All entries for September 2017

September 13, 2017

Phenomenology: what is it, and what are its possibilities for my Research?

Phenomenology has been defined as both a philosophical perspective and as a basis for various research programs and methodologies. My current understanding and interest of Phenomenology leads me to focussing on it as a philosophical movement as founded and discussed by the famous philosopher Edmund Husserl. Whilst I am sure that a phenomenological ontology can lead to a phenomenological research design it is not my intention to carry out a phenomenological study. Therefore, discussions of phenomenology as a research methodology are not relevant for this blog. At least, not at this time. My understanding of Phenomenology is continuous, therefore this blog post represents a snapshot of what phenomenology is.

What is Phenomenology?


There are many definitions of Phenomenology, but I shall focus this discussion on the definitions of it by its founder Edmund Husserl, who originally discussed phenomenology within the context of realism. It is the study of phenomena, the ways in which we experience phenomena, and what the structures of these experiences are, all from a first-person perspective. It can be suggested that phenomenology also includes the study of the relationship between phenomena, experience, and experiential structures in relation to that phenomena being experienced. Experiential structures is considered a main focus of Phenomenology, and various structures have been defined including intentionality, consciousness (of objects), perception, self-awareness, and consciousness of the self and others.


Phenomenology offers descriptive accounts of experiences with little or no concern with causes or explanations of these experiences. This is because, according some writer suggestions, causes and explanations are concepts situated exclusively within the natural sciences and not contexts appropriate to phenomenology, notably social sciences and qualitative contexts. However, this is a subject of much debate, with writers and researchers arguing for and against the adoption of causal and explanatory accounts within social sciences. On a personal note, I have the belief that causes and explanations can be play a role in understanding social reality and social phenomena from a qualitative perspective, particularly theoretical development projects that uses grounded theory as the methodology. Although my research does not use grounded theory to discover and explain causes, grounded theory is used to develop a theory that provides non-causal explanations and understandings of specific learning phenomena


Phenomenology suggests that experience always involves some sort of object of reality. We cannot experience something without having an object of experience, therefore we cannot have an experience ‘about’ something or an experience ‘with’ something. It has to be an experience ‘of’ something. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the word ‘of’ defines a point of orientation, and hence when we experience something there has to be an object of that experience that exists and that we can experience. Before experiencing an object however, we must be consciously aware of that object’s existence and therefore, I find it difficult to agree with the notion of separating and isolating fully an object’s existence and the experience that it provides. How can something be experienced if you have not considered the existence of that something? This, I am coming to know, is not an easy question to answer in the social world because in the social world, what comes to existence is a result of interactions between people. More specifically, certain types of interactions bring about the existence of certain social objects.


Going deeper there is a question (of many): if interactions bring about the existence of certain objects, is it the process of interaction itself that brings social objects into existence or is it that the participants of that interaction are consciously aware of its existence? This leads to another question: can we be consciously aware of the existence or, perhaps better to suggest, the possibility of existence of social objects before engaging with interactions? We could, based on our reflections of previous interactions, but here we are thinking abstractly or theoretically and therefore, we cannot call abstracts an experience. This is because we would be thinking ‘about’ something, not thinking ‘of’ or experiencing ‘of’ something, or be conscious ‘of’ something. We would simply be thinking or being conscious about the possibilities and not experiencing the actualities, as far as I can currently understand. To be conscious we must be conscious of something, and therefore when we say that we are consciously aware we are effectively stating that we are consciously aware of a particular object.


This is just a snapshot of my current and ever developing thinking of the idea of consciousness and its relationship with awareness, experience, objects and existence. It’s a huge subject!


The Possibility of Phenomenology in my Research


A typical phenomenological project involves exploring the way in which participants experience the phenomena, with relevant data of such experiences collected most commonly using interviews. This is not what I am thinking about though. What I am thinking about is using phenomenology as a mode of introspection, self-analysis and self-reflection, which is a part of being conscious of who we are as Ph.D. researchers and therefore is a fundamental part of the Ph.D. experience. The Ph.D. and each example of a Ph.D. experience such as writing a journal paper, writing the thesis, attending a conference, attending specific presentations, setting up a seminar, etc., could all be explored phenomenologically.


