All 4 entries tagged Criticalrealism

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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!


April 25, 2016

Rambling Update On Progress!

The Trial Study Up And Running!


After gaining permissions from my supervisor and the admin of an online discussion forum, the discussion forum aspect of the trial study has begun! The aim of this aspect of the trial study is to determine the most suitable discussion activities for the main study and this is being determined through quantity of replies and extent to which the participants are taking part in the activities. The trial study has already indicated the topics that are worthy of pursuing further with the main study and also the topics that are not quite as popular and therefore not worth pursuing further, but even then this aspect is making an important contribution to the trial study.


What is most important is that I already have enough qualitative data for analysis and therefore to experiment with the developing Grounded Theory method. The qualitative data shall be used to experiment with this Grounded Theory method in order to assist with further developing the method ideas and to propose a Grounded Theory approach that is appropriate for the type of qualitative data being analysed. It shall no doubt be proven that you can read as many textbooks and papers on Grounded Theory as you desire, but you cannot actually beat being hands on with a method and really putting it through its paces with real, workable data. That is not to say that textbook reading is not important: this needs to be done in order to understand Grounded Theory at the Philosophical level, its place in the wider context of research methods, to understand its history and reasons of use, understand the processes and activities, and to understand its many critiques and debate points, but actually using it is just as important to your learning of Grounded Theory and any other research method.


The discussion trial is going well, and is due to carry on for a little while though since I already have the required data for the trial study I am likely to shut the trial down soon enough after finding out the results of interventions that I have made to spice up the activities that are lacking in use. Needless to say that I am pleased that it appears that the discussion trial’s aims and objectives so far is on track to being achieved.


In the meantime, I shall be working towards redeveloping the questionnaire and organise for a trial run for the questionnaire to take place.



The Upgrade Paper


Because the trial period has begun and all permissions granted I have been able to work on the Upgrade Paper through discussing the trial and its initial findings. I’ve also been rereading and reediting the paper particularly better describing the problem area and introducing the key authors and key literature referring to the phenomena of interest. I have also been introducing my own ideas and reasons why the phenomenon of interest needs to be investigated in a different way and in ways not presented in existing literature. Obviously I will be going into this further in the thesis, but for the upgrade paper I am trying to introduce my ideas and offer argumentation and reasons behind those ideas, based on existing literature.


Quite pleased with the paper so far. It is not allowed to go too far past four thousand words and that is going to be a challenge! Might sound like a lot of words to play with, but when you have a lot of ideas that you want to get across it is quite a challenge to explain everything in four thousand words. The core idea is to present key ideas, key authors, key basis of building the ideas, and the main aspects of the methodology, ethical issues, trial discussions, and anticipated findings and problems. Bit of a challenge trying to get all that into four thousand words (heck this post has just past six hundred words of waffle!) but it shall be done!

Critical Realism? Or not?


As some of you know, I did originally select critical realism as the philosophical basis of my mixed methods research, but I’m not a hundred percent sure now. The other philosophical perspectives are not suitable, therefore this does mean that I do like critical realism’s ontological and epistemological perspective of reality. Where there are problems now with the use of critical realism is its definition and focus on the relationship between structure and agent. From what I can currently understand (obviously need to do more reading, and learning is continuous) critical realism at the application level focusses on the relationship between a power structure (institution, policy, etc) and the agent (humans). From what I can understand at the moment there does not appear to be any literature that moves critical realism away from this idea of exploring the relationship between structure and agent, and focus on the specific aspects of my research because it is not being developed to explore such a relationship or to measure the impact that a structure has on an agent.


There appears to be however a main contributor of critical realism that does insist on the importance of moving away from power relations between structure and agent and focus more on aspects more appropriate for my research. But this I shall have to read further into.


What does all this mean? Well, given that the other philosophical perspectives of mixed methods are not really that suitable, if I cannot apply critical realism as defined by the main contributors I shall have to create a derivative of critical realism that better explores reality and learning context in the way that the research intends. I shall talk more about this in another blog post.


Making progress!


Which is the main thing, though I have to say that I didn’t expect to be challenged by critical realism in quite the way that I anticipated, but that really is the beauty of research and the Ph.D. in general: you are challenged to question your views of reality and find out if the way you think you view reality is really the way that you view reality. It’s all interesting and I shall be reading more into critical realism soon, as well as continuing with developing the questionnaire and continue to write the upgrade paper!


