All entries for September 2016

September 25, 2016

All Case Study Aspects Dropped: the case, pun intended, for this

Ok, after much deliberation I have decided to drop all case study elements from my research. Debates and discussions regarding the inclusion of case study elements within a mixed methods context utalising grounded theory vary widely. But for me the case study approach goes against the nature of the research and the research intentions even if it were used for only framing the research questions and the data collection and analysis procedures, because quite frankly relevant approaches from critical realism, mixed methods and grounded theory appear to encompass all that is required, making the case-based study or strategy rather redundant. Despite numerous reasons for being initially attracted to case study aspects e.g., exploration of phenomenon in its natural setting and the carrying out of an intensive and detailed study on a phenomenon, the five key deciders for dropping any mention of a case study are discussed. Note that what is discussed has come not from actually carrying out case study research, but from logic and reason based on my current understanding.

Theoretical incompatibility

Intentions of my research are to develop theory from the grounded theory data within the quantitative strand, test the theory using the quantitative strand, and then use the quantitative data to refine the theory. Case study emphasises not the development of theory, according to key authors Eisenhardt and Yin, but the testing of a theoretical framework, either existing or developed through the analysis of literature, before commencing any case study research.

The emphasis on the theory development through literature and prior to carrying out the research is incompatible with grounded theory, which suggests that an existing theoretical framework should not be forced onto the data but emerge and develop from the data. I accept however that there are theses out there that have not developed a theory prior to carrying out a mixed methods case study, but for me and the intentions of my research that approach would not work.

Additionally, I am unsure of case study’s stance on theory refinement. Plentiful literature describes it as an effective strategy or methodology, depending on the way it is used, for theory development, but nothing on actual theory refinement.

Sampling Incompatibility

From my understanding, everything needs to be designed, developed and explored relevant to the case or a series of cases. Whilst case study research employs a form of purposive sampling of cases, it appears to me that all participants of a particular case must be included in the research with no "outsiders". Whilst this is fine if that is the intention, the mixed methods approach being developed for my research requires different population samples from outside of the cases that shall be explored, and this does not appear to fit within the use of sampling for a case study. If I were to use a sequential explanatory mixed methods this would not be an issue, but because I am developing a sequential exploratory, an amended version, this would be a problem. A problem would involve the fact that the theory would be tested on a population sample different to the participants of the cases explored through grounded theory. The fact the samples shall differ between qualitative and quantitative makes case study incompatible.

Non-Triangulated research

Case study actively encourages triangulation of research findings, meaning that the findings come from different research methods for a variety of purposes including corroborating data and improving research validity. The concurrent triangulation variation of mixed methods was going to be used until it was realised that this would have led to difficulties in the research design and therefore render it unreliable, therefore it was switched to a sequential exploratory approach. Concurrent triangulation would have achieved the triangulation objective of the case study approach, but the sequential exploratory does not: at least, not the in the way it is being used in this research to develop a theory.

Replication Logic

Replication logic is what gives case study a mode of generalisability or in other words the ability to generalise identified events and activities across a series of cases. Replication appears on two levels: literal replication if few cases are explored and theoretical replication if several are selected. The former is used for predicting similar results across cases whilst the latter is used for predicting contrasting results across cases but for reasons that can be anticipated. Yin’s description of replication logic is akin to experimental designs: the focus is on replicating findings in some way, and therefore highlights a positivist approach to research, which would in my opinion oppose the general philosophical stance of grounded theory. Grounded theory is a mode of interpreting data and is therefore not a mode of enforcing a particular theoretical framework upon data in order to find some sort of replication. There is a form of replication that can be found within grounded theory, but this does not come from an enforcement of a theoretical perspective but is allowed to emerge naturally from the data relative to the perspectives and interpretations of the researcher.

Therefore, replication logic appears to be based on replication based on pre-existing theoretical frameworks and assumptions. This is unlikely to work in my research.

Well then!

No, no, I am not going to say that the sequential exploratory mixed methods using grounded theory and questionnaire (more than likely: depends on the findings of the grounded theory) underpinned by critical realism shall be the research design because I might change my mind, but it’s not likely though I have said that before! But that’s the beauty of research: you can never really be certain or absolute of anything.

All of my latest ideas about the research design is to be confirmed as appropriate by the supervisor.


Those of you interested:

Robert Yin’s book on case study methods: Case Study Research: Design and methods. The fourth edition is available on Google books, and all University libraries! Though a bit difficult to get hold of from a University library if you are not a registered student or researcher at that University……

Plus, Kathleen Eisenhardt’s research paper Building Theories From Case Study Research available from The Academy of Management Review journal.

Plus, before any person comments, I realise that is not the formal way to reference materials! Have to adore Harvard referencing………

Case study? Case–based strategy? Not a case–based strategy? What is it then?