When I read through some of the transcripts that I have collected, I observe things. I observe happenings, events, actions and possibilities that the participants appear not to have been able to perceive or realise. I can view beyond what the transcripts are telling me. I can hypothesise and theorise about what is happening, and what might happen in the future within similar situations in other transcripts. Using Grounded Theory, I can test and evaluate these hypotheses and develop them as part of the theory if necessary. But why? Why am I able to perceive social objects resulting from certain interactions but the participants were not able to perceive them? Do social objects that I perceive or become consciously aware of exists in reality at the time of perceiving or being aware of their existence, or possible existence? If not, then how can I perceive what exists and is there a need to hypothesise their existence and test against similar conditions and situations using grounded theory? How does this compare to what is perceived by the participants? How can I claim to know that what I perceive is real? What is the nature of my own awareness as a researcher?

More questions: What is the nature of existence of social objects? Do these objects really exist? How do these objects come into being within social interactions? Does existence entail perception? What about awareness? Do we have to become aware of something in order to perceive a social object as being real? What if our perceptions are fallible and that what is perceived to exist does not really exist? How can I tell that what I perceive is real, and, how can I tell that the way that I perceive is just and sound? What if I am able to be aware of the existence or occurrence of a social object but the research participants did not become aware of such? Would that mean there is an issue with my own awareness or their awareness? These are just some of the questions that I am now asking myself with regards to the occurrences / existence of social objects within a social reality. This is important because how can we say that something exists if we are just perceiving it? How can we know that what we perceive really exists and what gives us any justification to claim that something exists?


So many questions! Essentially, I am interested in investigating and exploring my own consciousness and awareness, and the ways in which these affect the experiences that I have and what I can perceive that others do not, and perhaps try to reason out why. This is, obviously, an ongoing process!


September 11, 2017

Ontological Beliefs: The Journey So Far, Part C

The problem I had with critical realism was, to maximise the potential of critical realism, I had to use multiple data collection sources and ideally access to the beliefs and thoughts of the participants. The more I thought about the implications of the context of my research (e.g., I had no access to participant beliefs and perspectives, and they were not required to complete the core aim of the research), the more I realised that this was too risky an option to take. I doubted that I would be able to complete the Ph.D. or make a quality Ph.D. with critical realism, given the new awareness of the research context. Other reasons why critical realism would no longer work include its stratification of reality (reality split in multiple layers termed the real, the empirical, and the actual: read tutorials on critical realism if you are interested in knowing these further) and its emphasis on locating causal mechanisms. Causal mechanisms are multiple, unobservable objects that are theorised to have produced an observation or an event. Whilst applying critical realism to my own beliefs and context it was decided that there was no way I could identify causal mechanisms in the way that critical realism prescribes them. And, besides, the research is based on increasing understanding of the process of a particular learning encounter as well as explaining the way in which this process evolves over time and hence, evaluate its quality. I simply cannot find a way in which causal mechanisms can play a part in this and, also, the data collection methods used simply do not provide the appropriate data to identify causal mechanisms. I had to change tactics.


After reading many papers I came across Michael Hammersley’s ‘Subtle Realism.’ This aligns perfectly with my ontological beliefs: that there is a reality and objects of reality that exists independently of our conceptions of them, but that we shall never fully attain the truth of reality. The best that can be achieved is to edge closer towards truth through critically evaluating our conceptions and reformulating our conceptions of reality. Subtle Realism I have found works well in terms of framing my understanding of the nature and structure of social reality, and the way in which social reality behaves in certain learning contexts.


But the more I read about social ontology and social reality, which refers to social interactions and their nature, the more I became aware of something else that I was doing incorrectly. Perhaps not actually incorrectly, but in a particular way that could be enhanced (how can I assume that I was incorrect at the time if I cannot assume with absolute certainty that I am correct now, etc.)


Objects of the social world differs to that of the natural world. In the natural world objects such as trees, mountains, rivers and weather systems exist outside of our conceptions of them. We do not need to conceive, perceive or become aware of these objects in order for them to exist in reality: they exist regardless of whether or not we have any knowledge of them. In the social world, this is different, and after a while of trying to develop arguments about the existence of social objects I have come to the following couple of key questions: does our consciousness play an important part in the existence of social objects? If we are not consciously aware of the existence of a social object at a particular time during an interaction, does that social object have any existence?


I didn’t think about the role of consciousness before because I was too focussed on the social objects themselves detached from our consciousness. But as I have thought about some of the data that I have collected I was beginning to perceive the existence of social objects that the participants had not perceived. I also noticed differing perceptions among participants: some could perceive certain events whilst others did not, and it is interesting to think about why this might be the case and to test any hypothesis that might be developed. I have many questions, some of which were presented as part of a post yesterday, and ideas forming about the role of consciousness and is therefore a current and ongoing task.


