All entries for December 2017
December 15, 2017
It has now come to that time of year where I begin to wind down for Christmas and begin reflecting on what has occurred during the year: the changes to my thesis, philosophical beliefs, methodological directions and understanding of the phenomena of interest, and what I can carry forward into the next year with significant strides and potential. And, what a year it has been! It has been a year of realisations, progress, doubt, and changes.
Reflecting on this time a year ago, I had just been assessed by the Upgrade panel and was in the middle of transitioning between philosophical and methodological directions. Because of the doubts I had of my own research methodology, which occurred after submitting the first upgrade paper but before the upgrade presentation, and the issues raised during the upgrade process, I had to resubmit the upgrade process with my new thoughts and new directions that I had been thinking about (and some which came about through discussion with the panel and my supervisor). I was forming an ontological battle in my mind. Methodologically speaking this was clear: I dropped the mixed methods approach as I had doubts about this approach, which were confirmed by the assessment panel, and kept the Grounded Theory method, but upgraded it from a method to a methodology. Grounded Theory plays a much more important role in my research now than it had previously, only I had not realised the significance of its role till just before the upgrade presentation. But ontologically it was a battle between realism and relativism: was I viewing reality as independent of my own thoughts? Is there a reality independent of my own thoughts? Or is reality simply constructed in my mind? Is reality relative and contextual, and therefore consist of no objective qualities? I eventually came to the realisation in late summertime that I am simply unable to pigeon-hole the beliefs that I have about reality, given the context of the research and of the phenomena of interest. From this realisation of the complexity of my beliefs I am now coming to the belief that my ontology is a mixture of moderate realism, along with aspects of pragmatism, complexity theory and phenomenology. Epistemologically, it appears that my beliefs about knowledge is a mixture of interpretivism and contextualism. The finer details of both sets of beliefs, such as the relationship between aspects of ontological beliefs, between aspects of epistemological beliefs and the wider relationships between ontology and epistemology (eventually working into the methodological justifications) need to be worked out more clearly and comprehensively. However, the fact that I have come to realise this diversity of my beliefs is what I could consider to be a key highlight of the year, and a key stepping point in the research progress. I am continuously questioning my own beliefs, however, and continuously reading more about ontological and epistemological theories.
The upgrade process was a really interesting experience. What was originally meant to have been a three thousand word paper eventually turned into a near seven thousand word mini dissertation! But I did enjoy this, and I felt that it really helped me to set the foundations for the eventual realisation that my philosophical beliefs are more complex than I had ever previously realised, and really helped me to focus on aspects of the phenomena I wanted to explore. But even then, things have changed or altered slightly since submitting the second upgrade paper, but that is the nature of research. It never stands still and you can never really say that what you think currently really is or will be the case in the future. I’m viewing things in the data that I had not realised before, and I’m viewing my own beliefs and questioning my own beliefs in ways that I had not originally thought of. This is a part of what I call ‘Meta Philosophy’ and during the year, especially during the summertime where I found myself becoming more consciously aware of the complexity of my philosophical beliefs, I have found this to be an increasingly important aspect of describing the foundations and roots of my research design. I have talked a fair bit about Meta Philosophy during the summertime on this blog, though I shall have much more to say about this subject in the future especially in the thesis.
As for the thesis, I feel much more focussed and settled in my mind about the directions I want to take. Even at the beginning of the year, I didn’t feel I had a lot of clarity because of the philosophical and methodological transitions that were taking place even up to late summertime. Now, whilst there are finer details to work out and explore, as there shall always be, I do feel much clearer now and have greater levels of clarity in general when it comes to my thesis, my identity as a researcher, my research design and therefore the way that I view and want to explore the phenomena of interest. I feel much clearer with the role and function of literature in my grounded theory project though I appreciate that different people will have slightly different approaches, but I feel more confident with my own approach. I will know for sure during the next year however if this approach I have in mind shall work. I feel confident that the three literature review chapters I have planned will work and will be well written and will achieve all the goals and aims that I have for each chapter. I feel that I have progressed well with drafting aspects of some of the chapters of the thesis during the year: the first literature review chapter (which I am now tentatively calling the Function of Education within a Contemporary Society), the third literature review chapter where I critique various relative learning models and theories, and the methodology chapter particularly the beginning sections where I detail the ontological and epistemological beliefs, and their impact on the selection and use of the methodology and method. Obviously this and all other chapters are work in progress, but I do feel better that after months of doubt, of questioning, of experimenting, of restructuring and rewriting the outline and exploring lots of research papers that I have a workable structure.