Remember the time I posted up a post that began with remember the time when I said that my research design is complete? I’m saying it again: remember the time when I said that my research design is complete? Well, earlier in the day a thought literally struck my ideas of a case study down, stamped all over them, and performed some sort of war dance over them chanting in some intelligible language. So, I will not dance about and sing claiming that I have found my research design because, given that I am a critical realist, to claim that I have found an absolute research design would be complete and utter nonsense.

Regardless, the intention was never to implement a full case study design as the research uses a particular variant of the mixed methods methodology. Whilst mixed methods can be used within a case study design, I have come to realise that the type of mixed methods that I am proposing (an amended version of Creswell’s sequential exploratory to reflect better the theory refinement phase) and the types of methods being used is making me question the use and role of a case study approach.

So I began thinking about the idea of calling case implementation a case-based strategy for framing the research questions and acting as a general guide for guiding the mixed methods data collection and analysis sequences, but it was realised that this didn’t really make much sense because it would only apply to the qualitative aspect and not the quantitative aspect, and also from what I understand all phases of a sequential mixed methods approach would have to study the same participants because it is about studying a single case e.g., a group of people, an organisation and so on. Sequential exploratory calls for different population samples, though sharing the same basic characteristics, for both qualitative and quantitative strands.

A key question that has been playing on my mind is, is it really the right way to call something a case study or even a case study strategy if some of the key aspects of such an approach are not going to be utalised? Can you really mould and combine bits of different methodologies and methods and call it by a particular name e.g., is it really right to call my study an exploratory mixed methods case study on X phenomenon if most of the key functions of a case study shall not be used?

If not, then what can I call it? What does it all even mean?


Could my research be case-based? There are clear examples of cases existing, with a case being defined as simply an instance of a phenomenon of interest e.g., I am exploring a particular process of learning so a case would simply be defined as a separate but related instance of this phenomenon. In terms of Education think of a “case” as a classroom, or an individual student, or a group of learners.

A discussion on the academic site ResearcherGate included a comment suggesting that within a sequential mixed methods design, a case study can be used as part of the qualitative component but because my research design has been amended slightly to reflect theory refinement, it kind of goes beyond the limit of what a case study is supposed to achieve, in my opinion from what I can currently understand. Another debate revolves around if whether or not aspects of case study can really be used within a grounded theory exploration, and opinions on this appear to vary widely with some supporters of this idea whilst former Ph.D. candidates stated that their examiners were critical of this approach. An interesting comment suggests that if an approach uses an existing theoretical framework upon the data then it is difficult to call this grounded theory, because all versions of grounded theory does not work strictly within a theoretical framework. The commentator suggests that if a project contains more case study principles than grounded theory principles then it would be incorrect to call it a grounded theory study, which makes sense. If on the other hand, as another commentator alluded, and as my research appears to be leaning towards, the project contains more grounded theory elements than case study elements then it would be wrong to call that something like a case study grounded theory project, because it would not be adhering to case study principles.

So perhaps I have to think of my research in terms of it being case-based, and not actually call it a case study or even a case strategy. Interestingly I have just read a research paper that states that studying cases is not exclusive to case study research, but can be present in all approaches that adhere to qualitative assumptions and this includes grounded theory.

Ultimately, is there really a need for any reference to case study or case strategy if all what I need in reference to studying instances (cases?) qualitatively resides within a grounded theory approach?

Something to think about!

September 20, 2016

Current Reflections On Mixed Methods Methodology

Right at the beginning of the Ph.D. all researchers are presented with an introduction to various research philosophies and methodologies, and the many ways in which these have been defined and applied. The research introduction is not extensive: it is designed to initiate your thinking about what philosophical perspectives, methodological approaches and methods might be suitable for your research. Usually it also introduces you to some of the general advantages and disadvantages of and some of the more general arguments for and against each approach. Basically, it acts as a platform upon which you jump off into a much wider arena of discussion, debate and application.

At this point, given that the state of the research is in the upgrade process, my experience of mixed methods has revolved around designing and developing mixed methods as a methodology guided by a case study strategy, which itself can be applied to a research design in many ways but this will be discussed in another blog post, underpinned by a critical realist Philosophy. Explaining the way all this fits together is beyond the purpose of this blog post, but specific to mixed methods and thinking about the way that mixed methods can work with my research design has been an extremely interesting adventure and continues to be so.

When I began thinking about mixed methods methodology I found various typologies that explain the way in which different components of a mixed methods methodology fit together, and their general functionality. Creswell is a prolific writer of mixed methods research, and has come up with various typologies of mixed methods designs: sequential, concurrent, embedded, and transformative. When I first began reading through the various types and their applications, I initially chose concurrent parallel variety but then changed to sequential exploratory. Read previous blog posts to read all about why the transition took place.

