All entries for August 2017

August 19, 2017

Should Ph.D. candidates be talking meta–ontology and meta–epistemology?

Continuing to engage with writing the first drafts of various sections of my thesis, and this week I began to redevelop and construct an outline of some of the sections of the literature review. A part of the literature review shall refer to theories of epistemology (knowledge) and justification (methods of providing evidence or reasons of any claims about reality). The section is being written to link with other sections relating to collaborative learning and collaborative technologies and therefore attempting to write a reflective, critical narrative of existing, relevant literature. I want this to flow logically and not be disjointed. This is ongoing work.

As part of this task I have been rereading many different theories of knowledge and justification to identify theories that I can critique and relate to various aspects of the research phenomena of interest. What I have unexpectedly discovered during this reading is that not only can I critique and relate theories of knowledge and justification to different phenomena of research interest, but also relate some of the theories to research design. Many textbooks advise Ph.D. candidates to discuss and explain their ontological and epistemological beliefs and their impact on the research design, but they do not appear, from what I can understand, to request students to go further and jump up to the next level of abstraction. What do I mean by this? I’ll provide an example.

I have the belief that in the social world or social reality there are objective objects that exist independently of our consciousness and mental activities: we do not need to be consciously aware of their existence in order for them to actually exist (I’ll be describing this term in more detail in the thesis). But how do I know this? How do I know that there are objects out there that exist in that way? On what grounds have I based these beliefs on? In what way can I tell that I have developed these beliefs reliably?

Similar questions can be applied to my epistemological beliefs (which, as explained in the previous blog post, are changing; or, more accurately, I have become aware of their incorrectness). Therefore, in addition to discussing and explaining my epistemological beliefs and their relationship to my ontological beliefs, I should also be asking about the genesis of these beliefs. How do I know that the way that I perceive the acquirement of knowledge is correct? Where do my epistemological beliefs come from? On what grounds do I base these beliefs on? In what way can I tell that I’ve developed these beliefs reliability? And in the changes to epistemological beliefs over the years I should ask an extra question: did my epistemological beliefs change, or did I become more consciously aware of their existence? Either way, I need to ask more general questions: on what grounds were these changes made? How exactly did this change occur? Why did the change occur? What impact have these changes had on my research?

I guess these can be loosely termed meta-ontology and meta-epistemology. I am talking here about going beyond the level of discussing, explaining and justifying our ontological and epistemological beliefs to discussing how these beliefs were made, why they were made, and the grounds upon which we have formed these beliefs. This is an extra level of discussion and an extra level of abstraction that does not contend with discussing the acceptability and correctness of the beliefs themselves. Acceptability and correctness of the beliefs themselves shall be judged by the general criteria of the research project. What I am talking about is the method or approach that we have taken to form, come to know, become aware of, and ground our ontological and epistemological beliefs. I appreciate that some people might not view the worth of such discussions. I’m not entirely sure myself as I’ve only just thought about this since writing the previous blog post, but I think it is something that is worth thinking about further. Also, I am not entirely sure that, if these discussions do go ahead, they should be a part of the methodology chapter of if discussions should be in a separate chapter perhaps based on researcher reflexivity.

These are all tentative, initial ideas, but might be something worth pushing for. I shall have to ask for advice on this from my supervisor but I think perhaps discussing the core question how we know what we know should be considered more important.

Keep asking questions and never think that any idea is ridiculous because at Ph.D. level anything is possible. Remember, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer, but the strength of argumentation!

August 10, 2017

Ph.D Update: Multiple Changes Are Happening!

As part of our Ph.D. research and training, we must try to avoid polarising our beliefs and, therefore, subscribe to a stance, position, approach or method just because it appears to be the most convenient and approachable. What might be convenient and approachable might not be appropriate and relevant for the research problem and nature of the research context. It is part of our emerging identities as researchers to think very carefully about who we are and what we do, to take a critical stance towards every decision that we make, reflect on our decision making to ensure that there are no gaps that could cause methodological or practical problems, and to therefore ensure that every element of our research design connects reasonably and logically.

Earlier this week as part of the qualitative section of the methodology chapter, I began to describe the characteristics and features of qualitative research. As I began to relate characteristics and features to the research setting and context, phenomena of interest and the position of myself as the researcher (research positionality: I shall discuss this more in the future), I noticed that I was beginning to discuss the idea of complexity. Qualitative research, I was saying, is useful for exploring the nuanced, complex existence of social phenomena and the complexity of the setting of the phenomena of interest. It struck me there and then that this complexity of the existence of the phenomena of interest and the way that we come to know this complex existence was not mirrored by my awareness and discussions of my epistemological beliefs. What was going on here? Was I beginning to doubt my own epistemological beliefs? Or did I simply become immediately aware of the possible inadequate way in which I was perceiving and labelling my epistemological beliefs? This begs the question: can our epistemological beliefs shift as we progress through our research projects, or are our epistemological beliefs always in a constant state but that our awareness of their states continuously changes? Are epistemological beliefs therefore a construction in our minds, or do they pre-exist and we simply become more aware of them through various experiences?