I just have my fingers crossed that I have what it takes to deliver a sound, comprehensive, well written, original thesis.
What are the root causes of the changes that have taken place as outlined? Along with the upgrade paper I’ve also sourced inspiration and influence from the CES Conference and the process of publishing my second research paper. I have talked much about the CES Conference during the year, but here it suffices to simply say that I am really pleased to have been afforded the opportunity to present some of my findings at the time at the conference, and the feedback I received from the audience and subsequent discussions that took place at other conference presentations were invaluable. They were invaluable because they made me realise the importance of describing and explaining some aspects of the phenomena in ways that I had previously valued but had not realised their importance to include in the thesis. Secondly, the feedback and the general conference experience enabled me to realise who I am becoming as a researcher and therefore assisted in developing my identity, which I strongly emphasised in the subsequent published reflection of the conference.
The CES experience therefore was a major highlight, as was being able to have a second research paper published based on critically reflecting upon my experience as a conference presenter and attendee. The paper included ideas I am working on regarding the impact that our epistemological beliefs have on our identity, identity development and experiences of academic conferences. Secondly, the paper contained other ideas that I have regarding the way in which conferences play a role in our professional development and thesis development. Attempts were made at identifying a relationship between the two ideas. The experience of writing and editing the paper and working with the reviewers was again invaluable to the development of thesis directions, and of who I am as a researcher.
In summary: the key highlights of the year were successfully passing of the upgrade process from MPhil (Master of Philosophy) to DPhil (Doctor of Philosophy), the successful CES conference experience, and the publication of my second paper. Also, I feel much clearer now with my thesis, with my philosophical beliefs, methodological directions and understanding of the phenomena of interest. Whilst much more work needs to be carried out, the foundations that I have laid during the year should lead to much greater and more significant strides throughout the next year. I will, of course, be keeping you all up to date via this blog!
But for now, thank you very much for the kind comments that I’ve had during the year from blog readers. It’s fascinating to know that people I’ve never met before can become so interested in what I am writing. It’s nice to think about this blog and my writings having some sort of influence on others and inspiring others in that way. That is, of course, should be a reason why we become Ph.D. students and want to be involved in the world of academia.
Thanks again for reading, and as this is the final post of the year on this blog I would like to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New year, and I look forward to writing much more on here during the next year!
December 14, 2017
The three key tasks that I have been engaged with as part of the early stage of grounded theory application (besides continuously developing the relationship between my philosophical beliefs and grounded theory, as explained in the previous blog post) are engaging with the literature, using open or initial coding, and writing memos.
Engagement with Literature
I have adopted a two-fold approach. As can be imagined, there is much debate among all key authors regarding the role of literature and the position of the literature review within the thesis. This shall be discussed more during the upcoming blog series on Grounded Theory, but at the moment it suffices to state that Strauss and Corbin along with Charmaz and Bryant provide the foundations upon which my approaches have been constructed.
The first function of the literature is to provide the grounding, critiques, focus, background and basis of the investigation. I am situating my ideas and approaches within existing literature, which is establishing the social and economic justifications of the need for my research and the philosophical, pedagogical and methodological need for further explorations of the phenomena of interest. As has been discussed in a previous blog post, these discussions, justifications, debates, critiques, analysis etc. of literature are being constructed across three related literature review chapters placed at the beginning of the thesis.
