All entries for June 2017

June 23, 2017

Methodology Chapter: The Beginning!

With thirty eight pages of rough drafted notes on paper consisting of ideas, quotes, paraphrases, references, elaborations of thoughts along with goodness knows what amount of loose notes and ramblings on the hard drive all pertaining to the methodology chapter, the plan was laid out: to transform this mess into something that resembled at least the foundations of a draft of the initial parts of the methodological chapter! Well, that was the plan to begin the day but my inquiring mind had other plans……


“Where do I start?” “From what point do I begin?” “What on Earth did I write there?” “What on Earth did I say there?” “Was I high on Easter eggs when I wrote this?” “What is the meaning of what I wrote here?” “Why is my handwriting so shoddy here?” “Wait! If I get a magnifying glass I’ll be able to read this!” And other relevant statements started to ring out as I began to make sense and classify the unordered pages. After managing to make sense of the mess to some extent without wanting to throw the computer out of the window (even though I had not actually typed anything at this time) I began to stare at the blank page. The friendly black cursor thing flashed again and again, as if it was calling me to place my hands on the keyboard and write pages and pages of draft notes that in the future could be classed as meaningless dribble but that wouldn’t matter! What would matter is I would get raw ideas down and sort everything else out at a later point! Thankfully as I began reading through a couple of pages to remind myself of what I said when I originally wrote the notes, I was inspired to write, and throughout the day the following words echoed in my ears: Continuity! Consistency! Cohesion! Coherence! Honestly I felt like I was being invaded by a party political broadcast on behalf of the Let’s Have Another Coherent Thesis Written Party.


As draft formation began, my thinking became channelled. I reflected on what I was writing more intensely, reflectively, and critically than when I was jotting down lots of notes on paper during reading sessions of literature. I was scrutinising every word, sentence, reference and paragraph. I really questioned the purpose, meaning, positioning and context of each sentence. Is there something missing from I had previously written on paper? Can I say this better? Can I improve this in anyway? What ideas should come before this paragraph? What else should be included in this paragraph? Are there any alternative ways I can express these ideas? Have I correctly analysed the references?


All these questions and more ran through my head as I became more critical and reflective of my ideas, style of writing, style of using language to express my ideas and thoughts, the content and semantics of the ideas and thoughts, and the interpretations and representations of references. Perhaps some people might argue that at draft phase, my thinking and general approach might be too involving and too intense for the purpose of writing draft form chapters, but I disagree. In my opinion it’s important to practice self-criticism and self-reflection during academic writing not to the point where you go completely insane, but to the point where you can come away from whatever amount of words, sentences and paragraphs produced feeling satisfied. I am finding that I am much more critical of my thesis writing and any other academic writing than my blog writing. That doesn’t negate the importance of constructing informative, and (somewhat) entertaining blog posts that is as grammatically as solid as possible, but for me personally a blog environment is a bit more relaxed. In other words, I can write a blog post at about nine or ten in the evening when I am in a more relaxed mode: I cannot do this for the thesis.


As can probably be understood, my mind cannot fixate on the main purpose of a draft form: to simply get ideas down on paper and sort everything out at a later time. I like to edit as I write. I like to write a few sentences or even a few paragraphs at a time if possible, and then stop and reread, and edit. It’s quite surprising what you can observe as you reflect upon your own writing and the meaning of the content being produced. In a sense you are engaged with the simultaneous activities of writing and self-reflecting.


When I wrote the first initial paragraph, and without reading the rough notes any further, I started to form ideas of what I could discuss next, and began forming conceptions of what I could say before the paragraph. This initial paragraph discussed briefly as a starting point about human existence and the essence of existence in enabling the existence of social processes. Having reread the paragraph I realised that I should be talking about the context and placement of human existence; to transcend discussions of human existence from its impact on social processes to the concept of human existence itself, and what it means to exist: social ontology!