Initially, I thought these typologies were fixed with no flexibility with their amendments to fit particular contexts. I did struggle with this somewhat as the context calls for some amendments to take place, but had decided to put these amendment ideas aside for the time being. Through the trialling of grounded theory (to be discussed further another time) and through careful reading so far of relevant grounded theory and case study literature, I found that methodologies and methods are continuously shifting and amending based on current discussions of research methodology. Following this, literature was discovered from various authors criticising typologies from Creswell and other mixed methods authors, stating that these typologies are not meant to be used in an absolutely unchangeable way, but should be used as a guide and therefore amendable relative to the context.

Reading this has been somewhat of a relief. Since the research is based on theory development I wanted some process or element of the design to deal with theory refinement following the development and testing phases. I am now amending the sequential exploratory approach developed by Creswell to reflect an iterative, extra phase of theory refinement.

Reading methodologies, methods and even philosophies are continuously shifting concepts adds a new layer of complexity to understanding, designing, developing, testing and applying a research design. Not only are there actual philosophical perspectives and methodological approaches, and methods, but these are shifting positions all the time with researching continuously adding, for example, different philosophical arguments for or against different methodological approaches. Research can combine philosophies, methodologies and methods in various different ways relative to the research problem, the research questions, and the skills and experiences of the researcher. This would lead to not just simply applying a particularly defined approach to exploring reality, but also gives the researcher a chance to remedy criticisms and push the boundaries of methodological knowledge.

When a researcher begins to realise this, a new chapter begins. A new layer of understanding begins as you explore to the most detailed and in-depth level what research philosophies, methodologies and methods are about and to locate opportunities to extend and push current knowledge about these different philosophical and methodological approaches.

I have really only just begun to realise and push for developing new philosophical and methodological arguments and perspectives relative to the research problem and the phenomenon of interest. This is risky, I’m not sure if it will work, but I feel that what I am doing is right. Sometimes you just have to take that academic risk to push forward with what you want to achieve, because knowledge cannot push forward to new arenas if no person is willing to saddle up and ride the horse of knowledge! I’ll be talking about this adventure more in future blog posts.

‘till next time: keep playing with your designs!

Are All Research Designs Pragmatic and Relativist?

Developing a research design is quite an experience, and is a complex mesh of investigating and exploring different philosophies, strategies, methodologies and methods and, in the case of my research design, the way in which they can be combined and / or amended to fit the research context and research questions. I continuously reflect upon my research design and question it, and the process of actually getting to the point where I have a research design therefore sometimes I wonder if the design, regardless of its philosophical positioning, is actually pragmatic and relativist process.

I reflect on this question because research design development is based on our own prejudices, experiences, philosophies and theories, and the identified research problem. The way that we interpret and understand reality can in some way limit the way that we choose to investigate reality, or in some way restrict ourselves with our research design preferences, and the reality of the research problem. But should our own preferences determine the research design or should it be the research questions? This depends, in my opinion, on several factors including our experiences and developed skills, and enthusiasm for other approaches. A solid quantitative experimental researcher, for example, might not be able to learn about qualitative ethnographic or coding approaches within a short space of time required to complete a research project. They might not even be willing to actually do this instead continue to view reality and all research problems through the lens of an experimentalist. Research textbooks do emphasise the idea that research questions do drive the research design, but is this absolute? Are research questions the only factor?

Where do research problems come from? Are they constructed by the individuals or are research problems already out there independent of human thought waiting to be discovered? What makes us identify research problems in a different way to other researchers? I identified the basis of my research project many years ago through observation, and it has taken many years of reading and an MSc course to really refine the research to where it is now and even then refinement is still an ongoing process. Perhaps research problems exist independent of a researcher’s perceiving, understanding and knowing them but each researcher perceives and chooses to explore the problem in different ways based on prejudices, experiences and so on. Perhaps they are not actually independent and depends on our interpretations and engagement with the natural or social reality?

Our perspectives of reality do not have to be fixed and certain: my own philosophical views have changed from a relativist perspective to a critical realist perspective, and this has entailed a change to my methodological approach to investigating reality and the research problem. The research questions have changed numerous times as I have read and explored the phenomenon of interest further. Understanding reality is more than just statistically analysing two or more variables in order to correlate them and create a cause-effect relationship and then to go on testing this relationship. Understanding reality is also more than just a researcher enveloping or immersing themselves with participant observation and experiences. Reality is more than just being a single, certain, absolute reality easily accessible and understandable through using hypo-deductive scientific methods and it is more than just being based on our subjective knowledge and experiences of reality

Does this make the process pragmatic and relativist? Pragmatic as in, I am selecting “whatever works” to address the research questions and the research problem therefore I perceive from reflection upon my own perspectives of reality that a critical realist case study using a mixed methods approach is the most appropriate design for this research. Relativist as in, I have developed the research design relative to the research problem, relative to my own philosophical views, and relative to the methodological concerns that I have identified in existing published literature.

This is something that is worth continuing to think about!

September 2016

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