What I do know or am coming to know (and I appreciate that I might not be completely correct at this time, or at any other time) is that subtle realism does not appear to address the role of consciousness with regards to the existence of social objects. But I think with some workarounds it can be used to represent or contribute towards understanding the role of consciousness. I am unsure at this time if subtle realism can be worked around to accommodate consciousness, but upon a search of literature I have found possibilities but have yet to read through these papers to gain a full understanding of what might be possible.


What is known, however, is that I am finding myself returning to a perspective I once dismissed as being irrelevant but now coming to know that it might actually be relevant for my philosophical conceptions, and that is Phenomenology. It might be relevant because phenomenology is the study of the nature and structure of our consciousness including perceptions and awareness.


Reexploring Phenomenology and its possible relevance to my research is another continuous and ongoing task, and shall be the subject of a blog post coming at a later time!


Ontological Beliefs: The Journey So Far, Part B

As a research philosophy, Constructivism emphasises an active relationship between researcher and participant. This is to mean that the researcher co-constructs, negotiates and validates meaning and knowledge with the participants. Truth, meaning, knowledge, understanding and our knowing about the phenomenon of interest is not discovered or interpreted, but is constructed or developed. Therefore, constructivism suggests that there are multiple truths and that no single truth is more valid than the other truths. For various reasons, I was beginning to experience problems with this conception of understanding the phenomenon of interest. Firstly, because I have no actual involvement with any of the participants, therefore, there is no co-construction occurring between myself and the participants. Secondly, because the intention is to contribute to classroom practice it is impossible to conceive of multiple truths. Products that are developed for practice-based disciplines cannot function on the idea of multiple truths, because you cannot have, for example, two models that evaluate the same aspects of critical thinking. One model has to be viewed as being more true to the reality of critical thinking, based on some criteria set, than the other. You can have, however, two models that evaluates different aspects of critical thinking, but not same aspects.


Once I realised this, I realised that I was conflating truth, meaning, understanding and knowledge in terms of the way in which we come to understand each of these terms in our research contexts. They had to be treated separately and differently to the way I was conceiving them. But in what way? Where could I possibly begin? What on Earth does it mean to have single truth and in what way can I come to understand what this truth is? I came to understand that my philosophical beliefs of the time were not compatible with the research context. I could not possibly continue with a constructivist philosophy given my new awareness of the research context and given the nature of a practice-based discipline. And then, I came to know the philosophical concept of ontology, and I realised my mistake: I was conflating ontology and epistemology. I was treating knowledge that we have of reality as mirroring reality itself. I came to know ontology as a separate study unit in itself, so I embarked on separating epistemology and ontology, and studied them further. I shall discuss the journey of epistemology another time.


Now that I separated ontology and epistemology I could focus on understanding my own beliefs of the nature and structure of reality itself. Remember that ontological beliefs refer to our beliefs about the nature and structure of reality, and epistemological beliefs refer to our beliefs about attaining knowledge about this reality. As I read papers and book chapters of ontological books, I came to understand that I didn’t perceive reality as internal within our minds, but that there is a reality external to our minds. In other words, that there is a reality independent of our knowledge and conceptions of it. This was actually a revelation, and not something that I expected. However, now was the time to find out where my developing beliefs could be situated within the existing ontological frameworks and beliefs.


As I reflect on this point in my journey, I remember that I still had that behaviour of trying to pigeon hole my beliefs or fit my beliefs into a pre-existing set of ideals and frameworks. Why was this? I think it was initially more to do with convenience because I was trying to understand the existing frameworks that are available to possibly evaluate and critique them whilst attempting to apply them to my own set of beliefs. With the awareness and understanding I have now, I find it neigh-on impossible to situate my beliefs within any single existing framework. But at the time I just wanted a better understanding.


After reading widely around the topic of philosophy I came across the notion of realism, and this supports the idea that there is a reality out there independent of our conceptions of it. But what version? There are many versions available and it took me a while to align myself with the correct ontology, or what I thought was the correct and relevant ontology. I did settle on critical realism for a fair while due to my research methodological approach of mixed methods. But I came across problems in the mixed methods approach and, therefore, critical realism.


I had to question and really contemplate my ideas about reality, as discussed in Part C!


Ontological Beliefs: The Journey So Far, Part A

I am hoping that I have made clear the importance and value of understanding your own ontological beliefs so far in writing this blog. This is not to suggest that you should know everything about ontology as this would be a pretty impossible task unless you were doing a Ph.D. specifically in dealing with ontological issues. But, I do feel that it is important to engage with ontological issues in the context of your research, in terms of attempting to understand your own ontological beliefs, to situate these beliefs within the wider published field of ontology, and the way in which your ontological beliefs shape your overall research design. For me, this has been a long journey of twists, turns, introspection, doubting, experimenting and challenging my own ideas. And, this is a journey that is still unfolding itself!


