I talk about realism only in the context of grounded theory method
· I talk about realism specific to the type of case study and grounded theory used

Obviously this blog is not as “formal” or “academic” as the thesis therefore I shall be a little less restrictive about these compared to the thesis so I can talk about, for example, realism in other methodologies and compare to the selected methodology of case study in general. I can also do this in the thesis but it would be more specific, e.g., I assume it would be important for example to compare the use of realism in phenomenology and case study relative to the phenomenon of investigation, as this can contribute to the philosophical justification of the selected philosophical perspective.

A Guide, Not A Strict Structure!

It’s important to some extent to treat these limits as a guide rather than an absolute rigid structure of discussions. Think about it as being set free within the boundaries of your research as defined by the discipline in general, and the overall research design. There is little point, for example, in talking about realism in phenomenological research if your research design is not based on phenomenology; however, that doesn’t stop you from discussing realism applications within that methodology if you can apply it in some way that is relevant to your own methodology. That’s an example of what I am talking about in terms of being set free within the boundaries of your research.

Now that limits have been set, key questions must be asked that shall help develop an overview of what needs to be known, and this is the subject of the next blog post.


March 12, 2017

Literature: changing perspectives and roles in a grounded theory project

Grounded theory research involves developing a theory or theoretical framework from the data using a series of coding procedures that differ depending on which authors and philosophical positions are adhered to. This approach is in contrast to the top down approach where an existing theoretical framework is applied to the data and therefore the data is “forced” to fit around pre-defined categories, which in itself, I shall further argue in the thesis, limits creativity and potentially unique insights. In the thesis I shall give various examples of coded data and apply existing frameworks to the data in order to demonstrate the unsuitability of the majority of existing theoretical frameworks for the aims and objectives of my research.


A key aspect of grounded theory and therefore to the development of the emerging theoretical framework is literature, and literature is important for many reasons. Initially I began reading the literature for the purposes of contextualisation and identification of knowledge gaps. Contextualisation means to determine where your research fits within the vast arena of published research literature in order to determine the way in which your research differs from or builds on existing research. Identification of knowledge gaps means to find out what knowledge might potentially be missing or what direction or aspects of the phenomenon of interest have not yet explored fully. I have found the knowledge gaps that I want to address and have situated my research within existing literature therefore this aim has been achieved. Now this has been achieved a part of the reading purposes is to develop philosophical and methodological justifications and arguments for why I want to explore particular phenomena of interest using the research design that I have created.


But that’s not all there is to literature, because more than any other method or methodology grounded theory commands a strong integrative relationship between the emerging theoretical framework and the literature. In other words, the role of existing literature particularly empirical literature (but any and all types of literature shall suffice) goes beyond merely supplying findings that are either in agreement with current research findings or not: it is tightly integrated with all aspects of the emerging theoretical framework and is therefore used to act as extra empirical evidence or data to confirm or disprove hypotheses that form a part of the emerging theoretical framework. Grounded theory advocates a strong relationship between analysis of data, data collection, and exploration of existing empirical literature, leading to findings of existing literature integrated with the emerging framework in order to achieve further theoretical development.


Ok, so, literature is really important to grounded theory research projects at all stages but in my experience this can really only be fully appreciated when you actually begin coding the data. I have coded about half of the first case so far although, and not to go too far off topic here, I’ve reread this first half several times because each time the data is reread, new insights and relationships between different codes and aspects of the data are identified but that is the nature of grounded theory: but more on this in later blog posts. Following the coding of half of the first case and constructed somewhat of a, admittedly rather crude, theoretical framework (crude and rather basic: but we all have to start somewhere!) based on some of the data, I began to reread the literature that I had already referenced in the upgrade paper’s literature review, and I am really starting to understand the way that existing findings might be able to integrate within the emerging theoretical framework in order to achieve further theoretical development.


What I have found, and what other Ph.D. candidates carrying out grounded theory projects might come across, is that perspectives of the literature changes. With me, specific to empirical findings, my perspective had changed from viewing empirical findings as an important measurement of determining what has been discovered and what has yet to be discovered, to an important part of possible theoretical development through proving and disproving hypotheses and relationships.


Going further into this, I am rereading the empirical findings and I can start to find similarities and differences between what has been published and what I have discovered in the data; what I have discovered in the data and my reasoning and philosophising of this data (including developing hypotheses and potential explanations for identified relationships and so on) is guiding my perspective of the literature. I am finding myself saying, “ah! I have identified that in the coded data!” or “oh! I have not thought about that idea before, I wonder in what way that might already confirm what I have already discovered, or in some way guide my thinking about and analysing of the data.”


Essentially, I have transitioned or am making the transition from reading the literature in order to identify methodological issues and knowledge gaps, to forming justifications for the proposed research design and to confirming and disconfirming what has so far been discovered in the data and documented in the form of relationships and hypotheses in the emerging theoretical framework. This is quite a revelation because I had not automatically realised this transition until I actually started rereading the literature following several rereads of the data (and several rewrites of relevant areas of the upgrade paper). It’s like as if I had subconsciously developed a framework in my mind of the data coded so far, and then subconsciously applied this framework to the literature and then came to an immediate realisation of this transition. But this is positive because it shows a progress, a shift, in reading intentions as the research continues to mature and continues to progress, and this can only be a positive thing.


But I have to be careful and approach everything with due caution. I must not and cannot take anything that I read in the literature or any reanalysis of the data as gospel and I cannot therefore immediately reject a hypothesis just because I have coded only half of the first case and have read several papers the offer empirical evidence for the rejection of this hypothesis. This is because as I code through the other half of the case and then several cases after that I might actually find more data that proves the hypothesis. This would actually give me excellent material and platform upon which I can argue for the relevancy and effectiveness of the theoretical framework. But as I say it’s very early in the development of the theoretical framework, and therefore at this moment in time I cannot accept the first set of rejections and confirmations as they come along. It’s better therefore to make notes of existing findings and constantly compare with emerging findings as more data is analysed and coded.


Therefore the hypotheses, relationships, concepts and aspects that have already been constructed as part of the emerging theoretical framework might be proven to be irrelevant and therefore rejected this time next year; or on the other hand be strengthened and confirmed. With grounded theory, you cannot predict at all what you are going to find and what might or might not be confirmed, but that’s the beauty of grounded theory. That’s what attracts me to grounded theory.


The key message from this blog post is this: within a grounded theory project your perspectives of the literature are likely to change as well the aims and objectives of your literature search and analysis of literature. This is fine because it indicates progress and research maturity and your own personal maturity of understanding and being aware of the way in which literature can be used within your research. But don’t take anything as certain and absolute, because later in the process you could come across more literature or more examples in the data that could defeat what you discovered earlier. Best thing is to make lots and lots of notes of everything that you read and observe in the data, and use these notes as reflective points when you are coding data or integrating data from multiple sources. Most of all: have fun! Grounded theory is challenging, but it is equally exciting!


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