Till next time: keep it real(ism),or if not just keep it (critical) real(ism)!


March 18, 2016

Mixed Methods: Critical Realism Considered Most Suitable!

Critical realism deals with ontology! Yes!

Critical realism has been developed by the British Philosopher Ray Bhaskar as a result of combining separate philosophies: transcendental realism, which is a philosophy of science, and critical naturalism, which is a philosophy of the social sciences. It is not the aim of this blog post to explain either of them. Critical realism does not assume reality to be a single, observable, measurable, determinable layer whose actions and events are independent of the mind nor a single layer that is understandable through exploring experiences and perspectives. Critical realism assumes reality to have multiple layers containing structures and mechanisms that influence the observable and what can be experienced. It is the exploration of these structures and mechanism that provide the basis for exploration of reality using critical realism.


Unlike pragmatism, which is considered to be the most adopted philosophical perspective of mixed methods, critical realism contains ontological assumptions which are spread across three domains: the empirical, the actual, and the real. The empirical domain refers to aspects of reality that exists and can be observed or experienced directly or indirectly, the actual refers to aspects of reality that exists but might not be observed or experienced in some way, and the real refers to the structures and mechanisms that causes or influences what is observed or experienced. These structures and mechanisms are beyond the realm of human observation and experiences; they cannot be detected, known, or perceived, but can be, as defined by McVoy and Richards (2006), inferred through a research design consisting of both deductive (empirical investigation) and inductive (theory construction) processes. Where critical realism differs from all the other middle ground philosophies therefore, and what acts as the central reasoning for adoption in this mixed methods research, is that it places a focus on further understanding and explanations of these structures and mechanisms.


Relating Critical Realism To Research Context

Critical realism is a complicated middle ground philosophy probably the most complex of them all along with complexity theory, but it is a middle ground philosophy that makes the most sense for my research and for the aims of the research. The context of the Ph.D. research is not to explore research phenomena using only quantitative or qualitative methodologies; the problem area identified and developed does not assume that answers can be found in a single methodology or a single philosophical perspective such as absolutism or relativism. The problem area assumes that answers can be found through an integrated approach that involves both quantitative and qualitative approaches. So, with that, and with critical realism addressing the ontological level, it can be assumed that critical realism goes beyond the research question and places the research problem as central to the research project. It assumes, it can be proposed, that it is the identified problem area that can lead to the development of philosophical assumptions about reality, which then lead onto the development of research questions, which then lead onto the selection of the methodology and research approaches. A question here however is whether or not the philosophical perspective leads onto the development of the research question sequentially, or if the research questions and philosophical perspectives are identified and developed concurrently. That is something to be thought about and perhaps discussed another time.


Summary Of Thoughts Regarding Critical Realism

What has been discussed, briefly, is what makes critical realism distinctive and more suitable for my research than other middle ground philosophies. Post positivism focusses too much on the quantitative at the methodological level whilst pragmatism focusses too much on changes that are made at the practical level. Critical realism suggests that both quantitative and qualitative approaches are important to use in a single research project in order to fully explore and understand the structures and mechanisms of what can be observed and experienced.


There is much more to learn and understand about critical realism: its concepts, its use, its history, and the way in which critical realism can be fully integrated into a mixed methods research and the specific context of my research. Reading shall be continuous, but at the moment I am just pleased that I have been able to identify the most appropriate middle ground philosophy and start to fit the whole design around the principles of critical realism.


Fun stuff! The Upgrade Paper shall be used to introduce critical realism and the way in which its concepts have been applied throughout the research design whilst a full elaboration of critical realism including its application and possible solutions to problems of critical realism shall be provided in the thesis.


References:


McEvoy, P., Richards, D (2009): A critical realist rationale for using a combination of quantitative and qualitative method, Journal Of Research In Nursing, 11 (1), 66 – 78


March 14, 2016

Mixed Methods: Post Positivism Is No Longer Considered Appropriate


Description of and arguments against Post Positivism


Post positivism is now no longer among the set of philosophies considered appropriate for my Mixed Methods research due to my stance against philosophies that advocate pure quantitative or qualitative approaches to exploring social reality within educational contexts.


Simply put, post positivism is an extension of positivism; that it still adheres to the main concepts and principles of Positivism but modifies them at the ontological and epistemological levels but mirrors positivism at the methodological level. This modification of the concepts of positivism enables post postivism to accommodate a level of uncertainly, subjectivity, complexity and human experiences therefore recognising that absolute and certain truth about reality is not achievable. Giddings and Grant (2007) called Post Postivism a “lite” version of positivism, stating that the “post” prefix indicates a development or extension of positivism, and offer various examples of the way in which Post Positivism extends the concepts of positivism.