I wrote a paragraph on social ontology with suitable references, but I was being drawn into talking more about social ontology before even contemplating further discussions on the way that human existence impacts social processes, and what processes would be investigated to what extent and in what way from an ontological sense. This then lead to rereading papers on social ontology and I was picking up ideas and definitions of aspects of social ontology that I had not previously observed or interpreted before. As I was picking up different interpretations and definitions I was rewriting this same paragraph and I must have reedited it over ten times, perhaps even up to twenty times I actually cannot remember. This is the result of reflecting upon existing ideas, thinking about the new interpretations and definitions, and integrating these new ideas with existing ideas and trying to be as concise about these ideas when writing about them.


By the time I completed rereading the small set of closely relevant social ontological papers I had three pages of notes written as part of the draft, but the only piece of this I am actually happy about at this time is the very first paragraph! All the other sentences and paragraphs across the rest of the draft are ready to be linked together, edited, or discarded in some way in time. Even though I do feel happy with the first paragraph, due to the nature of research and editing there is no guarantee that this paragraph will be relevant in future drafts of the chapter, as ideas and directions do change. But, as it is, it’s the most “complete” part of the chapter. I could have easily wrote ten pages from the notes that I have written on paper without carrying out any further thinking, reflecting, critical analysis of the language used and meaning of the content, and reading, but that’s not the way my mind works.


Whilst I would have been able to say “I wrote ten pages wooooo hoooo what a productive time” that would actually be a meaningless statement. Simply because, it’s more important and beneficial in the long term in my opinion to craft a most cohesive, correct, logical and easily flowing paragraph that best represents current ideas and references whilst acknowledging that the paragraph could very well change drastically or even be dropped in the future, than to produce ten pages of what could effectively be meaningless ramblings most of which would be thrown away.


That’s the way my mind works and when I think about it, my writing sessions will not be based on the number of words or the number of pages I can muster in a single writing sessions: I want to make sure that every word, every sentence and every paragraph is as carefully constructed, is as meaningful, and is as grammatically, syntactically and semantically correct as is possible at the current time of writing. That, to me, is most important.


My advice? Don’t focus too much on quantity and go for quality. Even in just draft form, it is still worth taking the time needed to construct well-crafted paragraphs that expresses what you want to say as effectively as possible. Academic language is not easy to master, but pausing and reflecting on your writing, identifying knowledge and language gaps and really questioning everything that you write and the way you write shall benefit you more in the long run!


June 18, 2017

Ph.D. Update: Successfully Passed The Upgrade Process; Onward With The Thesis!

Confirmation arrived by email earlier the previous week, confirming that my research work has been successfully upgraded to Ph.D. level! The successful confirmation has been met with surprise and feelings of relief, as the confirmation is the result of a reassessment of my work following the upgrade presentation that took place a few months ago, where my work at the time nearly matched Ph.D. level but had to make a few alterations to the research design. These alterations initially came about as doubts that I had about the suitability of my own research design subsequent to first submission of the upgrade paper, but before the upgrade presentation and these doubts were confirmed during the presentation.


As has been detailed and heavily documented in my previous blog posts, the Mixed Methods approach was dropped in favour of a Case Study Grounded Theory research design and the rewritten upgrade paper, which increased in word count from three thousand words to between six to seven thousand words, was based around this research design. The literature review, methodology, trial study and discussion chapters were significantly revamped to reflect updated readings, changes in methodological directions, thoughts about the phenomena of interest, initial data findings, hypotheses and thoughts about the data.


Eventually I was happy to send it in for reassessment, and led to my research upgraded to Ph.D. level!


Current Status Of Research


But even now I’m debating my research design as I am beginning to feel that a case study design is no longer appropriate, as a characteristic of a case study design is its suitability for research where the boundaries of the context and phenomena of interest are not clearly defined.