Whilst I was tackling these complex questions (which are still being tackled), I completed the rough first draft of the qualitative section and began to tackle the grounded theory section. As I was writing this section I began reading through Birks and Mills (2015) publication “Grounded Theory, a Practical Guide.” Based on their comprehensive discussions of the philosophical and methodological developments of grounded theory, situated within the controversies and movements of the time, the authors advised students to be mindful of the possibility of what I call grounded theory methodological fluidity. I’ve talked about the idea of fluidity before and shall talk about this more in the thesis, but essentially the authors suggest that Ph.D. candidates should not simply subscribe to a specific grounded theory variety but to explore and experiment. Ph.D. candidates are therefore advised by the authors to draw upon and build upon the ideas and approaches of the multiple varieties and writers of grounded theory. This would lead to the development of a grounded theory approach that best matches the research problem, the nature of the research setting and context, the data collection method, and the position of yourself as the researcher. This overwhelmed me, because not only was I grappling with my own increased awareness of the complexity of my epistemological beliefs, I was also now beginning to grapple with the possibility of needing to draw from multiple varieties of grounded theory, and to build upon procedures and techniques presented in different varieties as necessary. I have the belief that there has to be a connection between the two: that a change in my awareness of my epistemological beliefs has led to a change in using grounded theory to analyse the phenomenon of interest.

Where am I with all of this now? Ontologically I’m still a realist: I still believe that there is a social reality that exists outside of our conceptualisations and perspectives of social reality and therefore there are social elements of social reality that do exist. The revelation here is that perhaps I have limited myself in the way in which I can come to understand these objective social elements or phenomena. Perhaps constructionism alone cannot fully capture everything that I am and everything that my epistemological beliefs have led me and are leading me in terms of my research design. But how can I at any time suggest that any particular epistemological stance really reflects how I can attain knowledge and understand phenomena of interest if my epistemological beliefs are continuously evolving? Or, more likely, that I am becoming more aware of what pre-exists in my mind? The simple fact is: I can’t! From the many months of reading and thinking about different epistemological stances, nothing really fits completely within my realm of coming to know about the phenomena of interest. This has to be because all of these difference stances: positivism, post-positivism, constructivism, constructionism etc follow set assumptions about the way that we as researchers come to know reality, the nature of our research problems, and our positionality. How we might come to understand and know about the phenomena of interest might follow a more post-positivist line, but my positioning of myself as the researcher and the way I engage with the data reflects a more dynamic approach. The best way I can really “label” my beliefs is to reread in more detail literature on different epistemologies and draw upon ideas and approaches from various authors and approaches, and develop strong argumentation for why I perceive the research setting and phenomena of interest the way that I do.

Methodologically, grounded theory is the only approach, situated in a qualitative methodology, that makes any sense to me. But what flavour now? Because of my increased awareness of my epistemological beliefs and the way in which I position myself in the research, and of the nature of the research setting, I cannot fully subscribe to the techniques and ideas of Strauss and Corbin’s version of grounded theory. I shall explore these issues and reasoning as the research progresses, but at this time it suffices to suggest that I will have to follow the advice of Birks and Mills (2015) and other authors. Their advice is to carefully, thoughtfully, reflectively, progressively, and critically draw on approaches and ideas from various key grounded theory authors (Glaser, Strauss, Corbin, Charmaz, Clarke and Bryant) that are most relevant and appropriate for my overall research design and research context. And, where necessary, to reformulate or build on existing grounded theory techniques.


To try to summarise all this: becoming more aware of the complexity of the research setting has caused me to become more aware of the complex nature of my epistemological beliefs. But a key question that I might like to tackle in the thesis is whether my epistemological beliefs have changed to become more complex, or if my epistemological beliefs have always been complex and I’ve only just become aware of this complexity. Can they change? Or is it simply the case that we become more aware of their complexity? Or is it a bit of both depending on what we experience and the way that we come to understand and build on this experience? This has to be reflected in my now new position on Grounded Theory: I cannot possibly capture the complexity of the research phenomena using just the procedures and ideas described by Strauss and Corbin. There has to be some sort of way that I can draw upon and build on the procedures and techniques from multiple authors that are most appropriate for my research design and research setting. But this I can only find out as I progress with my reading and testing of different techniques.

As for rereading the literature on epistemological theories and grounded theory approaches, as many authors state it’s not a matter of which array of writers you draw from and build upon, but it’s the way in which you can strongly defend and justify your positioning. What this means is there really are no right or wrong answers, but there is such a thing as a justifiable, defendable answer. And this, ultimately, forms the core of your thesis chapters and what you need to present at your viva. Overwhelming perhaps, and a little scary, but at the same time challenging, thrilling, motivating and exciting!