The second function of the literature is to act as a means of validating and verifying the emerging theory. Specifically, the theory’s content (categories, dimensions, properties, and relationships between categories, dimensions and properties) can not only be verified and validated by continuous comparisons with the data, but also comparisons with findings of existing literature relevant to the substantive area.
I am aiming to integrate the literature findings within sections of the discussion chapter related to each category and the constructs of each category, and the relationships that exist between categories and constructs. This way, I can classify literature in relation to each of the theory’s category although bearing in mind that some literature might refer to more than a single category. Either way, I think integrating findings within the discussion chapter within the relevant category section is the common sense way to manage extant literature.
Open or Initial Coding
My approach to open coding appears to have a strong pragmatic base and therefore, appears to be influenced more by Bryant’s pragmatism grounded theory than Charmaz’s constructivist grounded theory, Glaser’s apparent positivist grounded theory and Strauss’ symbolic interactionist grounded theory. Again there is much debate about the way in which the researcher should work with the data, and shall be a topic I shall cover in next year’s blog series on grounded theory.
There are, therefore, various approaches that can be used to analyse the data using grounded theory, but I have adopted what I shall term segment by segment analysis. What determines an individual segment is the meaning that it holds, or the meaning that I perceive it to hold. A data segment can be a whole line, a sentence, or half a line or half a sentence. A segment therefore holds some sort of complete meaning, which could be an idea, a stand-alone part of an argument, a justification, a reason, or anything that I can identify as having some meaningful existence. This meaning or meaningful existence must be naturally occurring (if you want, you could call it a natural relationship between researcher and the data), and therefore a criticism I have of line by line and sentence by sentence analysis is the possibility of forcing meaning and therefore identify concepts that do not actually exist. Segment by segment analysis enables you, in my opinion, to openly detect what the data is saying. If you find or perceive meaning within a whole sentence, then give that sentence a label that represents that meaning. If you find half a sentence represents a full meaning, then give that half a sentence a label. I used these labels, therefore, to describe or summarise the meaning that I had perceived to exist within that segment. As I was coding the data, I became consciously aware of similar data segments. These similar data segments share similar characteristics or roles within the context of their existence. Similar data segments were compared with each other, and if considered similar enough they were coded with the same label. What was occurring therefore was a series of data segments that shared the same characteristics, but were presenting themselves differently (e.g., negative and positive reasons).
Multiple similar data segments and related codes shall eventually combine to create abstract classes or groupings known as categories, which enable theoretical development. What is important to remember here from my current understanding is that codes derive from our interpretation of what is happening in the data, and categories form from similar codes that can be grouped. Categories are considered abstract exactly because they are not derived from the data. Each category consists of properties and dimensions, and these are discovered through significant and comprehensive comparative analysis of coded data segments that belong to that category. It is the variation among all data segments that contribute towards a category’s properties and dimensions, and it is this variation that shall be playing a major part of theoretical sampling when I develop criteria for the next set of data to collect in the new year. Some category development has taken place, in fact more development that I had expected, but there is much more to be done. The groundwork has been laid for further development through the writing of memos, which shall be described a bit later.
In thinking about the segment by segment approach, it appears that I have adopted the wider analytical approach known as micro analysis. My current understanding tells me that, at least within sociological terms, macro level analysis addresses wider arguably post-modern issues such as social stability, social injustices, social change and power authorities. Micro analysis explores deeply and comprehensively social and collaborative structures such as learning, interaction, group construction and group dynamics. The logical approach of this grounded theory research is abductive reasoning, which has been strongly advocated by Bryant’s Pragmatist views of grounded theory.
Briefly, this form of logic uses a mixture of deduction and induction where concepts and codes are inductively derived from the data, and deductively derived from any hypotheses and further abstract interpretations and predictions tested against further collected data. There is more to abductive reasoning than this rather basic definition, but that’s beyond the purpose of this blog post. I shall write more about abductive reasoning in the blog post series of Grounded Theory, and as I progress through the grounded theory coding stages.