Positivism perceives reality as objective and independent of the mind but post positivism (along with other middle ground Philosophies) suggest that reality is embedded in its own social and cultural contexts and therefore researcher objectivity is impossible to attain. Another key area of divergence is theory verification: positivism emphasises hypothesis testing and theory experimentation in order to prove or disprove them whereas PostPositivists emphasises supporting evidence as a probability rather than being used as an absolute proof. These are just a couple of examples of where positivism and post positivism diverge at the ontological and epistemological levels. However, where they both converge and therefore enables the view of post positivism as being an extension of positivism is that it shares the same methodological assumptions.


Onwuegbuzie et al (2009) (along with many other researchers) confirms this methodological mirroring. Extent of fallibility and defeasibility of absolute knowledge accommodated by post positivism makes inferential statistics usable and applicable through inferential statistics, which utalises probabilistic approaches such as P Vales and Confidence Levels to understand reality. Post positivism also utalises qualitative data, hence post positivists can use Mixed Methods, but they use quantitative approaches to analyse qualitative data. As an example, content analysis is utilised to quantify thematic occurrences through frequency rates, and qualitative data is used in a way that enables the development of more effective quantitative approaches.


In all, post positivism is not a suitable Philosophical perspective for my Mixed Methods research because I am taking the stance that post positivism is not suited to exploring social phenomena and social reality, because everything to do with the social is too chaotic and dynamic to be represented and explained statistically. Post positivism also does not allow for much room in terms of theory building, and theory building or theorising is an aim of my Mixed Methods research as I attempt to theorise the social structures and aspects of reality that influences the phenomenon of interest. I like much of post positivism at the ontological and epistemological levels, but its mirroring of positivism at the methodological level makes it inappropriate for my Mixed Methods research. More discussions shall be found in later blog posts and more especially in my thesis.


So then: the Big Three!


With post positivism no longer being considered appropriate, this now leaves three middle ground philosophies that might be appropriate for my Mixed Methods research: complexity theory, pragmatism and critical realism. From what I have read of these so far, I have issues with pragmatism in that it appears to detach itself from philosophical and methodological concerns and places itself upon the research question. That is, the research question is the most important consideration within pragmatism and therefore all that must be done and used to answer that research question must be carried out. This has left pragmatism open to arguments that suggests it basically allows a free for all design approach with a “what works” attitude that has been questioned by a lot of writers, and I am inclined to agree with the concerns. More on this in future blog posts.

Critical realism and complexity theory appear to be the most attractive middle ground philosophies at the moment as I as yet cannot find any fault with them when it comes to exploring social reality, social phenomena, and assumptions made at the philosophical and methodological levels. Essentially, from what I can currently understand, critical realism does not concern itself with reality as a single, accessible, measurable layer (positivism / post positivism) nor does it concern itself exclusively with human experiences (interpretivism / constructivism) but it concerns itself with the underlying structures and mechanisms that produces what is found at the measurable layer and with human experiences. Now if I have interpreted this correctly, and I appreciate that what I have defined is probably a little lacking in substance but remember I am still learning and exploring this, then this makes critical realism highly applicable for substantial exploration of the social reality. Structures and mechanisms of social reality and their influence on what occurs within this social reality are highly complex and interrelated therefore complexity theory could also play a part in this structural mess.


I do perceive social reality and explorations of social reality to be highly complex and extremely uncertain, and the key to understanding the phenomenon of interest is to consider those underlying structures and mechanisms instead of constantly exploring just what is observable.


Fun stuff isn’t it? It was all a bit scary when I first started exploring Mixed Methods at this level but the more I explore the Philosophy of Mixed Methods the more interesting I find it! Lots to read and think about!


References


Giddings, L.S., Grant, B.M (2007): A Trojan Horse For Positism? A Critique Of Mixed Methods Research, Advances in Nurse Science, 30 (1), 52 – 60


Onwuegbuzie, A.J., Johnson, R.B., Collins, K.M.T. (2009): Call For Mixed Analysis: A Philosophical Framework For Combining Qualitative And Quantitative Approaches, International Journal Of Multiple Research Approaches, 3, 114 – 139


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