The changes that have occurred with my ontological (and epistemological) beliefs over the years lead to the following question: is it that we actively construct and alter our beliefs of reality? Or is it that we simply become more aware of the complexity of reality itself and of our beliefs about this reality? There are no easy answers to these questions, but it is the role of a Ph.D. candidate to explore their own beliefs, and to situate them within the wider published frameworks and theories. I originally thought of this as straight forward, but really, it isn’t, despite the way in which some academic textbooks attempt to portray it as straightforward. Situating beliefs and trying to find where they fit within the wider literature can depend on the research problem, the research context, and the overall, general discipline within which a researcher is situated. But even then, research problems and research contexts can be philosophised in several ways, and can therefore be explored using a variety of different approaches sometimes in combination.


When I first began the Ph.D. I was convinced that I was a constructivist. I conceived reality and knowledge of reality as a personally constructed entity with no real objective existence. Therefore, I had the idea at the time that everyone constructed their own truths and it was the job of the constructivist to find out the way that people perceived the truth of certain aspects of reality based on their experience. My preference towards constructivism was driven by my favourable position towards constructivism as a teaching and learning theory. However, as I found out fairly quickly into the Ph.D., constructivism as a teaching and learning theory is completely different to its philosophical orientation.


The idea of constructivism as a teaching and learning theory is that learners are able to construct their own understanding and knowledge about subjects instead of passively listening to a teacher. Learners are active participants in their learning, and through experimentation and collaboration they build their understanding and knowledge. This is in some sense similar to constructivism as a research philosophy: researchers construct their knowledge of what is going on within a research setting through actively participating within the setting, typically through co-constructing and negotiating meaning and knowledge with the research participants. What is usually found is each participant constructs their own truth about reality therefore leading to multiple truths, and constructivism treats truth of all perspectives as the same.


Whilst this might initially be appealing, I did come across stumbling blocks as I shall discuss in Part B!


September 10, 2017

Ph.D Update: Philosophical Thoughts, Critical Review, and The Literature Review

Since the previous blog post, I’ve been working on various edits of an accepted critical review, along with writing an essay about Education (shall discuss this more another time), the literature review, and have been rethinking ideas about reality.


Conceptions of Reality


You might remember previous blog posts where I have conceptualised my epistemological beliefs as Social Constructionist and the subsequent posts where I have discussed my doubts about my own conceptualisations (yes, folks, you are allowed to question your own conceptions!). I am absolutely convinced that because of my increased awareness of the ontological existence of the phenomenon of interest that my epistemological beliefs go beyond constructionism


Constructionism, according to my current understanding of it based on the readings I have so far completed, originated in sociology and focusses on the importance of language and culture. It suggests that language is the driving force behind knowledge construction and attainment and cannot be separated from its culture. In other words, access to knowledge of reality is provided by language alone, and our understanding of reality and therefore knowledge attainment and construction is culture-specific.


Despite initial acceptance of this I began to struggle with knowledge derived from language and culture. The grounded theory methodology can allow language to be considered in its representation of nuanced occurrences of what might or actually exists, represented as concepts in the data and relationships between these concepts, there is no way I can gain understanding of cultural influences on the behaviours of the participants. I as a researcher am not embedding myself within any particular culture, and I do not have any direct access to the participants’ beliefs and perspectives. Therefore, as mentioned, I have no way in determining the way in which culture impacts the behaviours and thoughts of the research participants. But this, I realised, doesn’t really matter because investigating culture and its impact on participant behaviours isn’t relevant to the research problem that I have identified.


Another reason I began to struggle with a pure constructionist epistemology is that I have become more aware of the complexity of my epistemological beliefs and because of this, I am now taking inspiration from various epistemological perspectives including constructionism. Just very recently, I have come to understand that consciousness and awareness are important features of my thinking about reality and thinking about the existence of the phenomenon of interest.


What really is reality? What is the nature of existence of social objects? Do these objects really exist? How do these objects come into being within social interactions? Social objects come into existence because of interactions, but does that mean that if a particular social object does not occur at a particular point that they don’t actually exist? What if they do exist within a particular social interaction but are not perceived to exist? Does existence entail perception? What about awareness? Do we have to become aware of something in order to perceive a social object as being real? What if our perceptions are fallible and that what is perceived to exist does not really exist? How can I tell that what I perceive is real, and, how can I tell that the way that I perceive is just and sound?