Writing of Memos
Memos have been advocated by all grounded theory authors as a significant part of the grounded theory process and of theoretical development. In general, memos capture your thoughts, hypotheses, ideas, predictions, conceptions, perspectives, reasons, explanations and anything else related to the codes that you use and the categories you are developing, and the eventual wider theory. Memos, therefore, carry many functions, features, aims and objectives throughout a grounded theory process. Memos are therefore versatile and can be written in any grounded theory context, and therefore you are in control of the structure and content of memos, and why you need to write them.
I have been writing two different types of memos that are contributing towards theoretical development: phenomena memos, and code memos.
The phenomena memos relate to the ways in which learning takes place in relation to the specific phenomena of interest. These memos refer to my discussions, thoughts, observations, propositions, predictions, hypotheses and critiques of the events, happenings, consequences, conditions, situations, contexts and causes of the phenomena. Various phenomena memos have been written, with each memo exploring each instance of the phenomena, and where necessary and appropriate comparisons have been made between each memo in order to identify similarities and differences, which can lead to hypotheses development as part of abductive logic. Comparisons of memos can actually lead to more memos that document these comparisons.
The code memos are related to the created codes and categories. Many memos have been written, with each memo relating to each code. Each code memo explains each data segment associated with that particular code, with the explanation involving the segment’s context, function, purpose within the context, and its interpreted or observed meaning.
Each data segment is included within the memo in accordance with its uniqueness. E.g., if the data segment can be observed to be different or similar in some way, or consists of some characteristic or property that warrants explanation and discussion, or in any way adds to any existing explanation. Each relevant data segment is then included and explained, and where necessary compared and contrasted with other data segments within the memo. This is a method also of assisting with categorical development, and categories and categorical development also comes with their own sets of memos. Few categorical and categorical development memos have been written at this time however, but is set to progress forward significantly in the new year.
The first set of data has been coded, and now ready to further the development of categories. However, upon advice from the supervisor and from my schedule I’m taking a break from grounded theory but shall return with recharged batteries and reread every memo and the coded transcript in the new year!
December 13, 2017
My experiences of engaging with grounded theory at a practical level from the late summer till just a couple of weeks or so ago illuminate the importance and role of philosophical beliefs. I have confirmed to myself since the summertime that the philosophical stance of a researcher not only gives rise to the need of grounded theory, but also determines philosophy-data-source compatibility. I have come to realise over the past few months that different types of text documents hold differing existence properties, different knowledge characteristics, and different properties that enable access to this knowledge. Although, access to the knowledge held within text based documents are arguably realised more through the methodology and methods that are selected, rather than our philosophical beliefs. Researchers, regardless of access to held knowledge within text documents, need to think about the way in which their philosophical beliefs not only impact their engagement with reality, but also act as a lens through which different text documents are perceived and analysed. The researcher needs to be mindful of the characteristics and values held by the text documents, and the meanings, interpretations and assumptions that are placed upon each document.
As an example, an interview transcript arguably holds a constructivist or relativist existence where the document portrays or represents a single voice (relativist) and knowledge that can be a co-construction between researcher and participant (constructivist) depending on the nature, structure and purposes of the interview. A discussion transcript is more difficult to define, in my opinion, because a discussion transcript represents multiple voices and can change context and knowledge content over time. I am finding, however, that context of learning is having a profound impact on what I perceive and hypothesise what is occurring within the data. This context is not just the environment within which the research is taking place, but also the context of the learning content, which is altering and shaping the course of the learning that takes place, and the knowledge that occurs.
As has been documented on this blog, during the summertime I came to the realisation that my ontological and epistemological beliefs are more complex than I had previously been consciously aware of, hence I was not able to align my beliefs with a single pre-existing ontological or epistemological perspective or theory. What I have arrived at now is the realisation and awareness of my ontological beliefs being a mixture of realism, pragmatism and complexity theory, and my epistemological beliefs leaning towards interpretivism and contextualism. This, I feel, at least in part, lies at the intersection between the philosophical grounding of Glaser, Strauss, Charmaz and Bryant.