What this means is, a case study design is most suitable in situations where the boundary definitions of the phenomena of interest (I am taking this to mean contextual, research environment and situational boundaries) are not clearly understood or are clear. However, as I come to know and understand my own philosophical beliefs and read intensely about them, along with analysing and thinking about the data relating to the phenomena, the more I am beginning to realise that there are situational and contextual boundaries and that I am able to clearly define these boundaries. Therefore, the case study option might be dropped. I shall explore this more though and write a blog post in the future when I am fully convinced this is the case, and no pun intended!


Doubts are also beginning to come about regarding the possible use of interviews in the research. The idea of using interviews came about when I followed a more constructivist epistemological approach, but having really analysed the situational context of my research a few months ago I shifted away from constructivist epistemology to constructionist epistemology. Basically, the type of interviews I wanted to carry out are known as semi-structured interviews, which enable co-construction of meaning and knowledge about concepts of reality to take place between the interviewer and the interviewee; also, the research interviews could be taken into different directions depending on the answers given by the interviewee in order to enable myself as the researcher to explore specific thoughts further. This is a sign of a constructivist approach therefore I am not entirely convinced this is achievable with a constructionist epistemology. This is something I need to look at further in the future.
Apart from those two concerns, everything else is more or less decided upon: an ontological realist approach, a social constructionist epistemology, and the possibility of dropping the case study methodology and upgrade grounded theory to a full methodological approach therefore in a sense the grounded theory shall be situated within a realist-constructionist paradigm.



What is the current focus? Where to next?


I have made tentative plans up to around the middle to the end of August where I am planning to take my annual summer time off before the long autumn and winter stretch towards Christmas. The plans, put in place about a month or so ago following the successful Warwick University conference, revolve around developing philosophical justifications for my research design, and to attempt to argue the case for a realist-constructionist paradigm as most suitable for exploring the phenomena of interest, as opposed to a positivist paradigm or a relativist paradigm.


Essentially, the main current focus is to begin drafting the initial sections of the methodological chapter of the thesis. The initial sections of the methodology chapter aim to explain and explore my ontological and epistemological beliefs, and therefore reflexivity, reflectively, and critically analyse and acknowledge any personal biases and the way that these biases might have affected the implementation of the research design, and the development of the theory. Obviously I will have to edit the methodology chapter to include such reflexivity, reflections and critical analysis in the future as I have not fully applied the research design.


However, the main focus at the moment is to develop philosophical justifications of the research design: I need to explain what my ontological and epistemological beliefs are; justify and explain why the phenomenon of interest is being explored from a realist, constructionist perspective; compare to other perspectives that other researchers have considered in the past; and to explain in detail the relationship between ontology (realism), epistemology (social constructionism) and methodology (grounded theory).


Some might consider this as a little odd because I am writing the early chapters of the thesis in somewhat of a reverse order, as I am writing the methodological chapter, or at least the beginning of it, before fully drafting the literature review. But this approach makes sense to me. I’m leaning more heavily towards philosophy compared to a couple of years ago, and I feel that a full understanding of the philosophical aspects of my research design shall put me in a better position to fully critique and analysis the ways in which the phenomenon of interest has been explored, from both philosophical and methodological perspectives.


There are various ways in which a thesis can be completed and a qualitative, grounded theory thesis does not have to be completed in a set order of literature review – methodology – results – discussion chapters and so on (I’m simplifying the structure of a thesis here) but it can be completed in whatever way a researcher feels the need to complete it. The key is not the order in which the chapters are written, but that throughout the thesis there is a clear, identifiable, observable, and engaging narrative and relationship between the chapters.


Summary


Being upgraded to Ph.D. level is half a surprising outcome but definitely a relief! The current work leading up to around the middle to end of August, possibly, is the drafting of the initial sections of the methodology chapter that refers specifically to documenting and exploring my ontological and epistemological beliefs, argue their relevance to the research phenomena and context, and explain the relationship between my ontological and epistemological beliefs, and the methodological approach.


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