These are just some of the questions that I am now asking myself with regards to the occurrences / existence of social objects within a social reality. This is important because how can we say that something exists if we are just perceiving it? How can we know that what we perceive really exists and what gives us any justification to claim that something exists?


This is where phenomenology comes into play, and I’m only just recently beginning to appreciate its potential value. I originally rejected it as anything relevant to my research because I was perceiving the value of phenomenology through the lens of a research methodology, and not a philosophy. Phenomenology as a philosophy is different to its conceptions as a research methodology, and understanding this is a continuous task, and there shall be a blog post about this soon.


The Critical Review


The critical review of my conference experiences back in May has appeared is complete and sent in for final confirmation and publication! It has most certainly been a learning curve given that this is the first time I’ve ever written a critical review for publication, but at the same time it has been a fulfilling, satisfying learning experience. Writing the critical review has really helped me to shape my understanding of how experiencing the conference, engaging with the audience and their feedback and engaging with various presentations at the conference contributed towards further development of my thesis structure, content and layout. This will lead to a stronger, more comprehensive thesis with a tightly integrated structure, with the concepts taken from the conference leading to a theory that is closer to the truth and reality of the phenomenon of interest than previously conceived.
Specific to the thesis, the background, literature review, results and discussion sections have been enhanced with new concepts to explore and where possible, develop hypotheses to test and possibly include in the theory as part of the validation and verification process. Speaking of the literature review……..


The Literature Review


The original plan of the literature review many months ago was to divide it into independent, loosely coupled sections titled Knowledge, Argumentation, Interaction and Technology. I have no idea what possessed me to think of these sections as independent and loosely coupled, because it doesn’t make any sense to do so. I think at the time I was feeling overwhelmed with the sheer amount of existing literature that has been published and the relationship between literature and the grounded theory approach. I think at the time I wanted to gather a sense of understanding the sheer volume of existing literature in each of the categories (and by this time I had already been reading about some of these topics for many years) within the context of my research problem (context is important! I cannot emphasise this enough because context plays a part of the lens from which you shall view the literature). Several months on I am now changing my approach to the literature review to thankfully something a bit more logical.


I’ve come to realise I cannot talk about one category independent of other categories. I can to a certain point, however, but I cannot view each category as fully independent. I can, for example, discuss relevant types of technology in terms of its features and affordances, but beyond this I cannot talk about technology independent of the research context and the research questions, and I cannot talk about technology independent of the way in which it, for example, facilitates interaction. Similarly, I can discuss argumentation to a certain extent but I cannot talk about argumentation fully independent from the way in which knowledge is handled through argumentation. A strong example of how my thinking about the dependency / independency relationship between these categories of literature is with argumentation. I attempted to write draft critiques of and relate definitions of argumentation. However, after reading a paper from Andriesson et al (2003) I became aware of the difficulties that I would have if I continued along the path of attempting to define and critique definitions of argumentation independent of discussions of other literature categories, even if only to understand the diverse literature that exists within each category.


The basic fact is, when I talk about argumentation, interaction, knowledge, technology and other possible concepts, all discussions must be situated within the context of Education. This is a Ph.D. in Education and obviously, the thesis is the product of the discipline within which it has been written, therefore it would not make sense to talk about these concepts outside of the context of the discipline and particularly outside of the context of the research problem. It doesn’t really matter if conceptions and perspectives are bought in from other disciplines such as sociology, psychology etc. the key guiding focus of the literature review is the disciplinary context and the research problem.


In Summary


There have been various changes during the past few weeks with the key changes being the literature review and its structure and content. The other key changes have been my continuous increasing awareness of my own beliefs of reality and the way in which we can obtain knowledge of this reality, but this shall be discussed more in another blog post. And to emphasise, managing the literature is a huge part of the Ph.D. especially for grounded theory based projects. But for the purposes of the literature review, all discussions of all concepts have to be situated within the context of the discipline, in my case Education. And, I am now finding it impossible to discuss concepts fully independent of each other and really, this is what the literature review entails. It’s not just some bullet pointed facts-of-the-matter chapter, it’s a serious business of critiquing, analysing, evaluating and synthesising literature in order to provide the intellectual and evidence filled basis for the need of your research.


References


Andriessen, J., Baker, M.J. & Dan Suthers, D. (2003). Argumentation, computer support, and the educational context of confronting cognitions. In J. Andriessen, M.J. Baker & D. Suthers (Eds.) Arguing to Learn: Confronting Cognitions in Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning environments, p.1-25. Dordrecht, The Netherlands : Kluwer Academic Publishers.


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