Reference / Bibliography

Birks, M., Mills, J (2015): Grounded Theory, A Practical Guide (2nd Ed). SAGE Publications

Urquhart, C (2013): Grounded Theory for Qualitative Research: A Practical Guide. SAGE Publications.

I have included Urquhart because she was the other author who influenced my now changing approach to grounded theory, though haven’t mentioned the author in the blog post as Birks and Mills publication was the first to really confirm the need for a change. That being said, both books are worth a read through if only to find out more about the idea of researcher leading the methodology and not methodology leading the researcher!

August 04, 2017

Ph.D Update: Critical Review Paper and the Methodology Chapter

Critical Paper on the University of Warwick Interdisciplinary Conference 2017 experience

The edited version as requested by the journal’s reviewers has been sent in for a further round of peer reviewing for any further editing before the final copy of the paper is due in October.

It has been such a useful experience writing this paper because it has encouraged me to explore my thinking as a postgraduate; consider the very being of a postgraduate researcher; and reflect on my thoughts of the way our identities as postgraduates, and the research that we engage with, are formed, shaped and altered due to our conference experiences.

The paper is a critical review and the first time I wrote the paper I had not considered that it would be appropriate to situate my thoughts within existing conference literature. Essentially, I found out that I could use the critical review to engage, reflect upon, and critique existing literature on conferences based on my experiences. Writing the paper has not only enabled me to become accustomed to a previously unfamiliar body of literature, but also helped me to define further who I am as a researcher. The experience of writing the paper has enabled me to reflect upon the conference experiences as building blocks of becoming more aware of my identity as a postgraduate researcher and, fingers crossed, an emerging social scientist.

The core of the critical review, and therefore the basis of my perspectives of conference experiences, revolves around my epistemological beliefs. As I was writing the paper, I found that the way I perceive conferences epistemologically is the same as I perceive epistemological aspects of my research design. Essentially, I perceive knowledge as being dynamic, changeable, uncertain and never fixed and therefore, our perspectives that reflect what we know, how we know, and what can be possibly known are forever changing. For the research design, I hold that whilst there are elements of social reality that exist independently of our mental activity (ontology), our knowledge and perspectives of these elements are continuously changing based on our experiencing these elements in, for example, different contexts. With conferences, because of my epistemological beliefs, I perceive conferences as being useful means by which we can alter our conceptions and knowledge about reality or about the phenomenon of research interest through engaging with the social and cognitive opportunities that a conference provides. These social and cognitive opportunities enable us as researchers to think critically and reflectively on our work, on the work of others, and who we are as postgraduates and eventual researchers. This, it is not only our knowledge of reality and phenomena of interest that can alter because of our conference experience, but also our identity as researchers.

There is obviously much more to this than what I express here (the paper is about three thousand words!) but the above presents my thinking in a nutshell.

Methodology Chapter

This is coming along fine, as previously mentioned I have written a draft form of the ontological and epistemological sections, and shall be working on the next drafts at some point in the future where I build on the concepts, arguments and ideas that I have begun to develop. Currently however, I’m writing about general characteristics and nature of qualitative research, and writing brief notes about various aspects of the research design that is directly influenced by the fact of the research being qualitative. Details include the role, features and characteristics of qualitative research; type of investigation; use of theory; form of logic; role of the researcher, the idea of sensitised concepts, and some notes of methodological justifications and the role of technology as a qualitative research facilitator, among others.

I’ve written over four thousand words of rough notes and I think I shall be ready within the next week to write the first draft of the qualitative section of the methodology chapter, consisting mostly of discussions of the way in which qualitative research is characterised in my research. Because I have been reading through and still going through specific qualitative research methodology books, I find writing a full draft a little pointless till after the relevant sections of relevant books have been read. This way, as I read through the sections I am simply writing down initial conceptions, thoughts, notes, useful terminology, critiques of published ideas, and details and reflections of my own research design. I have approached this using categories to separate ideas, thoughts and so on using separate headings so that when it comes to writing the full draft I have a rough idea of the order in which I am to write the section and relate each idea to each other. Therefore, when it comes to writing out the full draft of the qualitative section I will be able to analyse, synthesise and organise my existing ideas, thoughts, reflections and critiques and situate them as necessary within existing published literature.


I obviously cannot do what I do without books and research papers, and before writing this blog post I came across a couple of qualitative books (the first couple of books listed) that proved their weight in gold as they confirmed ideas that I have been considering, and assisted with intense idea development. If you are thinking about engaging with qualitative research in any fashion, I recommend the following books:

Cresswell, J (2007): Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches. SAGE Publications: USA

Flick, U., Kardoff, E.V., Steinke, I (2004): A Companion to Qualitative Research. SAGE Publications: UK

Flick, U (2007): Designing Qualitative Research. SAGE Publications: UK

Lapan, S.D., Quartaroli, M.T., Riemer, F.J. (2012): Qualitative Research: An Introduction to Methods and Designs. John Wiley and Sons: USA

I have other qualitative books lined up to read through, but so far these four books have been helpful with the first two being especially useful!

August 2017

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