What does that mean in the actual practice of using grounded theory? I am still working through my ideas (I have no doubt that this shall also be the case beyond the Ph.D. but that is the nature of research), but currently the impact that my ontological and epistemological beliefs on my use and understanding of grounded theory are briefly described as follows:
Realism: my belief that there is a reality independent of our minds implies that I perceive certain text documents as being capable of capturing the events and instances of learning processes, and that these events and instances occur regardless of whether or not participants are consciously aware of their existence. I suppose more generally it could be argued that learning can happen whether or not the learner is consciously aware of the fact that they are learning, or are engaged with some sort of learning activity. Since I am not a hard-line realist (I consider myself more of a moderate: subtle realism, influenced by the writings of Michael Hammersley) I do not believe that what I observe in the data fully or accurately mirrors reality itself. What I perceive to happen in the data needs further testing and exploration.
Pragmatism: it is argued that pragmatism is well suited for research that aims to change practice in some way. My issue with pragmatism however is that it does not concern itself with ontological and epistemological issues therefore it is not concerned with truth, but with usefulness. If something can be usefully applied within a practical context and if it offers real value to whoever is applying that something, then it would be considered adequate. There are aspects of Pragmatism that I do agree with regarding its use with grounded theory, such as the idea of fallibilism, with Bryant leading the way for such discussions. Fallibilism suggests that knowledge is always fallible and never represents the truth of reality, therefore, as mentioned earlier, I always accept the possibility of my emerging theory, whilst progressing towards truth, can never fully represent truth. I need to be careful here though, because whilst a theory can arguably never represent truth there cannot be two assessment systems that represent truth equally: one must be able to represent truth over the other.
Complexity Theory: learning processes, as previously described, have a complex existence. They have a complex existence because characteristics and events related a learning process could either be perceived to occur, or actually occurs, at any given point. Question: can a learning event that is actually occurring at any given point, or could probably occur, be perceived to be occurring? Another question: just because an event is perceived to be occurring, does it mean that it is actually occurring? Here we have a battle between perceptual occurrence and actual occurrence, along with the possibility or probability of occurrence. I’m dealing with phenomena here so the way that I perceive and interact with phenomena might not be in complete alignment with the intentions and beliefs of the learning participants. With this, I can also observe elements of Phenomenology in my ideas here, but these ideas are as yet incomplete and are continuing to be worked on and developed further. Another interesting aspect to the existence and occurrence of events is that context can influence what can be perceived to or can actually exist (e.g., technological environments might alter significantly what can be perceived or actualised compared to face to face learning environments).
As for my epistemological beliefs:
Interpretivism: There is an element of interpretation because coding data segments is based on my perceptions of what is occurring or happening within the data: the events, patterns, happenings, relationships, objects, instances etc. The knowledge that I gain from the transcripts that I analyse using grounded theory is really an interpretation: I interpret data segments to mean something and I label each data segment with a relevant code to represent the meaning I place upon that data segment. Here, however, is where my realist ontological beliefs come into play: because I view reality as being independent of my beliefs and that truth is a progressive journey, I have the belief that my knowledge and interpretations do not mirror reality itself. Therefore, my interpretations, hypotheses etc that are products of the data analysis are tested against further data, several times before being confirmed as part of the emerging theory.
Contextualism: what I am coming to realise is that subtle changes to the context within which the learning process occurs can mould and shape the direction and formation of that learning process and therefore, what I can perceive happening within the data. I think my ideas of contextualism is probably a little different to what other philosophers and authors define as contextualism, but I’m still working on these thoughts.
That’s Part A completed! The next blog post shall briefly cover the application of Grounded Theory, where I discuss the way in which I applied the initial coding stage: open coding, and the writing of memos.